Stealing Wisdom: or, the education of a "storm fool"


by Yan Yashinsky (Canada)

Perhaps you've heard of this Jewish story. A student came running to a rabbi famous for his wisdom. "What is the secret of life?" the student demanded to know. The rabbi slapped him. "Why did you slap me?" he cried. The rabbi answered, "Why would you exchange such a good question for a mere answer? Answers divide us. The questions we share bring us together." The questions I'd like to explore here - how to educate storytellers, where to find a new oral literature for our times, how to tell our stories in a vivid and memorable way - are more entertaining than any answers we may be able to come up with. It's not that we shouldn't strive for answers; just that, in an evolving art at the very beginning of its contemporary renaissance, all answers must be, at best, provisional. I've been a storyteller for close to thirty years, and, although my answers keep changing, these questions of education, repertoire, performance, and mastery continue to haunt me with all of their original force. I use the word "storyteller", but what I really mean is "storm fool." I first heard the term from my Metis friend Ron Evans, who grew up in the north. He told me there used to be itinerant storytellers who would travel through the worst blizzards to bring their stories to people isolated in the remotest bush. They were called, affectionately and with a touch of awe, "storm fools." Storytellers today are like those storm fools. We not only must hunt and gather a headful of good stories; we also must have the compulsion to bring those stories to people isolated, not by weather and rough terrain, but by a world where the sense of community relentlessly erodes, where we lose the signal from our shared history, and forget how to imagine a common future. To be a storyteller in these times is, for me at least, a noble and necessary - and, yes, slightly foolish - vocation.

Since the international storytelling movement began in the early 1970s, a number of centres and academic programs have sprung up, some of them even offering graduate degrees and diplomas. The one I know best is the Storytellers School of Toronto (now known as Storytelling Toronto), which I helped found in l979. Other schools and organizations exist in Quebec, Spain, English Canada, Israel, England, France, the U.S., Scotland, and other countries. Many of these programs offer introductory and advanced courses in the art of storytelling, based on a sequence of study that helps students learn stories and how to tell them. As institutions, they have advanced the art immeasurably, by incubating festivals, guilds, and learning opportunities, as well as helping professional storytellers make a living. In this essay, however, I'd like to describe a less formal approach, one based on having long relationships with people who know a lot more than you. The learning realized through these relationships is messy, unpredictable, and hard to encapsulate in a curriculum. You could call it a kind of dragon-based pedagogy of storytelling. I hope that you, as a lifelong student of storytelling, will have the good fortune to encounter a formidable and uncompromising teacher who stands in the middle of your path. To get past these artist-dragons, you must contend with their passion, their discipline, and their fierce understanding of the art of storytelling. This experience will rarely provide you with a credential or certificate, but it will certainly teach you a great and abiding love of dragons. There are, of course, no guarantees you'll learn the things your elders know, or want you to learn. There is always a risk you'll get discouraged, or toasted by dragon-fire, or even slapped as you too-eagerly seek their wisdom. But if you bring your own courage to the quest, and know how to recognize and honour your elders, then they, in turn, will give you a generous welcome.

So I'd like to sidestep the main issue of the book -- how to teach storytelling -- and introduce you to some of my teachers, and the hard questions I learned from them. I hope these questions will be as useful to you as they've been to me. When Hodja Nasrudin was asked how he became wise, he replied, "When I hear of a wise person, I seek them out and listen to what they have to say. And when I notice that people have been listening to me, I try to find out afterwards what I just said." So I'll share my favourite impossible and irresistible questions with you, and then, like Hodja, if we meet you can tell me what you heard in what I said.

Speaking of wisdom, it needs to be noted that facts can be taught, knowledge can be shared, but wisdom is usually stolen. In the Grimm brothers' story The White Snake, a king possesses strange abilities and secret knowledge. His trusted servant has noticed the king's habit of having a covered dish delivered to his chamber every day. Noone knows what's under the cover. One day, the servant, curious, takes the dish to his own room, lifts the lid, and finds a white snake cooked and coiled. He tastes the flesh of the snake and immediately overhears two birds talking on the windowsill. He not only hears them, he understands what they are saying. He has stolen the secret of the king's wisdom, and can now understand the language of the animals. This is a useful story to remember because, whether you meet your dragons in the formal setting of an academy or centre, whether you take a weekend atelier, or whether you simply spend a lot of time with them as friends, students, and fans, you'll have to steal wisdom from your masters. There never has been any other way to learn what's most essential about an art, especially one as new and experimental as storytelling.

