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Falling for Emily Dickinson, a Story of a Great Poet March 3, 2016

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

Emilydickinson with creditIf you grow up in New England the leaves seem to whisper Emily Dickinson. She haunts us. And yet Dickinson is thought of as a lonely recluse in a white dress writing in her room.

In fact, as she said herself, “I find ecstasy in living. The mere sense of living is joy enough.” She was fascinated with all of life: its beauty, its struggles and its terrors. She loved language and worked at her craft so her language is fresh and startling. For instance, “The moon is just a chin of gold.” And “All but death can be adjusted.” Dickinson was a passionate, deeply thoughtful artist who never lost her sense of play.

What drew me first to Emily Dickinson was her “brush strokes,” short, brilliant lines like,

Night keeps fetching stars to our familiar eyes.

She startles. Another example is,

The only news I know all day

Is bulletins from immortality

This use of ordinary nouns like, bulletins and news come stunningly alive when immortality is the end of the line. She sees anew.

I discovered her playfulness in this poem

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

Storytelling is filled with rhythms and we can learn a lot about rhythm and sound from Dickinson. She was steeped in the hymns sung at the Congregational Church. She loved singing. There were times when she would run through the woods with a friend singing and she was a fine piano player. Some of her friends said her piano playing was weird. I imagine Dickinson experimented as she played the piano and I think of her as a young Thelonious Monk.

Dickinson contemplated all of life – its beauties, its sadnesses and its horrors. There is one poem about a wound so great it’s difficult to go on. As I read that poem I realized any soldier coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan hurt and unsure how to deal with life, could read that poem and say to himself or herself, “This person understands what I went through.”

Dickinson reminds us to keep growing, keep exploring and to take risks. She also reminds us we need to keep the child alive inside us. I’ve read Picasso said that his job was to get back to when he was five years old. Emily Dickinson sees all of life as if it’s just been created.

Dickinson worked with almost no encouragement. It was awe and commitment that kept her writing. There are times when life is difficult for all of us and we can take courage from her deep commitment.

Doubtless Emily Dickinson became discouraged at different times but she was clear about what she wanted in life. She wrote to her friend, Elizabeth Holland that, “My business is to sing and to love.” This clarity of vision gave her balance and made me love her. I admire her for being a “business woman.”

She wrote the bulk of her poems just before and during the Civil War. She wrote at a white heat and at a time the country was convulsed. She inspires in so many ways – with her language, her willingness to experiment, her love of life and her fearless examination of life.

Sadly people think of Emily Dickinson solely as a recluse and perhaps as a lonely woman who wrote cheerful poems. She was a woman who knew how to love but she also was a daring, ferocious artist who never lost sight of the fact as she said, “Life is the greatest secret, as long as it remains we must all whisper.”

Creating the story Falling for Emily Dickinson was a process of discovery for me. Two of Dickinson’s favorite words are awe and circumference. She found a circumference she could live and work in. It’s a paradox that my circumference grows smaller and yet larger in that there is more time for meditation, family, walking by the sea, reading and creating stories including exploring the written story and time for silence.

Emily Dickinson reminds me forcefully that commitment to one’s artistic work is important but love trumps work. Emily’s mother was an invalid for seven years. Emily along with her sister and the maid attended her mother and there was no complaint from Emily Dickinson. She was a lover who was bursting with life.


New Stories at the National Storytelling Festival October 15, 2015

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

As I think back on the Festival I think collage. Collage. A series of bursting moments and images. I think of telling Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura at ten that Saturday morning when the rain was so loud it was like a train. One part of my consciousness was aware of the rain and the wind flapping the sides of the tent that holds fifteen hundred people. But the greater part is I’m simply performing the story and I feel free. The audience is so open and receptive that I’m free, free to just be part of the story, be part of the words, the gestures, the movement, the characters, the silence, the dialogue. It’s all one.

The rain beats down. Sancho Panza is patting his belly upset that Don Quixote has sunk his lance into the sail of a windmill and been thrown violently to the ground. Sancho helps Don Quixote onto his horse, Rosinante. Sancho says, “I don’t know how we’re making this a better world but the manchego cheese is good.”

