Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

By Jay O'Callahan
printed in FUN News, October, 1997


As a storyteller, I'm very interested in geography. When I was 14, I'd sit with my little brother and sister as we rode in the back of the car and take a look at the palms of their hands.


I might take Christopher's little hand and see a blue pencil mark on it, and that would be enough to get my imagination started. I would begin, "Once upon a time...there was a blue bird sitting on a small box at the dump. The blue bird chirped merrily, 'Can anyone sing a song that will open the box that I'm sitting on?' 'I can!' cried Christopher. 'I know the perfect song.' And as Christopher began to sing a song, music came from the box and suddenly... "


That's how I started telling stories, just looking at my little brother's or sister's hand and letting something get my imagination started.


Everyone's hand is a kind of land. Hands are full of bumps, little hills, plains, dry river beds, and funny wrinkled places...all of which can give rise to a story. My little brother and sister loved the stories because they were always the heroes. And that assured attention.


Very often my stories were very short, sometimes just a minute. I'd keep looking at their hands and at their faces. If they got bored, I'd invent a new scene, or if they started to laugh that would be a signal to keep with that scene for a little bit. It was all an exploration.


When you make up a hand story, you're creating a geography, you're creating a place and places are always filled with mystery. The nice thing about creating a story is that you can make the geography whatever you want. You can name places and you can make them disappear because you become MASTER OF THE LAND. You're the storyteller, so if you want the mountains to dance, they'll dance. Now that's geography!


Making up a story can be a little frightening because you don't know where you're going, but that's what makes it an adventure. Think of it more as dreaming aloud, not telling a story. You can say to someone, "I'm going to make up a dream for you." A dream doesn't have to come out right, it just is what it is. That's what you want, to just give a little gift. If you think of it as a gift and not a performance, it'll make it more fun.


When I had my own children, I made up hand stories for them. Then I started making up stories about a leaf they might pick up, a pebble I'd see, a cloud, or a dragonfly, or anything at all. My children and I would make up stories driving to the hardware store, going to the dump, or to soccer practice.


One day, my children and I made up a long detective story using all the different stores and libraries in my town of Marshfield, Massachusetts. We went from the library to the Daniel Webster House and made up scenes as we walked along. That brought the geography of our town alive in a way that nothing had before. The story I made up was called The Gouda, and now I hear from people from as far off as Wyoming saying they're taking a trip to Massachusetts, and they want to drive through Marshfield to see all of the places in the story.


Creating a story is something like wandering in the dark. But isn't that what dreaming is? When you wander in an unknown world, you might bump into things, you might feel stranded, or you might feel amazed about what you come upon. Whatever happens, you're adventuring.


So, get someone to show you the palm of their hands, or take a leaf, a pebble, or a cloud. Look at the geography there, and then start dreaming, and then start telling the dream.

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