Storytelling came into my life long before writing. I told my first story in public when I was seven. I told more stories as I grew up to my sister, cousins and children younger than who I was tutoring.
But as a gawky teenager, as a girl who was unsure of herself, I moved away from storytelling. Though I wrote those days I was not ever close to it. Never thought of writing stories. When I started writing, it was due to the need to tell stories – my own stories, made up ones. I also wrote stories that had been passed on to me and that didn’t feel like writing – that felt as if I was recording a piece of my past, my culture, my inheritance on paper.
Writing felt and still feels as if it suits me. I can be on my own, in my head. I can write in my room, write on a bus, write so I could be amused more than anything else. But I think the storyteller in me wants to get the story published so I could tell it out loud. Writing like storytelling is a performance art – though not in the same way. For a writer in many ways, having a reader is gratifying. Having a reader who likes what you’ve written is redeeming. And it is performance – I’m so glad you liked this story – did you get what I wrote there?
Storytelling needs a listener. An audience. And I was afraid of it. It is more immediate. In storytelling I have to sit in front of you and enthrall you – otherwise you are going to boo me, throw tomatoes and rotten eggs at me.
But there is only a subtle difference. If readers don’t like your story, whether they are editors, publishers, the person who bought the book, the child who is read to – it is the same. The rotten tomatoes still come – but perhaps more in virtual reality. Maybe I don’t know about them. I still have to fear it and I do.
So when I braved myself two years ago to join a weekend course in storytelling – I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. It felt as if I needed a new distraction. New courses to go to instead of going on holidays like regular adults. New courses I could learn in, having exhausted all the courses in writing and there was nothing more to learn except write.
But the course felt like homecoming. I love folktales, always loved it and there was a joy in discovering a story that had the wisdom of your ancestors. I had escaped from falling in love with storytelling for almost 20 years. And there I was in this course – thinking maybe I have to do this more seriously.
In that weekend course, Abbie Palache asked to look up some storytellers on youtube or out in the performance arenas and one that stood out for me was Jan Blake – storyteller extraordinaire. For the next few months I cyber-stalked her – well I looked her up, listened to all her youtube videos, tried to find performances that I could go to and of course see if she was teaching a course that I could join.
I made connection with Jan in one of her performances and she said she was doing a one-day course in West London. I couldn’t believe my luck – I booked my place and there I was in front of one of our master storytellers. We had a day practicing storytelling with Jan Blake and 3 other students – and we got tips about posture, presence, voice, enrichment and more. I was hungry for more.
Jan tells a lot of stories – her repertoire is quite wide and varied. She tells to adults and to children. But the fascination for me was that she told folktales from her own culture. She told to children as well as adults. And I wanted to learn from her – even if only 1% would rub off.
I wasn’t sure I was good enough though. I always have big doubts about my abilities, even in my successful day-job – it is good to be insecure about yourself someone told me a while ago – it keeps you alert on the job. But I am always anxious about my writing and now I am anxious about my storytelling. If I had a shrink, his kid’s college fees would be paid for.
Jan told me I had it in me to become a storyteller – yes, I have to learn a lot of things – but I had the spark that could turn into something bigger if I nurtured it. I reluctantly believed it.
One day Jan announced that she was going to run her masterclass which she taught 12 years ago – it is 4 weeks, one week a month covering various aspects of storytelling. I messaged her and said I’m in.
As the course neared its start date, Jan told me there wasn’t a lot of participants for module 1. In fact due to pre-half term dates, it was just me. So I had a one-one coaching with Jan Blake (can you believe it?) last week.
Right from my story choices, to my eye-contact, my expressions, my telling, my presence – I was up-close and personal with my coach for 3 days. I learnt about voice, emotions of the characters in the story, how not to tell it and to demonstrate what I was doing wrong, Jan would tell my story in her own way. What a treat that was.
And when I told her my stories, she would remember a similar story from Africa or another part of the world (a treasure-trove of stories in her memory) and I would listen enthralled, but also trying to capture and observe how she was telling it – even though she was telling to one person, not in performance mode.
And if this was not treat enough, after the third day of the course, Jan Blake was going to perform at the British Musuem with another veteran storyteller Tuup and she took me along with her as her guest. What an honour that was.
Ben Haggerty (another British storytelling stalwart) asked me “Was it intense?” – Yes it was. Here was a tsunami of a storyteller in my living room. How could it not be intense, powerful and radiant? It was harsh in some ways – because I had to no place to hide, no backbench distractions, no waiting for someone else’s turn to tell – I was there alert and under her intense coaching.
I helped out with the carrying of props, I listened to four storytellers discuss the upcoming performance, met people I would have never been able to meet and I got to listen to gothic horror tales from the Caribbean. If that wasn’t a grand finale to a course, what could be?
The next module is on 10th November in Southwark in London. Then there is a module in December and one in January. I’m hoping to attend all of them – hopefully nothing would come in the way.
While I am still preparing for telling stories in schools, preparing a repertoire based on Jan’s advice and would be posting details of my school programme soon, I have my first hurdle to overcome – tell a story to a camera with confidence and post it on my web and my youtube channel. Can I do it? Would you come and watch it? Do you like stories?