Special Spotlight: Behind the Scenes with Professional Storyteller Denis Gessing
What inspired me to complete this (‘JUST PASSING THROUGH”) collection?
I think one of the lines in the beginning of the piece: “The unexamined life is not worth living” would be the crux of it. I read that quote by Socrates when, I guess, I was a serious minded high school freshman and it’s stayed with me all my life. Throughout the years, I found myself leaning more and more toward writing and telling the personal narrative. Though I had not begun my career as a professional story teller preforming personal stories, feeling that I hadn’t much to say. But then something unexpected happened. I got old! And that quote banged around in my noggin and got louder and louder than ever before and would not be silenced. When that happens the only cure is to write.
It doesn’t take much for my mind to wander. When I was a kid the nuns were always all over me:”STOP THE DAYDREAMING AND PAY ATTENTION MR. GESSING! Turns out I was paying attention, just not to what they thought I should be paying attention to. Instead I was lost in the worlds of would be, could be and should be. Imagination. So I guess the cocktail for inspiration consisted of the philosophical, the rereading of journals in an effort to see where I’d been and examination of the minutiae of everyday life and not just my mine, but of those I’ve shared this brief episodic life with. Chapters filled with anything but boring times for our Boomer Generation as would be, could be, and should be all collided at the intersection of what is.
The work is rich with language of the time period, how were you able to gather the collection of language?
Off the top of my head I’d have to say, well, from off the top of my head. The time period for this collection is between the late forties/early fifties and late sixties. My time when the words like “cool” came into common usage. For this piece it was just a matter of going to the memory bank where it seems I never throw anything out. Like song lyrics of the fifties and sixties. I can’t help but overhear a supermarket, airport, or anywhere conversation and have some part of it stick in the memory bank to be called up at a later date.
But by way of a history of collecting …
As story tellers we adhere to the credo that a story needs three things. A Story. A Teller. A Listener. Without realizing it, I became a listener before I became a teller. Listener. Actor. Writer (written). Storyteller (oral).
I remember the sound of my mother’s voice, reading me stories. Then there was the radio shows before we had a T.V. and of course the movies and what was at the time civil adult discourse between my parents and their friends. And then there was the incident where as a confused day dreaming six year old I was kept after school. The offense that needed to get nipped in the bud was my pronunciation of the word “GET” which I heard ( probably from all the westerns I immersed myself in) as “GIT” as in “ best be gittin’ along now ma’am.” The method of correction while disdainful had a positive effect in that I started listening. Paying attention to what I heard. Like the radio dialogue from Mr. and Mrs North, Boston Blackie, Gun Smoke. T.V. and the movies played a big part as did poetry. So did people like Danny Kay. He had what I thought was a great schtick. For while he could not speak several languages, he could make you think he was a native in any with his impeccable accents. Impressionist Frank Gorshin, crazy Spike Jones, Jackie Gleason and Steve Allen ... Johnathan Winters.
Great playwrights like, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson and recently Lin- Manuel Miranda. Though not a fan of rap (or musicals for that matter), what he does with storytelling through word play blows my mind. Screen writers like Rod Serling and Dalton Trumbo, inspired my love of effective dialogue. The HBO series “Deadwood” is a dialogue stew of corse vulgarity, formal and frontier with Shakespearian seasoning. Brilliant. .
Oh yeah, can’t forget Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Twain and Mr. Keillor and respect for the much maligned pun and double entendre. BeBoP Music and the scat antics of Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme.
I talk and sing out loud whenever the spirit moves me. Something I’ve been asked not to do by bartenders and supermarket people. However, infants, small children and pets don’t seem to mind. I find it an amazing invitation to release imagination allowing it to engage in all sorts of word play. I have always done this. One day those close to me will have a hard time telling if I’ve finally lost the load and slipped off the rails or it’s just business as usual.
Bottom line. I have consciously or otherwise, “collected” language all my life from everywhere I’ve ever been. I lived and worked in Australia for a short time and came back using words like “Mate,” and terms like”good on ya.” In Ireland I added “ grand” everywhere I have traveled I’ve picked up words and expressions which I’ve added to my native lingo. I still call friends and acquaintances “ pard” and use “ Howdy” in greetings. Everyone I’ve met, overheard, read or seen reinforces the truism; words have power . One word like “no” can change everything. It was (is) always intriguing listening to President Obama. As the first African American president, he’s had to walk the razor’s edge like no other president before him because of his mixed race he chose every word carefully lest he be cut down by either side.
I respect the written word as much as I do the spoken. I tend to write and tell short pieces. One reason being that I love the challenge of telling a complete story from beginning to end with as few powerful words as possible that and … Words are just plain fun to play with.
Are you a Storyteller or writer first?
While I am not sure I can separate the two I guess I consider myself a listener first, then a writer and always a storyteller. But ( as the saying goes) "if it ain’t on the page then it ain’t on the stage." I begin with writing and so guess I consider myself a writer first. While I may tell a story as a writer first the process dictates I am also telling it in the oral fashion at the same time. I am a storyteller first in the sense that my overreactive imagination never sleeps. Never. Every sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, living experience lends itself to story possibility. So i am running a story in my head and then structuring it on paper and hearing outside my head as I read and re read aloud over and over.
What do you think people don’t know about work of being a storyteller?
First off: It’s not as easy as it looks. That’s when you know you are doing it right. When it looks easy.
Also. How much time and work goes into storytelling. How much love and commitment one must have to invest that time researching, finding the right story for you to tell. You don’t usually find the “true gold nugget” of that story the first go round. Only through telling and retelling does that nugget (s) revel itself.
That not everyone can do it. Attend a Moth Story Slam for proof. Just because one has an interesting family story, or experience doesn’t mean they know how to tell it in an engaging fashion. Want tell a good yearn? Invest in a good coach and one or more good workshops.
That few, very few, make much of a living telling full time. If money is a priority then take up storytelling/ story listening as a hobby.
That the very word “storyteller” has a negative image. What I mean is when the average person who has little or no experience with storytelling hears that you are a storyteller, they will say something like “Oh you read stories to kids at the local library.” While respect for the adult narrative storyteller is growing more and more we’ve still a long way to go in the recognition/respect department.
Why is telling about the Boomer Baby generation important to you? How much of the work is based on events that happened to you?
A lot of that relates back to your question about inspiration in that growing up boomer held many significant emotional, intellectual challenges. Question authority was my mantra. Still is. I guess it was that business of a life unexamined. I had a desire to see how much through each stage of aging I not only remembered but had -if you will - emotionally bookmarked. In the writing and then story choices I sought to transcend from the personal to the universal. With little exception, like the very opening and the very end, I’d say everything else was based on personal experience to one degree or another.
What are your current challenges?
Current challenges are a lot of the same old ones. Figuring out how to get festival gigs, find my audience for both live performance and cd sales of “JUST PASSING THROUGH.” Finding time and making best use of it. And as always, staying in the present.