October 09, 2010

Cathryn Wellner on the risks the storyteller takes

Cathyrn Wellner graces these pages today with her guest essay. 

Here’s some background: Cathryn is part of an international network of storytellers. These courageous folk operate in the oral tradition of Homer.

For a decade, between careers as a school librarian and later as a community development consultant, Cathryn performed as a storyteller, spoke at conferences, and offered workshops in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Initially her audiences were almost all school children.

One of Cathryn's first experiences in storytelling, for a book store audience in Rochester, New York

Gradually, she says, she began to understand the hunger we all share for stories and how deeply healing they can be and worked less with young audiences and more with adults. Cathryn tells us, “It is not an easy way to make a living, but it is profoundly satisfying, and there is no retirement age. I still perform occasionally and recently taught a session in narrative medicine to nursing students, via Webinar.”

With pleasure, with honor, with debt to her wisdom and generosity, I give you Cathryn Wellner.

Taking Risk
                                  by Cathryn Wellner

The places I am hurt most mark the places I am least tolerant, most vicious. Where I have been gravely injured and am most healed, these form the scant geography of my wisdom. Where I have never been hurt at all, where I have never lacked for resource or nurture, these are the stories I find it most difficult to perceive. ~ Joanne Arnott, “Storytelling: A Constellation” in By, For & About Women
 Writing truth

This quotation came back to me as I read Mary L. Tabor’s literate, eloquent, joyous and painful memoir, (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. There were times, as I read, I realized I was holding my breath, anxious about the next revelation. I know why. Mary has worked through her pain, resolved her confusion, and risen like the Phoenix. But while she was writing the blog that became a book, she was still in the middle of it. She has told me—and you can see this for yourself in her book—that the writing process, not of catharsis, but of the creation of something ‘other’ gave her life a fullness that, she says, “only the attempt to create art can do.”

But on the page, you will still see the rawness of her journey. That journey made me look at the sore places in my own heart. In spite of the passage of years, I still have stories I am not ready to lift out of the journals and letters where they lie like ogres ready to eat my soul. Mary’s book inspires me to complete the work I need to do before I can have the courage to share them. Her book has set in motion some important healing in me. Time to take the coverings off some old wounds and let healing air onto them.

So it did not surprise me to learn that one of Mary’s readers reacted with alarm to something she read in (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. No one can write that honestly and not rake fingernails over someone’s soul wounds or deepest fears. When a reader recoils because the door to her spiritual closet has been flung open, the monsters released, the writer can’t help but feel responsible. Yet if writers hold back from the searing stories, we are left alone on our perilous journeys.

Sometimes our words are daggers to another’s soul.

During my years as a traveling storyteller, I occasionally knew I’d hit the explosion button. Sometimes the story that triggered the response was so innocuous I was completely flummoxed. Other times, I knew the story was difficult but hoped my telling would lead listeners to safety.                         
Cathryn telling stories at the Belfast Yarnspinners gathering, well-known Northern Irish storyteller looking on
Early in my storytelling career, one story blew up in my face. It was the account of a child who was the butt of teasing. I thought I had dealt with my own complicated reaction to her plight. So I launched the new work with a group I figured would be receptive.

As the story unfolded, the temperature in the room changed from warm to frosty. Though the remaining stories were among my sure-fire audience pleasers, they might as well have been blocks of ice. They did nothing to thaw the room.

I’d never experienced that kind of sudden freeze. Fortunately, a friend was in the audience. We had coffee together the next day. As I shared my distress, she gently asked questions that helped me see I had not fully processed the difficult emotions the story triggered in me. I had told it too soon. The audience felt my discomfort, and it set off their alarms.

The experience taught me to do my own inner work on a story before sharing it with an audience. People are generally too polite to walk out, and they can’t put down the book and protect themselves in a performance setting. I learned to hold onto my stories until I no longer relived the pain each time I told them.

Going public with pain

With that lesson in mind I was horrified when, years later, one of my storytelling students invited me to a one-woman show. She was inviting everyone she knew to hear the story of the years of her father’s sexual abuse. She had rented a hall and baked cookies.

I was mortified but could think of no gentle way of refusing to come. She wanted me to see what she had done with what she had learned in the workshops. I wondered if she had been absent when I talked about the importance of not using the audience as a crying towel.

