My History with Storytelling
It all started with Ray Hicks.
I attended the 1993 National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee by chance more than choice. It was centrally located for a family get-together, and my step-mother was into “weird stuff” that usually proved interesting to the rest of us.
I’ve always been a writer. Writing is how I think. On the first day I listened to eight storytellers, my fingers hurt, and my ever present little notebook was crammed with stories, phrases, and descriptions I couldn’t bear to let slip away. The next day we looked for long time attendees. Easy to find because they had five or more calico swatchs safety pinned to their shirts. Each year a different kind of calico gets you into the tents. We asked, “Who is the best?” They told us, “Go hear Ray Hicks.” “You can’t leave without hearing Ray.”
We arrived at the big tent an hour before Ray was scheduled to start. Every chair was already full. People stood around the edges. My family found a spot in the shade at the edge. I kept looking until I saw a scattered kids sitting on the grass in front of the stage. I knew a good spot when I saw it. I sat with them
When Ray came in he started at the floor. His tall, lanky body was dressed in worn farm overalls. Ray sat on a stool, gathered himself and lifted his head at the same moment he opened his mouth to say, “Jack warent stupid like ‘is brothers was.” Each vowel was stretched and stacked like firewood.” From that moment, Ray started “yarnin” and I (I felt I was singled out as well as together with the crowd) lived in a world with Jack amid danger, good vs. evil, generosity, and justice. When he finished I didn’t know where I was, my notebook notebook was in the grass, and I was forever dedicated to Ray Hicks.
My experiences from that festival left me with a fervent desire: “I want to know how to do that.” I found the best storytellers from the festival and was delighted to discover they gave workshops: Doug Lipman, Jay O’Callahan, Judith Black, Elizabeth Ellis. I began attending the festival every year. Slowly I recognized that storytelling is embedded in all training, leadership and group process – indeed in all human relationships. After writing books to bring down silos (Territorial Games) and urge truth-telling (Safe Place for Dangerous Truth) I realized behaviors don’t change until the stories people believe (about you, me, them, the past, the future, etc.) change.
Because of Doug Lipman I was privileged to spend a few days hanging out with Ray, his wife Rosa and son Ted. I helped bring in the water that we boiled and used to wash dishes after dinner. Here are a few pictures of Ray at home.
I began using storytelling to facilitate dialogue, to overcome turf wars. Finally I designed and delivered a “Storytelling in Leadership” workshop. In the middle of all this work, my friend Alan Downs said, “You should really write a book about this stuff.” The topic seemed too big. But I know this, if I want to learn about something, I set a goal to teach others. Being a bit of a perfectionist takes care of the rest. Writing the book “The Story Factor” taught me more than storytelling. Just like Ray Hicks did more than tell “Jack tales” on that cool October day in 1993. Storytelling is the base of all meaning. Nothing can mean anything except for the story you tell yourself about it. Your stories create your identity, your values, sustain or change the culture around you. Ray called me back when I was leaving his house that day. When I got back he huddled me over and whispered: “You and me, we got to up the numbers.” He raised his eyebrows until I nodded. He nodded. ” You go out there and you tell ‘em. You got to up the numbers, now.” I promised I would and gave him a hug.
There was only one Ray. He lived simply, avoided money because” he seen what it done to people,” and farmed his sloped field for what it would produce. Ray is a symbol for story past, present and future. It doesn’t matter the media or the audience, stories meet our human need to connect, learn our cultures values, and to laugh and cry together.
Ray Hicks obituary appeared in the New York Times. It is below in it’s entirety.
Ray Hicks, Who Told Yarns Older Than America, Dies at 80
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: April 27, 2003, on page 147 of the New York edition of the New York Times
Ray Hicks, who lived on a remote mountain and became famous among folklorists by telling stories older than America about ghosts, witches and a trickster named Jack, died last Sunday at a nursing home in Boone, N.C. He was 80. The cause was prostate cancer, his wife, Rosa, said.
Mr. Hicks spoke in a dialect scholars describe as Elizabethan, even Chaucerian. Yarns with roots in myths that gave rise to European fairy tales tumbled from his tongue. They had been passed seemingly intact through eight generations of his family, among the first white people in their nook of Appalachia.
Mr. Hicks became perhaps the best-known traditional storyteller in the United States, said Jimmy Neil Smith, president of the International Story Center in Jonesborough, Tenn., where Mr. Hicks appeared yearly.
In 1973 he was the first storyteller invited to the first National Storytelling Festival, which claimed the title because it seemed to be the only one. He was the only performer invited every year to the Jonesborough event. More than 200 such events are now held every year.
Mr. Hicks would have been better known had he accepted invitations to appear on ”Tonight” and other television shows, but he declined because ”I see’d what money done to others,” he said in a 2001 interview with Carolinas magazine. He did spend a week in Washington in 1983 to receive a National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He claimed to have spent a day and a half walking in circles in the first revolving door he ever came across. ”We was glad to get home,” Mrs. Hicks recalled.
Home was the ramshackle wood-frame house Mr. Hicks’s father built about 4,000 feet up Beech Mountain, near the Tennessee border in the high country of North Carolina.
There is a rusting mailbox, an old car disintegrating in the weeds, rows of potato plants, vivid wildflowers and a fine view from the outhouse. Most important, there is a porch — with a spittoon — where stories can be spun. Streams of folklorists, filmmakers, students and professors went there to listen.
