To spin a good yarn, start by listening

I could tell it was time to wheel out my "cow milk and hot chocolate" story.

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 a stump.

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 generations.

"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.

Storytelling - and all the elements that go with it - is not just for workshops. The demands it makes on developing skills in interviewing, history, and listening make it a natural in classrooms.

Syd Lieberman, a veteran storyteller and former English teacher from Chicago, was amazed at how adept high-schoolers are at listening between the lines.

"One day, I threw five kids out of class," the cherry-cheeked Mr. Lieberman says. "And I actually sat in the front of the desk and said 'who's next?' "

But even with the tough-guy attitude, kids still asked if they were his favorite class. "They were hearing something that wasn't even in my words," he says. "They were hearing that I loved them."

This type of listening is how stellar storytellers gather their information. And as Lieberman showed, it's not hard to pull pearly narratives out of even the most unsuspecting people.

Jim Harriman, a seventh-grade English teacher from Connecticut, told a story about a trip to Moscow, and how the drab hordes of citizens descended silently into the subway. In that sea of silence, two people were having a lively conversation - in sign language. As Mr. Harriman shared his experience, Lieberman interviewed him, pulling out details like trout from a lake. We learned that his Russian friend once abandoned the non-Russian speaker in a crowd, and how six inches of ice covered Moscow's sidewalks.

Lieberman got those from listening - and from being willing to ask questions. He told the story of how he was hesitant to interview his great-aunt, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, because he wouldn't know what to ask her. After one question, she spoke about her life for several hours.

Other techniques can help draw stories out:

* Get people doing something, like cooking. An activity makes people less self-conscious.

* Photos. "I dare you to find someone who won't talk about photos," Lieberman says.

* Objects, such as clothing or old toys, often trigger memories.

Lieberman, who has been commissioned to create stories for the Smithsonian, says the craft meshes well with high school students. "You only learn to write ..., if you care about what you're writing," Lieberman says. "An essay is a walk through an idea," he says. A personal narrative, however, is a walk though time."

E-mail hartilll@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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