Some thoughts on ‘professional storytelling’

Recently (ish), I stumbled upon a tweet from a conference in Edinburgh in which the twitterer proclaimed “I hate the idea of professional storytellers.” Instead of succumbing to my basest instincts and tweeting back “I hate the idea of ur face,” I stopped to think. After all, this wasn’t some random, it was someone who I’ve met and respect for their work in academic outreach. And it wasn’t the first time I’d come across a similar attitude, though never expressed quite so succinctly (Twitter is good for bluntness.)

It’s not like the idea of having people whose function in society is to remember, entertain, inform, provoke is anything new. And the once-common attitude that tradition is an amorphous mist of history passed on through some sort of osmosis, rather than by any effort on the part of the tradition bearer, has hopefully been well laid to rest. And yet the idea of having professional storytellers can still rub people the wrong way. Perhaps some of these may be the same people who expect bands to play their wedding for a fiver and ‘exposure,’ in which case this may only be solvable with more internet memes comparing the price of storytellers to the prince of plumbers. (Is anyone good on Photoshop?) But I feel like there are other issues at play here, and as storytelling in Scotland and elsewhere finds itself in the midst of both a revival and a transformation, it’s time those of us who’re in too deep to get out had a conversation about it.

Storytelling, I’m always saying, is more than a performance. It’s a conversation, in which the audience are as important as the storyteller. It’s not something which is easily defined – the line between ‘being a storyteller’, recounting anecdotes, and pointless blethers. Storytelling, as a word, is applied to everything these days, from novels to business strategies. Put a video on your website and you can call yourself a digital storyteller. Let me clarify that I am talking here about people, alive people, in the same physical location, using voices or hands or other means of non-technological communication, to say something meaningful to one another. (This doesn’t mean it has to be noble myths. Meaningful is in the experience.) I’ve discussed what I mean by storytelling a little more here. My experience is mainly within the Scottish/British storytelling scene, so this is the context my discussion takes place in.

So, with storytelling being so open, so much part of everyone’s life at one point or another, how can we say that some people are professionals? Shouldn’t we leave this experience as open to everyone as possible? Shouldn’t we be encouraging everyone to embrace what they can do themselves? I passionately believe that we should. This puts me in mind of my old pal Antonio Gramsci’s definition of ‘professional’ intellectuals. Every human being is capable of independent, original thought, though not all of their thoughts are valued equally by those who put themselves in a position to give out value. Though all people are intellectuals, not everyone’s function in society is that of an intellectual. Thus, while everyone makes their own tea or sews on a button from time to time, not all people are considered to be professional chefs or tailors.

We need unprofessional voices – because no one is born at professional standard, and if you think you were, you’re probably really annoying  – but also because many unprofessional voices have stories well worth listening to. Is this confusing the value of the story and the storytelling? How, though, could we do otherwise? The story and the storyteller are not easily separated – your life experience and personality shows in the way you tell even the most widely-known folk tale, never mind before getting onto stories which directly connect to your own life. You couldn’t give a precious family memory into the hands of a stranger, no matter how well trained, and expect it to retain all meaning and nuance. We need unprofessional storytelling, and storytellers, and we need to listen to them. It could be said that the entire spectrum of human relationships is held together by it.

So why should we respect an art practised in every pub and bus stop? Well, the glib answer is that people draw willies on bus stops and in the Tate Modern, so go and call someone else unprofessional for a change. The main difference between storytelling and other arts is that the current perception of it is different. It’s seen as something you can do without much education or practice, something you grow out of. Folk tales are still seen as ‘less’ than literary, the spoken is still seen as worth less than the written, and the colloquial as less than the intellectual.

Storytelling as a discipline is currently emerging into the public view, and is open to criticism from both devotees and detractors when people try to drag the ugly matter of money into the beautiful world of art or tradition. A recent article about performance poetry discussed the common feeling that if you truly love something, you should do it, no matter whether you get paid, and that people who insist on decent remuneration are shallow and self-absorbed. The author described their realisation that in fact, this insistence was not just about an individual performer’s self-worth but about their respect for poetry as a whole. Whether or not this is a good thing, money is how this society shows it values people’s time and work.

As long as we have any sort of cultural activity within a capitalist economy, it’s hard to see how these awkward questions can be answered. People need to live, and it takes time and work to tell stories often and well. Hearing stories often and well has a tendency to improve people’s quality of life. If you think it’s okay to treat a musician or stand up comedian who has worked at their craft as a professional, consider – why not a storyteller?

