Ruth Walkup

What do you remember as the first stories you heard?

My father told my sister and me stories for bedtime when we were growing up in Africa where we had no TV, no tape recorders, and even no radio. He made up all the stories and incorporated elements we wanted to hear about. The Pink Princess lived in a pink castle with a moat of pink lemonade. The Whoazies lived ‘not far from Balagwala Zoo’. The Winkley Dobbles lived at the bottom of Lake Munkamba and tickled the toes of children while they slept. And Menelek rode all over the world on his magic carpet for various adventures. Each story started with ‘Once upon a time . . .”. Even now, my sister and I sometimes ask for a story from our father. The grandkids may not be interested, but we are.

What kind of stories do you tell?

Most of the stories I have told in the past are very short stories of a minute or two. These stories serve as inspiration for the people I am leading, in an organization or on a team, or as examples in what I am teaching or instructing, an example of something to do or not do. I have found these short stories effective in getting folks to see and understand complicated things without explaining EVERYTHING, which probably isn’t possible anyway. As a storyteller in more public settings, my stories come out of my own experiences either as a child growing up in Africa or as an adult working in the government and working in other countries.

On rare occasions, I make up stories like my father did. It’s only with my nephews who like to play a game we call ‘3 Objects or 3 Actions’. In this game, one person (the listener) gives the other person (the teller) 3 objects or actions that must be included in the story. It’s a great way to pass the time driving!

How do you develop a story?

I have so many memories that pop into my head at weird times, like in the grocery store standing in front of the ketchup or listening to my neighbor. So I keep a stack of cards with me (a ½ of an index card) and I write down whatever it is. I keep the cards all jumbled up in a wooden box on my desk. When I want to work on a story, I empty all the cards onto the floor and go through them, being open to any of them that are interesting at that moment. Then I get a blank sheet of paper (usually a big one) and start to write things that come to mind that are inspired by the cards. I don’t write lists on the paper – I more like draw all over it. Then I get crayons out and start to draw little pictures or make connections on the page. (Remember, stories are sharing pictures from my mind to yours, so the sooner I get into picture mode, the better.) I usually talk out loud to myself when I do this because these stories are oral and are meant to be heard, so I play around with words and phrases and sounds. When I come to some idea of a direction the story will take – the situation + the problem + the resolution – I usually go for a long walk in the woods and try to talk the story out loud to the trees and bugs. They don’t seem to care how badly I do a first (or second or fourth) telling. I keep telling the story out loud when I’m in the shower or waiting at the doctor’s office (although I’m not usually so loud there), until it feels comfortable to me. By that time, I’ve probably told the story 8 or 10 times out loud. I can see where it is going, I have worked out different details that should be in, and I have a sense of when to slow down or put in a physical gesture. For me, story development is a full-body experience.

How long have you been telling stories?

I’ve been telling stories since I could talk. At 7, I taught my younger sister Sunday school using Bible stories I had heard. In swaps, slams, and performances, I have only been telling for about a year.

Where do you tell stories now?

Of course I tell my stories to the animals and plants of the woods! If you mean where do I tell stories where you might be able to hear them that is not in a class I am teaching, I tell stories at festivals and workshops. I’ve also recently started a storytelling group in my county where people interested in listening and telling gather about every other month in a room at the public library.

You are a Member of the Board of VASA. What do you see as the future of VASA?

VASA is only as strong and effective as its members, so I see the organization – the leadership and the membership – finding more ways to support and give to members what they want. Recently, we conducted a survey of members and some very clear things came out of that for the VASA Board to focus on. Members asked us to develop more opportunities for them to get together to learn and share in both formal and informal settings. They asked for information and guidance about the business side of storytelling and on the craft of public storytelling. As a membership organization, we hope to call upon the rich experience of various VASA members to help the rest of us learn these important aspects of storytelling.

What advice do you have for budding storytellers?

Listen to stories – All kinds of stories from all kinds of people. Ask yourself WHY you liked or didn’t like a particular story or telling style. Ask, How did the details provide depth to the story? What was the structure of the story? How much time did each part take? What would have happened if time and details had been differently distributed, more time on the description of the original situation as opposed to the resolution, for example? What if the main character had been someone else, how would the story have been different? Etc. ‘Interview’ the story.

Step away from the computer, step far away! – The stuff of stories is found in the world around you and inside of you. Sure, you might find some list of story prompts on the internet or something. But you won’t find YOUR inspiration. Uncovering and knitting stories together takes time, so arrange it so that you won’t get distracted (especially by electronic things).

Be you – You have stories to tell (we all do) and only YOU can tell stories in your style. Besides, you’ll be most comfortable and confident being you. Just get up and do what is natural to you and to us all, as we are the ‘story telling species’.