The Storyteller in You
Updated: Apr 17
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller…” ~ Steve Jobs
As a child I witnessed first-hand some of the most eccentric and unique storytellers of all time. My parents had a little, rustic resort called Cutlass Bay Club on Cat Island in the Bahamas that drew guests from around the world. From aviators and innovators, to politicians and charlatans, we had a feast of storytellers in our little club back in the 70's and 80's. It was like a Bahamian version of Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn.
Mr. Nottage tending bar at Cutlass Bay Club, Cat Island
On Cat Island there were no phones, TVs, or computers distracting us from our conversations as they so often do today. These colorful characters made us want to listen, want to lean in. The best of them captivated us. They inspired us. They made us want to care. Their stories had a shape and a point, and made us thrilled to be in their company.
From my earliest childhood memories, I was fascinated by people who could tell or write good stories. What was their magic?
Olympic Valley, CA
Today I live and work in Olympic Valley, CA. I'm a freelance writer, photographer, and teacher and I continue to be a life-long student of storytelling. I challenge my students, middle through high school, to be better storytellers with their art and their words.
Why should having a healthy attitude for storytelling excite you, a 5th grader, or anyone else for that matter?
Because stories are the way we change minds, win hearts, and have an impact on the world. "People don't want more information," says Annette Simmons, best-selling author of The Story Factor, "They're up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith - faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell."
Imagine what you could accomplish by being a better storyteller. Not the kind who manufactures lies or half truths, or the person who weaves tall tales bellied up at a bar, but someone with the ability to truly connect on a meaningful level with family, friends, clients, community... or anyone else for that matter?
I believe we all have ideas and stories that matter, regardless of our age or station in life. And if our stories matter, and we want them to have traction, we should move beyond hunches and intuition and dive deeper into learning more about good storytelling. Afterall, the better you become, the more doors you open to delivering your work and your message to those who need it.
From a barefoot boy on Cat Island, to a visual storyteller living in Lake Tahoe, this is the essence of what I've learned along the way, and I believe it will help stir the storyteller in you.
"He ended, and a kind of spell
Upon the silent listeners fell,
His solemn manner and his words
Had touched the deep, mysterious chords,
That vibrate in each human breast alike."
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn
All around us is beauty waiting to be discovered. From sunrises and sunsets...
And insects perched on our fingertips...
To snow covered trees reflecting on a Lake...
Nature inspires in every direction we look offering moments of clarity and wisdom, that if we just paid more attention would awaken the storyteller within.
We naturally become better storytellers by becoming better noticers. The wonderlust of nature is all around us. It's in our backyard, it's down the street, it's in the clouds above.
And there's infinite beauty and magic in words as well - inspiring, elevating, commanding writing. Writing that can mend a broken heart, quiet the critic within, and lift our spirits from hell to heaven.
Back on Cat Island there were no libraries, newsstands, book stores, TVs, phones, or Internet. On this remote island we were literally off-grid, unplugged, and far away from civilization, which forced us to connect more with each other.
Good storytellers are intensely curious. They notice more and read more.
My sister Abby and I were fortunate to have a tutor live with us on Cat Island. Bev Benner encouraged us to be intensely curious. "Look under the rocks in the tide pools down by the ocean," she would say. "Find out how many creatures you can find. Then imagine how their world looks to them... and write about it for me."
We were lucky to have Bev as a teacher. She challenged our creativity and made us want to learn. Not all teachers or schools perform this miracle today. Some schools kill creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson argues in his TED Talk. Bev made us wake up on a Monday morning wanting to attack the day like one of the Zacchini Brothers being launched from a cannon. Now that's a good teacher...
Robinson shared this story at the opening of his talk, (with 75M views it's the most popular TED Talk of all time):
"It's of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six, and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this girl hardly ever paid attention, but in this drawing lesson, she did. The teacher was fascinated. She went over to her, and she said, 'What are you drawing?' And the girl said, 'I'm drawing a picture of God.' And the teacher said, 'But nobody knows what God looks like.' And the girl said, 'They will, in a minute.'"
Read and study good writing.
Don't let anyone kill your child-like curiosity. And that includes the insidious critic in your own head. Reading exercises your imagination and shapes your world view - and word view. When you read, read first for meaning, then, when you've been impressed by the writing, go back over those parts that pulled you in with their effects.
