Joe has told stories in 36 states, Spain and 9 Latin American countries. He often meets parents, teachers, even school administrators, who remember hearing his stories from when they themselves were children.
JOE ANSWERS SOME QUESTIONS FROM ADULTS
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
I probably shouldn't admit this—especially to kids—but the biggest challenge is to make myself settle down and write. And the older I get, the harder it becomes. More and more things—mostly petty everyday things—seem to be crying out for my attention.
It sometimes helps to keep a pencil and paper beside the computer and write down the chores that pop into my head, rather than jumping up to do them as soon as I think of them. If I write them down I don't have to worry that if I put them off I'll forget them.
The biggest help is to have the story pretty well worked out in my mind before I begin to write. I'm lucky because I'm a storyteller and can often work a story out by telling it before I write it. Another time I plot out stories is when I'm walking my dog. Ideas come more freely into my mind when I'm moving. I can sometimes do the same thing when I'm driving my car.
But then the moment comes when I have to sit down and get the words written.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get kids started?
One kind of story I like to tell and write is a tall tale. I call the them what if? stories. You think of something that really did happen, or that’s really true about you. And then you say those two words. What if? Think of a wild answer. And then start telling it as if it really happened that way.
It’s true that I didn’t like to throw things away when I was a kid. I had some shoes that got pretty smelly. I asked myself, What if I had a pair of shoes that got really stinky? I answered, A skunk might fall in love with them. And I started making up The Love Sick Skunk.
What if you had a pair of smelly shoes, or socks? What if you had something you refused to throw away, no matter how many times your mom asked you to?
What advice would you give to someone beginning to tell stories to children, such as a new children's librarian?
Believe in the power of stories and of storytelling. Children love to hear a story from a grown up. There’s nothing quite like it. Reading to children is wonderful, but there’s an added pleasure in experiencing a story directly from inside another human being. So be confident. Tell the story in your own way. Let your true self shine through. The children will love you for it.
Does a story take on a different life each time you tell it?
Once the story is begun, it takes charge. Even though you may be feeling too tired to tell the story, once it is begun, it pushes you onward. And because no two moments in time are every identical and no two groups are ever the same the story becomes a fresh experience each time it’s told.
How long does it take to learn a story?
From the time you first become interested in sharing the story to the last time in your life you tell it—that’s how long it takes to fully know a story. You never stop learning a story. You never stop discovering something new about it or seeing a new and different reaction to it.
What are some of the things that you have learned in your travels about storytelling in other parts of the world that may resonate universally?
There seems to be in inverse relationship between material wealth and traditional culture. People who have a humbler, simpler, sometimes more challenging, life tend to value traditions more. I think the very best storytelling is done unreflectively, just a part of how people relate to one another. We don’t see that so much in this country, but in other countries, where people are still closer to the land, closer to the fundamentals of life, it still happens.
What’s the difference for you between reading from a book and telling a story - even if the story may exist in printed form?
Reading aloud is wonderful, and I greatly admire people who are good at it. But telling a story is a wholly different experience. Even a very informal, very unpolished telling affects listeners in a different way. There’s something more personal, more intimate, about the experience. The listener really feels as though the teller is sharing not just the story, but a part of himself or herself. The story comes not just from the voice of the teller, but from the face, the eyes, the whole being of the teller, and it’s heard with more than just the ears. This experience is unique to live storytelling.