Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Tale Teller emerges from PhD hibernation

As 2014 draws to a close I'm reflecting on how wonderful this year has been for re-immersing myself in storytelling activities, rather than only researching and writing about it.

After several years of not performing any stories while I completed my PhD (a copy of the thesis is available at I got my storytelling "mojo" back in late 2013 through the support and encouragement of fellow storytellers Jo, Lindy and Megan and their wonderful storytelling intiatives of The Brooklyn Story Circle and Cafe la Story. It was like coming home to be in the friendly and like-minded company of fellow storytellers again and I realised how much I had missed it while I was tucked away in my study.

Late 2013 also saw me receive a grant to write a journal article based on work from my thesis. The article is based on the method used in my doctoral study. By publishing this article first, it can act as a foundation article for others, when I can refer to it rather than rewrite the methodology each time. As of today my co-authors and I are still waiting for a final decision from the Journal publishers, after editing it twice following peer-reviewers suggestions. An appallingly long wait but it will be worth it if it finally gets published in this high ranking journal. Stay tuned.

2014 saw more opportunities to share and tell stories at the wonderful Brooklyn Story Circle and Cafe la Story but brought a wealth of other storytelling activities and opportunities too.

In March I told the foundation story of Grandmother's lap at Cafe la Story in East Gosford. This contextual story allows me to include other stories that I first heard from my maternal grandmother. At this cafe I included the story of "The boy who cried wolf".

In April Glenn and I took at road trip south to Creswick, catching up with library colleagues and dear friends from Goulburn Valley Regional Library. I think it's safe to say many stories were shared over several drinks during a riotous dinner. More stories were told over breakfast the next day with my dear friend Jenni. At the end of April an invitation arrived to launch a picture book in October (more in that month's section).

May was spent preparing for a conference workshop I was giving in June, a poster presentation at the same conference and reading for an organisational storytelling workshop I was attending, after receiving the funding from my supportive bosses at the University of Newcastle Library.

June was a fabulous month of story sharing, telling and discussing the results of my PhD research for the 1st time in a public forum. I presented a workshop "It's all a plot: Preparation and memorisation for storytelling"  at the Sydney International Storytelling Conference which was very well received. What I was most looking forward to however was my poster presentation which published the "Indicators of Engagement", derived from my Doctoral Study.

June also brought a meeting with one of the authors who featured in my thesis: Annette Simmons. I was extremely fortunate that my work funded my attendance at Annette's Sydney workshop - "Whoever tells the best story wins". This was a brilliant full-day workshop which inspired me to consolidate on what I already do, and do more work on organisational storytelling within my own workplace.

I presented the first of my workshops - "Look what we found in the storeroom"  that had Annette's work as the foundation at the Ourimbah Campus Education and Humanities Seminar Series in September. What should have really gone for only an hour lasted almost 2, with all the prepared stories being requested and great interaction from all the participants in the activities.

September was also a great month for storytelling, with the opportunity to tell the very creepy story "The monkey's paw" at the Cafe la Story. Thanks so much Fiona for introducing me to this story. I'm very happy to have it in my repertoire now.

October was the standout month for all things story however. On the 18th I was privileged to launch the latest picture book "Outside" by Libby Hathorn at the Inaugural Festival of the Society of Women Writers NSW at the State Library.

This is the speech I gave to launch Libby's glorious book.

       Strap yourselves in because I’m afraid I have several warnings about this book.

       There are some books that are so beautiful, so intricate, that you keep them locked away as treasures’,     desperate to keep them in pristine condition. I’m sure we all have numerous books like that.

