Long way around the bush 

I"ve practiced the a

I"ve practiced the art of storytelling for nearly 20 years. If you haven"t seen me at a library or festival, it"s likely your kids have listened to me in their school. When I read that another round of Creative Renewal Fellowships will be offered, I knew I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to tell you about my experience as a recipient of this fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis - but there is a problem. I make my living as a talker. My honest advice? Don"t read this if you aren"t willing to come with me the long way around the bush. There. You"re forewarned. Consider this: Learning to write is like learning a foreign language. At least that"s what storyteller/author Donald Davis asserts in his book Writing as a Second Language (August House publishers, 2000). Our first language - speech - comes to us nearly effortlessly through the twin supports of hard-wired physiology and the cultural ocean of continuous speech upon which we float. We don"t take formal classes to become accomplished speakers (unless developmental difficulties require it), but are nonetheless well down the path of language acquisition by age 2. Such is the unfoldment of our speech potential when awash in a sea of support. If, at a later stage, writing is deemed necessary and desirable to the particular society we inhabit, formal instruction must be given. No comparable hard-wiring exists for the purpose of writing, unless you believe we evolved opposable thumbs in order to grasp quills or Bic pens. No, by Davis" calculations, our best hope to become skillful writers lies in learning to translate our first language - our powerful, natural foundation of speech - into the newer, consciously-acquired language of writing. Just as we might learn any "foreign" language, as time goes on we may find ourselves beginning to think, perhaps even to dream, in our second language. We may even, finally, be called fluent in that language. Now, I don"t know if we come to the world hard-wired to be artful or not. I haven"t the educational where-with-all or the inclination to be definitive about that. My guess is that we"re, all of us, naturally linked to the wondrous (including the wonders of the ordinary), but must acquire tools and techniques to express our wonderment in a kind of second language we call art - which is why I thought of Davis" example with language/writing. But there"s the rub: Where"s the ocean? For such acquisition, development and realization to unfold and mature, for our gifts and abilities as painters, dancers, weavers or storytellers to come of age, the sea of cultural support must be present. I haven"t felt that requisite buoyancy often in my time as a storyteller. In my early years even the exhortation to regard storytelling as a legitimate endeavor among the pantheon of local arts (minor historical examples such as Homer aside) was a constant struggle. You can see, then, what a tidal shift in attitude the Creative Renewal Fellowship represents, not just for the artists involved but also for the arts in general. Compared to larger awards of a similar nature, some might regard this a modest sum. But why compare? A lovely shower is a welcome guest in a house of drought. Besides, the money, though welcome, has been secondary in my experience as a fellowship recipient. Yes, I used it to attend a national conference of my peers, the first time I"ve done so in over 10 years. But the unanticipated creation of new storytelling work (as well as a volume of poetry), the instigation of new collaborations with other storytellers and musicians - these arose, I"m certain, as unintended but direct results of the fellowship experience. How? I"m not sure. Being recognized? Hearing that what you do is appreciated? Maybe it"s to do with time: to let go briefly; to stop running in place so fast; to become empty long enough to allow renewal to flow in. Maybe that"s the luxury the fellowship provided: enough time to go the long way around the bush and discover things you didn"t expect to find. Which, of course, is just the kind of experience artists hope to provide for their audiences: discovery; the unexpected; renewal. As a performer whose children constitute our family"s fifth generation in this city, I think that such experiences - of continually renewing themselves, of finding unexpected horizons revealed to them in the place of their birth - will be a principal reason for them to remain here. And if they do take pride in what Scott Russell Sanders writes about so eloquently, pride in "staying put," I fully expect one ingredient will be some local artist"s translation of his/her wonder about this place we call home. Someone will become fluent enough to dream out loud and craft a "language" my kids will understand. Maybe it will be one of my kids who does the dreaming. But somebody jolly well better do it. If there"s prescience involved in this recognition of our community"s artists, maybe it"s this: In a drought you find yourself always looking up, searching for clouds, hoping they"ll appear and not just pass over. For seeding the clouds, for encouraging the rain right here where we need it, the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment deserve a great deal of credit. Thanks to them we"ll all get a drink in the long run.

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