Franklin County is in for a treat when master storyteller Sheila Arnold performs at the library’s main branch on Feb. 23. I spoke with Ms. Arnold by phone late last month to find out what we can expect during her visit. At the time she was heading home to Hampton, after storytelling appearances in Northern Virginia. The venues where she performed reflect her ability to engage diverse audiences, whether young or old, trendy or traditional, techy or bookwormy. In her first performance, Ms. Arnold told stories to tweens and teens at The Langley School in McLean.
“At first the kids acted in the ‘I’m so cool’ disinterested way mastered by adolescents,” laughed Ms. Arnold. “But when they began to listen to the stories, they forgot to be cool. They became enthralled.” During that same visit to Northern Virginia, Ms. Arnold performed at Jammin’ Java, a concert venue in Vienna that serves up live music and sports two bars—one sells coffee, the other, beverages that are squarely not coffee. According to the “The Washington Post,” Jammin’ Java is the “classiest music club” in the D.C. area.
Surprisingly or not, the words cool and classy can describe storytelling itself. Consider that the same storyteller can perform at a middle school and at a hip music venue. “Storytelling can happen in many different places,” said Ms. Arnold, who has performed in 40 states and four countries and has twice been named a teller-in-residence at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn. “When I went to family reunions as a kid, I wandered around and listened to my family catch up and share news and memories. They were telling stories. I learned the setting for telling stories doesn’t matter.”
If setting is not a factor, then what exactly is storytelling and is there a formula for it? After all, the word “storytelling” has its own Wikipedia entry of more than 5,000 words, supported by 78 references. The entry spans the types, purposes and history of storytelling from prehistoric cave paintings to today’s use of carefully crafted stories in modern day areas such as business management, advertising and social media. In this age of the Internet, delivery has changed, too. Blogs, podcasts, TED Talks and YouTube are wildly popular technological vehicles for conveying narratives. But as Ms. Arnold noted, these vehicles are generally one way and one dimensional. For example, when I use them as a listener, a watcher or a reader, I am passive, receiving what’s presented to me. I receive narratives on my tablet or cell phone, often through ear buds. I experience them by myself, separated from others and detached from a broader context. I’m in a bubble.
For Ms. Arnold, storytelling is connection and a way to communicate ideas and emotion interactively. It needs two essential elements: the teller and the listener. “My job is to put ideas into your minds, to use my voice and expressions, and my words, to reach you so that you can form your own impressions,” she explained. “Storytelling is also about connection. When you tell a story to someone, they often want to tell their own story in return. A good story begets another story.”
Talking with Ms. Arnold, I realized that my perception of storytelling is simplistic. I have tended to think of storytelling as a process: An adult reads a book out loud to a group of young children and typically guides the interactivity, pointing out pictures and prompting clapping or singing. The environment is controlled, the audience captive. The reader delivers words that are put before him or her and shows pictures that are presented on the page. There’s an element of passivity for reader and listener alike. In fact, Ms. Arnold calls this story reading, not storytelling.
According to Ms. Arnold, storytelling is dynamic, usually live and often impromptu for both teller and listener. There is nothing static about it. “When you’re in an audience, you see and hear other people’s reactions,” said Ms. Arnold. “You might make a comment to the person next to you or turn to look at them when you’re both laughing. The person could even be a stranger. You’re reaching outside of yourself. Storytelling makes community.”
Ms. Arnold tells traditional folktales, legends and myths along with original stories, personal narratives and historical character interpretations. I asked her what inspires her stories. “Some of them start as a little thought,” she said. “Others are inspired by something I’ve seen, heard, tasted or touched, or people I’ve met. I tend to tell stories about underdogs or people who are unknown or have gone unacknowledged in history.” Ms. Arnold’s historical character interpretations are widely praised for their historical accuracy. In fact, the Washington Library at Mount Vernon has awarded her a 2019-2020 research fellowship to continue to research Oney Judge, the personal maidservant of Martha Washington. Ms. Arnold presented Oney Judge last year at the library, taking the audience back to the 1700s and conveying Judge’s courage as an enslaved woman who escaped from the Washington household and lived the rest of her life under the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, which President George Washington signed into law in 1793.
Storytelling can be entertaining, educational, motivational or cautionary. It can reflect values, teach morals, give examples, surface questions. It can expose vulnerabilities, challenge or heal us. Ms. Arnold shared an experience when she visited a Zuni reservation in New Mexico in 2006. “In Zuni tradition, women cannot visit gravesites. I met a Zuni teen mother who couldn’t visit the grave of her son. This wrecked her. She was in a group of students when I told a story about the death of my own sister. Something opened up for that young mother and led her to a place where she could grieve and love. Change can happen because of a story. Listening to a story can make you laugh, make you cry, introduce you to a new idea, make you different.”
In this column I’ve presented words to you in print. If you take away just one thing from what’s written here, please make it this: Whether you’re a child, a young adult or an adult, don’t miss out on being in the same room with Sheila Arnold and hearing her stories. Take a risk. Be enthralled. Reach out to the person sitting next to you. Be cool.
Sheila Arnold will perform at the Main branch of the Franklin County Public Library on February 23 with three different performances: “Around the World: In Stories!” at 11:00 a.m., “Presenting Madam C.J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire” at 1:00 p.m., and “Locks Opened: Chesapeake Waterways in the Underground Railroad” at 3:00 p.m. Performances are free. No reservations are needed. For more information, see library.franklincountyva.gov/events. Ms. Arnold’s visit is sponsored by the Friends of Main Library.