Joel ben Izzy has a gift for capturing our attention and holding it. He gestures and grimaces and smiles while he tells a story of far away or places so close we don’t recognize them at first. As one the best storytellers anywhere, he makes me want to do a little internal rummaging and discover new stories of my own. During his recent visit with us at Rancho La Puerta, he shared stories of foreign people and places. His tales rose on the embers and floated through the air of a world and life burning bright. He not only told stories but also helped us discover the space and where to look within ourselves to find our own and how to nurture them and allow our tales to percolate and come to life. In the video below he shares a few tips on where to find and tell our personal stories.
What makes a good story?
I find it’s not usually as much about the story as the teller’s relationship to the story. The most important thing is to share a story you love, about something you care about. I think that’s why we get such great stories from visitors to the ranch – people have the freedom to look inside and discover those fragments of stories from their lives. As we find these, we work with some key storytelling techniques – around evoking sensory details, zooming into the story, knowing your audience and so on. We also look into the story in progress to find if someone wants or something – either or both of which can drive a story forward. And, of course, of particular importance is the audience for the story – open ears, open hearts – which is what makes storytelling at the ranch such a pleasure.
Where do your stories come from?
All over. I began by studying folktales from around the world, then set off to travel and tell these. What I found is that one story led to another, both in terms of stories I would hear from people and adventures between stories, say traveling from Rome to Athens. Over the years, this has come to be my particular interest, in the stories that tread the line between fact and fiction. What I find is that when I am conscious and have my story-radar up, I find stories everywhere.
You lost your voice for a while and have woven that story into your book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. What were the stories you were telling yourself as you learned to accept, heal, and finally get your voice back?
There were many – hence the book. And, at first, the stories I told myself were not pretty ones; about what a worthless failure of a human being I was, and how I had been cursed. Over time, however, I began to listen to the stories I had been telling, including an ancient Chinese tale called The Lost Horse, which opens the first chapter of my book. Dating back to Lao Tse, it tells how what seems like a blessing may be a curse – and what seems like a curse may be a blessing. You can find The Lost Horse on this NPR piece.
What’s your earliest memory of someone telling you a story?
It’s funny, but it’s a memory of wanting a story, but not getting one. Each night, when I was young, my mother would come into my room and I’d ask her to tell me a story. She had a difficult life in many ways, as did my father, and she would always be exhausted, and explain that she wasn’t really a storyteller and that her father, my Grandpa Izzy, in the faraway city of Cleve Land was a great storyteller, but she was not. “I know,” she said. “You tell me a story!” And I did. Night after night. It was the start of my career. And, when I turned professional, I took my name from my grandfather, who had died when I was young – Joel ben Izzy – Joel, son of Izzy.