Stories Worth Listening To: Valley Conference Brings Together Storytellers From Around The World

July 25, 2014

(Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)
Storytellers Liz Weir (left) and Queen Nur.
(Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)
Megan Finnerty of the Arizona Republic is the founder and host of the Arizona Storytellers Project.

Telling stories is something that, for a lot of us, comes pretty naturally. "Did I ever tell you about the time my Uncle Jack ... ?" -- that sort of thing. But the art of storytelling can be used for a lot: healing, cultural exchange, building community. A conference in the Valley this weekend is bringing together storytellers from around the world.

Two of the storytellers I talked to had the seed of the idea planted early on, with a little push later in life. For New Jersey-based teller Queen Nur"I started writing poetry when I was nine years old, and my father recorded me to jazz. The very story poem I ever wrote was about Crispus Attucks."

Then, about 20 years ago, she went to her daughter's preschool to present Kwanzaa. Part of the celebration involves sharing your talents, so Nur read the class her late husband's favorite story. Later, the teachers asked her back to read it again. "But they lost my book," Nur said. "And I said, you know what, I think I can do this."

Storyteller Liz Weir is from Northern Ireland. "I'm old enough to remember a time when there wasn't any TV, so I grew up listening to stories," Weir said. After leaving school, Weir became a children's librarian. She describes herself as shy, believe it or not, and was taken aback when she was told she'd have to read to groups of children. But when she started, she saw the magic.

"You just captured them with a told story, and when I put the book down and told [with] nothing between me and the child except the voice, that really hooked me," Weir said. "So I've been telling stories for about forty years now."

Weir and Nur both came to Mesa for the National Storytelling Network's annual conference, and the both described what it's like to be in front of a crowd telling a story.

"It's an interaction. A wonderful storyteller talks about dancing with the audience, and I think that's the thing," Weir said.

Nur describes storytelling as intimate. "There's that connection, right? There's not that fourth wall, like in theater."

And that connection with the audience can be powerful and healing. Liz Weir said a friend's father died recently, so the man's family and friends gathered for a wake. "And this disreputable friend of his, they were all going, oh, he's in. He was sitting with a pint of Guinness balanced on the coffin. He was saying, "Do you remember the time that we … isn't that right, John?' So even though John was dead, he was still part of the story."

For several years, Queen Nur has told at a camp for children who have experienced suicide. After she told a story about the legendary Brother Blues father: "They said there was a breakthrough for this one child who hadn't released at all. Her father had committed suicide. And she released after that story. The whole camp felt that."

It may sound counterintuitive, but Weir said part of being a good storyteller is listening. She encourages young people to ask their grandparents and older relatives about their lives.

"If you want them to tell a story, the worst thing you can do is say, 'Have you any stories?' Because they'll immediately say no. But if you say, 'Tell me, what was the first money you earned?' or 'The house you lived in, what did you see when you looked out of it?'"

Engaging people and getting them to talk about their lives is what the Arizona Storytellers Project is all about. It's a series of live storytelling nights that happen about once a month. Its founder is Megan Finnerty, an Arizona Republic reporter. She first pitched the project three years ago.

"My bosses were basically like, great, don't stop doing your job and don't cost us any money, which is how bosses say yes to things all the time. It was really great, they really took a chance on me and they really took a chance on storytelling, and I think they took a chance on Arizonans. A lot of people think Arizona is a place without culture or a place without community."

Finnerty says Arizona Storytellers proves that's wrong. And she says the project serves an important role because a lot of other storytelling events only work with ringers -- professional writers, comedians, or performers.

"We work to teach and empower all kinds of people to tell their story in a way that is entertaining and authentic," Finnerty said. She sees the events as both reflecting the community and engaging it.

"The big message that I've learned with this is everybody has a story worth telling, and more importantly, everybody has a story worth listening to," Finnerty said.

Storyteller Queen Nur puts it even more simply. "Story is as natural as day and night. And it is as relevant to every part of our life as day and night."

The National Storytelling Network conference runs through Sunday in Mesa. And, you'll be soon hearing some of the stories from the Arizona Storytellers Project events on KJZZ.