My point is not that we should ‘professionalise storytelling’ in that we should create new rules for how to do it and smooth out the rough edges of the tradition. If that was what I thought this was about, I’d be on the hate train too. This is about respecting the work which goes into maintaining a tradition which is hugely beneficial to people. It’s about re-drawing the boundaries of what we think ‘work’ is and what we think ‘value’ is in monetary and non-monetary terms (while we’re here, money is a communal fiction, no ‘realer’ than magic beans but a lot more dangerous.) There is a much, much wider conversation which needs to be had about work and value, preferably in parliament, preferably yesterday. In the most general terms, this economy needs to stop turning everything which isn’t City Business into a hobby for those privileged enough not to need to be paid properly for what they do (see also: heritage). In terms of storytelling’s place within the other arts, people need to start thinking about whether they’d hold a professional painter or writer in the same disregard they hold someone who tells stories for a living, and why they think that’s okay.

And how do we make sure that, in this world where someone’s always holding the purse strings, where a group of people with certain tastes decide who can be considered a professional, that we remain open to hearing new voices, that we don’t become a self-serving hegemonic elite? Well, we have to pay attention. As do the listeners. The only way there is to keep any professional group in check, fulfilling their societal function, is for the masses to be snapping at their heels. (But please, throw things at the politicians first – they’ve done more to deserve it lately. Then Damien Hirst, and if you’ve got any eggs left after that I’ll be ready for you.)

And, a final aside – in case you’re reading this defence of storytellers’ pay with the impression that the state is throwing vast amounts of money at anyone with a book of Jack tales and an inflated opinion of themselves, allow me to disavow you of that notion. Even the people who’ve been raised with generations of stories, who can turn your worldview upside down with a well-placed phrase and give you images that  will stay with you for years, still have day jobs.

In case you’re reading this, Creative Scotland. Lend us a tenner. Just to tide us over til the revolution.

– Erin Farley

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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on ‘professional storytelling’

  1. Delighted to have read your blog. I’ve devoted the last 17 years – 15 of them full time – to storytelling. This week I must face the fact that I’ve used up the money I saved to do this and never expected to run through; but because storytelling has no street cred with the general public – and because the UK storytelling ‘community’ so utterly despises and excludes ‘professionalism’ ie doing it for money – I cannot get regular work. I made myself do children’s storytelling because that’s *all* the general public understand but now schools have no money, and certainly not libraries. So no regular income.
    OK, perhaps the quality of my work is crap? Well, when I’m with an audience there doesn’t seem to be a problem, and I have friends who are pro quality musicians and writers who would – and do! – tell me if my stuff isn’t right.
    This upcoming National Storytelling Week I’m doing at least 3 gigs – FOR NOTHING. ‘Cos otherwise nothing would happen. People will not pay for what I do best…
    In 1999, amid depression and other problems, I chose to do storytelling rather than chuck myself off a bridge. The intellectual and academic snobbery I’ve encountered, the class prejudice (I’m white middle class) and the storytelling event rejections – “appearance at our storytelling festival is by invitation only” … I am utterly ground down and demoralised. For 15 years I never asked a penny grant or sponsorship from anybody, I’ve done my level best to run a business. I do all my own marketing and promotion, which is a 6 day a week job, after which I get to research and prepare stories for telling. This winter I’ve physically walked around local villages putting hundreds of show flyers through letterboxes. It’s exhausting. Tonight I had another “we’ll keep you on file” reply from a festival to my approach email. I’m 55 years old, I don’t know if my health will be this good 5 years from now.
    For 15 years I’ve considered myself to be an ambassador for modern storytelling: I’ve hoped that my work – fairly accessible, mixing the deep stuff with more overtly ‘entertaining’ material [ye gods, how the storytelling mafia hate that!] – would encourage audiences to explore other storytellers and other styles and cultures of storytelling.
    – I feel that I have completely wasted my time. And all I have to show for my persistence is an empty piggy bank and a very weary heart.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, this and I’m sorry to hear you’ve been up against so much nonsense. I really hope things change soon, fingers and toes crossed for you. I’ve been very lucky in finding a group of really supportive storytelling allies who help me through the wobbles, so I am full of admiration for your determination.

      STORY SOLIDARITY.

      Erin

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