Interview with New Life Journal

Here is a fun storytelling interview that Maggie Cramer did with me for New Life Journal. It has lots of useful storytelling techniques and philosophy.

“Stories live in your blood and bones, follow the seasons and light candles on the darkest night—every storyteller knows she or he is also a teacher.”—Patti Davis

In the quote above, Patti Davis is talking about the power of stories: that they can teach us something about ourselves and about the world, as well as excite and entertain us at the same time. Local storyteller Doug Elliott knows this to be true. In fact, he’s seen this power expressed on people’s faces across the United States and Canada as well as in his own home. That’s in part because of the power of stories but, of course, also due to his talent as a storyteller. Doug has been a featured storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, conducted workshops for the Smithsonian Institution, and lectured and performed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He’s also a gifted naturalist, herbalist, and musician–elements that all play a part in bringing the stories he tells to life for his audiences of all ages. New life Journal is excited to bring you our interview with Doug. We asked him to share information about his craft as well as some of his secrets for telling great stories so that you can share their power with your children.

You describe yourself as a storyteller. In your view, what exactly is a storyteller? Is anyone who tells a story a storyteller, or is it much more than that?

I think anyone who tells a story is a storyteller and everyone has stories to tell. Some of us put more time and energy into crafting a story so that it will be accessible, meaningful, and entertaining. But storytelling is one of the basic things that makes us human. When someone asks you what you did today, and you tell them, you’re relating a narrative—a story.

When did you first become interested in the craft?

I’ve been performing and telling stories publicly for around thirty years. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the natural world, and sharing and teaching what I’ve learned. Stories are the best way to convey information. They are the glue that makes information stick. Any teacher will tell you that.

Why do you feel oral storytelling is an important tradition to keep moving forward through these times of a quickly changing media landscape? What can be gained from hearing a story that cannot from watching television or reading online?

You make your own pictures when you hear a story, (and when you read one) so the mind is more active, creating images. This is especially important for young, developing minds. The human mind is hardwired for stories. That’s why we’re so addicted to TV– because it’s one story after another. The problem is that TV stories are all corporate stories. Even though some of the content might be useful and beneficial, it has all been produced to benefit a corporate agenda, or to please a corporate sponsor.

What role does storytelling play in your household and with your son? Can you share a technique you use with him that other parents can use with their children?

Even when our son was preverbal, we noticed that when we drove in the car and he was strapped in the car seat and getting irritable and fussy, if we would just start narrating the passing scenery in a low, calm voice it would catch his interest and he would listen and calm down. Narratives would often pull him out of screaming, flailing fits.

One simple story technique my dad used with me, that worked well with my son when he was small, would be easy for almost any parent. (You can use this even when you can’t think of a story.) Tell the child a story about their own activities (what they did that day or that week), but tell it in the third person using the child’s middle name, or “about the girl or boy who lived on Maple Street,” or any thinly veiled reference to the child to whom you’re telling the story. Then just recount the child’s activities in story form with the child as the main character. Simply recounting the day’s events are often enough, but as you go over the events of the day you can get more and more creative (“Then he met his friend Jane and they went to the fruit market and bought a watermelon. They cut it open and made a boat out of it, and they climbed in. Before long, they were sailing down the street…”).

As an herbalist and a naturalist, I know that nature finds its way into your stories and your workshops. What are some ways people can go out in nature right now as they’re reading this article and find inspiration for a story? How can they then start developing a story from that inspiration?

How do you find a story in nature (or anywhere else for that matter)? I often start with an incident, an encounter, a problem or a question—something happens to you, you meet someone, see something, or you wonder about something. The narrative I tell is my journey of investigation, trying to figure it out.

The incident is your hook, not only to your listeners when you’re telling that story, but also to yourself as an explorer and an investigator. Then I let my curiosity be my guide. I start asking questions. Any journalist will tell you your ability to get a good story is often directly related to your ability to ask good questions. The first and probably the ultimate resource is yourself. How do/did I relate to that incident, encounter, problem or question? How did I feel?

The next step might be an initial resolution concerning your opening incident or a preliminary answer to the question you have set up.

Simply seeing or experiencing something and figuring out what it is can be an interesting vignette, but it’s rarely enough to make a good story. This initial vignette (incident, encounter, problem or question) becomes what Joseph Campbell refers to as the “call to adventure.”  Your challenge becomes how to find and tap those “ripples on the surface of life” that Campbell writes about “which reveal hidden springs as deep as the soul itself.”

After you’ve explored your feelings and reactions and probed your own background, you find others who might have something to say about what you’re investigating. This subsequent investigation—your reading, research, and your conversations with other people—becomes the adventure, the backbone or plot line of the narrative. Some of the various bits of information you gather or anecdotes and tales you hear can possibly stand on their own, but ideally the stories and information will be used as sub-plots to develop your entire piece. Then, instead of delivering a natural history lecture, you end up with a classic mythic hero’s journey, where the hero (you, most likely) answers the “call to adventure.” Wherever the investigation takes you, this becomes the journey. These facts, tales, and lore become stepping stones on a quest in search of truth and meaning. Rather than delivering a bunch of facts about a critter, phenomenon, or situation, you tell a story.