Today, anyone can visit a library or go online, and find pretty much every printed word ever written, for free. We can listen and watch TED Talks, and endless other educational platforms to improve our minds and our curiosity. We have access to books like never before.
Here's one such site: Internet Archive, a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.
"Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history,
there is no concept of humanity." ~ Hermann Hesse
Make music for the eye rather than the ears.
Let's see what words can do in the hands of others. Listen to the word magic in Ray Bradbury's story concerning a boy who wanted to own a pair of new tennis shoes:
"The shoes were to him the surge of antelope and gazelle on African summer veldt. The energy of unleashed rivers and summer storms lay in the shoes; he had to have them more than anything else in the world."
Here's another example of word magic. Louise Erdrich, with his subtle touch, pulls at your sleeve, gently persuading you to listen to his words, with leisurely phrases like soft steps into your mind. Listen to him write on the struggle of life, from The Painted Drum:
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It's the reason you're here on earth. You're here to risk your heart. You're here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could."
When you read this passage, you probably receive precisely the impression Erdrich intended to convey. This makes it effective storytelling. The magic in his words is found in the way the words are strung together... for the pictures they paint, the memories they rouse, and the desires they stir. His words make music for the eye rather than the ear.
Respond to good writing wherever you find it.
Be committed to wanting to write well. Determined to write well. And willing to write often. Your goal? To make a conscious, constructive, and generous contribution through your writing influence - in print for a purpose.
"The path to success is littered with great ideas poorly marketed.
Don't let yours be one of them."
~ Bernadette Jiwa
As you write, do so with the reader in mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "use a reader's leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel his or her time has been wasted."
What a privilege it is to be a storyteller!
"There is surely more than enough to marvel at for a lifetime,
no matter where the child is born."
~ Kurt Vonnegut
Worth a thousand words?
Like words, photos can tell stories that resonate or fall flat. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words.
Here's a personal story about one image that received unusual traction in our community.
I took a walk around our local ski resort in Olympic Valley, CA (my hometown), on March 10th, 2023 during an epic snow season. But on this specific day it was unseasonably warm and raining, with floods, due to atmospheric weather known as the Pineapple Express.
I noticed something unusual: a massive puddle under the Wa She Shu Ski Lift.
I took several photos of a wet Olympic Valley that morning, including the one above.
But no image on that day got traction like the one taken at the ski lift (in photo below). This image was picked up by ABC10 News, requested to be used in the Truckee Community Foundation's Quarterly Annual Report, and viewed over 30,000 times in less than a week on a local FB page.
What made this image stick unlike the other photos taken on my morning walk?
Here's what I think.
The puddle under the ski lift tells a compelling story, much more of a story than if there was no puddle at all, or if this was a picture of only the puddle, or only the ski lift. This image pulls you in wanting to learn more: Why is there so much water under this ski lift surrounded by so much snow? What's happening here?
Harnessing the power of storytelling
If you truly want to harness the power of storytelling... if you want to change minds, win hearts, and have an impact on the world, which I'm confident you do... then be awed by nature and inspired by good writing. Be respectful of your listeners and readers too, and remain passionately curious.
I don't remember how many creatures my sister and I found under the rocks in the tide pools of Cat Island, and I don't recall what we told Bev their worlds looked like.
But I do remember Bev challenging us to get out, wander around, and be better noticers.
I've been wandering and marveling around ever since.
Through noticing and appreciating things more, your imagination grows, as well as your unusualness of thought. And this, I believe, is the magic. This could be the sine qua non of summoning the storyteller in you.
In the end, the most important story you will ever tell is the one you tell yourself.
On with the marveling!
PS - I'm exploring the idea of creating a storytelling workshop right here in Olympic Valley and/or on this website: www.BlueWolfGallery.com. If this interests you, or someone you know, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hello! I’m Michael Kennedy, Olympic Valley, CA resident. I’m a teacher, freelance writer, and photographer. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please share with others. I value your attention, it means a lot to me and it helps others see the story. If you're interested in any photos in this post, or in my gallery: click here, let me know what size you want, and I'll send a quote. My email: email@example.com.