Library books storytelling series (4/2/09)

Former governor, filmmaker to speak

April 2, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Storytelling has been around since humans invented language. But with Facebook and blogs now gushing a 24/7 torrent of information about people’s lives, traditional stories may seem quaintly obsolete.


Agnieszka Perlinska


Madeleine Kunin

Even in the Internet age, however, a well-told tale can still entertain and inform. A new series at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library brings together people from wildly different backgrounds to talk about how they use storytelling in their professions.

“The Power and Purpose of Sharing Life Experiences” kicks off Monday with Brent Bjorkman, executive director of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Over the next two months, the series will feature former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, filmmaker Jay Craven, comedienne Josie Leavitt and management consultant Agnieszka Perlinska.

Each speaker uses storytelling to facilitate his or her work, listening to or telling tales in a way that is interesting, informative or funny, said Marti Fiske, the library’s director.

The series is the outgrowth of storytelling workshops the library has hosted for the past two years. Master storyteller Recille Hamrell leads the popular workshops, which invite participants to share stories about their lives and provide instruction on how to tell them.

Storytelling has myriad benefits for both the speaker and the listener, Hamrell said. It can build brainpower and relay knowledge.

“We’ve been telling stories for 100,000 years,” she said. “I believe we are hard-wired as humans, predisposed to tell stories.”

Storytelling is defined as “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination,” according to the National Storyteller Network’s Web site. Words and gestures are combined so listeners perceive the story in a unique and personal way, in effect becoming its co-creator.

The storytelling workshops in Williston typically draw around a dozen people, Fiske said. Participants learn how storytelling can help compile genealogies, connect with family members and facilitate writing.

Hamrell, who for 27 years was a speech pathologist in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said the workshops encourage participants to unlock the “power, pleasure and purpose” of storytelling.

Bjorkman said folklorists, with their focus on oral history, listen to stories that illuminate individual lives and the larger culture.

“What I’m going for is deeper listening,” he said. “I’m trying to plumb the depths of a person’s life.”

Storytelling can build a sense of community by linking the threads of shared experience, he said. He said in the process of telling stories “you just become more human.”

Blogging and other online postings may be considered a form of instant communication and a kind of storytelling, Bjorkman said. But compared to a spoken narrative, he said, blogs can be “a little shallow and off the cuff.”

Richmond resident Shirley Galliher has been a regular participant in the storytelling workshops. At 89, she has a lot to tell.

The workshops “really have been a life-changing experience,” she said, triggering long-forgotten memories that she now passes on to friends and family.

She recently used her storytelling skills to vividly recount how she wooed her late husband. She told the tale during a recent memorial service for him in Michigan.

Galliher was working the switchboard at her college dormitory during World War II when he came to pick up another woman for a date. Galliher pretended to plug in a switchboard wire and tell the young lady her date had arrived. Meanwhile, Galliher chatted with her husband-to-be, charming him into asking her out.

Fiske theorizes that interest in storytelling may spring from aging baby boomers’ desire to preserve their family histories. She said some people were drawn to the workshops after realizing that most self-published genealogies are “dry as dust.” They hope to learn how to do more than just recite dates and places.

Stories are the best way to pass knowledge and memories onto future generations, Hamrell said. Knowing how to tell a gripping tale will ensure descendants understand the lives of those who came before.

“We have a responsibility to tell our children and grandchildren stories about our lives so they know about their history,” Hamrell said.


Speaking about stories

Here is the schedule for the series on storytelling this spring at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. Each session is on a Monday and begins at 6 p.m.

➢    April 6: Brent Bjorkman, executive director, Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, will talk about the work of folklorists and how “deep listening” skills can be adopted by people interested in gathering and telling community stories.

➢    April 20: Josie Leavitt, a comedienne who performs at clubs around New England. Leavitt teaches comedy classes at the Flynn Center and owns the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne.

➢    May 4: Madeleine Kunin, former Vermont governor and ambassador to Switzerland. Kunin served three terms as governor starting in 1984. Her latest book is “Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.”

➢    May 18: Jay Craven, a filmmaker best known for producing movies based on stories and novels written by Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher. His films include “Stranger in the Kingdom,” “Where the River Flows North” and “High Water.”

➢    June 1: Agnieszka Perlinska, a management consultant and principal with the Leadership Performance Institute. Perlinska, a former professor at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, will talk about using storytelling as a way to build personal and professional bonds and to transform business culture.