Lenard Ray Hicks was born in the house on Aug. 29, 1922. His parents were subsistence farmers, and he was the only one of 10 children to pick up what he called ”the gift” of telling the old stories in the ancient locution.
His teacher was his paternal grandfather, John Benjamin Hicks. The stories had earlier come through Constance Harmon, Mrs. Hicks’s great-great-grandfather and perhaps a distant relative of Mr. Hicks as well. The overall tradition began with English and Scotch-Irish pioneers, including some who arrived before the Revolution.
Mr. Hicks was most renowned for his ”Jack Tales.” These concern a poor mountain boy, an American cousin of the farm boy in ”Jack and the Beanstalk” and ”Jack the Giant Killer.” Jack outwits thieves, witches and ogres.
Mr. Hicks’s son Ted, who lives in the family house, is the only one of his five children who has learned the old stories. Other survivors are his son Leonard Monroe Hicks of Piney Flats, Tenn.; his daughters Dorothy Jean Odum of Gap Creek, Tenn.; Kathy Rose Tribble of Stoney Creek, Tenn.; and Juanita Elizabeth Simerly of Simerly Creek, Tenn.; and four grandchildren.
“Okay, on three, everyone take two steps to the right.”
“If they can’t tell us apart, no one gets in trouble.” If you’re afraid to stand alone, you’ll never stand out. A cohesive team can move quickly, but a scared team isn’t going anywhere fast.
“Concrete wall.. Dam.”
Ahhh, the frustration of working in large organizations. If you don’t have a sense of humor you’re miserable and chances are you just make everyone else miserable.
“What do you mean I’m not approachable? I AM smiling.”
Your face tells employees a story. They wonder do I tell the truth? Or do I let some other sucker do it…later?
“Have I ever told you the one about the time I grew back from just one arm?”
There are some stories that get old. Yes, they were amazing the first time we heard them. Fifteen years later, not so much.
“Personal space? What do you mean I’m in your personal space?”
Revisiting the original vision story can soothe petty frustrations brought on my late hours, too much caffeine and purported refrigerator thefts.
“So I know I’m the new guy, but I have some really great ideas. Seriously, they are great ideas!”
Enthusiasm is often viewed as naivete’. Slow down! Tell a story that builds your credibility. Let your ideas reveal themselves to your listeners.
“What I could teach you, my dear. Come closer and sit awhile.”
Wasps match some human behaviors: dominance, deceipt, and opportunism. All queens start alone, and manage the hive as a hierarchy. Everyone has a story, don’t be afraid to ask.
“Call in the sharks. That new fish is getting on my nerves.”
People (and fish apparently) will “kill the messenger.” Wrap the truth in story and avoid the sharks.
Most. Boring. Powerpoint. Ever.
No one will ever complain if you replace a powerpoint slide with a good story.
“Here are the chocolate candy samples. Maybe a lighter brown?”
Not flattering, but we remember “ick” details. Disgust is one of the original emotions. Just don’t overdo it.
“When they talked about transferring us I really expected we’d have a desk and everything.”
If you want to improve morale it takes more than telling a new story. The story needs to be true.
“HQ promoted me to be team leader. Correct me if I’m wrong…but do you see a team here?”
Before you get mad, consider explaining your frustration with a story to put your listener in your chair and see what you see.
Please just look at the new budget. Pretty please?
Some stories last a day. If you asked for too much money, you could plaster this little guy’s face all over the office. Do your own campaign on frugality. Wear old clothes. Tell a story.
“Fine. I’ll go to your two day retreat. But I’m not hugging anybody!”
Story feels too touchy-feely for some. Don’t force it. They might cry and get snot on your shoulder.
You want me to what? I don’t know any stories!
Most everyone says this when you ask them to tell a story. Keep prompting, what happened when…? Last big crisis…?
“I’ve heard it all before, you little monkey. Try again.”
New. Original. Unique. Products? Yes. Human needs? Nope. You can still use old stories to understand human needs.
“We didn’t have any problems until you arrived. A little sand in our faces, but no problems.”
Big stories rewrite reality. Welcome fear, it means people care.
WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP?
Keep yelling…or ask to hear the story behind that constant suggestion? Listen it out of them and they will see the error in their thinking or you learn something.
“Hey, you can implement any policy you like….it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
There are ten territorial games people can play to block implementation. All are driven by the story they tell themselves.
“I’m your new boss. Allow me to demonstrate the parade rest I expect when I enter the room.”
Military style management can alienate staff and kill creativity. Obedience is the lowest form of cooperation.
“One more bite and we won’t ask again….promise”
Some people are never happy no matter how much you give them. The trick is to teach them to fly and find answers by themselves.
“Tony, give up already. If they really wanted us to fly…they would have given us wings that work.”
Doing more with less makes sense as long as you give staff the tools they need. Give your staff the tools of self awareness, storytelling, and dialogue.
“Having a positive attitude won’t make you more successful…but it will irritate your enemies enough to make it worthwhile.”
Sometimes the most valuable thing a group can do is lighten up a little. Creativity is more accessible when people are relaxed and having fun.
“Statistics say one in every four people suffer from mental illness. Look around. If the three people closest to you seem okay, it’s you.”
Sometimes a work group needs some good ol’ fashioned therapy. Telling the truth, hearing the truth, venting emotion. Afterwards everyone is exhausted, incredibly relieved that it’s over, and ready to get back to work.
“The entire team had our hair done just like the boss’s. It’s your turn.”
There is more than one right way to accomplish goals. Diversity isn’t just driven from the top down. All staff play a part in rewarding diversity.