Journeyman 1: The Oral Storytelling Realities
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Okay, you have been working at your art form for some time now. Are you ready to take the next step?
There is a space in the arc of the careers of all performing artists where one transitions from wide-eyed beginner to being an effective, talented Master. In between those two stages is the important step of Journeyman.
Wikipedia says that “journeyman” is based on a French word meaning “day to day.” Indeed, that is true. Day-to-day (reality-based) focus is what happens when as an artist you move from “Oh, being a working artist…is so cool” to “Being a working artist…is so true for me.”
I coach many artists who are trying to move to firmer financial ground as an artist. Invariably, as they become Journeymen in the art form, they have to deal with the early stepping-stone myths of the working oral storyteller. “Myths” aren’t lies. Myths are truths and they serve to open the door to greater understanding. We know that stars aren’t placed in the sky by Tricksters, but a myth like that can surely help us to understand the world. So, too, are there some initial myths about doing the work of being a working storyteller. They are True but not always true.
This article is very specific to the oral-storytelling journeyman. You have passed through those first apprentice-based stages, taken some of the good myths and standards of the art. Now you are stepping up into the day-to-day realities of making some of your income as an artist.
Here are a few of the myths (both implicitly and explicitly taught) that many next-level storytelling artists have found they have to work through:
Everyone is a storyteller!
Yes- everyone has a story to tell. Yes- everyone should be allowed the space to share their story. We all have stories we share with friends or coworkers. However, not everyone should make their living telling stories. The work of being an artist is challenging. The ability to consistently create content and programs is daunting. Yes, everyone should be allowed to tell stories, there are no gatekeepers to this expression. However, if you are going to make your living telling stories in any setting, you need to be good at your work. If you aren’t good at storytelling, then don’t try to make a living at it or use it in your job. You will end up hating the art form. I’ve watched more than one corporate storyteller destroy a presentation because some guru told them “everyone is a storyteller” in business. Ugg. A baker may love to bake, but not everyone is good enough to make world-class wedding cakes. Be great at what you do, whatever you do.
Stories choose the storyteller.
Reality sets in. You have five gigs in the next three days. Two of those gigs are at the same location. You have to create five unique programs. In another scenario, you are booked for every Tuesday at a location and need 10 weeks of unique content. Welcome to the glorious grind of developing programs. The days of waiting for a story to metaphysically move you are very rare. Rather, you have to research; you have to dig through books and online sources. Do stories choose the storyteller? Yes. Mostly, my dear journeyman, the stories are chosen by you directly. And you will be great at telling these stories that you selected. A few of these stories will stick in your soul forever. Some will vanish from your mind after the event. It’s all good and right.
Your storytelling should always make you feel good about yourself.
As it should be, you can love your work as a storyteller. However, when you move to the journeyman level, you need to first be sure that your audience loves your storytelling. Move from an inward-facing system where you are nurtured to an outward-facing system of serving your audience. Your audience is first. This is one of the hallmarks that make storytelling a very different performing-art form. Journeyman, you must give to get. Bring your audience from where they already are to where you can take them.
Do not give up your most complex projects and passions in the arts. Personal integrity is important. Just know that no audience owes you a single moment of attention (or payment) as reward for your dedication. “Don’t they know (how hard I work) (how much this costs) (the bills I have to pay)?” are not questions a journeyman asks or shares unsolicited with their clients.
Do what you love and the money will follow.
“I am failing! What’s wrong with me? Everyone else can make a living at this,” say many of my coaching clients. It’s pop-psychology popular to promote the idea that the secret to business success is just having enough “passion” for your art form. It’s not true- passion and love are not enough. Building a business as an artist is a lot of work. Business competence and artistic excellence are two separate things. If you can have both, that is great. Nevertheless, an artist with a “real” job (read that: traditional employment) is no less an artist. Frankly, many artists find that they are most authentically connected to their art form when “making a living at it” is not part of their artistic equation.
When X finally happens, then I will be successful!
Finally, give up the idea of finding the elusive X as your key to nirvana. X can be many things: the right agent, being discovered, getting a “national” gig, being chosen by the right publisher, riding the festival circuit, winning the lottery, getting selected for a workshop….etc. As a journeyman, the only X you need is for you to be eXactly in charge of your own work.
I hear it all the time: “I did (some big event) and I still am not getting enough work!” So, create your own place in the world as an artist. The eXternal things you are waiting for will not fall into your lap accidentally. Stop waiting. Chart your own course, avoid anger and resentment. Making your living in “your own backyard” is right and just as an artist.
Finally. . .
As I write about these five very popular myths, I am more aware of one thing: I love being an artist. More than that, I find my “center” being an oral storyteller in coaching, business, authoring and performance. For example, it is deeply rewarding to me to teach parents about storytelling. Working (integrating) through these five oral-storytelling myths (and others) over the last 30 years has made me a better artist and person. While still appreciating the early days and the wide-eyed wonder that involve these myths, I am more fortunate now to have a deeper understanding of myself and my art form. Watching story and storytelling “work” in an audience is now that much more fulfilling.
Are you ready to take that next step?
Sean Buvala is the executive director of Storyteller.net and a working artists since 1986. While he is currently a full-time author, performer and coach, he’s followed his own advice over the last 30 years and had many jobs in the arts and training. To get 8 weeks (or more) of free marketing training from Sean, join our Email list at this link now. Stair illustration by Mesquite Tree Studio.