By Meg Brown, Thurber House director of children’s education
Lyn Ford is an internationally recognized storyteller, author and teaching artist who has taught with Thurber House’s children’s education programs since 1994. Lyn’s latest books, Supporting Diversity and Inclusion with Story and Speak Peace: Words of Wisdom, Work & Wonder, co-edited with fellow storyteller and teaching artist Sherry Norfolk, have both won 2021 Storytelling Resource Awards. This summer she will teach with Thurber House’s Summer Writing Camp.
Meg: You identify as an Affrilachian. Can you explain the definition of Affrilachian? How does your Appalachian background influence your artistic process?
Lyn: “Affrilachian” can be defined as a person of African American heritage who was born in or lives in Appalachia. The term was created by Kentucky author, professor, visual artist and poet (who was the first African American poet-laureate for the state of Kentucky) Frank X. Walker. Frank is also a co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets writing group.
I was born in Appalachian Pennsylvania and raised in a family where storytelling was the norm. I spent most of my life in that part of the hills, from Western Pennsylvania to East Liverpool, Ohio, and in West Virginia. The voices and stories I heard, and the region where we lived, are the roots of my storytelling.
Meg: Who do you consider the greatest storytellers, and who brought you to the artform?
Lyn: There are so many “greats.” I was immersed in the art form of spoken-word, sitting with some of the best: my father, Edward “Jake” Cooper; my Pop-pops, Byard Arkward; my grandmothers and great-grandparents; as well as my mother, Jean, who read stories to us every evening at bedtime. Beyond family, there were my mentors in books: Charles W. Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Edgar Alan Poe, Ray Bradbury, James Thurber. I’ll stop there. The list is long.
Meg: As an invaluable mentor to students at Thurber House, can you touch upon an inspiring moment in working with young writers?
Lyn: One of my favorite experiences was encouraging students in grades four and five to create “dynamic directions,” instructions for actions like skipping, clapping, humming, chewing and other activities we usually take for granted. Students had to model, break down and clearly write the necessary steps for their chosen actions. Watching fifth-graders begin skipping, untying and retying their shoes, pursing their lips to whistle, playing as children should, was exciting! They explored beginning, middle and end; the importance of word selection and effective phrasing; and revision, and wanted to write and share more instructions!
Meg: Storytelling is such an important part of preserving history. What lessons can be learned from traditional storytelling in the oral tradition?
Lyn: The interpretation of “literacy” needs to always include the skills of narrative communication. Many young people who have difficulty reading improve after they have actively experienced hearing, analyzing, practicing and telling stories. Listening and speaking skills always precede and enhance reading and writing skills.
The tradition of sharing spoken-word stories, whether fictional or personal, also provides a foundation for self-esteem, interest in history, diversity and scientific research, and an appreciation for various genres of written literature, as well as intergenerational, intercultural relationships.
Meg: What advice would you give aspiring storytellers in the digital age? What is timeless about the artform?
Lyn: Listen. Observe. Appreciate without judgment—what was done most effectively? Why did it work? And share. There are online venues around the world where open mic events may provide opportunities to find one’s voice and hone one’s skills. As long as there are people who speak and people who listen, there will be stories.
Meg: What’s the best thing about the Columbus arts scene right now?
Lyn: Columbus is the most vibrant place I’ve ever lived. I’ve experienced so much support for my art, and witnessed the support of creative ideas in the many arts disciplines that are evident here. There’s something for all ages, tastes and curiosities. I’m very happy with the continued and diverse growth beyond boundaries that is a part of the Columbus arts scene.