Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Storytellers from A to Z

As promised, here is a list of storytellers blogging during the A to Z Challenge!
For the first time this year we have expanded the WR tag to Writing/Storytelling. Here I only included blogs written by professional (oral) storytellers. Visit and enjoy!

Story Crossroads - A brand new, up-and-coming international storytelling festival from Utah, telling us how a storytelling even can build and benefit a community.

Mary Garrett, one of my Legendary Ladies, is blogging about storytelling in schools!

Jeri Burns from the amazing Storycrafters is blogging from A to Z again on Storytelling Matters! This year her theme is a Daily Dose of Ghosts!

Pam Faro is also returning, this year with a theme of Story Slams and Traditional Storytelling - Bridging the Distance!

Robin Bady at Starting from Zed (what a great name for an A to Z blog!) will also be joining us with some storytelling goodness!

Megan Hicks is not only joining in (for the third time), she will be writing about origami and Shakespeare!

Julie Moss is joining in for the first time and will be blogging on Adventures in Storytelling.

Sheila Arnold is blogging at Ms. Sheila's Travels about history's stories, and how to tell them.

Tim Sheppard is doing a theme on Delving Deep into the Core Skills of Oral Storytelling!

Sue Kuentz is blogging on the theme of Every Hero has a Story! (Which is very timely, because this year's Summer Reading Program theme is Heroes!)

Heidi Dahlsveen from Norway is blogging about Understanding Trolls!

The Challenge starts tomorrow! Happy A to Z, everyone!

Storytelling Book Review: The Ravenous Gown by Steffani Raff

Here are two things you need to know:
1. I am not a book blogger.
2. I don't like literary fairy tales.
I am saying these things up front so you can understand my review in context.

I saw the call for ARC reviewers for this book on Facebook, and since the author is also a storyteller I know, I decided to sign up. I received a copy of the book in PDF format. Even in its ARC form, The Ravenous Gown is a very, very pretty book.
And, much like most characters in its 15 stories, it is also a lot more than that.

The sub-title of the book promises tales about "Real Beauty." It is a very timely and much needed topic these days, with every other storytelling-related article talking about Cinderella's tiny waist. More and more people are paying attention to the representations of beauty girls (and boys) are bombarded with. But here is the thing: Storytellers, especially ones that work with kids regularly, break out in hives from "preachy" tales. I am no exception. I never end my tales with "and the moral of the story is..." If the story is not good, I don't care how important the message is.
Okay, so I am getting to the point:
These stories are good.

Steffani Raff did not just sit down to whip up some girl-empowering stories. She took to her background in folktales instead, and she did what traditional storytellers have always done: She picked the images, the symbols, and the best parts of some of her favorite folktales (she mentions them in the appendix) and wove them into new stories. They walk like folktales, they talk like folktales, and they carry many familiar images: The Hodja's hungry gown, the dancing crane-woman, mysterious portraits covered with drapes, a princess raising a dragon, a girl cutting off her heel. She doesn't go out of her way to remind us, but the story-loving mind recognizes the imagery anyway. It is expertly done, and feels comfortable.
(... like a shoe NOT made of glass...)

I liked the linguistic humor in Steffani's writing. She is a master of opening lines. My favorite was this one:
"It was the celebration of the century. She came, though uninvited, ate a cream puff, and cursed the child."
She has a subtle, almost cynical sense of humor that comes out in her word choices, and clever turns of phrases. She weaves her opinions into the stories without preaching them, and makes her point with wit. The stories don't quite read like spoken word, but that is not a problem; they do make a good read, and their eloquence is charming.

I liked some stories more than others, obviously. I adored the lanky, awkward knight-hero from Fetch Me a Star. I liked the redeeming narrative of Cinderella - Sort of. I was enchanted by he vivid imagery in The Healing Stone (and the fact that the dragon was female). The heartbreaking message of The Crane's Gift and the story of the Lost Princess almost made me sob. It is a great lineup of not only plots, but also emotions.

