Storytelling: An Interview with Jordan Hill

Interview by Sol Davis

Jordan HillSol: As a child at a recent birthday party asked after being released from the coils of your tale spinning: "How do you remember the stories?"  In other words, what is your process for storytelling?

Jordan: My process is pretty straightforward--I read or hear a story, and then I try to tell it to someone (anyone!).  If it's written, I might read it again, but the best way for me to remember it is simply to tell it, as much as possible.  I have a pretty good memory, so that helps.  But more importantly is the fact that remembering stories is NOT the same as memorizing, as people often think.  Rather, it is more akin to remembering life experiences.  For the most part, people don't have to work to remember remarkable things that have happened to them in their life (or their day yesterday)--it simply happens, and when someone asks, "How was your day?" you don't think twice before telling the story of whatever happened.  In the same way, if one imagines a story vividly enough (whether through hearing it, reading it, or seeing it performed), then it almost becomes like one's own memories, and simply telling the story becomes as natural as telling a friend what happened to you the other day.

Another way to think about this is that I don't use words to remember a story but rather a series of images.  Then, when I'm telling a story, it's like there's a movie playing in my mind, and I use words and technique to convey that movie to the minds of my listeners.

Sol: What do you hope young listeners of, and participants in, your tales will walk away with?

Jordan: Primarily, I want participants to leave with a sense of magic and wonder, joy and enchantment!  In some cases I might be focusing my stories around a certain theme, and in these cases I hope listeners learn a bit more about the theme--but even here, if I can just bring about in them a greater sense of wonder and connection to the theme, that's brilliant.  Also, the stories I tell are generally filled with all sorts of life lessons, models of virtue and vice, and pretty deep spiritual truths, and I hope these have some sort of impact, even if just by planting a seed somewhere deep in a person's heart.

Sol: What are the points of intersection between your reading, writing and storytelling?  Or, what does the oral tradition offer that reading and writing does not?

Jordan: Generally speaking, unless I'm specifically reading a book of stories or about storytelling, what I'm reading does not have a significant conscious impact on my storytelling.  That said, I do spend a lot of time reading different stories to find new tales to tell--my repertoire is always expanding.  So that clearly has a very direct connection to my storytelling.  Most of my current writing grows directly from the stories I tell and my own thoughts on storytelling.  For instance, I'm currently writing a graphic novel which fundamentally all about storytelling.

Of course all media have different strengths and weaknesses with regard to how they're able to convey a story.  The oral tradition offers an approach to story that is extremely alive--both in that it is typically done as a live performance, and in that the relationships between storyteller, story, and audience create a space in which stories are constantly shifting, growing, developing, and evolving.

Sol: Can you point to a particular experience that led you to begin cultivating the art of storytelling?

Jordan: For sure!  My last semester of college I stumbled upon a course on storytelling, taught by a rather epic storyteller.  I had never really come across storytelling as an art/craft prior to that.  During the class we heard a classic Irish folk tale about a man named Brian who thought he couldn't tell a story.  After a rather crazy experience in the Valley of the Faeries, he discovers otherwise.  One night I found myself standing on a bench telling the story of Brian to some friends.  The experience was electric, and alongside of Brian I discovered that I, too, could tell a story--and that I loved doing so!

Sol: What genre do you prefer to work with?  Are there certain topics or resolutions that you are especially drawn to?

Jordan: I'm tremendously drawn to fairy tales, as well as any story involving magic or enchantment.  As far as resolutions go, what I'm drawn to is, I think, not particularly respected in the "adult" world, but I love it all the same:  "Happily ever after (or actually, I prefer, "they lived contentedly for the rest of their days," or some such version.)

Jordan HillSol: Is there a difference between telling a story and reciting a poem?  If so, what is it?  What is the relationship between the two?

Jordan: There are, of course, many differences.  The major one in my mind is that the way I (and many storytellers) weave tales is not based on a script--we know the major details of plot/character/setting in the story, but we choose the words to illustrate those details on the spot (for the most part).  With poetry, unless one is reciting a poem that they're creating right then and there, the specific words--as well as their rhythm, their flow, and so on--are already largely laid out for the performer, before the performance.

The relationship between storytelling and poetry rests on the fact that both are mediums of expressive communication that rely on words--or more specifically, images conveyed via words (depending of course on the type of poem and story).  Many (if not most) poems tell a story, and a good storyteller will have a good sense of how to use their language in ways that are beautiful and evocative, thus drawing on the skills of a poet.

Here are some of Jordan Hill's storytelling exercises:

1.  Front door exercise:

Find a partner to do this exercise with.  Imagine some special treasure or favorite object that you have at home, and think about where it is in your home. With your partner as the listener and you as the speaker, have your partner close their eyes.  You will then begin describing to your partner the front door to your home.  From there, you will carefully (with as much detail as reasonably possible) explain to your partner how to go into your home, travel to the location of your treasure/object, and, once there, tell your partner the story behind the object that makes it so special.  Then verbally guide your partner back to the front door (with some detail, but less than in the first half of the exercise).  If your partner is willing, switch roles and have them guide you with eyes closed to their special object and back.

Afterwards, consider the following questions:

What was that like?  When you were describing or listening, how did you imagine?  What senses were most prevalent in your imagination?  Was it clear?  Could you follow your partner?  Could they follow you?

2.  Picture drawing (writing) game:

In the middle of a page draw a picture of or describe the hero/heroine/main character. On the top right of the page draw or describe where they live (setting).  On the bottom right draw or write a special ability that they have.  On the top left draw or write a special helper to the hero.  On the bottom left draw or describe an enemy or problem they must overcome.  Once you've done this, you've got a story to tell:  the story of your main character, who lives in such and such a setting, and how they use their skill, with the help of their helper, to overcome a certain obstacle.

3.   Picture passing game:

Find a dramatic and evocative illustration.  If there's more than one of you, pass the picture around the pair or group (otherwise just do the following exercises on your own--in your head, verbally, or in writing).  The first time around, say a color you notice in the picture.  On the second time around describe an object or character you see in the picture.  On the third time around tell your version of what is happening in the scene.  On the fourth time tell what happened before the pictured event came to pass, and on the fifth time tell what happens after the scene in the picture.  After this, you'll have a story comprised of the pre-scene, scene, and post-scene--i.e. the beginning, middle, and end!

Created on: 
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents