Hidden Gems: Uncovering Story in Stone and Experience
This is the third Story Kin and Cousin Conversation. We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form. Join us for a conversation with storyteller and comedian Nick Baskerville of Story Telling On Purpose and cousin storyteller sculptor Howard Friedler of Fantasy Gems.
Vel: Who told you the first story you remember really enjoying?
Howard: When I was a small child my dad used to tell us bedtime stories. The story I remember most was a very scary story, and I wondered: how was that supposed to help a little kid fall asleep? A lot of stories I end up telling are things I experienced, many of those through stones. It’s always amazing to me when I look at a stone, and have experiences of the stone suggesting carving ideas. I used to be at work and have what I would call a visual: I could see as if I was a rock inside a can on my shelf. All the rocks would be arguing which one was going to get carved by me when I got home, and what should they be carved as. I would be trying to pay attention to my job while listening to the rocks argue back and forth. That used to be amusing: when rocks butt in and have their own ideas. I always wonder: do rocks talk to everyone? Who knows?
Nick: My Grandma, she passed away a while ago, but she’d have stories. Some were tales she read to me like Aesop’s Fables. That actually became my favorite and that’s what I do with my daughter. She’d also tell stories about Uncle Mike and my mom… Then there were other stories. She told me the story of, we’ll say Jack and Jane. Jane had a little ribbon around her neck, and they were kids… One day they’re married and Jack’s like: “Look, you’ve had that thing around your neck the whole time I’ve known you. Take it off!” Jane takes it off–and her head falls off. I was like: “Grandma…I’m six. I don’t know if I was ready for that ending.” I’ve been going on stage for audiences for six years now. I slipped, tripped and fell into storytelling from teaching. Stories were one way to be engaging.
Vel: What’s a story with a stone that comes to mind for each of you?
Howard: I was doing a fair on Union Street in San Francisco. It got to be a sunny day, one of the crystal balls turned into a magnifying glass and my display case started smoking. Of course, I realized: don’t do shows with crystal balls outside. When we were in Santa Rosa, my studio was in the garage. I was working on a piece of quartz, and had this idea. In Oriental mythology there’s dragons chasing after the pearl. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could carve a dragon that caught the pearl in its mouth? I started carving it. All of a sudden a voice came into my head: Stop what you’re doing, do not carve this any more, you are dealing with energies you do not understand. I thought, ok, that’s interesting. I kept carving. The voice came back: You don’t understand the energies you’re dealing with, you should really stop. I kept carving. All the electricity went out. My wife comes running from the living room: “Something’s wrong! We’ve lost all our power.” We ran outside. There was no power anywhere in the neighborhood. We’re standing there maybe five minutes. The power comes back. On the TV they say: “There was one area of Santa Rosa about three or four square blocks. The power went out, and came back by itself.” The piece sits in one of my drawers the way it is.
Nick: Howard, we just met, but I need you to listen to the voices in your head more. The rule of three, then something happens, and they go on…Don’t do that! We know how those stories turn out. There’s two stories I think of with a stone. One is The Sword in The Stone, the other one is The Ten Commandments. It’s interesting how people see one object, one stone, and come up with different perspectives on how it is.
Vel: How did you notice the value of the stories you were creating with words or stones?
Nick: I’ve been in fire service twenty-one years. There’s this section of fire service called Hazardous Materials Operations. I’m teaching them about chemistry and behavior. I’ve given them everything they need to know. For eight hours. One of the kids walks up to me. “Hey instructor, I don’t understand.” I say: “What don’t you understand?” “All of it.” I was like, you know I want to choke you, but I need this job and all the benefits that go along with it–maybe that’s not the answer. I was looking for a better way to teach. So I found myself in Toastmasters. After being in Toastmasters and doing a bunch of training, one of the mentors said: “You’re pretty good at public speaking, have you ever thought about going to The Moth?” You learn things in Toastmasters, but they work in Toastmasters. I went to The Moth, and I was like, alright, some of it works, some of it needs to be tweaked, no problem. The other thing I thought is: if I can stand on stage and tell them a story when they’re slightly inebriated and they get it, then when people are fully caffeinated in the morning, they should get it as well. My approach is based on an idea of: how do you create engagement with people? If I’m talking about fire hoses at some point we’re going to go put our hands on a fire hose. But when I teach you about ethics, I need to make it relatable to you somehow. So everyone understands what ethics is, or leadership, or truth. All those things written into stories.