As a storyteller and as a reader, I approve of this book.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tall tales, short tales, and an Irish wake - Ohio Storytelling Conference, 2015

You don't have to go very far to find a great storytelling conference. Or maybe I just live in the right place.
OOPS (the Ohio Order for the Preservation of Storytelling) and I happen to be the same age. This year's conference was titled "Respect the Past - Focus Forward" and I was invited to present my workshop "StorySpotting - Building a bridge between folktales and popular media."
I arrived Friday evening before the conference. I spent a nice long Mexican dinner with some of the other early birds: Adam Booth, the keynote speaker of the conference (with whom I had a nice conversation about archival research and folktales), Kevin Cordi (who was generous enough to host me for the weekend), Anthony Burcher (whose book 101 Games that Teach Storytelling Skills is a life-saver), Granny Sue (who gave me one of my first and favorite tales) and Janelle Reardon, the heart and soul of the conference. We ate, we laughed, we talked about everything related to storytelling and more things that are not. It was a great evening.
The conference itself took place on the campus of the Ohio Dominican University, in a nice modern building and rooms with big windows. The morning started off with snacks and socializing, and then we opened the event with a mini-concert where all presenters told a five-minute tale. I told the Secret of the Fairy Lake (a Hungarian folktale) and people seemed to like it. After the warm-up, it was time for Adam's keynote speech.
Adam is an extremely talented young storyteller. He was also a J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant recipient, mentored by Dovie Thomason. In his keynote he talked about music, tradition, and storytelling; he reminded us that one day we will all be the next generation's ancestors, and asked us to think about what that means. He talked about the importance of knowing where we come from, and the traditions that came before us - but also the importance to do our best to make them better, to add our own talent and voice. He also told us about his research in the folklore archives, listening to Appalachian folktales and their musical rhythm. It was a fascinating keynote.
Sadly I didn't get to go to Adam's workshop, because we were scheduled at the same time - I did my workshop in the first slot of the day. I had about fifteen people, including some students and young teachers, and we had a great conversation about popular media and representation. By the time I got back to the main room, by books sold out. I was content.
The next workshop I went to was Eric Wolf's, on Narrative Therapy. It was a well done workshop with a lot of explanation of the theories behind the therapy, and a lot of visuals. I learned several new things, and I am looking forward to reading more.
Next, there was a round of story swap, where anyone could contribute a tale or two; we relaxed, sat in a circle, and shared family stories as well as folktales and tall tales (and even some juggling). Cris Riedel told an adorable German folktale that I will definitely remember for a long time.
For the last round of the day I went to Cathy Jo Smith's workshop in historical interpretation. She set up a full Irish wake in the room, and walked us through the process of how she researched it, created it, and how she uses it as a backdrop for storytelling and education. She put a lot of emphasis on authenticity, which I especially liked.

After a great dinner we all gathered again in the university's theater for an open mic, and then the evening concert. A lot of university students came to listen - and also to participate. The concert included a student teller, a short improv by a group of Kevin's students with alternate endings to the Tortoise and the Hare (some of them hilarious), and a longer improv section by Columbus Unscripted (featuring Barbara, Kevin's wife). They ran slightly longer than expected, and sadly we saw part of the audience leave before Adam got on stage. He did a great job, with a nostalgic personal story and a hilarious, classic tall tale. He put his money where his mouth is, combining tradition with creativity.

It was a very friendly event. We spent a lot of time together during meals and in-between workshops; everyone was curious, attentive, and very welcoming. I am looking forward to next year's conference!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Theme Reveal: Epics from A to Z!

Roll out the red carpet, ready the cameras. The A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal is here!

Those of you who have visited my blog before will not be terribly surprised. For the past two years I have done themes related to folktales, fairy tales, and other traditional stories. Since, you know. I'm a storyteller.
(Last year's theme was Tales with Colors, and the year before it was Weird Princesses)

This year's theme was brought to you by a very special occasion: I have received the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant from the National Storytelling Network. This grant allows me to work with a master storyteller in order to develop my skills further in a specific field of storytelling. I am honored and excited to be the mentoree of Cathryn Fairlee, and learn about telling epics and other long-form traditional tales.
In the spirit of making the most of this opportunity, my theme lines up with my mentorship project. It shouldn't be a complete shock...


