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Tell me a story

Storytellers counter an age of bits and soundbytes with the timeless power of an oral tradition

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Once upon a time, Carmen Deedy had a once-in-a-lifetime gig in Monterey, Calif.

Deedy, whose parents fled Castro in 1963, grew up in Decatur listening to yarns that could go on for hours and learning the colorful turns of phrase familiar to both Cubans and Southerners. It seems almost inevitable that she became a professional storyteller.

She started practicing the craft in her 20s, during story time at her daughter's elementary school, and moved to touring, and to appearances on National Public Radio and at the Library of Congress. Then in 2005, Deedy was invited to speak at the annual TED (for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") Conference in Monterey.

Nonspeakers pay thousands of dollars to attend the invitation-only event for and about deep thinkers and futurists, and Deedy shared a bill with DNA pioneers, physicists, explorers, evolutionary biologists, graphic novelists and, via satellite, even Bono.

"At one point I was riding in a car with three Nobel Prize laureates," she recalls.

The ultimate venue for cutting-edge ideas seemed an unlikely place to find Deedy, who sees storytelling as the oldest, most primal of all disciplines. The TED Conference was like nothing she'd ever seen. She marveled at practical examples of scientific breakthroughs and prototypes for products of the future.

"I saw things I can't describe, things that we won't see on the market for 10 years," she says. "The hydrogen car was there, fully working."

Having grown up poor, Deedy was overwhelmed by the $6,000 worth of gifts and gadgets in her hotel room – presents she received simply for being a TED speaker. "It was like Christmas."

When her time came to talk, Deedy knew that, like other TED speakers, she'd be allotted exactly 20 minutes. Then she discovered her microphone wasn't working. So much for the epicenter of technological advancement.

Not only did she not get to make up for the time required to fix the mic, but she put an additional burden on herself: She decided to abandon her prepared remarks and extemporize. Deedy told the audience about the time she was driving her elderly mother to the mall during the holidays. They were having trouble finding a parking space. But immigrants, she noted, have a special tool – "parking-lot radar" – and her mother used it to identify a spot three rows over.

Deedy told her closer cars would be able to claim the space first. So her mother got out of the car, strode across the rows between them and the space, and stood in the spot to claim it.

"Anyone who's grown up in the South or has an ethnic parent has stood in a parking space, or been forced to stand in a parking space," she recalls explaining to the TED audience.

To the amusement and annoyance of passers-by, her mother waved Deedy over while telling other drivers, "'No, no, no, you canna park here – is reserved!" Finally, her daughter brought the car around. Deedy parked and asked, "Have you no shame?"

"No, I gave it up with panty hose. They're both too binding."

Then she noticed two young people standing nearby, watching the spectacle. "She's just like Momma," one said. "God, how I miss her." And while Deedy was thinking, "There's two of my mother? Have they cloned her?" the embarrassing, maddening moment turned into something touching.

"I'm going to drive you crazy for 10 to 15 more years," Deedy's mother told her. "Then, you're gonna miss me."

At TED, Deedy's funny riff on her mother turned into a reflection on the fragility of people and things we hold dear.

"Story is human connective tissue," Deedy told her listeners. "Story is so elemental, so essential that even when Lexus sells you a car, they don't really sell you a car; they sell you a story."

Yet storytelling may be more fragile than it looks. We live in a DSL-speed media culture that puts a premium on images and editing. Taking the time to spin a funny, instructive yarn that celebrates language and selective moments of silence can seem like an anachronism.

"Traditions of storytelling are vanishing," she told the audience. "Now we receive stories from other sources, so the storyteller has been relegated to the secondary or tertiary role in the community."

Deedy recalls warm applause at the end of the talk. Some listeners thanked her afterward, and famed photographer Rick Smolan, producer of the Day in the Life books, was quoted later calling her story one of the highlights of the conference.

But some voices from New Media weren't as impressed. "One of the kids from Google said, 'Oh, please. Storytelling. She told a story about her dead mother.'"

Rob Cleveland knows storytellers have something of an image problem.

"The biggest hurdle is when someone says, 'Want to hear a storyteller?' people automatically think of the little old lady at the library with a copy of Thomas the Tank Engine," says Cleveland, who's also an actor and comedian. "But really, it's a performance art."

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