I was lucky enough, early in my career, to meet some of the pioneers of the international storytelling movement. I met Bruno de la Salle, and followed his ensembles of musicians and storytellers from Avignon to Chartres to hear them bring traditional epics to life. From him, I learned that storytelling could be simultaneously an epic and a contemporary art. I met Jocelyn Bérubé nearly thirty years ago, and became a devoted fan of his lyrical reworkings of Quebeçois folklore. From him, I learned that one could reweave old patterns with new yarn. At the very beginning of my interest in storytelling I encountered the incomparable Brother Blue, an African-American storyteller who dances his holy stories barefoot in the snow, in prisons, in churches, and at festivals, and may best be described as a mix of John Coltrane, renaissance poet, and Black preacher. From Blue, I learned that storytelling was a spiritual practise, something you did to mend a broken world. Contemporary storytellers, in his way of thinking, are all children of Scheherazade, who told her thousand and one stories to heal her serial killer husband King Shahriyar and redeem her fellow-citizens. And besides these great masters, I've been lucky to live in a city with an active community of storytellers, where we meet regularly to listen to and comment on each others' work.

My most beloved teachers were three old women: Alice Kane, Joan Bodger, and Angela Sidney. Alice Kane was a retired children's librarian when I met her in l973. She'd told stories to kids for forty years in the Toronto Public Library, and had just retired when I, a shaggy-haired refugee from California and American politics, came looking for a storytelling mentor. I spent the next thirty years in her company, sharing countless cups of coffee, endless hours of gossip, and listening to her splendid Irish and Slavic wondertales whenever I could. Another dragon was Joan Bodger. She, like me, had emigrated to Canada from the U.S., and was an intellectual, philosopher, scholar of myth, and storyteller. Her book The Crack in the Teacup - The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories gives a moving account of how traditional stories were interwoven through her life-experiences. My third old woman was Angela Sidney, a Tagish elder in Yukon Territory. I met her when we brought her to Toronto in l984 to the Toronto Festival of Storytelling, and reconnected on many occasions when I visited Whitehorse. Mrs. Sidney knew thousands of stories of the land, hundreds of stories about how Crow made the world, and the multi-generational lineage of every other Yukoner she met, Native or European. With her, I felt I was in the presence of an unbroken line of oral tradition stretching back many thousands of years. All three are gone now, and I miss them terribly, both personally and because they each held irreplaceable knowledge about storytelling.

You'll understand by now that I am a natural hero-worshipper. When I meet people like Alice Kane, Joan Bodger, Angela Sidney - inventors, artists, and tradition-keepers with sparkling intelligence, generous hearts, and a deep knowledge of storytelling - I organize my life so that I can spend as much time as possible with them. I listen to their stories again and again. I spend many hours trying to figure out why I am so enchanted by their voices, the quality of their language, their moral vision. I have a burning desire to dance with these marvelous dragons.

Alice Kane was my main teacher, and from her I learned my first impossible question. When I was in my early twenties, after working at a summer camp for Toronto's poorest children, I went to Boys and Girls House Library in downtown Toronto and asked if they knew anybody who told stories. I had decided to become a storyteller because I had witnessed an amazing thing over the summer. My wild children were transformed into the world's greatest listeners when they sat by the campfire and listened to the counsellors spin yarns. This was the greatest magic I'd ever seen. The librarians told me I should call Alice Kane, who had recently retired from the Toronto Public Library. One day I gathered my courage, made the call, introduced myself and explained that I wanted to become a storyteller. There was a pause at the end of the phone-line. Then she said, in a voice that had a hint of iron challenge and that still carried the cadence of a northern Irish childhood: "You're not an actor are you?"

Me, an actor? Absolutely not. At twenty-two I hadn't even learned to play myself, let alone any other role. I answered: "No." Then I asked her, "Why?"

In a soft, clear voice she replied, "Because actors can't tell stories. An actor puts himself between the story and the listener. A storyteller has to let the story through directly."