This year's theme will be: Epics from A to Z!

I have been scheduling posts since January. I have read all the 26 epics that I will post about, one for each letter (okay, almost all of them. You'll see). The posts will tell you a little bit about where each epic came from (time, culture, geographical place), introduce you to the hero(es) and heroines, and then provide a witty and whimsical (*cough*) list of highlights to show you how awesome epics can be, and give you an idea of why you should read them.

I hope you will find these old stories as intriguing, fascinating, and all-around... epic, as I did. I also hope that you will find some that you have not heard about before - I purposefully picked less well-known stories whenever I could. Many of them were new for me too. I am excited to invite you along on this adventure!
Happy A to Z!

(Click here to read my other theme reveal today on MopDog: 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Teaching English has never been about grammar tests

I tell stories in English. I write (and publish) in English. I got a Fulbright Scholarship, and I am doing my PhD in the USA. I read books in English for fun. I watch TV shows in English. At this point, I am technically bilingual.
None of this would have happened, if I didn't have great English teachers.
Including my mother.

My mother never sat down with me to fill out grammar tests; she never made me practice Past Perfect, or Spanish conjugations in the afternoon. What she did was a lot more important, and a lot more effective than that: As I grew up I watched her, day after day, take honest enjoyment from using the language. I saw her with English books in her hand, reading for fun. I saw her watch TV shows and movies. I heard her sing along with English and Spanish songs, and she taught them to me too. And, most of all, I watched her prepare for all of her classes with incredible excitement, passion, and attention to detail.
She didn't make me learn the language - she made me LIKE the language.
And she does the same with her students.

Too many language teachers in Hungary think that language is about grammar. They make the students painfully fill out pages after pages of grammar tests and incomplete sentences - often explaining all the rules in Hungarian, and barely speaking English in class at all. This is due to our national system of "language certificates" that are based on tests, with a smaller oral component. The general belief is that once you have the grammar down pat, speaking will come easy (that is not how it works at all - people will stress out about perfect grammar, and rather not say anything they are not sure about). Hence, most English teachers regard anything that is not a workbook as a complete waste of time.
Things like singing.
Things like playing.
Things like watching TV shows together.
Things like riddles.
Things like tongue-twisters.
Things like reading Harry Potter.
Things like storytelling.

Things like a Creative English Contest.

My mother works for a bilingual vocational high school. In the past five years she has been organizing a regional English contest that fit her philosophy of teaching: It was supposed be, above all, FUN for the students. It was a kind of talent show where participants could sing, or tell stories, of perform scenes from a play, or even rap. There were cookies, and drinks, a general good mood, and multiple prizes. Not because of the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality - but because my mother understood that teenagers standing up in front of a crowd, performing creative work in a foreign language, and enjoying it, is one hell of an accomplishment in itself.
(An accomplishment that would even make most English teachers break out in hives, I might add)

This year, they decided to take the contest away from her. They said they will make it better. More respectful to the reputation of the school. They will have frontal audiences, sitting politely. No food, no drinks, no music, and, most of all, no English. There will be a hierarchy of winners, from best to worst. It will be great.

I have seen my mother, and her way of teaching, work wonders on highschoolers. They passed language exams with flying colors (to the endless surprise of Team Dry Grammar). I have seen many of them go on to scholarships, semesters abroad, or bilingual jobs, and I have read the emails they send her years later, when they finally realize how much of an advantage her teaching style has given them.
It is not about grammar.
It is not about Present Perfect.
It is not about Perfect at all.
It is about Self-confidence, Creativity, and Fun.

Some teachers will never understand  that. But the good ones do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day post: A love letter to Irish stories

It is nine in the morning, and the cops are already picking up piss-drunk college students all dressed as leprechauns.
I am not Irish. As far as I know, none of my close or far ancestors are even remotely Irish. I am also not American, so I am experiencing this whole day through the double lens of an outsider.
And yet, I can't help but take it personally.
As a storyteller.

