Storytelling Magic

It’s a warm Saturday morning in May at the Williamstown library.

“And what was in the third pumpkin?” I ask the group of children seated cross-legged on the floor in front of me as we review a story I told them earlier.

Seven-year-old Zachary is wide-eyed, hands trembling with anticipation.

He has already told me what was in the first two pumpkins, and now, unable to contain his excitement, he exclaims, “MONEY!!”

I smile. If I ever doubted the power of the story, I don’t anymore. It’s as though Zachary is no longer in a heritage building in Glengarry, but the red carpet he is sitting on has become a magic carpet and transported him to a tiny hut in a far away land, where he is fingering “gold and silver coins, so many, there is no counting them.”

When I moved to eastern Ontario from northern Saskatchewan, I wondered what I could expect as a storyteller. Would audiences here be able to relate to my repertoire of tales, old and new? Does the oral tradition stand a chance with a digitally-dazzled generation? Would a simple story told without a background of pulsating music or flashy stage effects capture their imagination? I needn’t have worried.

In the past year I have appeared at the Ottawa Storytelling Festival and given over 15 storytelling performances in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry counties. From Ingleside to Finch, and from Williamstown to Iroquois, audiences have responded enthusiastically. Some people sit silently, letting the story sink into the depths of their being. Others laugh, or groan, or wipe away a tear. The students in the Grade 5 class at St. George’s School in Long Sault were so loud with their “Oooooooohhhhhh!” and their applause, they were heard right across the country (as part of a national broadcast on CBC Radio).

Even though many storytelling events are promoted as being for children, I find that the adults who accompany them enjoy them just as much, or even more. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a centuries-old classic, a contemporary narrative, or a yarn of my own creation.

“The Magic Pumpkins”, a Ukrainian folk tale, is among my favourite stories, and I love to tell it often. Before I begin, I bring out one of the few props that I use. It is a bouquet of poppy seed pods, but one child called it my “magic story seeds”, and so, as I give those seeds a shake, I welcome my audience into the world of magic, the world of the story.

And because stories do more than just entertain, I also invite the listeners to seek the wisdom in the story. I’m always delighted by their insight.

“Don’t be greedy.”

“You shouldn’t interfere with nature.”

“It’s good to be patient.”

“Share what you have.”

“It’s good when brothers get along.”

“Don’t be too proud.”

The pumpkins in my story are magical, not so much because they contain food or fine clothes, but because they convey life lessons that teachers or parents might otherwise have a hard time getting across. Rather than being instructed, the listeners discover these pearls of wisdom for themselves in an enjoyable way.

Being a professional storyteller has its challenges, though. Sometimes when it is difficult to find paying venues, or when I struggle to get a new story just right, I think there must be an easier way to earn a living. That’s when I remember Zachary and recall the wonder in his eyes and the sheer delight in his entire body. I’m reminded that, with each story, I receive as much as I give.

Published in Seaway News, May 9, 2003.