When I first discovered that there was such a job as storyteller, I was 30-something and enrolled in teacher school in St. Louis (home to a warm and wonderful group of tellers). As I finished my teaching degree, I focused more and more on classroom applications of storytelling and saw first-hand the results on student motivation and achievement. Before I even graduated I knew that storytelling was my calling.
SO I MADE A PLAN. Unlike many artists, I have a strong background in business planning. I knew that my bread and butter as a teller would come from schools and libraries, so it was important to finish my degree (I later earned my masters in Reading — with an emphasis on the connection between oral language and the development of reading and writing skills). I felt that I needed at least two years in the classroom to gain credibility with educators, to show them that I understood the curriculum and developmental needs of students and that I understood how schools work. So I was a classroom teacher who told a lot of stories. I built up a repertoire that was tried, tested and student-approved. (It is much harder to tell to your own class than it is to a cafeteria full of strangers — hard to turn off the mother hen/teacher brain)
I was fortunate to have a spouse who could financially support me as I built my storytelling business. Even though I didn’t have to worry about insurance and bills and a roof over my head, it was still scary to “Take the leap” and quit my job. In the early stages of my transition to full-time teller I had a lot of people willing to pay me to tell, mostly because I had spent two years laying the groundwork and I had a great network of potential patrons because of my work in the schools and through graduate school. I also did a lot of promotion to a diverse group of potential presenters.
In the planning stages I sort of decided what kind of work I would (and would not) do. Because I had a young child, I had no aspiration to tour nationally or to do a lot of festivals (which don’t pay as well as other venues). I was/am greatly blessed to live in a place where there are very few tellers and where there is support from the Arts Council. I really didn’t have to travel to work full time. (Well then there’s always the prophet in his own country syndrome, but that’s another thread). I did and do a lot of free programs. My policy is that I will do the first show free to local schools, provided they pay me my regular fee when they have me back — this has worked very well — often I am asked back to do residency work instead of just assemblies.
I gave a lot of thought to the sorts of places I wanted to work (state parks for example) and I also thought about the audiences that appealed to me. I targeted my promotions to those groups.
Since there wasn’t a local guild to support me, I started one. That brought in more work for everyone and helped to cultivate both an audience and a corps of new tellers. I also became very active in NAPPS — then the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, now the National Storytelling Network and International Storytelling Foundation and in STORYTELL —storytelling ListServe. Our state librarian saved the first three months’ posts which I read on paper and then I got on-line — and have been on this list ever since. I consider it my storytelling lifeline.
I did have a sense of direction all along. But as in story writing — when the characters start to develop a will of their own and the written story starts to take an unexpected direction, my career has taken me to places I didn’t expect. I still do a lot of work in schools, but my big passion right now is working with family groups and very young children (18 months to three yearrs old). I am in the second year of a weekly Little Listeners program at our Children’s Museum. It’s a big stretch for someone who prefers 8th graders! (I’d be happy to share more about this to anyone who is interested)
I view myself as an artist. Sometimes it is hard to choose my work based on artistic criteria and not solely because it pays. I have been known to turn down lucrative work because it is not within my artistic or ethical realm. As a now single parent I am proud to say that I support my daughter and myself solely by telling stories. I have not done any major promotion in over two years — all of my work comes by word of mouth or by providence. I’m asked to donate my services less and less (though I often donate storytelling to causes I support — without being asked)
How did I get here? By grace, and planning, and the support of many presenters and storytellers. And also by awareness of that 10th donkey — willing to follow it when it wouldn’t stay in line (and sometimes making an ass of myself). One of my oldest and dearest friends heard me tell in Portland, Oregon several years ago. He remarked on my passion for story. I told him that it would be easier for me to quit breathing than to quit telling.
Note: Faye Hanson (who introduced your editor, Chris King, to the STORYTELL ListServ years ago) hales from Little Rock, Arkansas, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org