Take my advice: Do NOT visit Amazon.com today. The green will burn your eyes out. There is green nail polish, glittery green shamrocks, leprechaun costumes from all points of the Halloween spectrum, Irish cookbooks, and a scattering of Irish History for Dummies. Out of morbid curiosity, I visited the children's books section. I shouldn't have.
Not. A single. Irish story in sight.
Believe me, it is not for the lack of available materials.
So, instead of ranting even more, I decided to get personal, and give you a little tour of my love affair with Irish stories, through a list of books.

Dömötör Tekla: Germán, Kelta Regék és Mondák [German and Celtic Tales and Legends]
I found this book on my uncle's bookshelf when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. It was my first venture outside of Greek mythology, and instantly enchanted me forever. The first part of the book was Norse mythology, the Niebelungenlied, and German folktales; the second half was Irish mythology, Welsh mythology, and Arthurian legends. It was my very first encounter with Lugh, Angus Og, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Maeldun, Cú Chulainn... and Fionn Mac Cool.

Rosemary Sutcliff: The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool
I was in high school, preparing for an ESL competition. Every contestant had to read a book in English and then do a presentation on it. Digging around in the gloomy "foreign languages" section of our library, stuffed under a bunch of Dick and Jane books, I found a tiny volume titled The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool. The name sounded familiar. I read the book.
I fell in love. Hard.
This was the late 1990's. All of my classmates were throwing screaming fangirl fits over Leonardo DiCaprio and the Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile I, being the nerd of the herd, had a hardcore crush on Oisín, and wanted to be a bard.
(My English teacher told me I could keep the book if I won the contest. I didn't. When six years later I came to the USA for the first time, this book was my first Amazon order).

Arthur Cotterell: The Encyclopedia of Mythology 
I also found this one (in Hungarian) in our high school library, and pretty much had it constantly checked out until I graduated. Some of the pictures burned into my mind so deep I still recall them every time I tell the corresponding story. For example, here is the picture of Macha's Curse - see my experience with telling in the previous post about Epic Day.

Lady Augusta Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men
The first Hungarian translation of this book came out in 2006. I fell in love with the Fianna around 2000-2001. I found the English version online or Sacred Texts, and spent hours applying my shaky English reading skills to it, page by page. It was a lot of work, but every deciphered story came as a new discovery. It was about the same time i started telling some of them to my friends. I didn't know what a storyteller was yet, but the stories wanted out.

Michael Foss: Celtic Myths and Legends
I stared at this book in the window of our local book shop (on my way to school) for a long time before I decided to spend my allowance money on it. Even in Hungarian it was a hard read, not the child-friendly rendition of tales I was used to. But it was also my first introduction to stories like the Children of Lir or the Battles of Magh Tuireadh.

W. B. Yeats: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
I got a large, heavy, English print version of this for my 17th birthday from my parents (who by then learned what my taste was in books). I didn't only get to practice advanced English on it, but also learned a whole lot about the Irish fairy folk. If I had any doubts before about the "cute fairy" stereotype, this book completely slayed it for me. Teig O'Kane is still one of my favorite stories.

When I decided to become a storyteller and travel, the world of Irish storytelling opened up for me. I got to meet people like Richard Marsh, Yvonne HealyClare Murphy, Liz Weir, and Brendan Nolan (among many, many others), and I finally had others to talk with about all the stories I have loved and cherished for so long. I got to visit American libraries and delve into their collections in search of more stories, more legends, and most of all, more Fianna. I grew as a storyteller and as a person; but none of this would have happened if I had not wanted to be an Irish bard first.

There is a saying that claims that if the name of Fionn Mac Cumhail is not spoken at least once every day, the world will come to an end.
Well, not on my watch.
(I still have a crush on Oisín)

Finally, here is a new find of mine. This book I got as a gift from my mentor Cathryn Fairlee. It is significant because it is the first novelization of Fianna legends that I actually like, because the author's idea of Finn and his men is very close to how I have imagined them over the years. I am only halfway through the book, but I am loving it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Laughter, tears, and lots of blood – My first ever Epic Day!

