Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q: When Is A Storyteller Not A Storyteller? A: When It Is Any-Fricking-Thing Else!

(There is some profanity in this clip.  If such things offend you, don't listen to it)

Storytelling is not just a nebulous term used for a handful of activities from marketing to making films.  Storytelling is a real thing!  Guess What?  Not everyone is a storyteller!

Writers tell stories, but many of them are not all that engaging in a presentation forum.  You know why?  They are writers, not storytellers. 

I am an unabashed bibliophile, but books are not storytellers.  They are books.  Lovely, intriguing, they make me happy, I own hundreds of them, but that doesn’t make them storytellers.

Marketers tell stories to sell products.  Are they storytellers?  No, they are marketing.   They are using stories to empty your pocket.   Image crafting is what they are doing.

Movie directors are definitely telling stories.  Are they storytellers?  No, they are making movies.  They film hundreds of different scenes in no particular order and then splice them together so that they have continuity.  They are creating visual art.  I love movies, but that does not make them storytellers.

I have lots of video footage online.  I am telling stories in many of those videos, and kids love them.   They share those videos with their friends.  They come up to me and quote parts of those videos.  They record themselves telling my stories, and occasionally they do those stories in storytelling competitions.  Hooray!  I’m glad they are watching me tell those stories, but when they are watching those videos, storytelling is not happening.  Why?  There is a live audience with no live teller.

In fact, here is a video of a young lady who won first prize in a storytelling competition doing me doing Red, Red Lips.  She is actually engaged in storytelling, but unless you were there live when she was doing it, you are watching a piece of story.  There is a difference.

What is storytelling?  Well, click here to see how it is defined by the National Storytelling Network.

This is what I say about it...

Storytelling has to do with the live presentation of a tale in front of an audience.  The storyteller and the audience are both changed by the experience, and they create communal space between them.  In order for true storytelling to be happening, it is necessary for both the audience and the storyteller to be in the same space at the same time so that the elements of the space all combine to create a piece of art in that moment.  Because of this, the story can change, grow, and adapt itself to new places, cultures and ideas through the oral tradition.  

Few things make me as blindingly furious as people who stick the term ‘storytelling’ in front of what they do for no particular reason other than marketing.

It happened for the first time in my career about twenty years ago.  There were a handful of storytellers working the schools in the Chicago area, and we were working steadily.  Then, one year I showed up at Center East and there were fifteen or twenty newly minted ‘storytellers’.  They were juggling ‘storytellers’, dance ‘storytellers’, mime ‘storytellers’, magician ‘storytellers’, and the list continued.

Almost five years later, everyone started dropping ‘storyteller’ from the name.  You know why?  People stopped hiring storytellers!  You know why?  Because they’d seen lots of not storytelling claiming to be storytelling, and they discovered that students didn’t sit well for it and it wasn’t engaging.

Schools began to say to me, “We don’t hire storytellers because we’ve had storytellers in the past and it has not been a good experience.”

I’ve also gotten, “I’ve seen storytelling.  What you’re doing isn’t storytelling.”

"No, you don't actually count as a storyteller.  You are more than a storyteller."  (Nonsense!  That's exactly what I am!)

“Storytellers can’t really hold an audience.”

“Storytelling is boring.”

Well, I do not have the leisure to drop ‘storytelling’ from my name, because I am actually a storyteller! (Insert scream of absolute frustration right here.)

In the last two years, Common Core has swept America.  Storytelling can be a very valuable tool in meeting many of the Common Core goals.  Guess what’s happening?

Saturday I was at the United Arts Showcase in Raleigh, NC and I noticed that the word ‘storyteller’ started sprouting up on everyone’s title.  We are all professional storytellers again.

So, in my never to be humble, often out of bounds, nobody asked for it anyway opinion, who is a storyteller? 

Unapologetic Juggler Alfonso Guerra  This is how to own your artform!

Storytellers are storytellers.  People who are actually working that art form, trying to understand it, get beneath it, and uphold the thousands of years of storytelling tradition that supports it.

Tell stories.  I’m all for telling stories.  Tell them in video, dance, music, as you juggle, and any other way you want to, but please, just own your own art form, and leave storytelling out of it!

If you are not a storyteller...YOU ARE NOT A STORYTELLER!

Rant Out!


  1. well said, Donna! I concur. Hugs to you from an actual Storyteller who is also frustrated that the title is being misused. I would say Everyone has a Story & those Stories Matter, And agreed, not everyone is a Storyteller.

    1. We need to figure out how to become a bigger lobbying group. Most people don't even know we exist anymore!