Once upon a time there was a shy boy who couldn’t remember anything. It took years of hard work, but eventually he became a great storyteller who entertained listeners around the world.
That might sound like a fairy tale, but it’s actually the true life story of Dan Yashinsky. He has been a storyteller for more than 40 years, and earlier this month he brought his stories to Hong Kong on a tour with publisher Scholastic.
He’s a success now, but storytelling didn’t come easily to Yashinsky. “I was very shy as a child – I never spoke,” he told Young Post. “I’m still shy, but what changed was I started to learn stories that I thought were so good, I should share them with other people. So that became a responsibility for me.”
Yashinsky studied literature, and fell in love with the world’s great stories and their tellers: One Thousand and One Nights from Arabia, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Icelandic sagas, and all sorts of folktales. He read collections of folktales at the library, and visited old people who knew stories. They were always happy to share their favourites.
He refers to an old tale in which a storytelling rabbi tells his student: “I read, I listen, I invent, I dream, I think about my life ... everything in life is collecting stories, and when you fill your head with good stories, it’s never hard to find a moment to share the story.”
And whenever there is an interesting story to be told, there will always be a willing audience.
“That’s very old in human beings, that love to listen to human voices,” says Yashinsky. “It’s a deep human hunger that we have, but we don’t have a way to satisfy it.”
Yashinsky worked at a summer camp after university, and one night when he and other camp counsellors were telling stories around the campfire, it hit him that he should be a storyteller. Once he made that decision, he knew he had to overcome his shyness so he could tell stories in public.
While there are more videos and stories available than ever before, Yashinsky says listening to someone tell a story is an entirely different experience than clicking on a video.
“A story is a mind movie, that’s how I see it. When you listen to a story, you see the movie in your own mind. Each listener sees it differently,” says the storyteller.
“But if you’re always getting your stories from the screens, then the pictures are already made for you. No matter how much YouTube you watch or Facebook you do, you are still not filling that love of story.”
For storytellers, the key to engaging the listener is to make the story suspenseful. Yashinsky says the secret to good storytelling is making sure the listener wants to know what happens next. “Every story has something in it that makes you keep asking: ‘what happens next?’,” he says.
Yashinsky believes everyone will recognise a good story when they hear it, because we are all so familiar with how a plot should develop. That’s because everyone has been listening to stories since they were little. “You listen to your parents, your grandparents; you listen to stories about yourself ... we live in a house made of stories.”
For millennia, stories have also explained the mysteries of our universe, helping humans understand the world. When science wasn’t advanced enough to make sense of the things we saw and experienced, it was storytellers who came to the rescue.
But truly listening to a story is a different kind of skill – one that Yashinsky says is important for teenagers to learn. “[When I say listening] I don’t mean being nice and polite, and never interrupting,” he says. “No, I mean listening like where your whole heart opens.”
For Yashinsky, it’s not only the words of the story that are important, but the music of the words. “Every language has its own music, you celebrate the language when you tell a story,” he said.
This music is the beauty of stories, but their value comes from telling the truth, said Yashinsky.
Despite using fiction, the storytellers are “trying to tell the truth about human life that is hard to express: love, death, adventure, taking a risk, breaking a rule, finding out who you are, going beyond where other people have gone, or following a dream that you have.”
Yashinsky told us one of these classic legends, and we’ve got it here for your enjoyment. For the full effect, put in your earphones, close your eyes, and enjoy your “mind movie”.