Monday, December 19, 2011
Guest Blog: Shevi Arnold, author of Toren the Teller's Tale
Toren changed my life.
I don’t know how old I was when I first became a storyteller, but I do know I was quite young. I remember telling my youngest cousins and my older cousins’ children stories when I was about ten. I loved the excited look on their faces, how my stories drew them in and captured their imaginations and their hearts. I also remember telling stories to the younger children on the van ride to school. I particularly remember one little girl who would ask over and over, “What happened next?” It was such a delightful question to answer.
As I was growing up, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I read encyclopedias and science magazines, because I was very curious, and couldn’t read enough about this world. I also read a ton of comic books, particular collections of Peanuts strips. My favorite books were funny, fantasy or science fiction. I loved the works of Peter S. Beagle, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and so many others.
But while I enjoyed these books, I kept looking for one about a girl like me, a girl who loved stories and loved telling them. I knew stories were magical, perhaps even the most magical thing we can experience. I couldn’t possibly be the only one who felt like this, could I? And who better to write about this particular magic than a storyteller? But the more I looked, the more I realized the book I so desperately wanted to read did not exist. No one had written it yet.
When I was seventeen, my family had moved to Jerusalem, and I had just started college. That first year I studied Hebrew and a variety of other subjects, like Advanced Algebra, Political Science, and Computer Programming. My plan was to eventually study filmmaking, because I wanted to be a director.
You see, I didn’t just love storytelling on paper: I loved it in all its forms, and I thought that movies were the best way to tell a story, because they brought so many of those forms together: with and without words, visually, and through music. I studied the movies I enjoyed, and I tried to figure out how they worked. I still read books, but I read them mostly for entertainment. These were books of my choosing, books that made me laugh and cry, think and feel.
This one night, a book had kept me up late. It was sometime after midnight that my head felt heavy, and I laid it down on the open pages. I looked out of the window of my room. The moon was big and full, far above the horizon. I stood up and walked to the window. I leaned on the windowsill and thought again about that book that didn’t exist, the one about a storytelling girl like me. I closed my eyes and made a wish.
When I turned around, a young woman was standing behind me in my room.
Although she was short, there was something about her that seemed larger than life. She was amazingly beautiful, with her long, dark, curly hair, and her olive-colored, almond-shaped eyes. She was wearing a garment the likes of which I had never seen before.
I asked her for her name.
She said something, but it wasn’t in English. I didn’t understand.
I shook my head.
She slowly reached up and touched my forehead with the tips of her fingers. She closed her eyes, and for a moment, she gave off a golden glow. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
“Thank you,” she said, with a voice that reminded me of honey. “You have taught me your language. Both of them, in fact.”
I felt like I should apologize. “I’m still learning Hebrew.”
“And now so am I.” She smiled. “I understand you wanted to meet me.”
“A girl like you who understands the magic of stories?”
I was so stunned and happy and excited I couldn’t speak.
“You have taught me your language and about your world,” she said. “How should I repay you?”
Of course, there could only be one answer to that question. “Tell me your story.”
“I can do better than that.”
Again she touched my forehead. She closed her eyes, and I closed mine. Her name was Toren, and her story flashed inside my mind. I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt all of it. When she pulled her hand away, I was laughing and crying.
I was in awe.
She smiled at me and bowed her head. She looked out the window, and I followed her gaze. A part of me expected to see something magical on the other side. When I turned around again, however, she was gone.
Her story remained with me, and I treasured it. I re-experienced it whenever I was lonely or bored and wanted to be reminded of the magic of stories.
But, like everyone else, I had my life to live. I couldn’t study film, because the university only offered that as an M.A., so I studied English Literature and Theater instead. By the time I had graduated, I realized I didn’t really want to direct movies. I earned a teacher’s certificate, but I didn’t enjoy teaching. Instead I first became an editorial cartoonist, and a comic-strip magazine editor; and then I became an arts-and-entertainment writer, and a consumer columnist. I got married and had two children. I was very happy.
Unfortunately, I had to leave my job and my old life behind when my family moved to New Jersey in search of a better education for my autistic son. I didn’t know what to do. If I couldn’t write, edit, or illustrate for a newspaper or magazine, who was I? What was I?
A few months passed before I realized the answers to those questions. I was still the little girl who loved telling stories to the other children in the van on the way to school. Toren’s story had given me so much joy over the years. And I had been selfish. Somewhere in the world there had to be someone just like the girl I had been, someone who desperately needed a story about the greatest magic of all. It wasn’t just Toren’s story. It was my story, too, and the story of every storyteller who’s ever lived.
Perhaps it’s your story too.
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About Shevi Arnold:
Shevi Arnold started telling stories when she was just a kid looking for a way to pass the time on the long, boring ride to school. Not long after that, she started telling herself her own stories--letting them play through her mind, like favorite TV shows--as she was about to fall asleep or whenever she was bored.
One night when she was seventeen, she encountered Toren for the very first time. The magical storyteller left quite an impression. But Shevi didn't have the time to write Toren's story down. She had degrees to earn in college, and when she was through with that, she had her work in newspapers and magazines, her marriage, and her family to keep her busy.
Then in 2001 Shevi returned to the USA in search of a better education for her autistic son, and she had to leave her job and her old life behind. She had only ever worked as a writer and an illustrator, and she couldn't work full-time for newspapers or magazines anymore. What was she going to do? She sat down and began to write Toren the Teller's Tale. Since then Shevi has written six other novels for kids and young adults, but after thirty years simmering in her mind and countless edits, she considers this novel her greatest masterpiece.