The hardest thing when telling a story is to decide what story to tell.
It is one thing when the teller of the story is among friends. One story leads to another. One memory brings up another. The story, then, is conversation, as natural as breathing.
But then, sometimes, the story is a performance. Sometimes it comes with little advance warning and even less in the way of assistance. “It’s in three weeks,” they tell you. “You have ten minutes,” they say. “There is no theme to work with.”
“Oh, and by the way, Texas will be watching.”
Sometimes it’s good to be busy. Having too much to do means it’s really hard to think about things too much. Having too much to do means it’s impossible to get nervous.
Having too much to do means you don’t have enough time to prepare. It means you have to go back to the well, dust off a beloved old gem. Of those, for me, there are four. I thought I’d tell “Jimmy’s Journey,” as it’s an easy enough tale to tell. I’ve even told it two or three times in the last year, so I actually remember it.
But then I decided that it was time to go back even farther. Go back to the very beginning.
“I want you to read to me,” she said. “It’s my favorite story from when I was a little girl.”
It was late summer. I was about to go back for my last semester at WIU and still in the happy times with Her. Leaving seemed unbearable, so sitting on that bench in front of my parents’ house and reading a story seemed like the best possible way to spend my time.
Thus was I introduced to the story of Dove Isabeau. To the uninitiated, as I was that night, it is a children’s tale that hits all the standard fairy tale tropes of beautiful women and jealous stepmothers, but makes a single, key change. Rather than render the maiden inert and force her to wait on rescue from the handsome, brave prince the story turns her in to the dragon those heroes then try to slay.
I stumbled through it, made a poor showing of pronouncing the francophone names. It didn’t go the way she’d imagined, either, and she couldn’t hide her disappointment. C’est la vie, I suppose.
The hardest thing when telling a story that’s been gathering dust is to remember.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. The story, then, is the devil’s plaything. It’s simple, trivial even, to remember the broad strokes of the story. It’s all about archetype, progression, and event after all. What makes the story matter, then, is how the storyteller interprets the tiny details that make a moment stick to the mind. It’s all about cadence, turn of phrase, and those moments where the audience hangs on every word.
Telling a story for the first time since Labor Day weekend 2008, then, can be quite painful on the cusp of St Patrick’s Day 2011. That’s why we have story circle. The eyes of Texas were not upon me this evening.
It’s a problem, too, since I still remember the story. But what I remember now is the story behind the story, the story about the story, and the story since the story. Those have almost overwhelmed and choked out the story itself.
These things happen, I suppose.
She liked it when I told stories. That’s why I’m a storyteller, really. When all else failed, as it so often did, she loved hearing me tell stories. I loved telling her stories.
The first couple I made up on the spot. One was a bizarre little tale of talking animals invading Illinois I told her while we were killing time amid the Gothic arches and peaceful courtyards of the University of Chicago. The other was of a princess who led an army to avenge her dead father I told while we sat on a rock at the edge of Lake Argyle when she visited me at WIU.
She liked that I was willing to make the princess the independent hero. I liked pandering to my audience of one. Even when I expanded my audience my initial story was intended primarily for her, though.
When I started to pull the story together it was a collection of fairy tale archetypes. But I remembered that one, all-important twist from Dove Isabeau. I let it guide the progression of my own story.
The audience who ever heard it was my audience of one. She listened to me tell the story over the phone. For twenty minutes I plodded along, obsessed with my belief that the best story is a long, epic story.
She told me I spoke too slowly, that I could stand to cut some of the fat out.
The hardest thing about telling a story is when it’s just not working and nothing seems to get it back on track.
I felt myself plodding through the story. I repeated myself too many times, got caught up on describing and re-describing details that ultimately didn’t matter, and once totally forgot where I was going.
That’s the problem with storytelling. A single mistake tends to cascade. Forget a detail, put a name in the wrong place, or lose your cadence and everything falls apart from there.
That’s why we practice.
I told the story to an audience larger than one for the first time at a Fox Valley Storytelling Guild meeting. It was the first or second meeting I’d attended. On the way home I called her I was so excited.
Nearly a year later it became the first story I ever told at an actual concert at the Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival. By then I had cut the story down to about nine tight, well-considered minutes.
She didn’t see it. We hadn’t spoken for nearly six months.
I put the story on the shelf after that.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I experimented with different endings. Eventually I turned it in to a series of blog posts. That version was bitter, angry. The endings were full of blood, death, regret, and despair.
The hardest thing about telling the story is telling the story itself without telling all the other stories that feed in to and stretch out of that story.
I couldn’t tell the story in a vacuum. Not tonight. Not any night. Afterwards I got feedback.
We were talking about the progression and I pointed out that the story is simply a collection of basic fairy tale archetypes.
One of the other storytellers said, “Yes. It reminds me of [one story I didn’t recognize] and Dove Isabeau.”
All of the sudden I was back on that bench in front of my parents’ house. I hadn’t thought of that moment in years. The memory, surprisingly enough, was pleasant.
He suggested a modification to the ending.
“What if she doesn’t get rid of the bandits and the robbers?” he asked. “She knows what it’s like to be an outcast, after all.”
The best thing about stories is that they change.
It was my first real story. It was the first I created from scratch. It was the first I told at a guild meeting. It was the first I told to an audience.
I can’t imagine telling a different one the first time I tell at the Texas Storytelling Festival.
This time, though, it will have a different ending.