On the other hand, there are books that are so beautiful that you can’t bear to keep them to yourself. I was keen to know where “Outside” would place itself, because it’s really the books themselves that make the decision for us.
I knew “Outside” would be beautiful before I even saw it. As soon as Wendy invited me to launch the book, the research librarian kicked in and I found some pre-publication information about it. I already knew the quality of Libby’s writing. I’ve owned a well-read copy of Thunderwith since it was 1st published, which after my daughter and niece read it, I only recently passed on to book-loving young neighbours. As a children’s librarian in a former life I always ensured that Libby’s books were part of the collection, and I know her gift for poetry since hearing her give a poetry presentation in Melbourne in the 1990’s.
I wasn’t familiar with Ritva’s work before I received the book, but I researched that too and now I’m a convert. I am particularly intrigued by the process of digitally created illustrations that are used in this book.
So when my advance copy of “Outside” arrived in my workplace, I was like a kid at Christmas, desperate to get the wrapping off. I didn’t move from the mail delivery area for a good 10 minutes.

Warning 1: “Outside” is a highly advanced diversionary device
I tend to read the text of an illustrated book first, then return to the beginning to take in the illustrations. “Outside” defies that rule and I was only at page 4 when I realised how long I’d been standing at the mail delivery area, totally mesmerised by both text and illustrations.

Warning 2: “Outside” has the power to disrupt life-long reading habits.
I looked inside the padded envelope and around where I’d been standing to see if a slip of paper had fallen out. Nothing! Great! No declaration of confidentiality. No secrecy agreement. You see, this book falls firmly into the latter category of beautiful books and demands to be shared.

Warning 3: Don’t think for one minute that you will be able to keep “Outside” to yourself.
I passed the book around the morning tea table at the Uni Library, where I confess we all fit the stereotype of book lovers. We don’t fit the stereotype of quiet librarians though so it was extraordinary to hear how quiet the room became as the book was shared, with only the occasional “beautiful”, “lush”, “rich”, “it just draws you in” being uttered.
Later that day I showed “Outside” to my manager who returned it a full hour later with a request that I buy a copy for her today and have it signed for her 2 granddaughters.

Warning 4: There will always be someone special that you need to buy a copy of “Outside” for.
When I emailed Kate Brown to let her know that the book had arrived safely and that I already had a sale for it, she very generously mailed another copy to Fatu (sorry Libby, that’s 5% of the sale that you won’t get for that one.)
Let me tell you what happened to that copy. Fatu took it down to 5 year old Mia the very next weekend. On Mia’s insistence, the book was read to her 4 times in one day, and when Fatu said that Nanna really needed to do other things, Mia sat with the book and told the story to herself (Fatu said there were a few variations but she recalled the majority of the book.) Mia has Nigerian/Italian heritage and having heard her gorgeous blended accent, I can imagine how luscious the story would have sounded.

Warning 5: Children are captivated by the book and will want to share it repeatedly.
I tried to carry the book around with me wherever I went and several weeks ago I was travelling back from a conference in Melbourne. I opened the book while I was sitting in the departure lounge, and you know how sometimes you just get the feeling of eyes boring into the top of your head? It was the Friday before school holidays and one young boy really wasn’t enjoying the wait at the airport. I’m really good at shutting out distractions when I read but the boring into my head intensified.

Warning 6: See Warning 5.
I asked the boy’s parents for permission and soon he was sitting beside me and we were enjoying reading the book together. And then I felt it – more burning on the top of my head. 3 other children had moved from their seats and were standing in front of us. I invited them to sit down in front of me and my new friend joined them. Now it’s been 15 years since I was a Children’s Librarian, but some things you just don’t forget.
(Read excerpt here)
We read that book until the flight was called. (I’m pretty sure there’s a couple of sales there for you Libby.)

Warning 7: “Outside” is magnetic and builds communities of story loving people.
I was very grateful for the opportunity to read “Outside” aloud to a group of children who just gathered spontaneously. It let me see their genuine enjoyment of the book (unquestionable), it provided me with the chance to see how the words scan beautifully and really do trip off the tongue (a true test of a great picture book) and how engaging the illustrations are for children (I’ve actually spent a LOT of time just pouring over the endlessly revealing pictures myself.) The impromptu reading also provided me with a huge smile for most of the flight home and a truly lovely memory.

