Imagination fills in the blanks

Heather McNeill has traveled the world, learning stories from different cultures. The Eagle/Patrick Bentz

CANYON CITY - I want to tell you a story about a mouse ...

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, perhaps one of the last nice days of the year, a small group of people gathered in a room to learn the art of storytelling.

Heather McNeill, co-manager of Youth Services at the Deschutes County Library and an award-winning storyteller, gave the workshop.

McNeill spoke of the different aspects of storytelling.

"What is storytelling? It is not memorizing; the story changes each time you tell it. It is not theater. It is not reading or writing. And, it is not easy. It does take work."

Yet to listen to her tell a story, you begin to believe that for her, it is quite natural.

She grew up in a family of storytellers, listening at the feet of her grandfather, her mother and her aunt. She has been telling stories for 23 years, the past five in Bend. Her interest in stories came early; the ability to tell them did not.

It was not until she was out of college that she discovered the best way for her to learn the stories so she could pass them along effectively.

McNeill has traveled around the world, learning stories from different cultures, particularly from the tribes of Eastern Africa and the Lakota Sioux. She emphasized that if a storyteller chooses to tell a story from a different culture, that the teller needs to respect that culture.

"People have been telling stories forever," McNeill said.

And once people began telling stories, it didn't take long to discover that some told better stories than others did; and this person became the storyteller.

Storytelling began a renaissance during the 1980s, when the National Storytelling Network was formed to promote storytelling as an art.

Another influence was the popularity of Garrison Keeler and his radio show, "Prairie Home Companion."

Storytelling is dropping in acceptance once again, but McNeill isn't worried.

"It will come back. People are going to want it," she said.

Beginning storytellers should research their stories, she said. For example, if you are going to tell stories from Africa, you need to research the stories that have been told in Africa

Also, you need to have respect, not only for yourself, but also for the subject matter and the audience.

Next is rehearsal. You need to know the story, and to be able to effectively tell the story. You also need to be telling the right story to your audience; telling the wrong story could leave you looking a bit foolish. Finally, go out and tell your stories. There's no better way to find out how well you know your stories than to share them.

Her toughest audience? "Seventhgraders. They don't give any feedback," McNeill said.

Other age groups give feedback, through their expressions, as they listen to their story. Seventh-graders are very peer-conscious, don't want to stand out from their friends and want to make sure it's OK to like the story before they respond.

When McNeill tells a story, she immerses herself into the role of storyteller. Each character stands out by itself, and the audience is drawn into the story.

Sometimes, she leaves the description of the characters to the imaginations of the audience, and they can become much more real to the listener.

"Storytelling is an intimate art," McNeill said.

"She's wonderful," said Megan Brandsma, a member of the Library Oversight Committee. "Watching somebody who does it give you confidence that you can do it yourself. We need to bring more of this into the community."

Brandsma enjoyed both stories that McNeill shared, particularly one called "The Man Who Spoke To Owls."

She especially liked that the story was open-ended, allowing the audience to exercise its imagination in filling in the blanks in the story. She also learned that you don't have to repeat a story verbatim; the story can change and evolve, and the storyteller can give it his or her own flavor.

"What I liked best was the reinforcement that (storytelling) is an art, and that it plays an important part of our lives, our histories," said Jo Lyn Stearns, Child Care Specialist and storyteller for Story Time Express at the Child Care Resource and Referral Center. "It challenges our imaginations. Even as adults, we can get so caught up in the romance of the story."

The nonprofit Libraries of Eastern Oregon sponsored the workshop, through a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation.

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