Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Long Way Around

When I was a little girl, I often thought about different career choices. I assumed I’d grow up to write children’s books, so I never mentioned “author” as an ambition. To me, it was self-evident. At different times, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, an Olympic cyclist, a biologist, an astronomer, and a a comedian. Here are the reasons:

1) Ballet dancer—I could dance in “The Sleeping Beauty” with Mikhail Baryshnikov
2) Psychiatrist—I could listen to other people’s stories all day long
3) Psychologist—I could listen to other people’s stories all day long without going to medical school
4) Olympic cyclist—I admired Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg
5) Biologist—I thought that if nuclear war or environmental chaos happened, the scientists would be the ones who would rescue humanity
6) Astronomer—I could look at stars and planets all night long
7) Comedian—People would actually pay to hear my knock-knock jokes

In college, I majored in English so I could read books all day long. I wrote serious, angry poetry for publication and lighthearted verse to amuse my friends. I wrote chapters of novels and then abandoned them when I found them to be too depressing. Meanwhile, pressure was on for me to figure out a career in which I could support myself. “You won’t be able to make a living writing poetry,” my advisor told me. With much reluctance, I signed up for Introduction to Education instead of Shakespeare. After each class, I went home and cried because I didn’t want to be a teacher. In the second week of school, the Intro to Ed class watched a video that discussed mediocre teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. “Hey, I’m one of those people,” I thought. I walked out of class and headed toward my advisor’s office. I needed a plan.

The thought, “Why don’t you go to library school?” fell into my head. My mother was a children’s librarian, and I worked as a page (a.k.a. “shelver”) at my town library, but I hadn’t ever considered librarianship before those moments prior to my impromptu meeting with my advisor. Sometimes stress begats inspiration. By the time I reached my advisor’s office, I had a plan.

My advisor said, “That’s great! There are some really good academic libraries out there.”

“Actually, I want to be a children’s librarian,” I said.

My advisor visibly paused. “Do you really like kiddy-lit that much?” she said.

“Yes,” I replied.

I improved my grades (the Shakespeare class helped) but flubbed my GREs. I never tested well. I took a year off after college to do full-time voluntary service at a daycare center for homeless children, and then entered library school on a provisional status. The school lifted the provisional status after one semester, when I earned three As and one B+. I had a professor who appreciated children’s literature as a legitimate genre (she’d written her thesis on the St. Nicholas magazine). I wrote papers and read textbooks, but I still got to read children’s books for pleasure and write in-depth essays about them. I read all of the school library’s back issues of The Lion and the Unicorn and planned to use my independent study research on violence in 10 Grimms’ fairy tales for a future essay to submit to the literary journal. (I didn't.)

It was during graduate school that I took a class in storytelling and found that I was indeed a natural at the craft. All along, I had found other people’s stories compelling. While I made up stories of my own, they were always based on folktales and other people’s experiences. I graduated from library school, worked with The New York Public Library for two years, and kvelled to all of the storytelling opportunities available there.

Ten years later, here in Seattle, Washington, I am just now starting my storytelling business in earnest. Unlike my other ambitions, I am approaching the business with a series of small steps so that I don’t get discouraged by how slowly these ventures take. Fortunately, at this time I don’t have to make a living as a storyteller. I can hand out my business cards to a variety of small businesses and say, “If you ever need a storyteller, please think of me. Oh, and I do birthday parties, too.” It helps to have business cards that make people laugh.


Storytellers all: Bede, Alkelda, Lucia and Phil of the House of Glee
Photo by Phil's computer.

9 comments:

Lone Star Ma said...

I so happy for you am. Beam!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thanks, LSM! By the way, I will do your daughters' birthday parties if you can fly me to Texas and feed me.:)

limpy99 said...

That was a great post.

However, I have to say that in the event of nuclear war or environmental catastrophe, my money's on the Morlocks.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Limpy99: Why do you think I changed careers before I even reached my teens? There was no way I could compete with Morlocks. Sixth grade girls were difficult enough...

cloudscome said...

I majored in English for the same reason. We are Happy people who end up in libraries... It's great to hear your story. Lovely picture too!

Lady K said...

Awesome! And SUCH a great picture! You guys are so great.

All this time I wanted to be a fireman...

Schelle said...

I am so jealous ;D My story is somewhat similar, except I told everyone I wanted to be an author and flatly ignored them when they told me I couldn't support myself that way (nor did I develop the self-discipline to actually finish WRITING anything)... attained an honours degree in english so I could read and read and read... THEN realised they were right about needing a real job... attained an honours degree in law and NOW I have to work out what to do with it... man I wish I'd chosen librarianship ;P

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Schelle: I think it's really cool to have a law degree, even if you don't know what to do with it just yet. I knew a woman in library school who had also gone to law school, and now she's writing and publishing novels. Of course, she was a real dynamo with seemingly boundless energy. I feel like taking a nap just thinking about it....

bookbk said...

I took the long way round, too! Acutally, I guess I'm still taking it. But I too was interested in kidlit during college, but didn't take it seriously as no one else seemed to. How I wish I'd done my senior thesis on Louise Fitzhugh instead of Tillie Olsen!

p.s. will you let me know when you're doing any storytelling in Seattle?