Artist Spotlight: Charles Kiernan of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild

Every second Wednesday night at Godfrey Daniels Listening Room, community is built. The Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild hosts their Story Circle, a gathering that is free and open to the public. Tellers new and old show up to share, to workshop, and to listen.

In anticipation of the July storytelling circle, I reached out to the self-proclaimed “chief, cook, and bottle washer” of the Guild, Charles Kiernan, to learn more about the storytelling tradition and the work of the Guild.

Maggie Norsworthy: I was looking at the “resources” tab on your website, and I noticed some interesting items on the list: instructional documents about storytelling and narrative were next to documents about fairy tales and Norse mythology. Why is this range of resources important?

Charles Kiernan: The range of our resource list expresses the depth and breadth of the storytelling art. When the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild uses the word ‘storytelling,’ we refer to the oral art of storytelling. More broadly, storytelling includes the cave paintings of Lascaux, stretching forward in time to Netflix.

Sometimes, oral storytelling is used as ‘applied storytelling,’ particularly when how it is being used moves beyond entertainment. In education, information related through story structure is more easily remembered than the same information given as a ‘grocery list.’ In business, executives learning to tell their story has more effect upon clients than mere company statistics.

MN: Could you talk about the phrase “all stories are true?”

CK: Yes, all stories are true, whether they happened or not. A well-structured story distills the values and trues of its creator or creators. (The fairy and folk tale seldom has one author.) Stories are not meant to be history, but expressions of social norms of a particular group, more often than not, an ethnic grouping. Be warned, while the trend is toward universal trues, the tale can reflect prejudices.   

MN: What life experiences can storytelling help with?

CK: Coping. Story can be a way of looking at one’s own problems through a different lens. With fairy tales, a child can process anger by directing it at the evil stepmother, expressing anger, through displacement, that is not safe to direct against their real mother.

With personal storytelling—a uniquely American form of storytelling, not understood by Europeans—tellers relate their personal experiences in story form. By story form, I mean with a beginning, middle, end, and story arc, to which the listener can relate and know they are not alone.

Graphics credits: Maggie Norsworthy.

MN: What is it like when a new person comes to the Story Circle and decides to tell a story?

CK: Here, the operative word is ‘nervous.’ Public speaking is a bane for many. Yet, the desire to express one’s self is ubiquitous. The Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild’s Story Circle is a casual, friendly, small gathering of like-minded people, who hanker to listen and tell story. More than once have we had people show up, nervously tell a story, and through our support and critiques, eventually become a professional teller. Just as often, we have people come to tell stories for the comradery, with no professional thought in mind. Let me reassign the operative word at ‘enrichment.’

MN: I noticed you are the Pennsylvania representative for the National Storytelling Network. Have you attended the storytelling conferences? If so, what are those events like?

CK: All conferences are a time when you attend an event, in a room filled with people who think pretty much like you. As staid as the event might be, it may still be a rock concert for the mind.
The National Storytelling Summit is during September 25-28 in Kansas City, Missouri, a glorious gathering of the story-minded. Equally important is the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, October 5-7, the Mecca of American storytelling. Jonesborough is a town whose population more than doubles for a few mesmerizing days in October. When you attend, do not look at the TV or your newsfeed. Enter the bubble of storytelling and stay there for those few precious days.  

MN: As (LV Storytellers Guild is) a nonprofit organization, could you talk about storytelling as a social good?

CK: Here we come to the phrase, ‘community building.’ Stories are about community. Certainly the folk and fairy tales touch on the communities from which they sprung, but even the ‘personal’ stories are community-based. This becomes particularly important when we speak about diversity within our communities. 

Story-teller Dan Keding tells a story called “The Two Warriors,” who, after a huge battle, are the last two standing. They agree to stop and rest for the night and continue the battle in the morning. During that night, they tell each other their story; about their wives, their children, their friends. In the morning they arm, face each other, then turn and walk away. You cannot hate someone after you know their story.

MN: Could you tell me how and why you fell in love with storytelling?

CK: Perhaps it was when my older sister read to me Grimms’ “Flounder and the Fisherman.” Perhaps it was when my mother attempted to read A Tale of Two Cities to my sister and me. I am sure I was restless and inattentive, but still I remember it. Perhaps it was during the Philadelphia Folk Festival when one of the musicals did a storytelling session instead of playing music. Perhaps it was when my daughter and I, during the time my wife and I were homeschooling her, joined our local library’s Story Circle. We went on to be a father and daughter storytelling team, performing at schools and festivals. Or is it because, like everybody else, I am hardwired for story?

To learn more about Charles Kiernan’s work, please check out his blog, Fairy Tale of the Month:

*Feature photo credits: Hub Wilson*

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