Fayette County

Uncommonwealth: Storyteller stirs the imagination of the listener

Mary  Hamilton, a former librarian and teacher, has been a  storyteller for 30 years.
Mary Hamilton, a former librarian and teacher, has been a storyteller for 30 years. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — Inside her house, on a steeply pitched cliff road from which you can see the legislative centers in the distance, Mary Hamilton is telling a story.

A few minutes ago she was chatting amiably about her book, Kentucky Folktales: Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95). Published last year, the book has won two awards, a 2013 Storytelling World Resource Award and the Anne Izard Storytellers' Choice Award.

Now, while telling a story, Hamilton has changed, from her face down to her fingers. She has morphed into a storyteller, and that takes a special set of skills. Hamilton seems to be not just telling a story but rather channeling the voices of characters as they progress.

The listeners envision the town, a kind of Mayberry. They envision the way the man — the "wise fool," he is called — is dressed, probably in tattered but clean work pants and a buttoned-up shirt. In their minds' eyes, they catch a glimpse of the lightly suppressed sneers of the people who talk to the man.

As you listen it's impossible not to smile.

That's the secret of compelling storytelling, Hamilton said. The drama takes place within the mind of the listener, from lighting changes to costumes.

"You don't tend to give minute descriptive detail, because the audience fills it in. It's that ability to imagine that lets us do all kinds of things," she said.

We all tell stories, and most of us are pretty flat about it. Our friends and relatives hear us out because we're communicating information they need or because life flows more smoothly if they let us finish our little recitations, but we lack the gift of mesmerizing someone, lifting them outside time and place.

Hamilton has that gift.

She grew up in Meade County and was a librarian in Michigan before becoming a professional storyteller. She has also taught children's and adolescent literature.

"I guess I realized I had the capacity to tell stories for my living when people offered to pay me," she said.

While the stories she tells follow a broad general outline, she tailors them for the size and age of the audience, she said. "I know where the story's going. I'm not making it up."

Why is storytelling important?

It stirs the imagination, Hamilton said, and without imagination you can teach science, math and engineering and still not produce the creative leap that powers a major invention. That requires creativity, she said, which is what storytelling is all about.

"If you think about it, an engineer with no imagination is not going to be successful," she said. "They've got to be able to imagine the possibilities."

Hamilton's path from storyteller to published author was remarkably trouble-free. She got an email from the acquisitions editor at the University Press of Kentucky: no agents, no pitches, no problem.

"I described that book, so I ended up with a book," she said.

Betsy Fleischer, a storyteller and resource specialist with Mercer County Schools, said Hamilton is particularly good at gauging the needs of her audience and tailoring her work to meet them.

"I've heard her tell a story in different venues," Fleischer said. "Since it's live, a story will change in each venue just a little bit."

You can't get that kind of person-to-person effect from a book, Fleischer said.

"Yes, what I do is tell stories," said Hamilton, "but what I really do is exercise imagination and strengthen imaginations.

"The listeners are creating it all inside their heads."

If you go

Kentucky Storytelling Association

Next meeting: 7 p.m. April 29. "Story Slam" stories to be told in five minutes or less; prizes awarded; competitors, listeners welcome

Where: Farish Theater, Lexington Public Library, 140 E. Main St., Lexington

Who: Adults, older teens only

Cost: $5 suggested donation at door

More information: Charles Wright, (502) 223-4523; email wanderingtellers@kystory.org

Online: Kystory.org