I go on telling. Sancho is there, the rain is there, the wind is there but without thinking I know we are all in this story, fifteen hundred people are all together in this story. After working on the story for a year and a half it all came together only last week. In shaping the story I forgot something elemental – most stories have to have one central character. If there are several characters the audience’s attention is divided. In Hamlet we can have Hamlet’s mother and the ghost and Ophelia, but the story is about Hamlet. Everything in the story relates to Hamlet. I forgot that so the story was half about Don Quixote and half about Laura. And I realized the story is about Laura. It is a quest story. It is the story of Laura’s quest for learning. Even as a five year old she felt school was pinched. It needed more life. As she grows up and goes to high school she longs for some of the wind of real life.

Collage. Collage. Faces Saturday morning. At nine thirty Saturday morning we were walking down Main Street in Jonesborough in the rain. We were headed to the Library Tent where I would tell Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura. Hundreds of people were walking down Main Street with umbrellas. I was walking with my daughter, Laura and her husband, Tim and my wife, Linda. They were all singing

                  When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling

                  The whole world smiles with you.

As they were singing their umbrellas, red and blue and yellow were bobbing up and down.

                  When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing

                  The sun comes shining through.

I’m singing along with them. We’re going by the great old brick buildings on Main Street. I’m singing and laughing and delighted. Usually before I perform I’m silent and often nervous. This morning I’m singing as if I don’t have a worry in the world. This is absurd. Usually if I’m telling at this National Festival I tell a story I’ve told fifty or a hundred times. Here I’m about to tell a story that’s come together only in the last week or two and I’ve told it only to my wife, Linda. This is absurd. I’m not worried at all.

Months ago I was at a spiritual retreat and became aware that my task of the moment was simply to trust the two stories I was working on: Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura and Falling for Emily Dickinson. This was my task month after month. But I wavered a month ago with Don Quixote. I told it to a group of friends and it didn’t work. So I was going to drop the story and tell one that I’ve told hundreds of times. But Linda said, “Just commit to the story.” And I did.

A week before the National Storytelling Festival I woke thinking of two stories about Laura when she was a child. I told those stories and realized they belonged in this long story. Why? Because listeners must care about your character. You’ve got to care about your character and fall in love with her. These two stories would do that job.

Then I had another insight about Cervantes’s Don Quixote. As I perform the story I lift up my left hand and the fingers are straight and I’m talking to Laura in the story and saying, “Laura, if the story is just about Don Quixote it fails. But,” and I bring my hands together and intertwine my fingers, “But if it’s about Sancho and Don Quixote; it lives because Don Quixote is the dreamer and Sancho is the practical one. We have these two forces inside us. And often the struggle is to let the dreamer emerge.” To me that’s the crux of the story; it’s about a girl becoming a young woman and bringing these two parts of herself together, the dreamer and the practical one. And the story is also about the father encouraging the daughter.

I’m telling the story as the rain is driving down. The rain is drumming and when I finish and as people are applauding my dear friend, Connie Regan-Blake, who was the master of ceremonies, asked Laura to come up to the stage. Laura doesn’t dawdle, she runs. She comes onto the stage. As Connie is saying, “Laura is now an interpreter for the Deaf; she’s climbed the Himalayas, biked across the country twice, run the Boston Marathon.”

Laura is shining. I’m on the stage with my daughter Laura in this wild rain and to my right is Liz Barlow-Breslin, Interpreter for the Deaf. Such a moment; this had been my vision months ago but I put the vision away because the story had failed time after time, but here it is.

That Saturday evening I’m standing in the theatre and begin with the words, “If you grow up in New England the leaves whisper Emily Dickinson.” And I tell Falling for Emily Dickinson which I’ve worked on for two years. I’m feeling grateful and alive.

Saturday night, once I finished telling Falling for Emily Dickinson, we’re walking down cool, dark Main Street in Jonesborough, my wife, Linda, my daughter, Laura and her husband, Tim. We’re full of stories, full of memories of meeting so many friends and storytellers in the last two days. We’re walking together with the ghosts of old Jonesborough headed to the home of Bill and Virginia Kennedy. The Kennedys have opened their home to us for thirty years and became very close friends. They are part of the soul of Jonesborough.

