Megan Hicks Q&A
I became acquainted with Megan Hicks through social media and was intrigued with her lively Web site and her pursuits beyond storytelling.
Bio: Megan is primarily a performance storyteller who also creates lovely things with her hands. You can click on tabs to see the various aspects of her career here. See her storytelling in action in the video below:
Q&A with Megan Hicks:
Q: How did you initially become involved with storytelling? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: It was spring, 1986. I lived in Oklahoma City at the time and worked in a Montessori school library. My boss heard about a storytelling event called Winter Tales, co-sponsored by the public library, and he decided we needed some professional development. When we arrived, the public library conference room was all set up with chairs, but I was surprised to see no books.
A small woman was introduced — Gioia Timpanelli, who said a few words about storytelling and then launched into “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” one of my favorite childhood fairy tales. It’s a short story. But in three minutes she took me to a place of enchantment I hadn’t visited since I was a child. When she drew the story to a conclusion and set me back down in the Here and Now, I knew, finally (at 36 years old) and without doubt, what I would be when I grew up. And every decision I made from then on has brought me further along this path.
What I love about storytelling performance is that it is cheap, clean, and egalitarian. You need words, heart, and an imagination. You can create a performance that is as satisfying as an evening at theatre, for a miniscule fraction of theatre’s production costs. And as a storyteller, I get to be the whole cast — crone and ingenue, hero and villain, narrator and walk-on extra.
What I don’t like about it so much is that while the performance part of it is very, very public the preparation part is very, very solitary. No camaraderie with cast and crew. Usually, no post mortem over a beer after the show, especially when most of my work is solo concerts. The drive home gets long and lonely.
A: On the day in 1986 when I realized that “storyteller” was the calling I had spent my adult life listening for, I also attended a lecture on storytelling given by Laura Simms. The one thing that struck me and stuck with me from that talk is this: Good stories are strong enough to do their work without the teller engaging in theatrics. Schtick and gimmickry are not required to put a story across. In fact, they tend to become distractions. A few years later, Doug Lipman conducted a storytelling workshop in Virginia at the public library where I was working, and the gem I took from that day was his admonition to visualize the scene, the characters, the action — to see it all clearly in my imagination before giving it voice. When I put this advice to work, I see results immediately: listeners’ faces show me that their imaginations are turning my words into pictures. A fourth grader said it best: “You made you feel like you were really there.”
And then … not long ago I read a book on public speaking, titled Be Heard Now, by Lee Glickstein, in which the author writes about really looking at and connecting with the people in the audience who are most intently tuned in. Resting your eyes and your attention on one person at a time. Somehow, that deliberate focus creates a connection that spreads like the ripple from a pebble tossed into a still pond, and people you might never look at directly feel as though you’re talking to specifically to them.
This sounds mechanical and formulaic. I guess it is. And it works. Audiences give themselves over to the story as soon as they see me giving myself to it, and it moves us all along as one. As soon as I am engaged with one person who’s having a good time, the people who seem distracted find themselves drawn in. That feeling of everyone being “in one accord,” like what I always thought church should feel like.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)?
A: I use Facebook to keep up with people whom I don’t want to lose touch with but to whom I don’t often have much to say. Whenever I do have a lot to say to anyone, I’ll call them or send them a personal, private message. I’m making a conscious effort to send more handwritten mail. Facebook is also handy for making new contacts and networking. I post clips on YouTube so that people can see me in action, live and un-retouched, for an accurate look at what I sound like and how I relate to audiences. I enjoy viewing other people’s videos, seeing how they work. I just joined LinkedIn, but I don’t know what to do with it yet. I do not Twitter — that pidgin english text patois sets my teeth on edge.
And I blog (pictured below).Q: To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I think they’re all storytelling media. My Facebook status is a weensy little story about me in this particular instant. The amalgamation of comments on a photo or a status creates another sort of narrative. LinkedIn is more about resumes than life stories; if Facebook is a collection of stories, LinkedIn is a file full of resumes.
I’m using my blog to create new stories. Last week for the first time I performed a story that started as blog posts. I call it the writer’s equivalent of reality television. Sausage-making with words. I tend to be more willing to sit myself down and write today when I know people are reading what I wrote and posted yesterday.Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: Last spring I was hired for a ten-day residency to teach origami at a school in Southeast Washington, DC. The fourth graders I taught were a tossed salad of need, insecurity, hostility, hunger, fatigue. Each day I visited them, we had to begin all over at Square One. There was bickering, hitting, acting out, acting up. One child was repeating 4th grade for the third time, and you could see in his eyes that he had given up; another child started tearing things up whenever she didn’t get her way. More than once, the teacher called the office for a security guard to come remove a student. On my last day with them I asked if I might spend my hour telling stories instead of trying to teach them a new fold. The teacher, exhausted and burnt out, said, “Sure. Good luck keeping their attention.”
I told them a fairy tale. Within two minutes, three of the kids were sound asleep. The others were all right there with me. I told them about a slave boy who was punished for learning how to read, about how he escaped and became a drummer for the 29th Chicago Colored Regiment in the Civil War. The ones that were awake were riveted. I told them a fable about the stupidity of trusting a snake to keep its promise. I could see on their faces, they knew exactly what I was talking about.
For one hour their behavior was perfect. For one hour nobody yelled at them. For an hour they envisioned better worlds. They inhabited a safe place where there was no violence or disrespect. Safe enough to fall asleep if they needed to.
As I said goodbye I thought ten days of stories would have served them better than ten days of paperfolding … but origami came closer to meeting curriculum guidelines.Q: On your Web site, you talk about achieving all three of your childhood ambitions, noting that you are “telling stories around the world, writing a lot of the stories I tell and, when I’m not performing, making art that people want to play with.” How do you balance your story-performance and writing lives with your creative pursuits with origami and crafts with found objects? Is the craft side more of a hobby, or do you feel you give all three areas (performer, writer, toymaker) equal time? To what extent does your art contain elements of storytelling?
A: I don’t sell much art. Barely enough to cover studio rent. It doesn’t put groceries on the table, but it feeds me, and if I live too much in my head, if I spend too much time stringing words and ideas together, I start to feel out of kilter. The act of making — inventing, figuring out how to assemble something, composing with color, finding a creative re-use for commonplace objects — puts my soul at rest. Order out of chaos. I create faces and limbs and torsos — call them dolls, call them icons, call them ancestors — and they all have a story, whether I know what it is or not (see a piece pictured at right).
I don’t feel as though I am particularly creative with origami. I incorporate simple folds into some of my storytelling programs in order to illustrate short little stories I’ve learned and created expressly for this purpose (they don’t stand by themselves), and I teach origami workshops. I’d say my persona as Origami Swami is responsible for about a third of my income. I don’t invent new figures, I don’t add to the knowledge base or discover new ways to fold paper. But I am perpetually in awe over the endless possibilities latent in something as ubiquitous, as simple, as pedestrian as a square of paper.
Balance? I tend to binge on one activity or another. Lately I seem to be writing more than anything else.