Howard: When our daughter was small, I used to carve a lot of castles. She would say: “Dad, I don’t understand. The castle towers, sometimes they’re big and sometimes they’re small, and sometimes they move and sometimes they wiggle. How do they do that?” I would explain how different optical surfaces affect the dimensions of the hole I was carving in the stone. I think out what I’m going to do before I touch the rock. When you cut a hole in a stone it changes the way light passes through. There’s different zones of magnification, and what I call anti-magnification. When light starts moving through the stone, features that literally were not there appear. I wanted to do a carving of Medusa. I was interested in when they cut Medusa’s head off, and her blood dripped onto the ground, and from the pool of Medusa’s blood Pegasus was born. I had to find a stone that had the right angles, so I could carve Medusa’s head and have blood dripping out her neck in a certain way to form a pool that would form a certain area I could carve Pegasus. Because the story is Pegauss being born, I carved half of Pegasus, right down the middle. But then I was able to carve the reflecting surface where I carved Pegasus. If you were looking at Medusa, you turned the stone just the right way–all of a sudden Pegauss was there with two wings, flying. But if you change the angle, the other half disappears.
Nick: You craft your stones the same way I craft a story. I’m looking for eight elements, I’m looking for where they’re arranged. I’m considering: is it better for me to start in the middle of action, or do I need to go linear, or do I need to start from the end? How do I create tension? Is there a word I don’t think people will understand, is there a better word that hooks the listener a bit more? That’s what I mean by scientific. You’re using science too, it’s just a different kind of science. Diving deep into the minutia to pull out the thing you really want.
Howard: Yeah. People ask: “Do you carve stone or do you sculpt stones?” The differentiation to me is a carver is: “You want a horse, here’s a horse.” If you’re a sculptor: “This may not be the right stone for a horse, but it might be good for a kangaroo.” I used to get rocks and put them out on a big piece of cardboard. It looked like I was playing chess against myself for hours. I study angles and possibilities. To fit it together to create a story makes it that much more exciting.
Vel: Nick, you tell a lot of stories from your life experience, how similar is that to taking a piece of rock and seeing: will this be the right shape for what I want to create?
Nick: The similarity is for me it all starts with a story idea. A book I teach from is Matthew Dicks’s Storyworthy. He talks about homework for life: every day writing down something from your life. For me that’s the finding the rock part. Sometimes It’s just a funny or interesting thing; I look for did I have a fundamental change in how I saw something? I go 180 degrees, back before I thought differently, and work through the process. I have an idea, at least the bones of it. I’m a storyteller, I like scenes, because it’s easier for people to grasp a scene. I want them right there with me as I’m walking through the whole thing. But different people get different things out of the same story. Last year I told a story about getting the Millennium Falcon for Christmas. I told that story four times. The meaning changed slightly based on the audience and the responses. I may change the delivery: tone of voice, where I pause, how much I describe something, minimize other things. Sometimes it’s a matter of what I want, and sometimes I’m asking the event planner or understanding the audience. I want it to be worth your time, but I also want it to be relatable. I did a story about not fitting in at the fire department. Not everyone’s in the fire department, but there’s something you haven’t fit in. For me it all starts at: what do I want people to know? Everything else, in some ways, is like the stone: if I want it to look like a dragon, what kind of a dragon, how big of a dragon? I need more stone, less stone, this color isn’t going to work right. Just working away until you get that final image.
Howard: So you have an overview of the whole story edited in your mind before you even start?
Nick: Yeah. There’s a story I’m working on for Saturday that has to do with me getting on a plane. I will definitely have laid out the end scene, where I’m gonna begin, the scenes leading to this, where the climax is gonna be, the resolution, all that. What I’ve been tinkering around with is I used to write every word out, I knew all this stuff and practice the delivery so it’d sound natural. Now I have enough for me to start the scene and I’ll talk through the scene over and over. Every day this week I’m going through the entirety of the story, and change things around, like an outline. I kind of borrow from comedy. In comedy you have a set list. You have a little sheet of paper, and one or two words that describe a thing, and that keeps your order. So I’ve come up with this set list, and between what I’ve gotten comfortable with talking about there in the moment, and also some of the responses from the audience. Sometimes I’ll say something that’s meant to be funny and it’s not. Luckily it’s storytelling, so I just keep talking, and nobody knows they were supposed to laugh. Other times people laugh and I didn’t expect that. I’ll let that sit for a minute, because I want them to have that moment. I may add one or two things to go along with it, then I’ll move the whole thing along. It’s not just laughter though, sometimes it’s gasps. Sometimes it’s people on the edge of their seat. It’s very interactive. It’s not me reading a book, it’s a give and take relationship with the audience.