And that was my first big puzzle, a question that has haunted me ever since. Her Zen-like utterance reminds me of Homer's invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey : "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story..." (Fitzgerald tr.) I can understand the truth of her comment best when I think about how I respond as a listener to oral stories. When I hear a great story, I can't tell you afterwards what the storyteller was wearing, or how they used or didn't use their hands, or anything else. All I saw was my own mind-movie as the story was being told. Alice's own favourite example of this was the time Helen Armstrong, a children's librarian, was telling hero stories to other librarians. "She was telling us the story of "Olaf the Glorious." And she got up and her friend Dorothy said to her, "Don't button and unbutton your jacket all the time." So she got up and she stood in a little bright patch of sunshine, and she unfastened her jacket all the way down, and then she buttoned it all the way up. And then she unfastened it all the way down again, and she kept on doing this. And she started the story, and you watched her doing her jacket. At some point - I don't know when - she was gone. She was totally gone from that patch of sunlight, and in its place was the Norwegian ship on a blue, blue sea. The sky blue above, and the waves breaking around it. The colours were all blue and white, with a touch of red. It was full of shouts and cries, and suddenly young Olaf with his shield in his hand leaps up and over the edge of the ship and into the water and the waves close over his head." (unpublished article) The story had come vividly and intact through the teller.

But, dear Alice, how does one "let the story through?" She never did get around to telling me that secret, which lies at the very heart of this art. You, as a new or experienced storyteller, will answer this question very differently as you keep developing your art, but the mystery of the question will remain. Whatever performance style you use, whatever language you utter, somehow you must, mysteriously, allow your words to spark across the gap between your voice and your listeners' souls. Alice tells us that Helen Armstrong and her buttons disappeared; only Olaf and the sea were visible in the mind-movies of the listeners. But how is such magic accomplished?

A second mighty question has to do with suspense. I don't want to sound heretical, but the truth is that storytelling can be the most boring art in the world. To redeem myself, I'll immediately claim that it is also - or can be - the most thrilling. A good storyteller speaks her ephemeral words into the quiet air of a dark hall, and holds hundreds of listeners in a reverie. Or calms a frightened child. Or consoles the dying. Or brings a circle of high-energy boys into the intimacy of a summer campfire. Or makes a gymnasium-ful of skeptical teenagers relax into a long wondertale. We are willing to whole-heartedly entrust our imagination, feeling, and intellect to a storyteller who can hold us in absolute suspense as they tell their tale. Cape Breton storyteller Joe Neil MacNeil remembers the traditional storytellers of his youth: "[T]he tale was so enjoyable and would please you so well as it progressed that you would find yourself hoping that it would not end for a long time, that there would be a great amount of working around it so that the storyteller could make it very, very long before he arrived at the end of the tale" (Tales Until Dawn, ed. John Shaw). During this long evening, the listeners were in no rush as the storyteller created an entire narrative world. MacNeil continues: "You would have some idea of what was going to happen, but it was as if... you were only seeing in your mind how the story was unfolding and you didn't think about how it was going to end at all" (ibid.). In my own experience as a listener, I've stayed on the edge of my seat for Bruno de la Salle's all-night performances of epic, for aboriginal creation myths that took many hours to tell, for professional storytellers from southern China who took an hour to describe how a princess walks down a staircase. What a powerful form of magic, to hold us in such thrall.

But the truth remains: human beings have notoriously short attention spans. It has never been easy for people to sit and listen for long periods of time to one person who's doing all the talking. Traditional cultures around the world have always known about this storytelling job hazard. That's why the Haitian storyteller cries Cric?, and Homer played a lyre, and Africans begin with riddles. It is why Scheherazade stopped her stories at the most suspenseful moment. It is why Tuscan storytellers always made sure of a warm welcome before starting: "The old storytellers would never begin on their own initiative... Even though everyone knew they would finally concede, and happily, they still looked for a lot of coaxing first. It seemed to be part of the performance itself, not just a happy prelude but a way of establishing the proper mood and the right way to frame the scene." (Alessandro Falassi, Folklore By The Fireside). "A story," writes Rafik Schami, describing Syrian storytellers in his book Damascus Nights, "has to taste every bit as good as the food, otherwise most of my guests would get up, pay for their waterpipe, and leave; after all, they could bore themselves at home for less money. It was a bad hakawati who couldn't tell when his listeners were bored." Irish storyteller Padraic Colum states that a storyteller need not describe the entire sea but rather must give their listeners "the flash of the wave." And Rafik Schami again: "But you know, what amazed me was that the good hakawatis didn't have flying carpets constantly whizzing around, or dragons spitting fire, or witches concocting crazy potions. They kept their listeners just as spellbound with the simplest things..." The flash of the wave, not the whole ocean.

So our first two impossible questions are: how do you let the story through? And how do you make your listeners want to know what happens next?

A third question, and perhaps the hardest of all, is: what stories should we be telling our fellow-citizens in this strange era of human history? What stories should a storm fool carry out into the storms of modern life?

