On a Thursday evening in late December, a small crowd of people gather at Traditions Café downtown. They are there to listen – not to music, not to a lecture or a sales pitch. They are there to listen to stories – folk tales, personal anecdotes, a recounting of some little known World War II history, or a second generation telling of a family’s escape from Poland during the early years of the same war.  It is a lovely way to spend an evening. The audience remains enrapt for nearly two hours.

Everyone has a good story, or two, that is just begging to be told. That, more or less, is what drives the South Sound Story Guild.  The “tellers” on that Thursday evening are all active members, and they are always seeking out new tellers (and listeners) regardless of experience.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with three guild members, Rebecca Hom, Maggie Lott and Stet Palmer to talk about story-telling and the guild.

South Sound Story Guild
Rebecca Hom is a frequent teller at Traditions Cafe. Photo credit: Laurie O’Brien

“Traditionally, stories served three purposes,” says Hom. “One was to preserve history, to retell history so that it’s not lost.”  The second was to pass on knowledge, “but in a way that nobody lost face. You could correct the king without losing your head,” she explains, “if you provided a moral compass in a story using anonymous characters.” The third purpose was to “help lighten the daily load.” Think of how much faster time passes by when we have a distraction. These same principles apply today, whether a story is in written form, a visual medium like film or told through the oral tradition.

For experienced tellers, crafting a story is old hat. They can spin their yarns for upwards of an hour with nary an “um” or an  “oh, darn, I forgot this one part.” For others, trying to keep the listener engaged, even for just a few minutes, is a challenge. That is one of the reasons the guild exists. They want to grow more storytellers. Some people are naturals; others have to develop their skills, but everyone, even those with a lot of experience, can grow by coaching and feedback. Listening is part of the equation, too.

Unlike StoryOly, a popular, monthly story slam event in which speakers tell timed personal stories on a given theme and are given a score, at guild meetings there are no restrictions on how long or short a tale can be, nor do the stories need to be personal. Traditional and folk stories are a staple. There is no judging, but if people want feedback, they can request it.

South Sound Story Guild
Tobey Ishii Anderson tells a folktale during a recent event. Photo credit: Laurie O’Brien

The second Wednesday of every month, you will find upwards of 25 people gathered in the lounge of the Olympia Center, telling and listening. There is generally a featured teller, but the remainder of the evening is devoted to story-swapping. Encouraging new tellers is at the heart of it. Not comfortable with a crowd? Smaller groups can and do break off occasionally.

According to Maggie Lott there is no magic formula to being a good story teller. You may hear ten different tellers, each with a completely different approach, and you may enjoy each of them equally. “Everyone has his/her own style,” she says. It all boils down to one thing, “If you are interested in the story as it’s being told, the story teller is a good one.”

As a person who tells a lot of Native American stories, Hom feels an added responsibility. She explains that it is important to ask yourself several questions: “Are you honoring the story? Are you honoring the people of the story? Do you truly know the story?” Although storytelling does not follow a script, preparation is essential. Sincerity and a teller’s investment in a story cannot be faked.

When it comes to family history and personal stories, there is special poignancy. “When I buried my dad and threw the last shovel full of dirt in the grave, I thought ‘Damn… I forgot half of what he told me already,’” says Palmer. There is wealth that comes from hearing personal perspective on events that your parents and grandparents experienced. If nothing else, a human connection is forged.

South Sound Story Guild
Maggie Lott shares a family story at a recent story telling concert. Photo credit: Laurie O’Brien

Hom emphasizes the importance of family storytelling. She often does workshops, encouraging older family members to tell stories to their children and grandchildren. “Your job is to keep telling these stories, again and again and again. And their job is to roll their eyeballs. By the time they’re 40 or 50, and you’re not there, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I wish I could hear her tell that one more time.’”

The South Sound Story Guild has had its hand in nurturing storytellers in this area for a long time now. None of the guild members I spoke with knew exactly how long the guild has been in existence, but all have been members for decades. To answer our question, we reached out to someone who was instrumental in the early days. Debe Edden believes The Olympia Story Telling Guild (the precursor to the South Sound Guild) was started in 1987. Interestingly, Edden remains involved in storytelling via The Heartsparkle Players, who use improvisational theatre to enact personal stories told by audience members. The players perform on the second Friday of every month, September-May, at Traditions.

Elizabeth Lord, a local storyteller and one of the founders of StoryOly, was also an early member of the guild, joining while still a student at TESC in 1992. StoryOly takes place on the third Tuesday of every month at Rhythm and Rye. StoryOly celebrates its third anniversary on January 16.

The South Sound Story Guild frequently hosts story concerts and other events:

  • An annual retreat, Fanning the Embers, takes place every April and is open to people from all over the Pacific Northwest.
  • Tellebration, part of the national story -telling network, takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving every year.
  • The event, Stories in the Park, generally occurs during late summer.

Interested people are always welcome to attend their monthly story swaps, which are held the second Wednesday of every month at the Olympia Center.

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