The hall was packed. She set the scene and then spun a story of survival and triumph so magical I still get shivers when I think about it. She was not a victim. She carried no guilt. She was a powerful woman who had experienced the horrors of degradation but emerged whole and healthy. When the last words of her performance died away, the audience rose spontaneously in a standing ovation.

We cannot control others’ responses.
                                                                                                        Cathryn sharing stories in Kalispell, Montana
Most of my own challenging storytelling experiences, and those of colleagues, have not had such straightforward causes and effects. One colleague was telling a story to a group of school children when the death of a parent in an old folktale sent a little girl into spasms of grief. The storyteller decided to retire that particular story from her repertoire.   

Some time after the incident, my friend learned the child’s mother had died only months before. The father had never talked with his daughter about their loss. Instead, he had walled off his emotions and tried to give her a normal childhood.                                                   
The child felt she had to protect her father from her own sorrow so never mentioned her mother—until the story ripped off her protective scarring. The girl’s teacher had spoken with the father and learned the story had been a key. Father and daughter used it to unlock and share their grief.

The truth is, beyond setting our own internal house in order and trying to act responsibly, we cannot control the impact our stories have, whether they are written or told. And we must tell hard stories, must allow our readers or listeners the catharsis of hearing how others have survived painful experiences.

When our best efforts are rejected

For the most part, storytellers and writers are not privy to whatever it is that unsettles our listeners or readers. We only occasionally learn we have caused pain, and that shatters us.

When Mary shared one reader’s troubling response to her eloquent book, I wrote back: “The woman may not be able to articulate what scared her so much that she had to run away screaming. Perhaps she’s not yet healed from some relationship or is involved in one that’s on shaky grounds. Maybe she’s held captive by religious teachings she is afraid to question, in case the answers might crumble her world.

“Whatever the case, she’s taken her own anxieties and projected them onto you, in a way that triggers the deepest fear in any writer—that what we have to say is unworthy and that perhaps that means we are unworthy. That you’ve had so much positive response to your splendid book gets placed on one side of the balance. On the other side is the heavy stone of her reaction. No one’s immune from the bashing that does to the spirit, even someone as accomplished, talented, open, and intelligent as you.”

Wisdom from one who came before

In her 1938 book, If You Want to Write, Barbara Ueland wrote, “I think that when people condemn what we do, they are symbolically destroying us. Hence the excruciatingly painful feeling, though to our common sense it seems foolish and self-centered to feel so bad.”

When we release our story-children, the offspring of our creative imaginations, into the world, we become sensitive plants, recoiling from unkind touch. It is then we need the words of Barbara Ueland:
 “What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.”

Read Cathryn’s blogs Catching Courage  (links here to Story Route & Crossroads)
Follow Cathryn on Twitter 
Find Cathryn on Facebook 


  1. Thanks so much for this captivating post. I believe that storytelling ranks right up there with reading in importance. And I love Barbara Ueland's books, especially If You Want to Write. I was glad to be reminded of her. Gosh, this makes me yearn for a nice big fire, a cup of tea and a good story!

  2. Thank you, Kate, for stopping by to read Cathryn's essay and to read about her. Other readers should know that Barbara Ueland's book is available on Amazon through a number of sellers. I suggest going here and trying to get the original copy or the Graywolf Press edition: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1555972608/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller=


  3. PS (after a bit more research): To find the book and see which cover you might be getting, try Advanced Book Exchange. On Amazon, you can't tell which edition you might be reading--if such matters to you.


  4. Ah, well said, Cathryn. As my spiritual journey continues to unfold, I've come to the conclusion (not an original thought, I'm sure)that we all lead the same lives, although, not in the literal sense. The ups, the downs; the shocks, the surprises; the pain, the joy, the peace. This "mortal package" is merely showing up on my doorstep or yours in a slightly different box, if you will. And this belief leads to ultimate compassion and empathy for the human condition, as a whole. It also reminds me that we are all connected, spiritually, and thus, all pain is shared pain ... all joy is shared joy. Life becomes so much easier with this insight by my side ... so I work each day to remember that my footsteps are your footsteps, and vice versa. It can be tempting to draw lines of division, but to what avail? So, yes, our stories are universal ... and they reveal the intricate nature of life via words that resonate with truth. Some feel the need to tell the story; some do not. I get that. I admire those that do, while I understand that it's still okay to be a private person on this global stage called Earth. But within that distinction let us all respect the universal story of goodwill and peace -- and the unifying power of story, regardless of kind or type or purpose. We are all kindred spirits in one way or another ... I believe. Thanks to both of you. It's wonderful to share thoughts on important subjects, and it also seems this is a good conversation to be having as our world struggles to evolve beyond challenging polarities. Namaste.

