April 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 2 »

Creating A Folklore Of Our Own: A Conversation With Storyteller Beth Horner

April 1, 2015
Scott Whitehair, Storyteller

How did you develop your skills early on as a newbie teller?

. . . listening to other storytellers and studying with other storytellers. When I started out, I spent a great deal of time traveling to study and listen to other storytellers. I would drive to Tennessee where they would have weekend workshops. All of my vacation, all of my time off, was spent going to work with other storytellers and listen to other storytellers. Now we are so lucky that storytelling has cropped up all over the country… so that one doesn’t have to travel very far, particularly in Chicago. We are blessed with an amazing storytelling community.

Speaking of Chicago, what do you think so far about this current wave of storytelling that has really exploded here over the last several years?

I think it’s very exciting… because people are coming to it from so many different walks of life, and because a lot of the people telling are youthful, as in under fifty years old. When
I started out, we were all youthful; we were all under fifty years old. Well, we’re getting a little bit older now, and our life experiences are changing. We’re having different kinds of life experiences than we did have, and that makes for incredible stories, but it’s a different kind of a story. So to have this sort of infusion now of youth again is fun, and it’s important for the youthful stories of this generation to be told.

Chicago is happily swarming with new storytellers, and a great deal of them seem to be really nervous about memorizing and delivering every word just right.
Any thoughts on this?

Veteran storyteller Carol Birch from Connecticut is fond of explaining it this way: The specific words of a story are like the path through the world of the story. It is important to know the whole world of the story and not to concentrate solely on the specific words, the path. If you only know the path and you fall OFF the path (i.e., forget the words and freeze up), you will fall into oblivion. If you know the whole world of the story—all that is under, over, and around the story—and you fall off the path, you will fall into the story’s world, wander around a bit, and then easily get back onto the path.

Is there a practical way to approach story preparation in this manner?

In creating my stories, I don’t work via “the page.” I work orally, making scribbles, notes, possible outlines and charts, and endless recordings—concentrating on character, scene, structure, and most important, on image. I try telling the story out loud over and over and over to myself and to trusted colleagues. With each telling, specific words and phrases emerge and I note them so that I can then incorporate them into the next telling.

So the problem is not in the material being difficult to hear or tell, but in the crafting of it.

That’s exactly it. And getting enough space from it, being able to step far enough from it that one could make the story so that anyone could hook in.

I have heard you tell some traditional stories as well as the personal narratives that are a hallmark of this current movement in storytelling. Is there any common ground between these worlds?

My work is built on a very strong foundation of traditional, mythological, and literary stories. For the first ten years of my career, I told only folktales, myths, and literary works.… If you look at these longtime storytellers, you can see that they really understand structure. If a story has existed for hundreds of years, in the oral tradition, you know that story is well structured and has characters and images that people can hang onto. A lot of folktales have been cleaned up and Disney-fied. Don’t even get me started on that. But if you go back to the old folktales, those are meaty stories. And you just know that those original stories are universal.

Early on, I was ignorant, often saying that folktales weren’t a part of what I do, but I wised up after talking to some veteran tellers. These stories are definitely relevant today.

You wouldn’t believe how much. I have a colleague who did a whole show on cross-dressing and transgender in old folktales.

I hope that the current movement of storytelling will eventually embrace folklore rather than keep it at arm’s length.

What you are doing, what I am doing, what any of the new wave in Chicago is doing, is creating a folklore of its own. I call folktales the personal narrative of an entire culture.

Excerpted with permission from the Chicago Artists Resource, January 6, 2015. www.chicagoartistsresource.org

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