by Rick Taylor
My Sharing The Fire name tag came with a green ribbon, identifying me as a first time attendee. The green ribbon drew a lot of attention: I couldn’t turn around without somebody welcoming me to the conference and asking me how I found out about it.
Short answer: I Googled “storytelling.”
Slightly longer answer: I tell stories on my “Tall Tales & Shaggy Dogs” podcast. I sit in front of a microphone and hit record, and do my best to bring the stories to life. I’ve been doing this podcast for a little over a year, and writing Abner Serd stories for a lot longer than that. But this year I wanted to try something a little different. I wanted to start telling my stories live. So I got online, and quickly found the LANES website.
The conference didn’t really turn out the way I imagined.
Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot – just not the kinds of things I expected to learn. I am a writer first. I am a performer only because I write stories that have a voice, and are meant to be told out loud. They sound a certain way when I write them down. It’s a struggle to tell the stories out loud the way they sound in my head, but I do my best.
I recently attended a story slam, hoping to tell one of my stories. No such luck: only “true” stories were allowed. Now … personal narratives are a powerful form of expression. I enjoy listening to them. I happily volunteered to serve as a judge. But I felt left out.
At Sharing The Fire 2016, the Friday night story swaps sounded like more of the same – except for Lee-Ellen Marvin’s swap. Truth be told, I had no idea what “Story Shifters” was about. But at least the blurb didn’t say the stories had to be true, so I chose that one.
Turned out to be a sort of improvisational game. I am lousy at improv. I’m a writer – I have to have the story written down and sitting in front of me, or else memorized. But first round, right out of the gate, we had to retell a fable after just one reading, without looking down at the card. I hated it. I dreaded every successive turn, where we had to retell the story in a slightly different way: tell it as a newscaster would. Change the setting to a shopping mall. Tell it backwards. I hated that game. I was horrible at it. All but the first round, when I learned (to my surprise) that I could remember a lot more of the story than I expected to.
I ended up taking the game home that night. Practice makes better. Maybe if I kept playing, I could memorize some answers.
Next morning, I took Rona Leventhal’s “Moving the Body, Freeing the Mind” workshop. I don’t think I fully understood the syllabus before signing up. It was on the Basic Skills track, so I took it. Next thing I knew, we were jumping around, making up sounds and pretending. Don’t think, just move, Rona said. Holy socks, more improv.
I don’t know how I got through it. Surprised myself again, a little bit. This time, I told a much longer folk tale, again without memorization. Not saying I ever want to try that outside a workshop … but I did it once, so I guess that means I could do it again.
Saturday was a long day. There was a lot to learn, and the workshop format meant you actually had to do stuff and talk out loud to other people and stuff. Plus, there was that confounded green ribbon, which meant people were always coming over to talk to me, so even on breaks I didn’t get to do what I really wanted to do, which was to sit quietly in a corner and wish somebody would come over and talk to me.
I heard a lot of stories: true stories, myths, folk tales, and fables. I even got to tell a couple, and learned a lot in the telling. But they weren’t my stories.
In the movie “Walk the Line,” record producer Sam Phillips tells Johnny Cash:
If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear …
Nothing against true stories. Nothing against well-loved folk tales. But if I only had time to tell one story before I died (or left the stage, whichever came first), I’d tell one of my own stories. They may or may not be true. But to me, they’re real.
By 9:15 on Saturday night, I was cooked. I called my wife, told her I was thinking about skipping the story swaps. I needed some down time, and besides, I couldn’t find a session that didn’t have the word “true” in the write-up. But Joy Kelly’s “Journey Into the Unusual” sounded interesting, so I shook off my fatigue and headed downstairs.
One guy told a story that I didn’t know if it was true or not, but it sure wasn’t a personal narrative. Then somebody else told a folk tale. I began to sense some wiggle room.
I waited till I was the only one in the room that hadn’t swapped a tale. Then I told a whopper.
Halfway through, I choked. Flat out couldn’t remember what happened next. Forgot everything I ever knew about improvisation. But I stumbled through, and got some mixed reviews. One person didn’t get it at all: where did the talking whales come from? They weren’t there just a minute ago.
It was a fair point. Maybe the ending needed a little torque. Maybe I forgot to mention some critical detail that would have tied the whole thing together.
Still, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I got to tell a story! One of my own. Out loud, to a room full of people, some of whom even laughed.
Tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep that night.
For a few short minutes on a Saturday night in Amherst, Massachusetts, I got to be a storyteller.
Rick Taylor is a writer of tales and creator of podcasts. Abner Serd is his alter ego. Abner is also host of the podcast /abnerserd.com/feed.xml Tall Tales & Shaggy Dogs: Stories and short humor by Abner Serd. http://abnerserd.com/feed.xml