Grabbing Life by the Tale

Grabbing Life by the Tale

From a series called “ARTISTS & ACTIVISTS: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region”, this is based on the article “Grabbing Life by the Tale; Troy’s Pleasant DeSpain has made a career telling stories”, published in the Time Union Newspaper on Sunday, August 31, 2003, written by Joseph Dalton with a forward by Marion Roach.

Gentle journeys for rapt audiences


It was in the basement of a Seattle church in the early 1970s that Pleas­ant DeSpain knew for sure his commitment to becoming a professional storyteller was going to work out. “I had my hat by the door, and I told stories for two hours,” he says. “At the end of that night, there was $27.68 in that hat. And rent for a decent apartment was $100 back then. I knew then that there was no turning back.”

DeSpain has been telling stories to audiences large and small, old and young ever since. Next month, the Troy resident turns 60 and will have three new books released, drawing to a conclusion his nine­volume series for August House publishers titled The Books of Nine Lives. The multicultural story collections will bring his published books to a total of 20.

In all of his stories, which he estimates total approximately 1,000, DeSpain has one central message. “My main force in the telling and the writing is to point out in an entertaining way that we human beings are far more alike than we are different, no matter the culture, the time, the language, the religion,” he says. “I search for stories that are a good yarn, that are suggestible with vivid feelings, events and actions and that have a soul or a con­sciousness without being preachy.”

A 32-year career of speaking and writing has brought DeSpain into con­tact with thousands of listeners and countless readers. But it started with a leap of faith.

DeSpain decided that storytelling would be his life’s work when he was 25 and sitting on a beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. That trip was the first of many world travels that have punctuated DeSpain’s life and brought him new story material. But at the time, he was no itinerant.

DeSpain had earned advanced degrees in communication, literature and drama and seemed on the verge of a career in college teaching. A position at Seattle University soon brought him to the Northwest.

“I moved to Seattle and stayed for 27 years,” he says, “but I left teaching after two years” to tell stories. Coffeehouses were DeSpain’s first regular venue, although his repu­tation grew quickly. “It took a few years, (but) I became Seattle’s resident storyteller (as) proclaimed by the mayor,” he recalls. In 1977, the year of that designa­tion, he also began a syndicated newspaper column and a television show, both called Pleasant Journeys.

An old family name, “Pleasant” is also a nearly ideal moniker for a man who has a special way with audiences.

“He was wonderful,” says Kim McMann, head of children’s services for the Troy Public Library. In May, she organized a DeSpain perfor­mance for an audience of about 40 children and adults. “He told stories and wrapped everyone around his finger,” she says. “We were on the edge of our seats.”

To DeSpain, audiences are an essential component in his art. “Three elements – story, listener, teller-must come together as one during the experience,” he says. “If I’m doing my job, the audience is getting the story they deserve based on the quality of their listening.”

The idea of storytelling can evoke intimate and nostalgic locales, like campfires or elementary school classrooms. But DeSpain performs in a wide variety of settings, including corporate offices, supper clubs and large conventions. His largest live audience 16,000 strong was at a storytelling conference 10 years ago in Louisville, Ky.

Last year, prior to an appearance at another large gathering in Boston, DeSpain invited some friends and neighbors to hear him rehearse. Jim Lewis, a Troy furniture designer and artist who had made a mask for DeSpain to use as a prop, was on hand for the run-through.

“He blew me away,” says Lewis. “He had three interwoven stories and he would tell a bit of one, a bit of the next and then the other. They supported each other and had different takes on his theme. The effect was seamless and powerful.”

“All of my writing is a result of my telling,” says DeSpain. “When I write the story down I’ve probably (already) told it over the course of a ear. You will be able to hear me in the reading, because my pauses and breaths, my rhythm, is contained in the prose.”

Before adding a new story to his repertoire, DeSpain researches its origins and finds variations in written sources.

“I take the story apart , down to its skeleton,” he says. “I put it back together, simply, purely. I go out and tell it. And then I learn how I tell it. And then I write it the way I told it.”

DeSpain is almost as enthusiastic about sharing the art of storytell­ing as he is about the stories themselves. During residencies in schools, he follows up a performance by teaching children how to tell their own stories.

“We’re all natural storytellers,” he says. “Our lives are a story, and when we share them with each other, our lives are enriched.”