by Sarah Southerland
While searching to find a certain book in the writing section at my local library, I came across an intriguing title-- "The Beggar King and the Search for Happiness." I pulled it off the shelf and thumbed through it quickly. It seemed appealing so I tossed it in my library bag and kept on searching the shelves. The book ended up on my library shelf with many others. By the time I finally got around to reading "The Beggar King and the Search for Happiness" it had been sitting in my house for 6 1/2 weeks. I grabbed it quickly one day, thinking I could start reading it while I waited for my kids to get into (and out of school). Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.
"The Beggar King" describes the life of storyteller Joel ben Izzy, his start in storytelling, and the struggle of losing his voice after having thyroid cancer removed. Interspersed with his memoir are favorite stories he's collected from around the world. The book in itself is a power (and relatively short) read, but what has had the most impact on me is the idea of storytelling being an art that can be improved upon.
Few stories these days begin with the traditional "once upon a time," but who hasn't been entertained, lulled to sleep, set to tears, or enlightened by some magical experience that happened "once?" Has storytelling become a lost art, relegated only to local storytelling festivals and professionals? Or has it grown into something greater-- something with far broader definitions than used for the Brothers Grimm? As writers, we tell stories through our words, but can we consider ourselves to be modern-day storytellers? Or is there some level of notoriety we must obtain first? And why do we write stories? To enlighten, entertain, educate, inspire, amuse, pacify? To earn a living? Because, as Joel ben Izzy says of himself, you have a gift and feel the need to share it? Is a writer a storyteller by default or by the very definition of the job?
We study other writers as a way of perfecting our own craft, using their experiences as a way of creating (or preventing) our own successes and failures. I believe now, after reading "the Beggar King," that there is much to be gained by an author who studies the art of storytelling-- even if only briefly! And I challenge you to take the time to do it. Read a few books, listen to a podcast, attend a storytelling festival (Mt Timpanogas festival is coming up!), or research it online. See how oral storytellers spin their craft and figure out how to apply those same concepts to your own work. Let me know if you do and what, if anything, changes for you.
Best of luck!
Another book to consider: "The Way of the Storyteller" by Ruth Sawyer. It was written in the early 1900's and is a timeless resource on how to tell a story to anyone, at any time. Feel free to post other books or resources that have helped you in the comment section below!