Telling stories is a practice in exploring possibilities. Each new story is a new scenario, a new series of choices, of causes and effects.
been telling old stories, and in the process discovering new ones, for several
years before I became a true storyteller. The heart of storytelling did not
bloom in me until just the right combination of life experiences came together.
Working with educators and students to explore aesthetic literacy, my awareness
grew concerning my techniques, my intentions, my skills and how I employ them.
Public venues where I had a returning audience gave me incentive to invent,
teaching me how to converse in my art. But the most impacting, passionate
experience that affected my becoming a true storyteller came with the birth of
my son, Jack.
came the ancient bond between father and son, between past and future. As I
entered the world of caring for my child and partnering with his mother, a new
sense of story began to grow. No longer was the telling of stories an
instructional behavior, an entertainment, or a creative whimsy. Now it was an
act of love. I learned that sharing stories with my son was a kind of caress,
an exchange of emotional and intellectual energies, a mutual exploration of the
possibilities of self, other, and world. My stories were prompted by my wonder
as to who this child might become and how he might relate to the open and
surprising world before him. Who might Jack be? Our son was named for his
grandfathers on either side: John, for my father; Cabell, for his mother's
father, and "Jack" for himself. We knew that in his name would be
inheritance and individuality, a past and a future.
own childhood, my father did not invent or tell stories. Rather, my mother was
the bedtime story keeper, reading me down the yellow brick road or through the
hundred acre woods. This isn't to suggest that I thought any less of my father;
it was just not the culture of our household. Yet, as I traveled telling
stories, I discovered that in many families, mothers were the story readers,
while fathers were the story inventors. This is not a hard and fast rule, and
certainly my observations were not conducted in a statistically valid manner.
Still, the habit of fathers to invent and mothers to read seems consonant with
traditional gender roles related to oral culture. Men top each other with
confabulations about the hunt, the deal, and the fish that got away. It is a
kind of verbal display behavior. So the father inventing stories is fluffing
his verbal plumage while instilling in his child an acuity for wit with words. The
mother, likewise, is the keeper of cultural norms and mores, which are more
effectively passed on through traditional stories, which in the modern world
are carried in literature. It is significant that the literary tales my mother
read to me were often the result of a father's confabulation for his son:
Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in The Willows for his son,
Alastair; A.A. Milne wrote for his Christopher Robin and so on. The House at
like its kindred, was from the golden age of children's literature, carrying
the same loving spirit between father and son that I was to discover.
storyteller, I knew well that "Jack" is a fellow of legend. He is
variously "Jack-the-Giant-Killer," "Jack-the-Fool,"
"Jack-the-Trickster," and "Jack-the-Hero." As my Jack came
to the age for bedtime stories, I drew on the folkloric
"Jack-who-seeks-his-Fortune." I took a few ideas from the old stories
to get me started. From there, I followed my heart. I sensed that the Jack of
my tales was an open and eager traveler, naive of the world but willing to
discover, with an innate wit for handling problems. Oftentimes, the
protagonists in stories are expected to be flawed and to push through ordeals
that teach and challenge them. To some extent this was the case in our Jack
Tales. But this Jack is another kind of hero; the kind that always enchanted me
as a child and inspired my dreams: the good-hearted wanderer. The hero that
most impressed me as a child was the young Dorothy Gale of Frank L. Baum's OZ
adventures. I loved the sense that there is a world of strange and magical
people to be found along a winding yellow brick road. The hero of that world
might be thrown into trouble, but rarely did she cause it. She made friends
easily and together they faced their situation with cleverness and sagacity.