I know for me that I’ll be awake most of the night because Emily Dickinson and Don Quixote and My Daughter, Laura will all be dancing together and in the morning the rain will be gone and the sun will come up.

Getting Ready for a Pill Hill Party September 2, 2014

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

“Patricia,” Mother called, “Help me with the Newburg.” Lots of words appeared for the parties. Chicken à la king, Thermidor, Newburg, hollandaise, aspic, chafing dish, punch bowl, crème de menthe, punch in the nose bowl, rose bowl, silver bowl, ice bucket, serving spoons, party shells, scalloped potatoes, walloped potatoes, tumblers, long glasses, wine glasses, short glasses, eye glasses, china plates, minor plates, major plates, serving dish, pepper grinder, if you don’t mind dear, scalloped oysters, nuns in cloisters, ironed napkins, shining silver, Hi Ho Silver, Where is my red vest? Gone west. Will you button me up dear? Where is my jacket? Is there beer dear? Bourbon, scotch and rye, don’t want them drinking dye. Then they’ll get too high. Remember the time when? Sigh. Is the stove still on? Darling will you see if I left the stove on? Newburg bubbling is troubling. Mustard bustard. Horseradish. Mint jelly for your belly. Mrs. Beam is coming? Hide the jelly. Patricia darling can you iron Daddy’s shirt? Oak, get the wood and lay the fire and while you’re at it fix the tire, paint the house and play the lyre. Cathy can you get the ice? Mom did you get kumquats? They come at Christmas, Cathy. Well it’s almost Christmas. It’s just October, now get the ice trays. Why are they called trays? Please dear, we have guests coming. Get the ice. Dippy’s sick, Mom. Cathy, I hate that cat. It’s not a cat, Mom, it’s a kitty. Cathy please get the ice. What ice? Patricia darling will you get the ice. Patricia is nice and gets the ice. Dad’s mad. He can’t find. Where’s my hairbrush? Who took my hairbrush? Cathy, did you take my hairbrush? I brushed Rufus with it. Don’t take my brush! She brushed the confounded dog with my hairbrush. Everyone shush. Here dear use mine dear. Avocado. Don’t mind if I do. Did you dress the salad? I’d like to dress myself first.


By Jay O’Callahan

An Excerpt from Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others

April 17, 2014

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.
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It was very exciting to perform “Forged in the Stars” at Georgia Tech last Friday. It’s a beautiful campus and as I walked down to the auditorium I passed students speaking many languages. Students come from all over the world to Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech graduates 12% of the nations aerospace engineers and has also graduated fourteen US astronauts.

The performance was organized by Wilton Rooks, an engineer who worked in NASA’s propulsion research. Wilton, a Georgia Tech graduate, and a graduate student, Hasan Tawab, warmed the audience up singing the Georgia Tech Fight Song, “I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech and a helluva engineer.” There’s nothing like getting the audience singing before telling a long story.

It was a joy to tell “Forged in the Stars” and it was fun to talk after the performance to students, engineers and even some kids as young as nine. Along with the Voyager, we sailed out of our solar system and beyond.

The following day I did a workshop organized by the marvelous Janice Butt. It was called Four Secrets of Storytelling. The big secret was the participants were playful, imaginative and brilliant. Storytellers are the best!

43rd Christmas Revels, Cambridge, MA December 19, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

Photo by Roger Ide

As a storyteller I generally perform alone but I’m in the midst of performing on stage with a big cast at the Christmas Revels. We’ve done five shows so far and have twelve more to do. We’re at one of the great halls in all of Boston. It’s the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. There are about twelve hundred people in every audience.

The show is set in Galicia, Spain and I’m a character called Everyman who has to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and then onto the end of the earth where he will meet his fate – death. But then he is revived with a touch of mistletoe. It’s so exciting to be onstage with everybody and almost more exciting to be downstairs at the break when we do two shows. The show is filled with music of Galcia and it’s filled with wonderful artists: bagpipers, drummers, violinists, fiddlers, a brass section and a huge chorus. What a world to be in. It makes me wonder what it was like to be in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England.

