Engraved on my heart
Sometimes a casual remark is a boulder in our river. Our lives bump up against it and are rerouted. If we’re lucky, it sends us off in a good direction instead of a dead end. I have Jay O’Callahan to thank for five words that helped set me firmly on a new Story Route. I carried those five words in my heart and pulled them out whenever I needed a boost.
At the time, I was still pretty new to storytelling. I’d stumbled into it in Rochester, New York, while trying to figure out how to survive as an elementary school librarian. A five-year-old had taught me how entrancing storytelling could be.
Then I discovered there was a local storytelling guild. Ann Gibson, who worked for the Rochester Public Library, invited me to join. I think the others were a bit leery at first since they were a group with serious intent, and I was a newbie. But my enthusiasm overcame their understandable initial uncertainty.
They introduced me to a magical world. I caught the storytelling bug so badly that when Rafe Martin told me he was going to be offering storytelling performances in his book store, I blurted out, “I’m a storyteller. Can I tell stories here?”
I don’t kid myself. The only thing Rafe had to judge my storytelling by was my penchant for buying armloads of books. Hard to turn down a good customer. So I joined the storytelling scene at his book store and loved every minute of it.
When my husband decided to accept a job at the University of Washington, I began weighing my options. I wanted to throw myself into storytelling full time, but I was afraid.
The storytelling guild held a farewell gathering, and I picked a new story to be my pièce de résistance, the tale no one would forget. It bombed (or so I thought), but I was still burning with a desire to launch myself into what felt like a calling.
Between the end of school and the big cross-country move, I traveled to the beating heart of American storytelling, Jonesborough, Tennessee. The annual storytelling conference was being held at Washington College Academy, seven miles west of Jonesborough.
Some of the stars in the burgeoning storytelling movement were scheduled to be instructors at the conference. The one whose work I was most drawn to was Jay O’Callahan. I was determined to learn everything he was willing to share.
I participated in every workshop he gave and signed up for any critique session he was offering. Looking back, I’m sure I was the eager puppy, following him around with my tail wagging, desperate for a pat on the head.
He gave me more than that. Jay’s the sort who listens with the kind of attention that opens people like flowers. Toward the end of the conference, we sat chatting about storytelling. I told him of my upcoming move. He asked what my plans were.
I was afraid to tell him I was burning with the desire to be a storyteller – a real storyteller, performing and giving workshops and making a difference through stories. I remember stumbling uncertainly, muttering something about maybe doing some writing, about not being sure.
That’s when he gave me the five-word gift I carried like a shining star. “You can always tell stories,” he said.
He’d heard me tell four or five stories, not enough to offer the endorsement I heard. But I took that sentence and turned it into a talisman. I moved to Seattle, announced to the world I was A Storyteller, became an active part of the Seattle Storytellers Guild, and threw myself into the work of my dreams.
I had no idea just how interesting that work was going to be nor in what unexpected directions it would take me. I’d have followed that dream whether or not I’d met Jay. But he gave me a talisman for the journey, and that made an enormous difference.
We all carry words in our souls. The best ones to keep are those that give us a boost. For years now I’ve had a file of them on my computer. My “nice words” folder holds the particularly encouraging or complimentary things people have written to and about me. They’re for times when I’m judging myself far more harshly than anyone else ever has.
“You can always tell stories” isn’t in the folder. It doesn’t have to be. It’s engraved on my heart.