I could tell it was time to wheel out my "cow milk and hot
It was about the time my dairy-farming grandfather topped off my
Swiss Miss with a shot of moo juice straight from a Holstein's
udder. It was the only story I shared at "Sharing the Fire" - a
conference in Cambridge, Mass., sponsored by the League for the
Advancement of New England Storytelling - and it wasn't very good.
But that's why I was there: to learn techniques from some of
America's best tellers.
Most people think storytelling is an underground profession, or
is just about women relating stories in stale libraries to unruly
kids. But it can be an art, and it has risen in popularity in
recent years. The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro,
Tenn., drew about 9,000 people last year. More than 260 people
attended "Sharing the Fire."
This gathering of tellers shouldn't have fazed me. After all,
when my family gets together, it's a real chinfest. We talk about
the time I carried the newborn calf across the river on my
shoulders, or my great-grandfather's odd acquaintance, who lived in
Given this pedigree of prattle, I should have fit right in. But I
had rookie jitters: My skin tingled as I told my story.
It was proof, as the experts here pointed out, that storytelling
is more than sitting down over Earl Grey and reminiscing about the
old days. What counts is extracting gold nuggets from your life.
These may be breezy anecdotes or serious tales of family history.
And while the actual event at the center of your yarn may seem
minor, a story spun effectively may stay in your family for
"If someone has written your biography, what page would you turn
to first?" asks Pete Houston, a storyteller from Williamsburg, Va.
Truly moving stories often come from plumbing - and listening to -
the memories of people who lived through an event. Indeed,
listening is a skill that's as important for the teller as it is
for the audience.
Kathryn Windham, a grandmotherly woman whose Southern accent
could melt asphalt, knows that well. The keynote speaker, she
recounted her youth in Thomasville, Ala. She shared the time she
announced to the congregation that she wanted to shimmy (a once-
popular dance) to the organ music.
"If you shimmied," Ms. Windham says with a smile, "you could not
go to heaven." Details - like the sexy walk and hair of a boy she
admired, and how her father used to buck dance ("like tap dance,
but louder and more vicious") - left people slack-jawed at how
simple stories could so thoroughly engage. …