Tricks of My Trade: Storytelling, Oral and Written


August 10, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

word sproutThis month I will be republishing the three guest posts I wrote for Word Sprout’s 2014 blog residency.  These included an introductory post (“How I Got Here“) , a “Tricks of the Trade” post, and a “Check This Out!” post. You can sample the Tricks of the Trade posts from all the residents to date (including the ones that came after me) here. Below, with slight modifications, and a few extra photos and illustrations, is the text of mine. 

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

I have an ongoing problem with authority figures – in art and in life.

That’s one reason I make a better Buddhist than a Christian. My dad once asked me if I thought Buddha was my Savior – and I said No, dad, that’s kind of the point. So nothing I am going to say here is in any way authoritative. That’s right. You can just pass me on the road, nod politely, and find someone else to kill. I’m tenth in line in this blog residency, and each person so far has given good advice based on his or her own knowledge and experience of writing and performance. Whether they are “tricks of the trade” or not depends on how you view advice.

Personally, I think everybody is right, and I recommend you read them all.

Thadra is right.


Sound like yourself, not like your favorite performer. Find your own voice. Oddly stylized pieces distract your audience from understanding what you are saying.

 Laura is right.
A Wigged Out Laura Buchholz, Producer of the Twin Cities Moth Slam

A Wigged Out Laura Buchholz,

Play with the right people. Keep company with those who inspire and encourage your best work.

Wonder Dave is right.

Say yes. A lot. To the awful deepdown torrents and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets … okay that’s Molly Bloom, but the principle is the same, and hey, all the streets are queer.

Mimi is right.
Mimi Nguyen

Mimi Nguyen

Whenever it is possible, maintain eye contact. There are other ways of interacting with an audience when you can’t see them – and when a story is going over well (or poorly) you will sense it, whether you can see faces or not – but eye contact is one of the best ways to make a connection.

Paul is right.
Paul Canada

Paul Canada

Humble pie is part of a balanced diet. Slow down, and use your hands and feet purposefully, not just to discharge performance anxiety. (Oh, and by the way, guilty as charged.)

Amy is right.
Amy Salloway

Amy Salloway

The last story slam I won was entirely due to the Kuleshov Effect. I am so happy to have such a Bolshie-sounding rationale for that unexpected success, instead of the usual imposter-syndrome babble running through my head.

Lewis is right.
Lewis Mundt

Lewis Mundt

Don’t listen to every piece of advice. Except for that one bit about buying his books.

 Taylor is right.
Taylor (did you guess it?) Tower

Taylor (did you guess it?) Tower

Every writer should try performing just once. Nothing compares to being alone with yourself on stage. I love that phrase. I’m going to savor it awhile.

Neil is right.

Editing is writing, and an audience is one of the best editors you will ever have.

So what can I add to all that? That won’t get me killed, that is?

Safe Travels, Buddha ...

Safe Travels, Buddha …

Not that much, really, except that I’ve come to many of the same conclusions from a very different background, which makes it reassuring – in a collegial way, not an authoritative way – to hear variations on the same.

As I said in the “how I got here” post, the storytelling community I began in was not the slam community. It was a community that arose around the same time as the folk music revival of the early 1970’s, though I did not step into that revived tradition until it was in full swing twenty years later.

In this community – which sometimes, only half ironically, refers to itself as the “calico and granola set” – there is a strong emphasis on preserving the oral tradition: on telling stories that are not memorized word for word, and on the difference between storytelling and other related disciplines – spoken word, reader’s theater, theatrical monologue.

I know some incredible performers who have flourished in that aesthetic.

Who work strictly from images and key phrases, and may not write a story down until they have performed it twenty or thirty times and it’s in a form they can live with – if they ever write it down at all. Who are so in touch with their audience that each story is created anew. I am in awe of their ability to do this. It takes great skill, and talent, and much, much practice. I take workshops from these storytellers, and coaching, and direction, and I learn what I can.

Two of my favorite revival storytellers  Connie Regan-Blake and the late Kathryn Tucker-Windham at the National Storytelling Festival. Photo courtesy Connie Regan-Blake

Two of my favorite revival storytellers Connie Regan-Blake and the late Kathryn Tucker-Windham at the National Storytelling Festival. Photo courtesy Connie Regan-Blake

But I have always been a writer first and a storyteller second.

Like the character Garrison Keillor used to bring out on Prairie Home Companion, Bob the Writer, a former English major who works as a barista, and described himself as “a writer who also serves coffee.” I consider myself a writer who also tells stories. For a long time I thought that meant I was cheating at storytelling.

It’s odd to me then, that on some fronts I have been seen as an old guard defender of oral tradition. It is true that I have promoted the value of performing pieces with some stage presence. Still, I read from the page on many occasions – especially when the piece is new and strict timing is an issue. I am deeply grateful that Allison Broeren’s story slam format allows this.

What I do know, however, is that learning a story changes it for me.

As I become more familiar with it, I understand aspects of it in deeper, more nuanced ways. It is easier to discover what sounds unnatural, false. Parallels and other structural elements reveal themselves. And I’m better able to interact with the audience.   I did not realize when I began that performance storytelling would make me a better writer – though it has. Basically, I saw the stage as a way to bypass the rigamarole and hoops one had to jump through to be a published writer. I didn’t have the time or the patience for that.

Storytelling gave me a platform, and an audience, now.

I took it. That audience has been teaching me things ever since.

One thought on “Tricks of My Trade: Storytelling, Oral and Written

  1. […] blog residency.  These included an introductory post (“How I Got Here“) , a “Tricks of the Trade” post, and a “Check This Out!” post featuring “something […]


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