I read on your website that you “collect” stories. How exactly does one collect stories?

I try to live as rich and interesting a life as possible. I seek out opportunities and unusual characters. I ask questions, and I try to notice other people’s views and ways of expressing themselves. I try to watch for anything that might spawn a tellable story. When something comes along that becomes a story, it always seems like a gift, rather than something I collected. (Of course I try to be open and ready to receive the gifts.)

If you had to pick just one, what’s your favorite story you’ve collected so far?

One of my favorites has become an hour-long program entitled GROUNDHOGOLOGY: Of Whistlepigs and World Politics. My elderly mountaineer neighbor, Lyge, shows up at my cabin and flops a special gift onto my doormat—a freshly killed groundhog.  He instructs me in hilarious detail how to prepare and use all the parts of the groundhog—the meat for food, the hide for a banjo head or shoelaces, the grease for medicine—and in the process, a troublesome varmint is transformed into a source of food, medicine, clothing, and music. Then, we investigate the early pagan European mythological origins of Groundhog Day and how it ties into Christianity. We learn why the groundhog is considered a medicine animal by Native Americans. We hear about the time I got in the middle of a fierce dog–groundhog confrontation, and realized that animals and humans relate to stressful confrontations with similar behaviors. What we observe with the groundhog sheds light on psychology, sociology, metaphysics, and  world politics today. As part of the story, I display my groundhog hide shoelaces, play a groundhog hide drum, and sing the traditional song, “Oh Groundhog.” I made a CD recording of this piece, and I wrote a version of it as one of the chapters in my book Wildwoods Wisdom.

How does living in our region affect your work as a storyteller? Have you collected many regional stories?

The main reason I chose to be in this area is the biodiversity and the cultural integrity. Within an 80-mile radius of almost anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you can go from spruce-fir forests like those in New England to cotton fields like you might find in Mississippi, and because the people here have been isolated longer than other areas, there’s a strong subculture with very deep connections to the land. Many of my stories come from perspectives and lessons I’ve learned from traditional mountain folks and Native Americans that reflect a deep relationship to nature.

I know that accents, dialect and expressions are big parts of your stories. What would you say to parents and teachers who are hesitant or embarrassed to “act” while telling a story?

Years ago in a workshop for teachers, I heard my friend, David Holt, say that storytelling can allow you to act as weird as you really are! Sometimes if you can change your voice and sound like the characters you’re portraying it gives more life to the story. But a story can also work well when it’s simply told without any of the “frills.”

Do you find that children of all ages love hearing stories? Generally in our society we stop reading to or telling children stories as they get into their early adult years. How do you feel about that practice? Do you have any advice about ways parents can share stories with their older children?

I think parents telling about their own encounters when they were a similar age is relevant. Snagging meaningful stories from current events can sometimes also be useful and relevant.

M any people in the professional storytelling community will say that middle school-aged young folk are the most challenging age group to present to because they’re going through so many changes and are so tied into peer pressure that they’re unsure of how to react to something new and different. So, as an audience, they often give little back to the presenter even if they enjoy the presentation. My storyteller friend, Tersi Bendiburg, who tells many classic folk tales in school settings, surprised me by telling me that middle school was her absolute favorite group to tell to. When I listened to her stories, I noticed that many of them were stories about a princess who loved the stable boy, but her father would not allow them to marry, etc. I realized that many of the tales she tells deal with romance and parental power struggles, which are big universal themes still relevant today.

Is there a formula to storytelling?

Of course there’s a beginning, middle, and end. We all are on a mythic journey. In the beginning, we are born, we come out of the void, we travel around on this Earth for a few short decades, and then in the end we return to the void. So beginning, middle, and end is a pretty universal theme. Of course it is this way every day as well—when we wake from the dream world in the morning until we go to sleep at night.

Mythologists talk about how we are all heroes on our individual journey through life and we live through a microcosm of life’s journey each day. And almost every story, whether you’re telling about Superman, Moses, Mother Teresa, Aphrodite, Harry Potter, or the last time you went out to the grocery store, all these stories have the same elements: the hero/heroine starts out on a journey or a quest, meets challenges and deals with them, and comes back (or not). What happens and how the protagonist deals with the challenges is what makes the story.

Storytelling Resources

Books:

Children Tell Stories by Mitch Weiss and Martha Hamilton

Raising Voices by Judy Sima and Kevin Cordi

Crawdads, Doodlebugs, and Creasy Greens –Songs, Stories, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World by Doug Elliott

Websites:

www.nationalyouthstorytellingshowcase.org

www.storytellingwithchildren.com

www.storytellingcenter.com

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