the rambling boy
The story of a professional story teller
By LONN TAYLOR
Kim Lehman of Austin is one of the few people in Texas who actually makes a living by telling stories. She is a professional storyteller, telling stories in schools, libraries, retirement centers, nursing homes, and in fact anywhere someone will pay her to tell them. “It’s really hard to make a living doing it,” she told me, “but it is so important. Storytelling is how we connect to our humanity.”
I first met Lehman at an event last November called Dobie Dichos, at which half a dozen Texas writers were invited to read their favorite passages from J. Frank Dobie’s writings. Instead of reading, Lehman told a story about a desert battle between the mammals and the insects derived from Dobie’s chapter “Brother Coyote and Brother Cricket” in his book I’ll Tell You a Tale.” She interspersed the narrative with a little song describing the battle, which she rendered in a high, thin voice. The effect was riveting. I decided right then that I wanted to know more about Kim Lehman.
Lehman came to Alpine recently to conduct a workshop for librarians and teachers, and I got a chance to visit with her about her profession. When I asked her how she became a storyteller, she said “My Dad was a natural storyteller, a front-porch storyteller, with an audience of family and friends, and I followed in his footsteps.” Storytelling, she said, was essentially a rural art, practiced by people who did not have immediate access to movies and television, and she grew up in a rural Mennonite community in Western Pennsylvania; in fact her grandfather was a Mennonite pastor. “But we were liberal Mennonites,” she said. By way of illustration she explained “Mennonites are not supposed to dance, but my parents went dancing every Saturday night.”
Lehman’s youthful immersion in rural life was reinforced by her first job after graduating from Eastern Mennonite College, which was teaching school in the tiny Lutcher County, Kentucky town of Eolia. “Eolia was so rural,” she told me, “that the first week that I was there one of my welcome presents was a frozen skinned squirrel.”
While Lehman was engaged in front-porch storytelling in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, storytelling was undergoing a transition at the national level from informal entertainment to formal performance art. The 1970s marked the emergence of national and regional storytelling festivals and organizations, and “platform talking” before a paying audience became a recognized profession. The first National Storytelling Festival was held in 1973 in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and two years later the National Storytelling Association was founded. By the time Lehman moved to Austin in 1986, public libraries hired storytellers to conduct children’s programs, and that is what Lehman did at the Austin Public Library for 20 years before branching out as a freelancer. Today she is a leader in the world of professional storytelling, a member of the board of the National Storytelling Association, a founding member of the Central Texas Storytelling Guild, and an active participant in the Tejas Storytelling Association, which she says has about 300 members.
Lehman is what used to be called a back-to-the lander. She is an avid beekeeper and next month will publish a book called Bee Lab: 52 Activities To Do With Bees through Quarry Books, and she writes a children’s column for Bee Culture Magazine. She and her husband are about to move from urban Austin to a 100-acre tract in Bastrop County that they have bought with 9 other families which will become a cooperative farm. She told me that while she was no longer a practicing Mennonite, “culturally I am a Mennonite through and through. I believe in simple living, peaceful solutions to conflict, and service to community.”
Lehman has a repertoire of about 300 stories. She told me that she gets most of them from books, especially books of folk tales. Her favorites are what she describes as “wisdom stories,” which she explained are found in all cultures. When I asked for an example she told me about the Caliph of Baghdad who, in a fit of temper, ordered the execution of his court jester. He later repented the decision, but felt he would lose dignity if he countermanded the order, so he called the jester in and told him that to make up for his hasty decision he would allow the jester to choose the manner of his death. “In that case,” said the jester, “I choose to die of old age.”
Lehman used this story to illustrate the elements of a good story. “It has to have a strong beginning and a strong ending,” she said, “and a problem that gets solved in the middle. Above all, you have to give the audience a reason to care about what happens to the people in the story. A good story entertains, educates, and inspires.”
Lehman approaches each of her stories as a work of art, analyzing its structure and frequently inserting a song of her own composition, as she did in the Dobie story that I heard. Her family sang together when she was growing up, and she plays the guitar, the banjo, and the autoharp and has made her own hammer dulcimer. She told me that she has a personal collection of 150 “weird and wonderful’ musical instruments, some of them gifts from people who have heard her performances. “A woman in Oklahoma, a total stranger, gave me a xylophone with a double keyboard. It’s 2 ½ feet long. She came up to the stage after one of my performances and said she wanted me to have it, and asked me to wait while she went home to get it. A total stranger. That’s what storytelling is all about, a connection with a total stranger.”
Stories, Lehmann says, tie people together because they are about subjects that are universal: greed, lust, love, overcoming obstacles. She thinks that personal storytelling and memoirs have suddenly become so popular because they are an alternative to technology and social media. “People want to hear real people talking about other people.” That’s what Homer thought, too.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.