Stories are valuable precisely to the degree that they are for the moment useful in our ongoing task of finding coherency in the world. ~William Kittredge, Owning It All (1988)
When I left Rochester, New York, to move back to Seattle, one of my last storytelling events was an evening of stories with the Genesee Storytellers. Each teller was to bring a story she had never told before to share at a potluck for storytellers and their friends.
My choice was a folktale about a little hen who defeats a giant who has been taking her eggs. I had shared the picture-book version* with children in the school where I was a librarian. They always dissolved in giggles when the hen shouted her salty challenges from behind a rock.
The step from reading to telling was easy, but the performance fell flat. This was the last story I told in Rochester, and I left feeling disappointed that it hadn’t been a stunner.
Four years later I returned for a storytelling conference. After one of the workshops, Paula Ziegelstein walked over to introduce herself. She had been at the potluck and had hoped to say thanks one day. “You told a story there that changed my life.”
My face must have betrayed skepticism, so she told me she would bring something to show me. The next day she unwrapped a small sculpture she had commissioned for her 40th birthday. It was a large-boned woman dressed in a low-cut, high-slit evening dress, looking confident and sexy—with the head of a chicken.
Paula had not noticed my flat performance. What she heard was the story of a hen whose eggs were being stolen every day. No eggs, no chicks. Paula thought of her own life, of the giants who were stealing her eggs, of the ideas and talents that would never hatch if she allowed the thefts to continue.
Armed with the vision of the little hen who took on a giant, Paula set about slaying her giants. Four years later she had a new confidence, thanks not to me but to the story of a little chicken.
Paula taught me the truth of something I had heard but never really understood until then: the storyteller is the conduit for, not the focus of, the story. I had liked the story of the hen, though not my telling of it. The deeper levels of the simple tale had eluded me. I had told it for delight, not illumination. It was not my story.
It was Paula’s story. She became the Little Hen and cleared the giants out of her path. She hatched the eggs of her own, strong self. The sculpture commemorated her victory.
No one gets through life without having to face giants. Having the right story is one way to catch the courage we need.
The Little Hen and the Giant was Paula’s story. What’s yours?
Cathryn Wellner, 2010
*The Little Hen and the Giant by Maria Polushkin is now out of print.
The original version of this essay appeared in The Healing Heart~Communities.