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SISF 2019: Q&A with Michael Williams

Tell us an interesting feature of traditional storytelling in your country. 

Traditional storytelling in Canada consists of different strands reaching back to Indigenous storytelling traditions, European traditions, and other immigrant and local traditions. I grew up in a multi-cultural neighbourhood in Hamilton, Ontario, where the city’s steel mills attracted families from around the world. As a boy, I was aware that my friends’ parents spoke languages other than English, ate food different from mine, and celebrated different holidays and festivals. When I asked my Dad, “What are we?”, he said, “We’re nothing, just Canadian.” I think that was what set me on the path to learning more about my traditions, my roots, and my stories.

How did you become a storyteller?

I’ve long been an avid reader and lover of stories. In my 20s, I worked in Canada as a counsellor with adolescents, listening to their stories and helping them and their families author more positive ones where necessary. When I turned 30, I returned to university to study language and literature. This led to a PhD in English Literature at University of Edinburgh and later an Advanced Diploma in Local History from University of Oxford. I had a particular interest in autobiographical and therapeutic storytelling. In the 1990s I taught at the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School, which encouraged the use of oral storytelling in our teaching. Soon I discovered the Scottish Storytelling Centre and began a sort of “storytelling apprenticeship”, taking all the courses and workshops I could attend. I owe much to the support of storytellers Ruth Kirkpatrick and Claire McNicol who invited me to accompany them on their storytelling visits into schools and residential centres to work with children and adolescents. I also am grateful to storytellers Donald Smith and David Campbell for their mentoring and support. In 2005, I left full-time teaching to become a travelling storyteller, and I’ve never looked back.

What is so magic about storytelling?

I believe that stories are entities in their own right, that they exist in a world older than us. That is why I carry a “story stone”, since rocks are the oldest creatures on earth and know all the stories. I also believe stories choose me and that I am here to serve them, to help convey their magic to the listener. Ultimately, the real magic exists between the teller and the listener when a story is told “eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart”. The story’s magic brings us together in community, which is why I consider storytelling my spiritual practice.

Do you have a favourite story?

My favourite story is the one I’m telling. Over the years, however, Jack tales have attracted me as have some of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. One particular one – “The Curious Girl” – l learned from Canadian storyteller Kay Stone and has become a particular favourite, as has “The Story of Kaminik”, a story I learned from a telling by Scottish storyteller and puppeteer Sylvia Troon.

What was the last story you performed or told?

The last story I performed was the classic American tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. Its roots stretch through old German and Scottish tales but go as far back as ancient Greece. What surprised me when I told it was that while many in the audience had heard of Rip Van Winkle, few had ever heard the story told before. I was pleased to be of service to that wonderful tale.

Is storytelling becoming a lost art?

I don’t think so. It seems that storytelling is becoming more popular. Every culture has a storytelling tradition and those who promote it. Storytelling clubs, festivals, and events are increasingly on the rise, attracting all ages to the art of storytelling. Social media too is awash with stories indicating how fundamental storytelling is to human connection. Storytelling has found a home in business, in education, in faith communities, therapy and healing centres, entertainment venues, and many other places where people gather to share their experiences. Stories travel well and are highly adaptable, which probably accounts for the fact that they’ve been around for a long, long time and will no doubt be around as long as there are people willing to share them.

What is the biggest challenge storytellers face?

While everyone is a storyteller to some extent, the “professional” storyteller faces many of the same challenges experienced by other artists such as funding, finding employment and affordable venues, and developing new audiences. In addition to their storytelling skills, today’s storyteller needs to have business and marketing skills. You need to be flexible, willing to adapt and understand your chosen audience or client. And you need to understand the challenge of today’s digital and other media which can threaten to usurp the role of the “live” storyteller. While the media can be a helpful tool, there’s nothing like experiencing storytelling in the flesh, “eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart.”

This year’s Festival theme is Beyond Words. What does Beyond Words mean for you?

Many storytellers find their stories in books. The challenge comes in freeing the story from the words on the page and finding its “voice”. But stories are also told through other forms of expression such as painting, sculpture, quilting, or other visual media, as dance and other forms of movement, through music and sound, theatre, and other forms of artistic expression. I also think of stories beyond words as the stories behind the writing of letters, for example, stories in people’s memories, in an expression or a gesture. I once worked with a group of adults, some with severe communications issues, unable to articulate using language. I felt it was still important that I find a way for them to share their stories. With the help of their workers, I encouraged these men and women to move and make sounds, to express themselves. And while I didn’t have the advantage of hearing words that I could interpret, I found there was a connection and shared understanding that was “beyond words”, yet still was something I would call storytelling.

Can you tell us about a time when you have been storytelling that connected you with another teller or listener beyond words?

During a storytelling session, I caught the eye of an elderly woman in the audience. She began to cry. Afterwards, I asked her if she was okay. She said she was but had become emotional when I looked at her because she said it was the first time in her life she’d ever been told a story directly like that. In that moment, I realised how important storytelling is and how nourishing stories are for our well-being. A few years later, I met that woman again in the Royal Bind Home in Edinburgh. I invited her to tea to record her life story. For two hours, I asked her questions and she told me her story. When we finished, we sat there in silence. Then she told me, “I’m ready to go now.” I reassured her that I would drive her home. She laughed and said, “No, I mean I can go now,” meaning she was ready to die. In that moment, I again recognised how important our stories are. They are our final gift to the world. That woman died within months of our storytelling session together. I sent the recording to her two nieces, the only family she had left. They told me that they were grateful “beyond words” for having their Aunt’s story as a legacy.

How do you imagine being part of the SISF 2019 will be?

I look forward to participating and contributing to SISF 2019. Having lived in Scotland for thirty years and been a part of the Scottish Storytelling Forum and community, I look forward to returning to see old friends and colleagues. It’s an honour to be asked to return to the Centre and be a part of this wonderful Festival. I am honoured to be representing Canada too as a member of the Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada as well as my local Burlington Storytellers Guild. I look forward to meeting other storytellers, listening to their tales, and sharing experiences and our passion for this traditional art.

Indigenous culture/language is a focus for SISF 2019: How important is heritage and culture for you?

While I do not have an Indigenous heritage, I greatly appreciate the importance of Indigenous culture and language in my country. During the past few years, I have attended a number of Indigenous storytelling events and have been honoured to have been invited to tell stories at the Skaronhyase’kó:wa The Everlasting Tree School in the Six Nations Community near Oshweken, Ontario.

As part of #SISFBeyondWords, our Global Lab explores the principles and goals of The Earth Charter Initiative and how storytelling can positively impact on this. What do you feel is the role of storytellers in the 21st century?

Stories know no borders. They flow through us, one to another and bring us closer together. As storytellers, I believe we have a responsibility to honour these connections and defend and celebrate the sacredness of all peoples, all creatures, and the environment we all share. The Scottish Traveller storyteller Duncan Williamson once said that stories were “our whole education”. I believe we have a responsibility to tell stories that educate, motivate, and inspire, as well as entertain. Stories invite us to listen and learn. Storytelling is inclusive and celebrates diversity; yet stories can also be told in ways that divide, judge, and demonise. Our role as storytellers is to be aware of the stories we tell and to be as authentic as we can be in order to create a “just, sustainable, and peaceful” world.

Global Lab – Day 4: Talking Cures
Thursday 24 October at 11am (5hrs)

Book Tickets

In conversation with Michael Williams 
Thursday 24 October at 5pm (50mins)

Book Tickets

Festival Guid Crack: Tales for Samhuinn
Friday 25 October at 7.30pm (2hrs30)

Book Tickets