The world-wandering hero did not start with Dorothy, of course. Frank Baum was
well versed in the classics, and their influence runs throughout his work.
too, took inspiration from the classics. The other formative fiction of my
childhood was Padraic Colum's Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Fleece and
the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles (1922.) This one I read to myself,
without the aide of bedtime readers. Reading along with Jason, I discovered
that I could pace myself to suit myself. In school, teachers worried because I
was a slow reader. In truth, I was a relishing reader. I wanted to savor and
enjoy every story, taking the time between chapters to daydream about the world
of the tale. Such slow reading put me in the low reading group at school, but
served to marinate me in the stories I read. I traveled step-by-step,
inch-by-inch, with my wandering heroes.
in bed at night alongside my young Jack, I let the old stories inform me as I
conjured new ones. The first of these was the old story of Soldier Jack, in
which Jack offers mysterious strangers his food and is rewarded with magic
gifts: the looky glass and the whickety-whack sack. In our story, I think of
the mysterious stranger as the old Jack, offering this new one a bit of story
down the road we went together, father, son, and Story Jack, never knowing
where our wandering would lead, but ready for discovery.
manner of our bedtime storytelling was always more folksy than literate. By
that, I mean that the stories had a kind of simple alacrity that characterizes
the spoken tale. Occasionally, we might indulge in a descriptive passage or
two, but rarely did we enter the realm of novelist, exploring the interior
landscape, or myriad points of view. Though, at times, I could not resist the
opportunity to philosophize. So it was with the Jack stories. They have the
voice of the folk teller, because they were the stories that gave the folk
teller his voice.
were always bedtime stories. As such they were designed to set the stage for
sleep. But in that sleep, what dreams may come? I wanted to create a world for
wandering in, with curious challenges, but not too many demons. The time of
sleeping and dreaming is often a time of facing trouble and anxiety. It is not
uncommon for bedtime storytellers to terrify their listeners. I think of James
Whitcomb Riley's Little Orphant Annie: 'the gobble-uns'll git you ef you don't
know we cannot predetermine our dreams, but we can feed the dream-bound mind
with a kind of story nutrient of images, ideas, and feelings. That nutrient of
story, I hoped, would help my son's soul grow strong and resilient. So I
rounded every story with sleep. Each beginning, "Jack woke up..." and
each ending, "Jack fell off to sleep..." The device allowed me a
brief recap at the beginning of the tale as Jack would awaken and recall the
previous day's adventure, and a review of the current story at the finish as he
would relax into sleep mulling over the day's experience. What happened after
that was entirely the province of my son's inner life.
occasion, my son would fall off to sleep while I would be too involved with the
convolutions of the unraveling tale to notice, requiring me to synopsize events
the following night. Sometimes, Jack would ask me to retell a tale I no longer
remembered, which would require him to guide me through the reconstruction of
the lost episode. The stories took on a life of their own, insisting to be
told, like the magic cooking pot that freely produces food at the command
'cook, pot, cook!' I found myself "cooking" stories throughout the
day. This became a kind of mindfulness wherein I remained connected to my Jack
by dwelling in the possibility of Story Jack’s next adventure.
years ago, my Jack, now an adult, came to me with a proposal. He asked if
I would collaborate on a play about a father telling stories to his son, based
on the stories I created for him. He gave me the greatest gift I could ask for
as a father when he told me those stories had a profound influence upon him as
a child, helping him happily imagine his future, giving him a storied self as a
I gladly accepted his invitation and entered the new possibilities of our
collaboration. For telling stories is an exercise in actively imagining
possibilities. When we tell stories together, we find what is possible
and I wrote many scenes, never sure where the writing would lead us. Like the
Jack of the stories, we wandered openly. We hoped we might create a serial for
the stage, or broadcast in some other medium, allowing us the chance for a
living work if art: an ongoing theatre piece in which new stories were
constantly added, as old stories entered into rotating repertory. That is still
my dream. Eventually, however, we decided that the only way we would get our
stories to the stage was with a self-contained, single script. The result was Journeying Jack.
In 2015 Asheville Creative Arts gave the play a workshop staging as part of
their Incubator series. Then in 2016 the play received the Aurand Harris
Memorial Playwrighting Award from New England Theatre Conference. To date, the
play has not had a full staging. It remains my vision to see the serial
treatment find a home on stage.