The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About James Navé
Poet, author, storyteller, and narrative coach
For over 25 years, James Navé has traveled the world in the service of poetry, art, creativity, and storytelling. He has performed for the public over 10,000 times in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America. James serves as the director of The Taos Poetry Festival, The Taos Storytelling Festival, and The LEAF Poetry Slam. He is the co-founder of The Artist’s Way Creativity Camp, the landmark performance company Poetry Alive!, and Twice 5 Miles Publishing. James hosts the Twice 5 Miles Podcast, which features dynamic hour-long interviews every week. He holds a MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA in International Relations from UNCA.
You have quite the history with storytelling. You’ve written books, poems, performed spoken word, you have a podcast…the list goes on. What is your favorite form of storytelling?
My favorite form of storytelling is a heartfelt conversation between two people who care about each other. They’re willing to give of themselves more than just verbiage – giving emotional access and allowing the most creative part of themselves to come out. Everybody has had a conversation like that. Everyone has done it. When you frame storytelling around the idea of a one-on-one conversation, it allows people to soften around the definition of storytelling and to access skills that we’ve had since we were children. Those skills can be transferred over into the more sophisticated realms of storytelling.
Personally, I don’t really have a preferred genre or format. I just write and sometimes people call it poetry. Other times they call it storytelling. Other times they call it copywriting. My focus is really dancing with language in whatever form we can dance.
So, how do you define a story?
Storytelling is what the entire earth is doing all the time. The earth is telling it’s stories through codes – and we are part of that code sharing. When we tell stories, we’re participating in that rhythm. When we talk about storytelling as performed by human beings, we’re really talking about organization and delivery systems – whether that’s writing or performing, poetry or prose.
I encourage people to trust their sense of what a story is – we’ve been exposed to it all our lives. We are imbued with a sense of how story structure works. It’s something we don’t have to learn, but it is something we have to pay attention to.
So what makes a story? Well, most stories have a beginning, middle and end. And if you’re going to tell a story, you likely will be more successful if you can figure out the beginning, the middle and the end.
Now, a story is no different than an improvisational jazz piece. When you listen to the musicians, what you sense is improvisational, because they are indeed making some of it up as they go along. But they know the basic narrative of the song. They know that tune. It’s the same for stories told in storytelling arenas. If you do it over and over again, you start to get a sense of how to craft it as you go. That’s the imagination and the rational mind working together. The rational mind understands form, and the imagination understands the unruliness of the creative storm.
What are the unique challenges of oral storytelling?
The oral tradition has been with us from the beginning. It’s what allows us to keep our species moving forward. So any time we tell any story, we always have to start from the point of view of the spoken word because that’s what we do first.
Now, storytelling from a stage, that’s about technique, stagecraft and acting. When you’re on the stage and looking out into the audience there’s a lot of mechanical stuff that’s going on externally and internally when one is telling the story. People tend to think they could just stand up and tell a story. But at some point if you want to move into the more professional arenas – that’s where some of the mechanical aspects come into play. How you stand, how you breathe, what kind of timing do you have? How willing are you to rehearse and then rehearse again? How much do you understand the material you’re trying to present emotionally? How connected are you emotionally to it? How much have you been able to personalize that material so that it really belongs to your interior? And then how can you allow all of that rehearsal and personalization to create an atmosphere that is meaningful and valuable to the audience?
Storytelling from the stage requires us to factor in all of those elements. And that’s what makes the idea of storytelling so compelling. It’s not about you or me standing up and telling a story at the Moth or pitching to a client. It’s about the willingness of the person entering the arena to have some rigor around the craft. There’s all this back work that has to happen, and nobody ever sees it. You don’t have to train forever to do it, but you do have to know a few things in order to make it work for you on the stage.
How do you make a story better?
To me, the heart of this question is: How do you get your story beyond just OK, to have a lasting quality and impact on the listener. If you want your story to have a lasting impact, you have to start by picking a story that has significance for you. You can build out a story from almost anything and entertain people, if something in the story emerges that has some transformation.
One of my favorite story tricks is this: If you want to beef up your story – add details and add numbers. So instead of just saying “I woke up this morning, ate breakfast, and drove to the library.” I say something like:
“I woke up this morning at 6:15am. I rolled over 3 times in the bed. Then I put on my brand new shoes that I bought a couple days ago. I looked to the sunrise and I noticed some clouds over the horizon, storm clouds. It was 35 degrees, almost freezing. I had read that there was a snowstorm on the way. Do I dare travel through the mountains?”
When you do that, you start to add details and numbers, it will slow you down. It will create imaginative circumstances that you can connect to. And then the story will start to tell itself and you will start to believe it. And when you start to believe it, everybody else will. That’s how you can raise the stakes in every story you want to tell.
But if you are called to tell a story that has deep embedded stakes, that’s a much longer proposition. Those are the kind of stories that are never finished because memory is fluid and the memory never returns the same. I often tell the story of my father who was a WW2 veteran who came back and drank and played the fiddle. He was very abusive – we were collateral damage from the war. But he also taught me how to play the guitar. We had 2 men in the house, the ex soldier who couldn’t get over it, and the musician who found great joy in the four strings on the fiddle.
I find something intriguing about that story about my father. I could tell it for a whole hour or in 2 minutes. Every time I tell it, it’s transformative. Those deep stories that you feel moved to tell require lots of time mulling and rehearsing and allowing the story to change you every time you tell it. If you can allow the story to change, and you the teller to be changed, the audience will be transformed too.
That’s the deeper part of storytelling. Once you move into those rooms, you’re moving into alchemy, magic, the ancestors. That’s what happens if you stay in it and dwell in it for a long time. That’s also why poetry is a big factor here, because the poetic aspect of this is always at play. It’s impossible to do that without being poetic.
How much do you think about your audience, versus just making something for yourself?
The difference between storytelling and acting is that the actor is behind the 4th wall. Actors create their own bubble of reality on the stage. They have nothing to do with the audience.
Storytelling, on the other hand, has everything to do with the audience and the teller. I always say that the story lives in a warm, wool nest that sits between the audience and the teller. And we all exist in that warmth of the nest, incubating the story and creating that atmosphere. Audience awareness and consciousness—the ability to read the room and have a feeling for these people who have taken time out of their lives to come listen to you—is absolutely essential.
But people will ask me, so do I make a story for the audience, or tell a story from my interior? I am of the mind that one must start from the inside and work out, and invite the audience into your private world. I, as an audience member, will come to hear you because I’m hoping you will give me something in your gift that will allow me to have a slight transformation, maybe some insight, and pick up a little bit of wisdom. So our challenge as storytellers is to find something from our interior and craft it in a way that it can have meaning for someone else.
When people disengage from their self-consciousness and tell from their interior, it’s a bit like looking into a fire or a beautiful fish tank. What is it about a thunderstorm that’s so compelling? It’s the same thing. When I start to connect to my emotional interior, you start to connect to your emotional interior. And when it’s done well, people in the audience start to think it’s their story. And there’s the wool nest.
What advice would you give for someone who is working to hone their storytelling craft?
Trust your own style and really just be yourself. It’s easy to be yourself when you’re having your morning coffee. It’s different when you’re on a stage. Try to stay connected to your sense of who you are when you’re in private. And then seek out the kind of help you need so that when you are on stage you can take what you’ve always had and bring it with you on stage. Then you’ll have a center of gravity. If you’re a quiet person who is shy, don’t try to have a huge on-stage persona. Just ask somebody to turn up the volume so you can talk quietly on the mic. Be yourself. When you do that, the stories will come out.