  5. Thank you, Daisy, for this heartfelt and wise comment. It is my pleasure to see you here and to share this space with your open heart.


  6. As a novelist, I must admit I admire professional Storytellers. Those who tell their stories to a public audience display a type of bravery I envy. While I, too, tell stories, mine are couched in the safety of distance, narrative accounts told in written language rather than spoken.
    And while there is risk in both types of storytelling, I believe the risks of vulnerability and immediacy in the Storyteller’s oral presentation are greater than those whose tales are told in print.
    The Storyteller’s oeuvre is similar to that of musicians, who often describe their ability to establish a rapport and “work” off their audience. Indeed, many artists claim that there is no higher level of satisfaction than that found in public performance.
    All storytelling is a form of social contract, the understanding that the audience is receptive to vicariously sharing what the artist has to impart. So while the delivery of this shared content is important, it is the subject of the story that is usually most compelling.
    I was especially mindful of the value you place on catharsis. There is therapeutic value to be found not only in the sharing of ideas, but in the sharing of emotions, as well. And this is where the perspectives may differentiate along gender lines.
    So I am here to offer but one perspective from a male point of view.
    All men and most women know that there is an unspoken “code” among males. While emotions are a vital component of our personal human experience, the thinking goes, they are also potentially volatile and messy. Which is why most men like to keep them in the unopened box. It is okay to have feelings, we say, just not to express them. Especially in public.
    Indeed, in professional sports circles, the acceptable forms of expressed emotions are pretty much limited to exuberance (nice catch Bubba!) anger (I will knock your $#@%*? Head off!) and disgust (lousy call ref!).
    In many male circles, any expressed feelings other than these are considered a sign of weakness.
    Males love high-risk, high-reward behavior, as long as it is in the service of concrete, results. Like running a reverse option which results in a touchdown. But even if it doesn’t result in a score, at least the players who attempt the play are to be admired for their willingness to try it.
    But the touchy-feely moments belong on Oprah, not ESPN.
    So if catharsis results from the expression of shared feelings, does this practice belong to only half the human race? Not at all. But perhaps the form of it does.
    Here’s an example.
    Five weeks ago my short story “The Mirror” was published in The Criterion International Journal (shameless plug alert!). It is the story of two little girls from Kansas, 6 and 10 years old, who run away from home after the smallest one suffers paternal violence.
    The crux of the story can be succinctly shared:

    “I know why you’re crying,” she said.
    “Why?” sniffled Emily. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Danielle, whose sunburned arms wouldn’t bother her until the next morning.
    “Because really you want to go back home, but you don’t like it when daddy drinks. You think he will hit me again and you don’t want me to be hurt like momma, but you want to go home.”

    Surely, if there is any catharsis to be had, it is encapsulated in those few lines!
    While I received a few positive comments from women after the story’s publication, I received no acknowledgement of any kind from the Manly Men. No hearty congratulations. No knowing “nice job!(s).”
    It was as if I had just missed kicking the winning field goal in overtime.
    Cricket sounds.
    When I think of reading “The Mirror” aloud to a public audience, I am glad I am an author and not a professional Storyteller.! This is the reason I admire their courage and yours, Cathyrn.
    Moral of the story?
    Not all risks are rewarded, and not all effects are intended to be concrete.

  7. If I read KL Stover correctly...started with music analogy and then veered off to sports. Huh?

    I invite you to the symphony where we can enjoy a requiem. Choose one Britten, Duruflé, Fauré. Moves both men and women to tears.

