How Did I Get To Be a Storyteller?

Storyteller Kelly Swanson brings characters to life to teach her truthsI started my career as a professional storyteller. Well, I actually started the career as a writer. Without writing, there would have been no storytelling. But nobody paid me to write, I just did it.  So anyway, I was a professional storyteller. Yes, there is such a thing. It’s an art form, and if you want to know more about it, check out the National Storytelling Network and you will find thousands of people all over the world who are participants or fans of the art. I had never heard of it until I got hired to be one.  I was taking a writing class after college, filled with teachers taking it for continuing education credits. We were asked to share our stories. I shared one of my stories from Prides Hollow (only the town had not been officially named yet). The teachers loved the story, but even more, they loved the way I told it. And they asked me to come to their school and tell stories to the students. For money. Who knew? So I did. And then they told another school, who told another school, and before I knew it, I was speaking in schools as a professional storyteller. One of the teachers at one of the schools was a professional storyteller and introduced me to the NC Storytelling Guild, where I found my tribe. I went to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough Tennessee, and said, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.” And I am, even though I don’t consider myself grown up yet. I hope I never do.

In the beginning, I was just telling the stories that I had written, stories that weren’t really about anything, or so I thought. They were just stories about people like Bitsy parading through town in her white pumps, Crazy Man Harry sitting on the corner of Route 29 in his underwear, Ned and Horace sitting on that bench every afternoon in front of the Five ‘n Dime, or Aunt Vyrnetta getting on the local news and the bird flying into her head. I didn’t know why the stories made me happy, but they did. And apparently I wasn’t the only one. Turns out other people liked them too. So I kept telling them. At first I was at the mercy of the story telling itself to me. And later I began to look for them, and my portfolio grew. I began to choose stories that would fit my audience. I began to write stories that would fit my audience. My stories began to serve many purposes – entertaining people, making them laugh, making them feel good about who they are, giving them a new perspective on an old problem. I began to write stories just for my audience and calling them tributes. I began to create characters based on my audience. I began to not only tell the stories of the people in my town, but the stories of the people in my audience.

storyteller Kelly Swanson captures the attention of the audienceIt took me years to really see and value what the stories were offering. Because it came so easy to me, and because I couldn’t experience myself like you could, I always saw myself as a mediocre writer, lucky enough to find someone to pay me to tell stories. It was always a little too good to be true. And still feels that way sometimes. I’m still surprised that someone will pay me to come speak. It’s humbling. And such an honor.

As you may already know, I entered the world of motivational speaking and buried these characters because I thought they were too different. I started trying to be like the other speakers. I started valuing a joke over a story. I kept my town a secret. I didn’t believe in them enough. Which is odd, because they were the very thing that was getting attention. But I never claimed to be bright.