Unless you're born into an oral tradition (an increasingly rare experience nowadays), a contemporary storyteller must be, perforce, a hunter and gatherer. Since you aren't going to inherit a common store of narratives, you will probably, like me, build your repertoire in your own catch-as-catch can way. You will research countless collections of traditional stories; you will collect tales from any traditional tellers you're lucky enough to meet (and who give you permission to retell their stories); you will invent, improvise, experiment, adapt, translate, and play with a variety of folk motifs, texts, and patterns. And somehow, story by story, you'll find that you've collected a headful of stories that you want to share with an audience.

To show how strange and challenging this quest can be, let me describe some of my own story-collecting adventures. I've been intrigued by frame-stories. This interest in stories-within-stories, and more generally stories about how and why we listen to stories, runs like through my own repertoire. Inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron, The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I've created several frame-stories, including The Storyteller At Fault and, more recently, Talking You In. These stories feature someone who, like Scheherazade, is telling stories not only to save their own lives but also to heal the soul of their listener. In Talking You In, it is a father telling stories to his newborn son in the neo-natal intensive care unit. He tells his tales and hopes his voice can be a kind of beacon for the lost, frightened soul of his terribly fragile son.

Another theme in my hunting and gathering has been a desire to take traditional patterns and recast them in contemporary settings. I sometimes think of this art as a kind of Scheherajazz - an improvisation on traditional patterns that keeps stories alive and fresh. The first time this happened, I was living in Little Italy, in Toronto. A friend of mine ran an Italian cafe, and he was a smoker, a rebel, a gambler, a rough-voiced rogue who made excellent food and told crazy stories. One day it occurred to me that the blacksmith in one of my traditional stories - a trickster who outwits the devil - reminded me of my chef. The traditional story kept its pattern, but turned into a new tale called The Devil's Noodles, which takes place in a certain Italian restaurant at the corner of Beatrice and College St. Another example of this happened with the story of The Devil's Three Golden Hairs of Wisdom, from the brothers Grimm. I had told it for many years in its traditional form, until one day I realized that the king in the story, who is desperate to control the future of his daughter, represented a force we're all too familiar with in modern life - the impulse to standardize, control, manage, and microsoften everything that might be original, individual, and a little wild. He turned into a business tycoon named Mister Globus, who runs a multi-trans-international corporation and claims, "My name and my fame came from making everything the same." He and the king are identical; the details have been changed a bit, not the essential pattern.

I'm not recommending this as an approach for anybody else, but in my own work as a storyteller it has been a way to express my sense of stories as living entities, not only texts to preserve. If a story is truly alive, it can maintain its structural integrity while shifting through a variety of landscapes. On the other hand, contemporary writers sometimes use this notion to make ghastly adaptations of old-time stories. In a version of Ali Baba published by Oxford University Press in a beautifully illustrated edition, the writer Catherine McCaughrean makes a ludicrous editorial change in a magnificent tale. Instead of having the servant girl Morgiana kill the robbers by pouring the traditional boiling oil into their oil jars, she writes that she "fetched a large cream cheese from the kitchen and stopped up the breathing holes in all the thirty-nine jars which spoke." In changing one detail in a key scene, she turns one of literature's most attractive and resourceful tricksters into a cartoon character. Cream cheese? Are they so stupid they couldn't poke a hole through the cheese? Or did the writer want us to think the robbers would die thirty years later of cholestoral poisoning? Changing old stories can be a tricky venture. A storyteller should only attempt it with full respect for the story's patterns, and a deep sense of the story's lineage.

At one point in my work and life, I felt like I had reached a dead-end. I lost my inspiration, my ideas, my affection for my old stories, and the energy to find new ones. The life of a freelance storyteller had left me exhausted, discouraged, and mute. Then I remembered a story a friend, a professional clown, had told me about the great clown Grimaldi. His circus came to Vienna, and he was, as always, the star of the show. He could make thousands of spectators weep with laughter. One day a gaunt, hollow-eyed man showed up at the office of Vienna's most famous psychiatrist. He asked for an emergency appointment, and told the doctor that he wanted to commit suicide. His work meant nothing to him, his relationships had fallen apart, and he couldn't imagine any future worth living for. The doctor told him that, while a long-term treatment might be best, the quick solution to his misery would be to go to the circus that night and see the clown Grimaldi. While it wouldn't cure the depression, at least it would lighten his melancholy soul. The hollow-eyed man sighed with despair and said, "Doctor ... this won't work for me. I am Grimaldi!" The wise psychiatrist then came up with a brilliant prescription. He told Grimaldi he had to kill himself that night, under the bigtop tent, for all to see. Grimaldi smiled as he understood the doctor's counsel. That night, for the first time in many years, the clown had a new act. He jumped from a tower, but his suspenders kept him dangling. He tried to hang himself, but the rope broke. He died a hundred futile deaths, each one funnier and more absurd than the one before; and as the audience wept with laughter, so, finally, did Grimaldi.