Radiant Moments with Diane Wolkstein September 26, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

Diane Wolkstein radiated a fire that burned through the surface of reality and let you see the magic underneath.

In 1979 I was telling stories at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It was Saturday night, late; I had finished telling a ghost story and walked down the long hill from the cemetery onto the Main Street in Jonesborough. It was cold; there was a light rain and a fog so heavy I couldn’t even see the courthouse a few yards away. I just wanted to go to bed and Diane stepped through the fog said, “Welcome to London.” Everything changed. My tiredness was gone; I felt I was in London with Diane. She changed things.

I had met Diane a couple of years before that when she was in Boston touring her new book, The Magic Orange Tree, a book of folktales Diane went to Haiti to collect. Priscilla Moulton, a librarian who made things happen, organized the tour and had a welcoming supper for about six of us at the Longwood Towers, an old fashioned hotel in Brookline. It was hushed. The waiters looked like they had served Louis the XIV. I felt awkward because I knocked my water over. That was soon forgotten because Diane began to tell us about the most exciting storyteller she had seen in Haiti. Diane was in a sugar cane area just outside Port-au-Prince where a Haitian woman in her fifties who was tall, muscular, proud began to tell the story of Owl. As Diane talked and sang the story her fire spread from our table and we were transported to Haiti. She changed things.

It was just about a month after that that Elizabeth Dunham, a mime and storyteller, was telling the story of Owl at Storytellers in Concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I loved the way Elizabeth was dancing and singing on the stage and couldn’t wait to tell the story myself. Diane’s radiance was spreading.

In 1980 I was telling stories at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The most special day for me was a chance to tell stories at the Athletes’ Village. I got to the gate and the guards said, “No, we changed our mind. You can’t tell in the village.” I was furious and took out my wallet and said, “Look, I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserves, and I’m scheduled to tell. Let me tell.” He relented. I was escorted in to a small library and told stories to about six athletes. At the end one of the athletes grabbed me and said, “You have got to tell to everybody.” He pulled me down the corridor into the vast dining room where maybe nine hundred athletes were eating. I was not allowed to be there. A guard came forward, put his hand up to stop me, but the athlete pulled me by and he commanded, “Tell!” I found myself raising my arms and what came out of my mouth was, “This is the story of Owl.” Suddenly I was doing the mime, I was dancing and singing,

Dong ga da, Dong ga da, Dong ga da, Dong.

            Dong ga da, Dong. Eh-ee-oh.


The British wrestlers in front of me put down their knives and forks, turned around and listened. Slowly a silence spread over the dining room. And I’ll never forget looking way down at a table far away seeing a young Japanese athlete transfixed. When I finished there was a storm of applause. Diane’s radiance had spread through this Olympic dining room.

A few years later I took a train from Boston down to New York to Diane Wolkstein’s birthday party. It was held at her house in Patchen Place in Greenwich Village. There were four of us there: Laura Simms, Gioia Timpanelli, Diane and myself. I felt like a lump of clay with three goddesses. Diane cooked an amazing supper, set us all at ease and Gioia Timpanelli leaned forward and said, “Let’s talk about the love,” and the magic began. For hours we were eating and resting and laughing and talking about love. It felt as if we were in Italy.

Another time my wife, Linda and I invited Diane to go to Verdi’s opera, Nabucco at the Metropolitan Opera. The three of us dressed up, went to a restaurant and then off to hear Verdi. Afterwards we stood on the sidewalk with cabs rushing by, people hurrying along, it was eleven o’clock at night. We talked and laughed and Diane had to go one way, we the other. Diane smiled, hugged us, waved goodbye and she had done the impossible; She had turned New York into New York.

The last time I saw Diane was last year at the 40th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Diane and I got to share a stage for an hour. I was nervous because I was telling a story I don’t tell often called Muddy River High School. I wanted Diane to enjoy it. Diane began and captured the audience with her cool fire and we were all lost in Inanna. Then it was my turn. I began telling the story and people were generous with their laughter, but did Diane like the story? At the end the two of us bowed and as we left the stage Diane said, “That was perfect.” We were in London once again.