Warning 8: Reading “Outside” will wedge itself in your memory and you’ll find yourself saying “Oh just once more.”
Finally I just want to say that there is a significant flaw in the cover design – it needs to come with a warning sticker – “Not to be opened by time-poor persons. Time stealing magic within.” 

It is my absolute pleasure, on behalf of Libby and Ritva, to launch their exquisite book “Outside.”
On the 24th October the Caravan of Stories set out on it's inaugural voyage:
3 storytellers
3 days
3 towns
Lindy Mitchell, Megan Pascoe and I were commissioned to conduct storytelling workshops and performances in three towns in the Upper Hunter by Arts Upper Hunter. We brought the Caravan of Stories to Murrurundi, Merriwa and Aberdeen. We told in church halls, school classrooms and playgrounds, School of Arts Halls and on the patios of stunning B & B's. It was an absolute joy to share such an amazing storytelling journey with the ultimate storytelling professionals Lindy and Megan and I hope it is only the 1st of many outings for the Caravan.
Photo courtesy of Mike Wang of Creative Camera, Merriwa NSW
I also conducted another "Look what we found in the Storeroom" workshop for Auchmuty Library staff of the Uni of Newcastle.

November was the month for the workshop to be conducted at the Ourimbah Campus Library and was also the month when I began the 1st of 4 "Grimm lunches" to celebrate the publication of "The original folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm" translated by Jack Zipes.

The year has culminated in an amazing opportunity for me to be the guest speaker at the award presentation of my old school, Birrong Girls High School. I was invited to speak for 10 minutes about what I'd been doing since I left school. This is what I came up with and shared with the assembly yesterday:

This morning I visited your school for the first time in over 30 years. In all my 6 years at BGHS I never walked through the front door, always coming and going through the back gate, so I was slightly disoriented when I came through the front entrance today. But as I heard the lovely sound of all the girls in the corridor, like the chatter of beautiful lorikeets flitting through a long aviary, and walked past the wall of lockers, memories came flooding back. 

I remembered a girl nearly everyone called Fuzznut. She had the most incredible curly hair that her mother insisted on having cut short to keep it under control. She was short, wore glasses and was incredibly shy. I remembered that if she was ever asked a question in class, Fuzznut would blush scarlet from her collarbone right up to her hairline. Not because she didn’t know the answer, but because, as she later told her close friends, it was as though her heart leapt up through the back of her throat and choked all the words about to come out. 

When some of us would compare report cards, Fuzznut’s would always show very high marks but the comments would often be things like 

 “A very quiet, friendly girl who really must contribute more in class if she ever hopes to achieve anything.” 

 When those report cards were taken home, Fuzznut told her friends, her mother would congratulate her on the marks and when she read the comments would say:

            “The world needs the listeners and the thinkers as much as it needs the talkers.”

No-one calls me Fuzznut anymore. They call me Julie, or Jules, or even Dr Julie. You see, my parents always believed that I could achieve anything I wanted to, as long as I worked hard enough. I was the first in my family to finish my HSC. Apart from my mother’s 2nd cousin I was the 1st in my extended family to attend university. My family was very much working class. My grandfather had been a bullocky driver, a shearer’s cook and a manager of country pubs amongst other things. My dad was a hard-working plumber and my mum was a secretary until she married, when it was then expected that she would give up work.

University for a shy girl was an eye-opening experience, not least because as I walked through the gates of UNSW for the 1st time, a pigeon soared overhead and proceeded to poop on my head and down my left shoulder. A girl walking beside me said, when she finally stopped laughing enough,
            “In the part of Italy that my family come from, it’s good luck for a bird to poop on you.”

Actually, she didn’t use the word poop, but it will do for now. She then set about using the fine linen handkerchief that her mamma had insisted she bring to “school” to clean me up. Whether it was luck or a higher destiny that put Gina on the same bus as me that day, I was very grateful. Gina was the 1st in her family to go to uni too and we stumbled through our entire bachelor degree together. 