  8. The most wrenching part of writing stories is to release them for other minds to shift through my thoughts. As I read Cathryn's post I was struck by how brave she is to share her stories in performance. I was also struck by how powerful that kind of sharing can be.

    This statement, I loved. ". . . we must tell hard stories, must allow our readers or listeners the catharsis of hearing how others have survived painful experiences." This is the very reason I write "hard stories" for young readers.

    Thank you both.

  9. To Cleemckenzie, to Keith Stover and to R pluta,

    Perhaps David Shields says it best when he quotes without attribution--except for the requirements of his publisher who in fact is concerned with attribution, that "All art aspires toward the condition of music." If one proceeds where Shields would have us not go, we find that this great line so apt for the writer--comes from Walter Pater, The Renaissance.

    I think Reality Hunger by David Shields is a great book of parables, of collage, of quotes, quoted without the usual permissions as he gifts us with wisdom: albeit lifted and placed inside the collage of his thinking and so I repeat: with attribution to David Shields: "All art aspires toward the condition of music," as R Pluta has made clear with his references, to Britten, to Duruflé, Fauré--and as R Pluta adds: "move both men and women to tears."

    I thank these commenters with their thoughts and particularly to R Pluta for his wisdom.

    And to Cathryn Wellner who gave us her heart here on this blog.


  10. To all of you, I apologize for my long silence. I sent off responses before leaving on a short holiday, only to discover they disappeared into the big bit bucket in the sky.

    kate mayfield, I’m pleased to find someone else who remembers and loves Barbara Ueland’s books. If You Want to Write has been on my shelf for at least thirty years now. It’s dog-eared and underlined and full of notes. I think we all yearn to be heard, really heard, and so we write, paint, dance, make love, and ache to be accepted in all our complexities. When a story resonates for us, we feel understood.

    dazydaywriter, Your insights always delight me. You are so right about the common contents in our “mortal packages”. One of my favorite old tales is about the trouble tree. Everyone can bring her troubles to the tree and hang them there. The only requirement is that she take other troubles away. In every version of the story I know of, each visitor to the tree carries away her own troubles. At least they are familiar.

    Friends have been surprised by some of the particularly open entries on my blogs. I’ve always been rather private, except with my closest women friends. Somehow being in my seventh decade on the planet, and having no heirs, is loosening my need to shelter my stories. Besides, I owe a great deal to the people who have shared their inner and outer journeys with honesty, as Mary has. I owe something to these companions on my journey.

  11. k.l. stover, I am grateful for your long and thoughtful response. I would agree with artists who claim “there is no higher level of satisfaction than found in public performance.”

    I have so many memories of ending a story and experiencing an extended silence, while audience members slowly extricated themselves from the world we had created together, through my words and their deep listening.

    The different responses between men and women were always in my mind as I crafted the flow of a program. Plenty of humour and daring adventure for the men and the deep passages of the soul for the women—and an awareness that we are all yin and yang. With the right mix, the audience came through the performance safely...and together.

    I remember one evening when a man who’d obviously come reluctantly and at his partner’s urging, sat with arms folded, head down, legs outstretched. During the first story, he pulled in his legs and sat somewhat straighter. During the second story, he lowered his arms. During the third story, and until the performance ended, he sat forward, eyes glued, fully attentive.

    Reading the short passage from “The Mirror” hits me in the solar plexus and stirs up childhood memories I haven’t yet written about. It is, indeed, cathartic. Would the men I have loved be able to tell you how deeply it moved them? Not likely, though I know enough of their secret pain and yearnings to understand the wrenching tears such a scene might evoke.

    But they would never tell you that, and they might not even read the short story that contained such a harrowing passage.

    My hat is off to you for not holding back in your writing and for continuing to write with such deep emotion, even when the response is silence.

  12. r pluta, I look back over the years and remember with love the tears of all the good men in my life. I think we’ve felt closest at those moments when we were touched to the quick.

    cleemckenzie, During my years as a school librarian, I was grateful to authors like you who understood that young readers live in the same world as the rest of us. The doyenne of Canadian storytelling, Alice Kane, knew that too. I first met her at a storytelling conference in Rochester, New York. Someone asked her about violence in fairy tales. The question’s subtext was that children needed to be shielded. Alice Kane was adamant that what children needed was guides. They needed stories that showed that intelligence, determination, honesty, and justice could overcome inhumanity, inequality, deception, and violence. Her young listeners lived in a precarious world. She never sugar coated experience. Instead, she gave hope. I sense that’s what you do.

