Los Altos resident Enid Davis made her living sharing stories on the printed page as a librarian. As a not-really-retired retiree, her second chapter takes beloved tales live.
“Storytelling is not exactly at the height of its popularity,” she said ruefully. “But people are going to get sick of their cellphones eventually and want to share a meaningful human experience one-on-one. I just try to do it as many places as I can and create other storytellers.”
Davis launched the Storytelling for Beginners class last winter at Avenidas, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit agency serving seniors throughout the region. Before that, she staged Jewish folktale readings at the Jewish Community Center with elder tellers.
“It was an amazing thing for me, because working with seniors was very different from working with librarians or teachers, who had all come with the same reason – they wanted to learn stories,” Davis said. “This was a random collection of people in their 50s through their 90s, and they each had a different reason for taking this class.”
As an instructor, Davis aimed to inspire courage.
“They need to feel that it’s a safe environment – no one’s going to make fun of them,” she said. “The only person to give constructive critical feedback is the teacher.”
Now there are three graduates who are telling stories at the Los Altos Library, Davis reported.
“They’ve gotten over the fear and they’re volunteering,” she said. “That’s what my goal is – to create more local storytellers.”
The Los Altos Library’s monthly tale-telling evenings draw an audience of teens and adults rather than the typical kinder set. The 7-8 p.m. events occur the fourth Thursday of each month and include light refreshments in the Orchard Room of the main library, 13 S. San Antonio Road.
The next round of Davis’ Storytelling for Beginners’ class began this week and is still open to student registrants. In November, she’s launching an intermediate class for students ready to continue honing their skills.
“One lady was a kind of philosopher – she had a master’s degree in philosophy. She said she lived in her head but had cancer a few years ago and realized, ‘I have a body that goes with this head. I’m going to go out and do things with my body and my brain,’” Davis said. “Her first story was her own adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Match Girl,’ and she knocked our socks off.”
That’s what’s so fun about the classes, Davis says – the built-in, receptive audience looking to be wowed.
Another student, 94-year-old Bud Rubin, signed up because he tells stories at Abilities United, a nonprofit organization that supports children and adults with disabilities. He wanted to learn how to craft his delivery to catch and hold the attention of people with a range of mental and physical differences. Gari Gene came from a storytelling family but had never taken it up herself and shared the limelight – until now.
“There’s such a magic when one person is telling stories to a group of people, looking in their eyes and creating a world in everybody’s head,” Davis said.
In addition to folk and fairy tales, Davis’ senior story spinners sometimes choose to craft and perform personal stories. Figuring out which memories lend themselves to oral tradition – rather than writing them down in a memoir book – takes learning. Be it funny or poignant, a story takes shaping – it’s hard to memorize, as Davis put it, and harder the older you get.
“You only have to memorize the expressions in a story – if you’re telling Snow White, you want to memorize ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall,’” Davis said. “You learn not to tell literary stories you would have to memorize. In folktales, plot and action drive the story and make it memorable – the great thing about these folktales is that they don’t go into detail and it doesn’t matter. They teach in a little gem of a tale.”
When stories were told at public libraries at the end of the 1800s, they started storytelling programs, according to Davis. “They were very into elocution and they’d sit with their hands folded amid candlelight and flowers.”
“But you need a little more than that – you have to be animated, because the children of today, and adults, are so unfamiliar with just listening to something,” she added.
As students in her class develop their pacing and momentum, there isn’t one right way to take the stage.
“It’s like a group of performers – each one has a different style and a different technique and yet it comes together as a storytelling experience,” Davis said.
In Davis’ first professional life, she worked as a librarian with the Santa Clara County library system for 18 years. She eventually made her way to the “fantasy island” for a librarian, as she put, at Harker School.
“I loved that place – we did a lot of storytelling, and they let me be creative and develop programs,” she recalled.
Davis “retired” in 2012, remodeled her house for a year, and then was back to work.
“Storytelling has always been my favorite job,” she said. “Librarians do everything – there’s no tech department, no graphic department – but getting people together for happenings, celebrating literature, celebrates what they can do when they come together in a magical way. I said, ‘Hey. I’m going to keep doing that for as long as I can.’”
In addition to teaching the classes and leading the Thursday night sessions, Davis is training librarians in Sunnyvale to sponsor workshops and public performances, and doing a family program for elementary-school-aged children. Her next ambition includes expanding into other senior venues such as the Los Altos Senior Center and to an after-work class for those of all ages who aren’t yet retired. A member of the library’s Story Fest Committee, she’s helping plan the Nov. 7 Story Fest event.