Remembering this story, I decided that if a clown had to out-clown his sorrow, then a storyteller had to break through his silence by finding and telling a new tale. I began to improvise a story in public. I called the piece The Toronto Book of the Dead, and for seven Tuesday nights over a summer, I invited audiences to join me in the back room of a little cafe (aptly named the Cafe Verite). The inspiration for the project came from an article in a Toronto newspaper about a tragedy involving a father and son. The teenage son had jumped in front of a Toronto subway train, and the father, on his way to the morgue to identify his son's body, also committed suicide on the subway tracks. This true-life story became the theme of our collective improvisation. I suggested to the audience that suicide becomes possible when we stop wanting to know what happens next in our lives, when we lose the thread of our own story. The teenager ended his life because, like Grimaldi, he could no longer imagine its continuation. With the audience contributing their own stories, songs, poems, and dreams, every night we "wrote" a new chapter of the Toronto Book of the Dead, trying to understand the tragedy that befalls human beings when we lose the ability to imagine what happens next in our own lives.

Some of my narrative experiments and explorations became part of my repertoire, others didn't. For example, I spent a lot of time, about twenty years ago, memorizing The Miller's Tale, from Chaucer's Canterbury tales, a 600-line poem in Middle English. I've hardly ever performed it, but it has been a wonderful companion on many long trips, many long lake swims, and even in the hospital when our second son was in neo-natal intensive care. After hearing the American monologuist Spalding Gray, I became intrigued by personal stories [récits de vie]. I gathered all my memories of working as a summer camp counsellor, hearing ghost stories, and becoming a storyteller for my young campers - a truly wild pack of mischief-makers - at Bolton Camp. I particularly enjoy telling this personal creation myth to teenagers, who are so hungry to hear about life's most extreme dilemmas, changes, and possibilities.

Is there a common theme running through this patchwork quilt of stories? If a "red thread" runs through my various stories, I haven't yet found the words to express it --except through the stories themselves. What connects an Italian cook who outwits the Devil, a CEO who tries to make everything the same, a father telling stories to a sick baby in intensive care, a passion for Scheherazade, a 600-line poem in archaic English, summer camp ghost stories, a seven week improvisation about suicide, and a perennial love of Hodja Nasrudin? What I do know is that the stories landed, took root, and have kept growing in my soul. The stories wouldn't let me escape until I had let them enter my memory and tongue.

How can I let the story through?

How can I make my listeners want to know what happens next?

How can I hunt and gather my storm fool's repertoire?

These three impossible questions have guided my own wanderings in the forest of storytelling. They're impossible, not because they can't be answered, but because all answers are only works-in-progress at this point in the history of storytelling as a contemporary art. Perhaps after a generation or two, a future folklore will crystallize on the tongues of our new storytellers. For now, we can only engage these questions with all of our creativity, resourcefulness, and courage.

Perhaps the best thing to remember is that there are many performing styles in the world of storytelling, but no one right way to tell stories. Anne Pellowski, in her splendid study of international storytelling, reports a telling by Sabadu, an African storyteller: "To the rabbit, of course, he gave a wee voice, to the Elephant he gave a deep bass, to the Buffalo a hollow mooing... when he mimicked the dog, one almost expected a little terrier-like dog to trot up to the fire, so perfect was his yaup-yaup." (Pellowski, The World of Storytelling ) At the other end of the performing spectrum, I've seen Alice Kane, with her quiet voice and still stance, hold five hundred people spellbound in a tent at the big storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The only style worth pursuing is your own, however long it takes you to discover it. So as I began with a Jewish story, let me end with another. As you seek out your own dragons, and you discover your own voice and storytelling way, it's worth remembering the story about Reb Zusya, one of the great Hasidic teachers. I once heard my friend Alec Gelcer, a great Toronto storyteller, tell of the time Zusya said to his students, "When I die, I'm not afraid of the angels asking me if I was as wise and virtuous as Abraham, or Isaac, or King David, or Solomon. I know that I could not be like them. I'm much more afraid that they will ask me if I had been as good as Zusya could have been."


© Dan Yashinsky, Toronto, Canada


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