When asked to prove her talent to Mountain Xpress readers recently, straight-talking storyteller Susan Klein was quick to refuse.
“People sometimes say, ‘Well, can you tell me a three-minute story?’ — I don’t do those,” she rebuked, in motherly fashion, reluctant to waste a good tale on a phone interview. “It’s an art form. So I’m sorry to tell you no, but it won’t work.”
Klein is a little crustier than most people’s cherished stereotype of storytellers allows. Despite an earlier career in education, the Massachusetts resident is not exactly the kindergarten-teacher type. Nor is she the twinkling, starry-eyed dreamer, floating from town to town spreading wonder and merriment (though her career as an internationally known tale bearer has kept her on the road for the past 18 years).
Klein is a truth teller. And the truth is not always pretty — or socially acceptable — but, as she explains, a story can serve to lessen the gall of life’s bitter pills. “A place to explore darkness and not get hurt,” according to Klein, the story can have a different meaning for everyone who hears it; it holds the power to shape personal and community identity.
“Historically, [the storyteller] was the person who had all of the information about who came before,” notes Klein, whose repertoire includes both reinterpreted folk myths and stories spun from private memories.
“When someone has that information and is willing to impart it day after day after day, that promotes mental health [in the community],” she continues. “If you know where you come from and who you are, then you operate from that foundation. Also, the storyteller provides an opportunity for imaginations to be ignited and challenged, and provides that delicious place for people to leave off of the mundane and enter the realm of magic. And that’s extremely important. One of the things that happens is you explore who you are while you are doing that — and you don’t do that consciously: You do it in the collective unconscious.”
Evincing a true artistic temperament, Klein can’t be bothered about the impact of her work. “The story hits you where you live,” she says, “so whatever happens out there, I’m not really responsible for it. I know what my intent is when I tell the story, but what people glean from it can be very variable. A number of people will come up to me after a session and say that they felt a story was told specifically for them, and it will be the same story, and they will have gotten something different from it.”
Statistics show that most people fear public speaking literally more than death. But Klein — despite her unwillingness to gift Xpress with a quickie — is known for a spontaneous delivery. “If somebody asked me to rehearse and do a set program, that would be scary to me, because I would feel locked in and trapped. … I read the audience and then decide what I’m going to tell. So it’s pretty wide open. I just shoot from the hip, you know? … There is nothing conscious about this business, except for doing your brochure and making your tape. The rest of it, for me, is completely on another level. It’s all gut — and making sure that I stay out of the way of the process.”
Klein is quick to point out that professional storytelling is not something one does on a whim: “I love to play basketball, but the Celtics aren’t calling,” she quips. “Like anything else that takes full commitment, you’ve got to have talent. The first thing I always say [to aspiring storytellers] is ‘… You have to traffic in the truth.’ And that doesn’t mean that you don’t play, that you don’t have humor. But it all has to do with what your personal truth is, and how you intend to let the world know what it is — and the guise of story is a magnificent cloak. But the other thing is, they have to be prepared for a lot of want, because it’s a slow journey.”