Storytellers make us remember what mankind would have been like had not fear, and the failing will and the laws of nature tripped up its heels.
William Butler Yeats
Stories and storytelling have been with humankind as long as there were two gathered together -- one to tell and one to listen.
The retelling of a tale -- older than Odysseus' adventures and as new as spinning a yarn on a front porch in summer -- can transport us beyond the confines of day-to-day life to lands where dreams are played out.
"There is no difference between a true story and a made-up story," maintains Charlottesville, Va., storyteller Michael Parent. "Stories simply have truth in them or they don't.
"The narrative form is particularly intimate. It reaches out and grabs you, pulls you in, draws on a mental muscle that creates pictures in our brain, powerful images.
"If a perfect stranger came up to me at a party and told me a wonderful story, I'd be very tempted to fall in love with them. Not in the romantic sense, but I would feel very warm about that person.
"Stories have a tremendous power to bond us together."
Take the Thanksgiving meal, says Parent. "You have a situation where the family is together, there's a cordial atmosphere, everyone is feeling good and someone will remember a story.
" 'Do you remember three Thanksgivings ago when Aunt Bertha spilled gravy all over her dress?'
" 'Oh yeah, that was great. Remember . . .'
"That's storytelling of the most natural kind," says Parent. "It serves the function of bonding people, of revealing what happened to you or happened in the family -- people revealing pieces of themselves."
A storytelling festival -- which can be like a large family reunion--is another context for sharing.
"When storytellers get together by themselves they tell formal stories," says Parent, "but they also tell the stories behind the stories, the experiences they had on the way to the place where they are performing, or on the way back, or the people they met."
They are sifting through the experiences "to find the human treasure, and stories are a vehicle to express that treasure. Even where you have 500 to 600 people in a tent, I feel," says Parent, "like I've been verbally hugged by a good story."
Storyteller and audience are the external components of the telling. The story itself--formed through the interplay of narrative, gesture, music, movement--is created in the space between teller and listener.
That creation took place in October where choreographers of words from all over the country gathered for the 10th annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn. About 2,000 participated in the festival, clustered in brightly striped tents, many of them wearing "Support Your Local Storyteller" T-shirts. The storytellers transformed again and again the ordinary into the extraordinary--almost as if by magic -- in the charged synapses between word and image.
Although Jean Smith of the National Storytelling Resource Center in Jonesboro, Tenn., concedes that "We are still struggling to have it storytelling defined as an art," she and others are encouraged by the growth of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS), founded in 1973 with 11 storytellers and now listing 160 professional storytellers in its directory.
The first evening of the October festival, Parent told the life story of Joseph, a relative and close personal friend. Born without legs, he was a man of indominable spirit, whose struggles and successes as a person, a parent and a painter were extraordinary. Parent says he was moved to tell Joseph's story because of "something in the stories that preceded mine" (including "Judgment Day," told by Baltimore storyteller Mary Carter Smith).
In their last conversation in the hospital, where Joseph lay dying of cancer, Joseph spoke. " 'There's a party going on in the lobby, Michael,' " he said, his voice barely audible. " 'I can't go. Would you go, and have a glass of wine for me?'
"He died that night," said Parent. "I wish you could have known him."
The response from the audience showed that he had struck deep chords.
"Kind a had trouble getting through that one," commented a friend when it was over. As the friend's voice wavered and large tears welled up, Parent grabbed his shoulder and hugged him. "It was hard," he said, "to say who had had the tougher time."
Hearing a "professional" storyteller tell a personal story, says Parent, makes people realize, " 'I've got three or four stories about my Uncle Jim or my Aunt Gertrude. That's a story, a story that needs to be told.' The best stories are all at our fingertips.
"The nice thing about a festival is it sparks things. You hear a story, and it sparks something . . . The impact is more powerful (than an encounter group, for example) in some subtle way. It's as if you've shared a secret, a treasure."
Parent, 36, originally of Lewiston, Maine, has made his "living" as a storyteller for six years. He got started by telling stories to his Boston high school English classes in order to hold their attention. He created two characters: Harry Gaboni and Abigail Dinnerpail.
"Whatever little anecdotes I wanted to slip into the learning process, I'd make a little story out of it. Then I found, 'Wow, this is very powerful.'
"I'd always had this idea that I wanted to work at something I totally enjoyed and loved, and I'd always loved telling stories." He decided to give the profession a try, and his repertoire now numbers close to 200 possible stories. Only about 40 to 50 of those, however, are stories that he truly likes and is most likely to tell.
"Recently I went through a book of American folklore that had about 90 tales. There were two or three out of 90 that I would be tempted by. I see looking for source materials as a treasure hunt. I would rather use one enthusiastically than 10 unenthusiastically. There are very few occasions when you can tell more than four or five stories.
"I really feel we are a story," says Parent. "There is a parallel between noticing the most wonderful stories around us and then telling them.
"It's a gentle, quiet, but still passionate recollection. It gets us back, because it's dear to our archetypal heart."