I majored in English literature and history and I finally felt at home on that campus. I was privileged to listen to amazing lecturers as they brought the past lives of kings, statesmen, poets, playwrights and novelists alive, not through a list of dates and dry, hard facts but through stories. When I wasn’t in a lecture theatre or a tutorial room, I was exploring the Aladdin’s Cave of the Uni library. 

Who knows exactly what they want to do for a career? 

I didn’t either, and I was 2 weeks away from finishing my degree when a friend invited me to an information session about a 1 year post graduate diploma in librarianship. Have you ever had one of those lightbulb moments? I had one right there and actually said out loud;

            “You’re an idiot. Why didn’t you think of that before?” 

I quickly had to apologize to Shakti who thought I was talking about her. 

So my main career has been in a variety of libraries, across several different Australian states, but in between I’ve worked in plumbing supply stores, where I learnt more about bathroom fittings and swearing that I ever needed. I’ve sold bread at dusty country markets and learnt about customer service and the difference between a baguette and a French stick. I spent my Uni holidays working on a cattle station in outback Queensland where I learnt about how to test a cow for pregnancy and how to muster cattle on horseback so you don’t cause a stampede. I also learnt on that first cattle muster not to be arrogant about the education I was getting. I was told to ride at the back of the mob and another jackaroo must have seen the look of disappointment on my face. He brought his horse over near mine, smiled at me and said, 

            “So Clancy rode to wheel them – he was racing on the wing
            Where the best and boldest riders take their place” 

And for the next hour or so we rode along reciting Banjo Patterson poetry, starting with “The man from Snowy River” where that line comes from; a poem that my father used to recite quite frequently. Whenever we were mustering after that, Dave and I would exchange Australian poems and folklore. Not bad for a bloke who finished school at 15 – even to this day I wish I had his knowledge of poetry. No-one else on the cattle station really understood why Dave always called me Clancy, but the name stuck whenever I visited Dingo in Queensland. 

My grandfather, the bullocky- driving one, was a brilliant storyteller, although some of the tales he shared probably shouldn’t have been heard by children. I developed my love of storytelling from him and my maternal grandmother, who had a story or rhyme perfect for any situation. When in my 2nd month of my 1st permanent job in a library, the children’s librarian went on an extended holiday and no-one was interested in filling in for her. With Archie, Nellie’s and Dave’s stories and poems ringing in my head I volunteered to do it. And that, I have to confess, is where my addiction began. I fell totally and utterly in love with storytelling and went to every workshop and read every book I could get my hands on about the topic. Believe it or not, I often get paid to tell stories and in the most amazing of places. The words that my grandfather used to tell me finally made sense.  

“Everyone has to earn a living in this world. But if you can find what it is that you love to do, you’ll never really work a day in your life.” 

 I hadn’t had enough of formal education though and 10 years ago I returned to part-time study for my Doctorate in storytelling through the Uni of Newcastle and I was awarded my PhD last year. While I’ve obviously become much more comfortable along the way at public speaking and answering questions, I’ve also truly learned the wisdom of my mother’s words. 

So while you may be quite capable of talking when you need to (and even when it’s not required), please also remember to be listeners and thinkers. The world is an amazing place, with so much to learn whether you’re sitting in an office, a university lecture theatre or on the back of a horse in 40 degree heat, staring at a cow’s rump. Sometimes finding what it is that you love to do is hard, and may take years before you discover it. Don’t give up. I know there are still challenges for girls but there are also amazing opportunities. I work at a university and I see girls/women every day who are excelling at marine science, pure mathematics, podiatry or engineering. Sometimes you need to ask for help and support to find your way and sometimes you just need to jump right in. And most importantly, don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t achieve whatever you set your mind to. 

Good luck with your studies and the lifetime of learning ahead. Thank you.

It's been a massive year for this re-emerging storyteller. I feel extremely grateful for the opportunities that have come my way and for the community of storytellers that I'm so fortunate to be a member of. I'm looking forward to what 2015 will bring.