Creativity: The Encourager April 11, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.

Years ago my friend Doug Lipman and I were leading a week long workshop in creativity and storytelling in southern France. Our whole group – the Creative Monsters – were staying at a large house where we were served beautiful meals and were also given painting lessons.

Most of us were new to painting. I painted a window of the house and still have that in my study. The instructor said to the group, “Jay’s painting captured an image we’ll never forget.”

I think that was true. I’m sure the painting was amateurish but he saw what was alive in it and pointed that out. That delighted and encouraged me to create more.

All of us have this vast mysterious playful side to us. There’s a great playground in us and out of that playground comes the work of Picasso. Out of that playground also comes a song we might sing, a drawing we might do, a kind but creative word to a friend. There are huge negative voices that perhaps are cultural, but those voices are destructive. They say, “There is no time. I can’t draw” or “I can’t write” or “I’m not creative; that’s for talented people.”

Nonsense! You are creative. Let it out, plunk on a piano, whistle, try a pickle on your peanut butter sandwich. Or even take a workshop and find out how helpful it is to have a supportive, trustful, playful group.

Creativity: Cultural Voices That Say “No” to Us March 27, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.

Why does our culture squash creativity so often? Many of us were told as children that we couldn’t sing or couldn’t draw or our handwriting was terrible or an essay was awful. Or we were told we were not the right shape or size.

Why hasn’t our culture developed an eye for what’s alive, what’s beautiful, fresh and original? I found most adults put their creativity away because they’re convinced they are not creative. That’s absurd. We all are creative. I remember being at a television station when I was performing Pill Hill stories at the Merrimack Theatre in Lowell. I did part of a story called Chickie. After the story the cameraman shook his head and said, “I can’t believe it but I have stories just like that.” He was astonished.

What draws our creativity out? Encouragement, support, a listener who has an eye for what’s alive.

That eye for beauty can be developed. And if it’s truly developed we can use it in everyday life. “That soup was tasty. What herbs did you use?” or “That color is perfect on you” or “What a beautiful voice you have.” Developing the eye for beauty is not just for workshops, it’s for life.

Creativity – What Are Your Dreams? March 7, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.
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What are your dreams? Do you dare to say what they are?

In my April creativity workshop you’ll have a chance to draw your dream with crayons, to dance your dream, to tell your dream to a partner. You’ll have a chance to put the world away for a weekend and listen, feel supportive and create.

Whether it’s a writing workshop or a storytelling and creativity workshop, I use “sparks” – short words like the word shoe or dance to draw out memories, which are deep inside and just need a chance to emerge.

Dream! Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the great novels ever written. Sadly, it was not well received but he wrote it. He did it! After Melville’s death, his family found taped inside his desk a piece of paper saying: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”

For information on my upcoming workshops visit my Workshops Webpage.

We’re All Creative! February 25, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Creativity.

We’re all creative! I’ve learned that giving workshops – storytelling and writing workshops – for over thirty years. I’ve also learned that there is something in our cultural genes that fashions invisible doors inside which we learn NOT to create. As a result . . . crayons are put away when we’re seven. Clay is put away after camp. Poems are no longer written after high school or college. On and on.

This is absurd. Life is short. Create! Sing a lullaby to your child. Make one up. Who cares if it isn’t “good.” Wink at someone. Plant a lettuce you’ve never tried.

What helps with our creativity? Support, encouragement, playfulness – a listener. And perhaps a workshop. The purpose of my creativity workshops whether they’re storytelling or writing is to lead you through the invisible doors to create. In a storytelling workshop you discover the seeds of a story. In a writing or storytelling workshop you may write a poem, find a tune, discover something new about yourself. We’re all creative. You can walk through the invisible doors.

April 26-28, 2013 I’ll be leading a Creativity and Storytelling Workshop, When Arts Collide We Discover Something New. Tara Law, an intermedia artist, will co-lead the workshop with me. We will explore art and story without dividing lines. For more information on the workshop visit my Workshop Website Page.