Saturday, August 30, 2014

Without A Net

Base Jumping...not my style
There are risky things in life.  Take for example base jumping.  I'm not going to do any base jumping...ever.  I'm what you call a straight up prude when it comes to the whole  'life and limb' thing.  One of the common refrains said of me as a young teen was that I was 'levelheaded'.

Needless to say, when I told my father I was going to be a professional storyteller, he was taken aback.

"What is a storyteller?"  He demanded, having just forked over a small fortune to Northwestern University.

When I started explaining what it was, he shook his head and held up his hand.  "Stop."  He sighed.  "Just call when you need money."

Three years later he flew through O'Hare International Airport and called my apartment.  He thought he'd surprise me and take me out to lunch.  He called the apartment for three hours without reaching me.  (For those who find this story confusing, I should point out that nobody had cell phones at that time.)

When I got home, my roommates told me to call my dad because he was freaking out.  When I reached him at his hotel in D.C, he asked, "Where were you all day?"
"I was working."
He was silent for a moment, and then said, "What do you do again?"

If you would like a pictorial representation of what storytelling looks like.  Tim Ereneta has put together a fabulous collection of images that show storytellers and storytelling.  Check it out.

When I first started going to middle and high schools, I would freak out the principals.  When I showed up at the school, they'd ask.  "Where is your stuff?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you have props or scenery or an instrument or something?"
"No.  I'm just going to stand in front of the mic for forty-five minutes and talk."
At that point they would smile, but behind their eyes, I could see them cursing the PTA with all of their might.
"The three little frogs jumped into the water with only their eyes sticking out."

After the show I would get the inevitable question, "How did you do that?"
I would look as innocent as possible and ask, "Do what?"
"I've never seen them sit that still for anything.  You had them in the palm of your hand!"
"I'm a storyteller."  I would explain.  "That's what storytellers do."

I have had the occasional audience who I have trouble reaching over the years, and I get to experience one of those moments of 'introspection and growth'.  Being on stage without a net can be scary, and sometimes I fall.  I pick myself up, I brush myself off, and I go back to anything else.

I strive to get better at my craft.  I remind myself that even great performers can have off days, but that doesn't mean you don't keep striving for great.  I have discovered that even when I think the show didn't go well I'm often the only one who noticed.  Storytelling is a very forgiving occupation.  I don't expect to get it right all of the time.  Nobody is perfect.  Well, except maybe Jay O'Callahan.  He's pretty awesome.

Jay O'Callahan

Despite how effective and engaging storytelling can be, there are still folks who find it risky to hire a storyteller.  I attended an arts showcase last thursday, and a pair of women who brought me into an elementary school last year stopped by my booth.

"I've just got to tell you."  One of them laughed.  "We never had so many teachers compliment us on a program before as we did when you visited.  They said that when you first came out and you didn't have any props or puppets or anything, they were nervous, but the second you started talking everything changed.  They loved it, and the kids are still talking about it.  We can't wait to have you back!"

There are many storytellers who could tell that story.

Here's a clip of me doing the stand in front of the mic routine.

Twelve years ago, my husband and I decided to switch roles.  He became a stay at home dad, and I went back out on the road to become the bread winner.  Both of our fathers went a bit wild around the eyes.  For starters, they are from a very patriarchal generation, and couldn't get their brains around me 'taking care' of my husband instead of the other way around.  Besides, they told us, this is risky.

Well, everything is risky if you look at it from the right perspective.

Aside from the logistics of traveling and raising children, I rarely regret the decision to rejoin the work force.  It has given my family not only stability, but flexibility.  We've got retirement funds, savings, college funds, a house, two cars, and two kids getting ready to go off to college.  Yes, I know, that sounds like a risky lifestyle, but we manage.

Last year I was driving my son to school.  We were talking about his future as he prepares to choose a career.

I said to him, "In this economy, you have to have a flexible type of job.  It needs to be one that can't be outsourced to another country for pennies on the dollar; it needs to be skilled enough so that your contribution is recognizable and desired.  If you find that you have been booted out of a company or corporate structure, you need to be able to hang out a shingle on the turn of a dime and become either a small business, or a consultant to your industry."

My then seventeen year old son gave me a dramatic sigh. "That's easy for you to say, mom."  He grumbled.  "You and dad are lucky.  You're a storyteller."

I love these storyteller clay figures!

Yes, I am lucky.  I'm a storyteller.  We do it with words.  We do it with imagination.  We do it without a net.

Happy Telling!


  1. Another amazing blog. Thanks, Donna, for sharing your wisdom and your experience. You are an inspiration to all of us who are plugging away trying to earn our living as storytellers. You deserve every bit of your success. By the way, I love the photos.

  2. Hi Donna,

    You have 'mad' skills! I loved the clip at The Natl Storyteller Festival. I write stories and would love to have you visit my blog at as a guest post contributor on "The Art of Storytelling?" I know my readers would love it and I would be honored to share your insights.

    Continued success!

  3. Donna,

    You have so much to say to us in the world of storytelling, no matter where we stand in this world. I have so much to learn from your great talent and broad experience. You are filled with words of wisdom. Thanks for sharing with us!

    1. Oops, sorry Donna, my comment above shows anonymous. Forgot to select the "Reply as."
      Blessings to you, Sylvia Payne

    2. Thank you for clearing that up! I'm glad you got to stop by the blog!