Another one of my annual getaways is for the National Storytelling Conference. This year’s was in Mesa, Arizona (essentially Phoenix), which is not exactly the sort of place most people would think of going in July. But, hey, the hotel was cheap and it isn’t as if I was going to need to go outside much. Besides, storytellers are inherently cool people.
I’d actually gotten my registration by winning the National Storytelling Network on-line auction, but that didn’t include travel. It turned out to be significantly cheaper to fly via EWR, which worked well, especially as I’d had the foresight to download a movie onto my tablet to watch during the layover. Local tellers had arranged airport pickups and I had plenty of time to settle into my room (actually, a suite – apparently, silver status is enough for Hilton to upgrade you when it’s 115 degrees out) before things started.
The opening panel, moderated by Liz Warren, was on Kindling Community Connections Through Story. I thought Doug Bland addressed that topic most directly, by providing examples of specific story-related events in his church. Kiran Singh Sirah was entertaining, but I will admit that I got drawn in as much by his accent (and, let’s be honest here, the kilt he was wearing) as by his actual words. Queen Nur might have had important things to say, but she also had a powerpoint presentation with things flying in from various directions and that was just too distracting.
Despite the time zone difference, I couldn’t miss Judy Sima’s fringe performance, My Mother’s Voice. She had a powerful piece about her parents’ escape from the Holocaust and journey to America (as well as a couple of other stories). Having told just a small piece of my father’s story, I appreciate the emotional work of dealing with this material and Judy handled it well.
I was up early on Friday morning and decided the temperature would allow a walk, so had a nice breakfast at a place (T.C. Eggington’s) about a half a mile away. By the time I got back, it was hot enough that I was able to appreciate some of the comments on water made by the members of the panel on Ancestral Fires Lighting Future Paths: The Importance of Old Stories in New Times. The panel, led by Dovie Thomason, consisted of members from different Native nations. I particularly liked Sunny Dooley, a Navajo woman, who I thought did a very good job of capturing the conflicts between traditional values and modern life. While I did find the overall session interesting, I do wish the panel had focused more on the advertised topic, which was the creation of "new traditional" stories. I should also note that a couple of the panelists triggered one of my pet peeves by emphasizing the two worlds (science vs. art) theory.
There were a few things I wanted to do in the next session, but my loyalty to the Fairy Tale Lobby won out and I went to that swap. Inevitably, my name did not get pulled in the random drawing to tell. I’m kvetching a little bit, but I don’t like the method of using yellow stickies on the wall to randomize a drawing because I have noticed that nobody will ever pull a sticky that is next to one that has already been pulled. That makes it less random than drawing from a hat or bowl. Despite that, I heard some good stories, both familiar and un. So it was definitely worth my time.
The State Liaison luncheon was reasonably useful, though it did make me feel guilty about how much stuff I still need to find time to do. I had a particularly difficult time choosing what to do next and settled on a workshop titled Building the Dry Land Ship: Storytelling as Imaginative Transportation , given by Joseph Sobol. He intimidates me somewhat because he uses words like "semiotics" and "ontology." Despite that, his presentation, focused on story structure, was both entertaining and enlightening. At some level, I’m not sure he said anything I didn’t already know, but he crystallized several concepts. This was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I should also note a particularly funny little story that Sarah Beth Nelson told during the workshop.
My final workshop on Friday was No Moth? No Problem: Developing new audiences, voices and venues, presented by Megan Finnerty, Marilyn Omifunke Torres, and Liz Warren. There was some solid information there, but I was hoping for some more specifics on identifying venues and practical ideas for working with people at venues you don’t have a prior relationship with.
The Fairy Tale Lobby had a group dinner at the Red Lobster, just a block or so from the hotel. Alas, just at that time, along came a dust storm. I learned that this is called a haboob and consists of amazing wind and swirling dust and sand. It’s quite something to see, but walking in it isn’t all that pleasant, so I joined some other wimps who rode the hotel van a short distance for mediocre corporate food and good conversation.
The evening featured a story slam on the theme of "Fire and Light." I put my name in the hat for the mid-Atlantic region, but was relieved not to be chosen. If you want to know what I would have told, you can come to the Better Said Than Done benefit for Friends of Reston in late September. There was an interesting mix of stories and I thought the winner was well chosen, though my personal favorite came in third. After the slam, I went to the Folk and Cultural Tales swap, which was the perfect way to end the day.
I needed a light start to Saturday, so went to the Open Topics swap. I told the story I would have told at the Fairy Tale Lobby had my name been drawn. But I want to note that I was completely blown away by Tom Sparough, whose performance, combining a business story with juggling, was unlike anything I’d seen before.
Next up was the membership meeting. Most of the focus was on the NSN move to Kansas City. There were several topics that were deferred to a Sunday morning session, but I did appreciate the enthusiasm over the move. (Completely off subject, but if you do go to Kansas City, I highly recommend the Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is full of Victorian ornaments made out of human hair and is weird and fascinating.)
There were, inevitably, three workshops I wanted to go to in the first afternoon session. I ended up choosing Delanna Reed’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Stories About Difference on the grounds that it might give me ideas about a particular project I’ve been working on forever. While it did do that, it was a bit more academic than I was hoping for. I’d have liked some more concrete examples.
The next session featured another dilemma on where to go. My strong feelings about the NSN website won out over some other options and there was a lively discussion about what needs to happen to make the website more useful to members and more attractive to the general public. Of course, we could have used another hour or two, but so it goes.
The major event of Saturday night was the Oracle awards. I think honoring people for their work is important and this is our community’s opportunity to do so. Congratulations to all the winners, whose achievements I continue to find inspirational. After the ceremony and reception, I went to the Funny Stories Swap. I told "Why I’m Not a Millionaire" because I need to inflict really bad puns on people at regular intervals. And I was, again, blown away by Tom Sparough (telling a different story than he had earlier in the day.)
I was unable to stay for Sunday, alas. I am sure it was just as wonderful as the parts of the conference I was at. Next year in Kansas City.