The late Nancy Duncan had such a passion for oral storytelling that I felt compelled to write about this form she was a master practitioner of time and again. Nancy was a professional storyteller who was active in various storytelling circles locally, regionally, and nationally. On this same blog you can find my article about Nancy, Her Final Story, which details her use of storytelling to chart her dying process. As time allows I will eventually add to this site an earlier profile I did of Nancy, as well as other articles I did about the storytelling festival she helped organize in Omaha. The following piece is about that storytelling festival and about the art and craft of storytelling itself. I couldn’t have written it without Nancy’s input and expertise. Reading it, you’ll get a sense for her boundless energy and passion. The story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, which is no longer with us. Although Nancy is gone, too, her spirit very much lives on.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
How subversive can you get in this digital-electronic age? Well, consider storytelling festivals, where tellers from near and far gather to recount real-life dramas, chronicle fanciful deeds and spin chilling ghost tales, all without aid of sets, video images, recorded music, computer graphics or special effects. When the yarns start unraveling, an ancient oral tradition is rejoined in an unadorned celebration of the spoken word made story.
More than a diversion for children, storytelling is a traditional art and craft, a communal form of heralding, a personal means of expression and a life-affirming educational/healing tool. Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.
Once upon a time, telling stories was the primary means for people to interpret and pass-on their heritage. “Everybody used to tell stories, but within each oral society or culture one person was designated to be the story carrier and that person would be someone like Homer who memorized it and kept it all inside of them. That role was primarily given to women, but then, when it became a sacred role, men co-opted it. The priests became the storytellers,” said Nancy Duncan, a storyteller in Omaha, Neb. She is an organizer of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival and a Pied Piper for the art form in the state.
With the advent of publishing, storytelling became proprietary. “When stories were oral, they belonged to everybody,” Duncan said, “but then along came the printing press and stories then belonged to authors, so there became this distancing.” Still, the oral tradition flourished in pockets, especially the American South, where Duncan, a native Georgian, grew-up spellbound by her father’s and maternal grandmother’s tales. Today, the oral tradition survives, but only for special occasions, like family reunions or festival, or in designated places, like schools or libraries, or in reconfigured forms, like talk therapy.
The Nebraska Festival, along with similar events in other states, have sprung up amid a general storytelling revival sparked by the success of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people are starved to hear stories again or for the first time. “Some come because they just miss the stories in their lives. It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories. Some never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear. They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are. They validate us. It’s like identity maintenance.”
In an era when so much human exchange occurs in isolated, impersonal ways, Duncan said storytelling provides an intimate and interactive experience that is part organic and part mystical. “You don’t tell stories into the wind. You tell stories to people. Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen. It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience. The audience makes the story in their minds. They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives. So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story. And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding. It’s like going on a journey together to a different place. It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny. It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging. It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.” When a teller connects with an audience, she said it is practically transcendental. “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or into an event that they are trance-inducing. The audience goes off with you. You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces. They’re eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack. It’s as though they are dreaming.”
The enduring appeal of storytelling may be rooted deep inside us: “It seems genetically programmed into human beings to think in story. We story everything that happens to us and, if we don’t, we forget it. Storytelling is the most efficient way to think about anything and to not just think about it but to help us understand our experiences. So, in that way, it’s the essence of history. It’s also a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem. It’s very healthy,” she said.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in March Duncan (who had a mastectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy) has been crafting a story dealing with her illness. “I want it to be a very funny story because breast cancer is very funny, really, and very tragic, but at the same time transformational. I mean, I can feel already changes happening in me because of this. And it’s all based in the community of people out there, like me, with cancer. We have a relationship other people don’t have.” Frankford, Mo. resident Gladys Coggswell, a national teller at the Nebraska Festival, was plagued by nightmares from a childhood assault and only found peace in the stories her great-grandmother and, later, her husband told her. “Stories helped me survive some of the crises in my life by making me feel connected to the world and helping me know I was not alone in my pain,” she said.
In addition to healing qualities, there is anecdotal evidence storytelling is an effective medium for captivating students as learners and readers. Both the International Reading Association and the American Library Association advocate storytelling as educational tools. This spring and summer Nancy Duncan is conducting workshops with Omaha Public Library children’s librarians and media specialists to develop their storytelling skills. A workshop participant, South Omaha Branch Children’s Librarian Linda Garcia, said, “Children’s response” to storytelling “is unbelievable. Once they’ve tasted one or two stories, we get them hooked” on reading. Storyteller Lucille Saunders, a retired Omaha Public Schools teacher and a part-time media specialist today, said, “I’ve discovered that by using the techniques of storytelling – voice, gestures, eye-contact — I can more easily engage students in the lesson. It’s more interesting for them. It gets their attention.”
Not all stories are welcome. Duncan said she is banned from performing in two area school districts by fundamentalist-controlled school boards who fear her sometime storytelling alter ego, Baba Yaga, a cranky but wise witch adapted from Russian literature. “A lot of people are afraid of any stories dealing with the dark side. But the consequences they talk about are important for young people to learn.” To gauge what audiences might accept or reject, she tells test stories. “If they’ll go with me on those stories, they’ll go anywhere.” Duncan, who conducts school residencies, finds some youths today lack the active listening and imagination skills stories demand. She feels these “lost kids” are overweaned on TV. “Their bodies and brains are programmed for something to go either bleep or bloop every two minutes. They’re jittery and wiggly. They look away. They show no affect during the story. They don’t even have the ability to visualize. It’s tragic because if they can’t imagine, how can they make moral choices?” She is encouraged, however, by how well most kids respond, including some budding young tellers now performing in public. Among them is Sarah Peters, 13, a student at Platteview Central Junior High School. Peters, who will be telling at the Nebraska festival for the fifth time, enjoys creating stories based on real-life incidents — like fishing outings turned survival tests by flooding river waters — only embellished a little. What does Peters like best about telling? “I like coming up with stories of my own and knowing when I tell one of my stories to people they can pass that on to other people.”
Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more reverberation it has. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students (“thinking rebels”) to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors. To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.” Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives. “This time, the adults were in tears. The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection. They wanted to known each other better.” Unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller. According to Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story. You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling. You can’t separate the teller from the story. That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”
Among the featured tellers at this weekend’s Nebraska Festival: diminutive Don Doyle, of Mesa, AZ, tells stories from the Celtic tradition; Kentuckian Mary Hamilton draws on folktales from her family’s deep roots in the Blue Grass state; Bill Harley, a Seekonk, MA resident and commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, is known for his humorous children’s tales and songs; Denver’s Pat Mendoza finds inspiration for his stories and songs in his eclectic adventures as a Vietnam veteran, exp-cop and Kung fu teacher and his Irish-Scottish-Cuban-East Indian background; and Corrine Stavish, of Southfield, Mich., is a noted teller of Jewish folktales. Other scheduled performers include a state senator, a family counselor, a poet laureate, a high school student and several mother-daughter teams. Anyone with a hankering to tell can weave a yarn during the swapping session and anyone wanting pointers can attend workshops and coaching sessions. Perhaps the most popular program is Friday’s 9:30-11:30 p.m. Ghosting on the hillside facing the Administration Building.
As far as Duncan is concerned, “storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world. It’s not just for children. It’s for anyone. We all have valuable stories to share.”
- Tall tales: Meet the storytellers spinning edgy new yarns for the digital age (independent.co.uk)
- Healing with Story: Healing the Storyteller (health-psychology.suite101.com)
- Ten Years of Telling Tales (nytimes.com)
- Creating a Youth Storytelling Community One Kid at a Time (storytellingadventures.blogspot.com)
- Storytelling (sallyjenkins.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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