Storytellers tend to feel it when we hit it out of the park. When we leave a stage or a classroom after having been incredibly successful, we can feel it all through our body. There is the energy, the excitement, the lavish praise, the joyful expressions and the contentment
Alas, not all events are that successful.
Sometimes we leave and we feel like we did a good job, but something was missing. Maybe things didn’t land the way we hoped they would. Maybe we feel like it was good, but didn’t rise to great.
Sometimes we leave and it seems we did an adequate job, but there was nothing that made the experience stand out.
Then, there are those shows where we feel like a train hit us on the way out the door. What happened? Why didn’t the story or stories connect? What went wrong?
When I was at Northwestern, Jay O’Callahan came to visit. He is a remarkable man who danced and told his way through one of my all-time favorite original tales called The Herring Shed. When he was finished, I was exhausted and in love with the images dancing in my head. It was obviously magic.
My first set watching Jackie Torrence perform Brer Rabbit tales was beyond amazing and I sat there watching Brer Snake tempt that possum while laughing my fool head off and drinking in the sound of her voice. I never could have imagined anything so breathtaking as being part of an audience with her at the helm. I could actually feel the magic.
I wanted to hit the stage someday and be that magic or as close to it as I could get. I wanted my audience to be that spellbound and joyful when they left me. For a long time, I worked to achieve that. Only, in my eyes, when I became a magic person, would I be a successful storyteller.
Unfortunately, there are no manuals about how to create actual magic. There are no books that explain how to actually turn dross into gold or any other useful thing. I suspect that it is this underlying quest for the keys to magic that has forced me to spend so much of my adult life researching storytelling and the human brain.
Many years have passed since those early days of youth and ignorance, and I’ve seen many storytellers and told many tales. I’ve worked to refine and challenge myself as I learn and work with audiences.
I’ve had magic moments and moments I hope to never relive.
In the end, I’ve figured out what success really means to me.
Success for me means I look at each audience and give them what I have. I also strive to meet them where they are. I hope they have a good time. I hope they get something fun out of it. I hope I learn something about humans or literature or nature or how people think or how to time something in a story. I hope I get just an ounce better each year. If you are not growing, then you are either atrophying or dying. Learning is the only thing that makes us better.
Sometimes I miss the mark entirely and the stories don’t sing. I dissect the choices I made and debate what I might have done differently. If I learn something that helps me in the future, I succeeded.
Sometimes I partially miss the mark, and the stories limp through. I look through the stories to see what worked, what didn’t and what I could or didn’t do to help. Sometimes the problem is I stand in the way of the story. If I work out some bit of business or figure out a way to make something transition more smoothly, I succeeded.
Sometimes I do a credible job of giving what I’ve got and we all have a good time, but not a transformational moment in any way shape or form. I look through those shows and see what can be learned from the interactions with the audience and the amount of animation or energy I threw off during the set. If I can find anything at all to work on, I succeeded.
Of course, every now and then, I manage the thing I always strive to do. Every now and then, I am able to apply all of those things, those hopes, those techniques I spent my life practicing, the audience is hungry for the stories, the situation is perfect and I float into that sweet spot and we make magic.
The magic happens, but I was wrong about where it occurs. I thought it came off the storyteller, but the truth is, it comes through the storyteller. We are brilliant when we are conduits.
Jay O’Callahan is a magic person to me. Jackie Torrence’s magic changed my life and instructs me as a storyteller even unto this day.
As for me, I feel like I’ve got a handful of magic beans and every now and then, I manage to plant one.
There are many ways to measure success as a storyteller. I have learned to settle for learning, striving, trying and never getting knocked down for good even when I am discouraged.
I make my living as a storyteller.
In that, I am succeeding.
“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
― Shel Silverstein