    And to you, dear Mary, thank you for reference to David Shields’s Reality Hunger. My library has it. It’s checked in. Soon I’ll be reading it.

    But mostly, thank you for the deep, questing spirit that brings readers here to ponder.

  13. Mary and Cathryn, thank you both for your thoughtful comments.

    Mary, I fully agree with David Shields. Of all the art forms, I believe that music is the most powerful because of its ability to speak the unspeakable.

    Cathryn, your mindfulness and consideration of the mixture of men and women in your audiences reminds me of a great maestro, guiding the telling of your stories through intricate passages of subtlety and nuance.

    I love that both of you totally understand the healing power of Art!

  14. Just quickly ...

    Writers and/or storytellers will always be criticized for one thing or another; it's the nature of the beast. But as Elbert Hubbard pointed out: "To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." So maybe the only real answer is to accept the various issues that are destined to surface via an artistic orientation to life, staying focused on that which brings peace, joy, and meaning to one's life.

    We can't expect everyone to love our work -- yet, we forge on, because we are artists. And because life is so often defined by controversy and criticism. One day, if humanity manages to evolve on a collective level, we may experience a different reality. But until then ... here we are ... creating and working as artists in an unsettled, deeply conflicted world. Yet, we choose to continue, for whatever reason, and that is probably all that really matters.

    If anyone is interested in thinking about what might be in the offing globally, E. Dee Conrad's book, A New Dawn Awaits, is one to consider ... here's a quick overview @ http://ht.ly/2glqH ...

    Otherwise, I would just add that art is healing when we allow it to be, but realistically, it's also a subjective experience like most things in life. What resonates w/me may not resonate with friends or family. Luckily, there is such incredible variety out there; we are a productive planet if nothing else. So I've always believed it's wiser to focus on our own creativity, as opposed to the criticism our artistic endeavors may provoke. Taking negative words too seriously can be a huge energy drain, for one thing. They are what they are ... and it's okay to be bothered by them, but then, we all must find the strength to refocus our energies. To begin anew with conviction and peace.

    Maybe Catherine and Mary could team up to co-author a book on this subject. Could be quite interesting! --Daisy @ SunnyRoomStudio

  15. Daisy, what an eloquent post! And it's so true. It certainly parallels my philosophical belief that all truth is individual rather than collective, and that both artistic expression and appreciation are personal and subjective. This is part and parcel of post postmodern existentialism, which basically says that reality itself is largely negotiable, depending on perception and experience.

    Art exemplifies the truism, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," and "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." For instance, 10 people might view the same movie, five of which think its the best film they've ever seen, three thinks it's terrible and two have no opinion. A work of art is often only as good as the frame of reference that it is received in. People's personal experiences dictate their individual preferences.

    But in reading your words and Mary's and Cathryn's, I am thinking more and more that what we are all describing is ultimately an elevation of consciousness, which comes with the refined sensibilities of considering art and artists.

    I think your myriad references to Eckhart Tolle, for instance, demonstrate your desire to reach a different level of personal spiritual growth and awareness; and while art is most often generated individually, it informs our collective social and cultural thoughts, feelings and ideas. This is what makes it such a valuable tool.

    When the exchange of ideas takes the form of dialectic discourse as in this excellent blog, then one can see how individuals, and then groups of people and finally whole societies can become enlightened. It all begins with a passion for communication.

  16. Coming late to this, I am reminded of Susan Ross's belief in the power of Fierce Conversations - the issue is not the hard words we may have to say but our willingness to bear witness to the journey through of the listener's responses, what ever they may be.... bear witness... a sacred obligation to the spirit soul of others.

  17. Fierce Conversations - the book is new to me, but your comment couldn't be more timely. I'm going to read this book NOW.

  18. Hi, Tess and Cathryn,

    I haven't read Fierce Conversations yet, but know that it is by Susan Scott and is available on Amazon. So others, do check this book out.


All comments are moderated and welcomed. Please do not post links to sell stuff from your site or another site, however.