Judie Baker, a member of the Cleveland Storytelling Guild, was beyond frustrated.
“People came up to talk to me after I finished telling my stories,” Baker said. “Do you believe that the same man approached me afterwards and told me he really enjoyed himself? I would have never known by looking at him.”
Baker has been a part of the Cleveland-based guild since 1999. She told her first story, “Going Shopping for a Coat” in 2000. The story, told in her thick Appalachian accent, recounts a teenage shopping experience with her mom.
“I loved it,” Baker said of the first time she told a story. “It was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever done. I can’t sing. If I play a CD player it will skip. I have no sense of rhythm, but I can talk and I love to talk. Storytelling gives me a goal for my talking.”
The guild members put their full support behind the fledgling storyteller.
“They’ve nurtured me, they’ve encouraged me, they’ve helped me,” Baker said. “Everyone is so nice and it is a safe place to tell stories and grow.”
Baker was born into a small town that offered small dreams. Her goal after high school was to attain a good, steady-paying job.
“I wanted to be a writer,” Baker admitted. “Growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, that just did not seem feasible.”
Baker graduated from nursing school in 1979. She worked as a nurse for two years before settling down in 1981 postnuptials.
The next 18 years were full of volunteering with the church drama team and keeping up with her two sons. Baker was not introduced to storytelling until 1999 when a friend invited her to a Tellabration, a night of storytelling celebrated worldwide through the National Storytelling Network in Jonesborough.
The event is hosted every year locally by the Cleveland Storytelling Guild. This particular one opened her eyes to a world she very much wanted to join. Even better, she believed she had the tools needed to succeed.
“When I was little I always wanted to play the piano. My town only had one teacher, and my mother could not drive me to the lessons,” Baker recalled. “When I saw these people getting up and telling stories, I realized I could do that. To me, it was just talking.”
Baker began attending the guild meetings to learn the tellers’ refined way of communicating.
“When a teller wishes to learn how to tell stories for people other than their family, it becomes an art form,” Baker said. “Then, if you are willing, the coaches of the guild will offer suggestions.”
The members always offer compliments before making any suggestions. Any critiques are made in the form of gentle questions or ideas.
“No one is ever hateful or hurtful,” Baker said. “They will ask, ‘Well why didn’t you do this?’ or ‘How about doing this?’
Storytelling became Baker’s art and she threw herself into learning the ins and outs.
“If you are really serious about moving past the level of local storyteller, then you attend storytelling workshops,” Baker explained. “I attended one in Laurinberg, N.C., last year and was chosen as one of the four featured new voices.”
Through various storytelling venues, guild meetings, and workshops, Baker has developed a deeper appreciation for storytelling.
“Any storyteller needs to learn how to take a nugget and build a 20-minute story from the inspiration. At the same time, the storyteller should also be able to turn the nugget into a two-minute story,” Baker said. “The beginning, middle and end will remain the same. It is what you use for support that really makes the story.”
Baker said the hardest lesson is learning what to leave out.
“Sometimes, as storytellers, we want to put in every detail that we know about a story,” Baker explained. “I had to recognize that there are some details that are fun, but overall, unneeded.”
Unnecessary details are only one of many thoughts on Baker’s mind when she tells a story.
“I am constantly reading the audience. When the audience begins to squirm, it is time to wrap up the story. The next one I tell will be to the point,” Baker said. “When I walk in I locate the faces that are smiling and those people become my touchpoints.”
Baker finds her touchpoints by taking a deep breath and ‘owning her space.’ As she plants her feet on the ground, she scans the crowd to read the faces. Baker then has an idea of what kind of story will work and which one will flop.
These lessons have helped Baker as she attempts to become a regional storyteller.
“My goal is to be one of the new voices in the National Storytelling Festival held every year in Jonesborough,” Baker admitted. “It probably will never happen, but you always need a goal — no matter what you are doing.”
Baker has presented at a number of storytelling festivals, including: Obion County Cornfest in Union City, Mountains Makings in Morristown, the Cumberland Mountain Storytelling Festival in Crossville, Benton Arts and History Days, and the Smoky Mountain Storytelling Festival.
“I have told at venues that vary in size,” Baker said. “It does not matter the amount of people. There could be only three people in the room with me, but if they enjoy the stories then I will enjoy telling them.”
According to Baker’s husband, her stories are always good.
“I have the most encouraging family in the world,” Baker said. “My husband drives me to the events that are more than a couple hours away and he recently bought me a mini-sound system for my birthday.”
One of Baker’s sons recently helped her record several of her stories onto a CD.
“I did not realize how thick my Southern accent was until I heard myself on a recording,” Baker said. “Storytelling has not only increased my confidence, but it has also helped me embrace my Southernness. It has helped me embrace the character that I am.”
Baker most enjoys telling stories based on Appalachia. These stories focus on her experiences growing up in Appalachia, and on the Jack tales.
“Did you know the Appalachian Jack tales actually came over with the immigrants?” Baker said. “I once heard someone say: ‘Stories are not good because they are old, they are old because they are good.’ And that is the truth.”
The Cleveland Storytelling Guild meets the second Tuesday of every month at the Cleveland Public Library.
“Anyone who is interested in either listening to the members tell a story or joining the guild are welcome to come,” Baker said. “Listeners’ opinions are always important because they view the stories in a different way from the tellers.
Baker’s CD can be found at the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland. More information on the storyteller can be located at her website, tellyouastory.com.
“I have found my calling,” Baker said. “My only regret is that I did not find it sooner.”
Baker is determined to enjoy and study her craft until even the staunchest audience member is forced to smile.