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Tell me a story 

Storytellers counter an age of bits and soundbytes with the timeless power of an oral tradition

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"But there needs to be more young storytellers," he says. "My cousin who's 28 came to see me in Oklahoma City and afterward said, 'Andy, you're a rock star!' And I said, 'Yeah, but everyone's 55.'"

Community elders, whether in primitive villages or at modern family reunions, have traditionally been the keepers of stories, so young people seldom have taken center stage in the storytelling movement. And the YouTube generation faces more distractions than ever.

Deedy worries that 21st-century communications habits are devaluing not just storytelling, but actual conversation: "Recently my daughter and I went out to a restaurant. It happened to be 'date night' and there were a lot of couples there, but they weren't talking to each other. They all had their BlackBerries out and were texting other people."

At the same time, she suspects that storytellers have always panicked over technological innovations: "I'm sure the first time someone started doodling the first alphabet on papyrus, a bystander saw that and declared, 'It's the end of storytelling!'"

Storytelling has an impressive track record in adapting to change. If the oral tradition can survive the pulp novel, the soap opera and the infomercial, it will adjust to the XBox and the iPod.

The spinners of stories are finding and creating new platforms, including open-mic nights at bars. And in some pockets, they're getting more formal training. At Kennesaw State University, for example, students can get a degree in theater with an emphasis in storytelling. Younger voices also are part of the mix on National Public Radio shows such as "This American Life" and the "StoryCorps" segments of "All Things Considered" – which have become major venues to amplify the storytelling tradition.

Book publishing can also provide a boon to storytellers, but there are trade-offs. Cleveland has a day job as director of development at Atlanta-based August House, which publishes almost entirely the work of professional storytellers. August House also tries to bring storytelling to the 21st century – or maybe a better way to say it would be, to bring the 21st century to storytelling. Most of August House's "Story Cove" line of books feature their own websites, with Flash animation versions of the stories (read by the actual tellers) and related games, as gateways for children.

"Some people call digital technology the tool of the devil," Cleveland says. "But if you have kids who are computer-literate before they're book-literate, you can play them a clip of the story, and then let them look at the book. It's finding new ways to pass the oral tradition down."

One of the challenges for storytellers – or someone writing a story about tellers – is to capture spoken subtleties and to distill the virtues of a long tale. Cleveland acknowledges that a certain magic can be lost when you write down a story meant to be told aloud.

"Stories from the oral tradition are not meant to be written down," he says. "Ever seen a movie adaptation of a book and realize that they couldn't do on screen what the author can do with words? Well, we have the opposite problem. Sometimes you can't capture with words the emotion that you can get from seeing the person's face and hearing their voice."

Of course, some aspects of mass communications and technology have taken the basics of storytelling and run with them. Cleveland points out that the most popular narratives in our culture – Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – are, at the basics, all the same story. "They're all Arthurian legend," Cleveland says. "They all have an orphan boy with a talisman – a light saber, a ring and a wand – and Obi-Wan, Gandalf and Dumbledore are all Merlin."

But big franchise films and TV shows sometimes get blamed for all that's wrong with pop culture, from fostering short attention spans to focusing on special effects and merchandising. Storytelling can serve as a potent counteragent.

"The quiet moments, the serious moments of storytelling most affected me," says Andy Offutt Irwin, who gravitated toward the craft after Deedy introduced him to it and helped him get his first gig. "The sky's the limit. People will accept anything if it's good, and it's a literary audience. It's great not playing to the lowest common denominator."

Irwin's award-winning anecdotes about his fictional octogenarian Aunt Marguerite, founder of "Southern White Old Lady Hospital," touch on themes of mortality and race relations. He isn't worried that younger potential listeners are losing the ability to appreciate a good, rich, unhurried story.

"I think the whole attention-span thing is a little overworked. We're competing with the Internet at the marketplace, but not at the actual gig. Storytelling appeals to all ages. I know it can because I see it all the time. Donald Davis retired as a Methodist minister 20 years ago, which should give you an idea of how old he is, and he can still make an 18-year-old pass milk through his nose. That's what I'm shooting for."

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