Thanks to the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship Grant, I was able to travel to the West Coast for the first time (I really wandered away from home…) and participate in Epic Day. Cathryn Fairlee, the mother of Epic Day, happens to be my mentor, therefore I was totally obligated to make the trip on the grant money. Totally.
I have always loved epics and other long-form traditional stories, and always hoped to share my enthusiasm with other people. Epic Day is the ideal venue for that. Not only it is all about epics (a different one every year) but it also consists of a group of devoted, bright, and story-savvy people who love epics every bit as much as I do. Some of us traveled farther than others, but everyone was there because they would not have missed it for the world.
This year’s Epic Day featured the Táin bó Cúailnge, the Cattle-Raid of Cooley, Ireland’s national epic mostly known for its main hero, Cú Chulainn. The story was separated into 18 parts and performed by 20 eager participants; without the pee and lunch breaks, it took up a total of 5 hours and 45 minutes.
After Cathryn’s short introduction to the Táin and its world, I had the responsibility and the pleasure to kick off the epic with the tale of Macha. It was one of the shortest episodes, but a very important one, and also the only part of the Táin that I have told before. It features the hands-down best curse in Irish mythology, and a very powerful female character. Once I was done, all I had to do was curl up on the couch, relax, and listen as the epic flowed on.
Hearing the entire story told in one day was an incredible experience. I am not new to storytelling or long stories, but epic-telling and epic-listening is a whole different mindset. You settle into the story with the commitment to follow it all the way through, get invested in the characters, and ride the whole emotional roller coaster from start to finish. It is intense, emotionally exhausting, and absolutely wonderful.
Everyone did something different with their part. Some told in Irish accents; some only used an accent in the dialogues; some did not use an accent at all, or used modern slang when needed. Some told in the first person; some left the poetry in, chanting or singing it, and the sung version of Scathach's prophecy was absolutely haunting. Everyone told according to their own style, and the pieces still fit together perfectly into one continuous story.

So here is what I learned from Epic Day: Hearing an epic told orally is vastly different from reading it on the page. (Duh.) I have read the Táin before, and it has never been one of my favorites; I had no emotional investment in Cú Chulainn (I'm more of a Fionn Mac Cumhaill gal), and I found a lot of the descriptions weird and over-the top. But when the story was told, grotesque turned hilarious, gory turned into satire, and suddenly the entire thing was a lot more enjoyable. Storytellers competing in who can come up with the most ridiculous description of a feat, or who can describe an over-the-top heroic deed in greater detail, gave spice and life to the entire experience. For example, Tim Ereneta somehow managed to deliver the line "I will stand above you like a cat's tail erect!" with a perfectly straight face and a resounding, heroic voice.
 Cú Chulainn's "war spasm" quickly became a running joke that kept returning in various episodes, and storytellers of all styles had great fun with the descriptions (which are usually somewhere between the Hulk and a Transformer). After a while, we started cheering for the "war spasm" scenes. Similarly, the high number of casualties turned into a theme, and I faithfully scored the certified kills on the program card. In the end we had 2169 fallen heroes, two dead bulls, a dead horse, and a dead hound. Cathryn might need a new carpet.

One of the dramatic high points of the epic is the duel between Cú Chulainn and his former foster-brother Ferdia. It is not only full of heroic feats, but it is also emotionally heavy, and culminates in an epic fight scene. Cassie Cushing got that latter part, and she did not only figure out how the fight choreography probably went, but also demonstrated it with great skill in gestures and very grounded stances. She did a brilliant job.
Another fun part of the event was the thunderstorm that rolled around halfway through the epic, exactly in time with Michael's part about Cú Chulainn's first encounter with the invading army. The episode itself is kind of like an ominous set-up for a horror movie, with an unknown enemy leaving threatening clues for the attackers, and it went great with the sudden darkness and the rolling thunder. Brownie points for Michael, he made the most of the opportunity. We also took the chance to get our group picture with a rainbow in the background:

All in all, Epic Day was an incredible experience. We took frequent breaks, not just because of the amount of great coffee Cassie supplied us with, but also to give ourselves time to digest the episodes, talk about them, figure out and compare different parts, and share our feelings about the experience. We bonded over the story, and over many other things, and it did not take an entire day before I felt completely at home as the newest member of the epic family. 
We will do the same story once again in the fall, and I am sure it will be both new and equally awesome. I'm looking forward to it.