Eyes, ears and hearts: What I learned about storytelling

by DGO Web Administrator

As humans, we’ve been telling stories for millions of years, cavemen coming back from a hunt and saying to their old ladies, “You’ll never believe the lip this mammoth gave me today.”

More than anything, the stories we tell connect us as people. They share human experience, they connect dots of commonalities, they can tell us of someone else’s similar struggles, fears, triumphs and challenges. Further, when we tell stories, when we allow ourselves to open up and share our experiences, to be vulnerable in front of others, whether it’s one person or 200, it gives people a chance to glimpse into our souls, to feel our hearts. Stories link us long after the telling.

I was honored to have participated in The Raven Narratives last weekend in Cortez and Durango, the storytelling series created and produced by Tom Yoder and Sarah Syverson.

The beautiful thing about the seven storytellers I shared the stage with was that they were not performers or professional storytellers. They are teachers and journalists and small business owners and photographers, people who found the courage to share their experience, some telling their stories more or less for the first time.

I remember Chris Blankenship, the best pure storyteller of the bunch, and his intensity and pregnant and dramatic pauses that underscored an eerie story of hiking the Colorado Trail. Or Jane Dally who, in her subtle cowboy accent, cast an unforgettable character from the ranch hand wrangler she worked with years ago who pushed her beyond what she thought was possible. Or Maddy Butcher, who was cruising along in her story but got tripped up momentarily with emotion, picturing the two lambs she picked up on the side of a highway, an image she communicated with her heart more than her words. Or Tom Yoder, whose artful story arc crescendoed in palpable, heartfelt, decades-long grief from tragically losing his father at a young age, and ended with a tear-jerking takeaway of hope and encouragement. I remember McCarson Jones and how her story spanned decades and ended in an African hut full of snakes and fire. But I’ll never forget watching her watch and listen to the other storytellers, her face beaming with the biggest smile I’ve seen or eyebrows climbing off her face in surprise or empathetic consolation. Or Katie Burford and her black tank, knee-length black shorts, Frida Kahlo socks and combat boots, which were the perfect uniform for her story of courage and reckoning. Or Dan Jenkins and his energy and enthusiasm and nearly-permanent mile-wide smile that made him the kind of guy you can so easily picture when he was 9.

I learned this weekend that storytelling often has little to do with facts and events. Our stories don’t need to be sensational or exceptionally riveting. Life lessons are great, but not mandatory. What matters is the heart of the storyteller, a heart that says in so many ways, “Here is a piece of me, of my past. Here are my shortcomings, my heartaches and struggles. Here is the pain I’ve carried for years and years; here is a time I learned and grew, overcame, fought and won.” Yes, we find those things in the facts of their stories and could see them if the stories were written. But more so, we find them in their moments of tears and emotion, the times they choke up unexpectedly, when they find their composure and carry on. We find them in the silence of a pause, or a hand in a pocket and eyes drawn to the floor, a gesture or sound effect.

The group I got to tell stories with has been beaming ever since, discussing how much the experience meant to them, how sharing what was shared was liberating, empowering, enlightening.

That was from the storytellers, which says nothing of the exponential and lasting impact their stories had on the eyes and ears of those who listened. Some stories are just impossible to forget and some things in life last forever.

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