Howard: I tell bedtime stories to our grandson and he is very interactive. Your idea of having an idea where the story goes is challenging for me, especially when he butts in.
Vel: Do either of you have upcoming projects?
Nick: With my blog post I’m looking at different types of storytelling structure. The one normally used in personal narrative storytelling is some version of The Hero’s Journey. As I’ve been teaching personal narrative storytelling, there’s a few times I’ve been teaching or coaching and I realize, “I think this person needs some other kind of structure. What do I need to give them?” I asked this at Artists Standing Strong Together. Of the recommendations were: read The Red Fairy Book and The Blue Fairy Book. There’s a difference between Western and Eastern storytelling; I haven’t even gotten into the African folktales and everything else. I want people to get their story out their way. I can’t stand it when someone says: “I have a story to tell.” And they craft it in this one way…but not the way you’re really going to get it out of them. One of the things I think about with storytelling is not everything is in one place, easy to get. I started my blog because I was like: “Hey, where do I go to find storytelling shows in my area?” And there wasn’t one place, you had to know someone who knew someone. I was like, “This sucks. I’m doing a blog, I’m tracking everybody’s stuff every month. You want to go to a place and find where the shows are? I’ve got you.” I’m trying to do that with structure. I’m reading it, so every few weeks I’m going to drop something; “I learned this–challenge me on it; give me a better answer!”
Howard: At this moment I’m retired, so I do whatever strikes my fancy. My dad used to say: “But is someone going to buy it?” I’d say: “That’s not the purpose for why I’m carving it.” If I don’t carve a dragon with three heads and two tails, who’s going to do it? I get to do it, and see how it turns out. If things sell, that’s great, and if they don’t that’s ok. I’ve been fortunate a lot of my pieces have sold, and I’ve had a lot of international recognition for the carvings I’ve done.
I like to explore the way different stones and tools work. I used to get involved in a gem show in Tuscon every year, but haven’t done that for years. I’d rather be in my studio, wondering what I’ll do with a rock, and see where it goes. I was out walking and thought, it would be fun if I could carve a bald headed eagle, but what rock am I going to carve it in? When I got home I started hunting through rocks to see which was the right size and shape and color. There was one stone that was perfect. So I carved it up. I was working on the statue of a dragon, and thought, the base of the dragon would be a good carving. I knocked the dragon off the top of the stone, and carved the stone into something completely different. That was the rock I wanted to use. If I had to sacrifice the dragon, let the dragon be gone. I have belonged to a carving group called Gem Artists of North America. We describe ourselves as trying to herd cats. Suddenly you’re off to many different directions simultaneously. Everything turns out neat. It’s just completely unexpected. That’s part of the thrill of this artwork I’ve tried to do.
Vel: Nick, are there similarities with handling narrative in different ways, like Howard talks about handling rock in different ways?
Nick: For me it comes down to: what is the person trying to express? Sometimes they’re the type of person who’s going to give keynote speeches for corporations. Joseph Campbell’s narrative is perfect. But then there’s people who want to tell this endearing story about their Grandma. Or not just their Grandma, their whole family, their experience of actually going to Africa. When I listened to her, there wasn’t that defining moment of change, but this experience she went through, and she wanted to take everyone else there. That was one of the key moments of: there’s got to be a different structure. The conflict that plays out in Western storytelling is different from Eastern storytelling. In Eastern storytelling it’s about the group, everybody is important and needs to make it. In Western storytelling the main character’s going to make it–everyone else could die. If you’re telling this story about your family, not one main character, Eastern fits better. What I like is everyone’s different, but their differences make them better as a group. I see that with firefighters. There’s a group of people at a fire station, we’re all kind of wacky people, but you come together and get through stuff. It’s all of you going through the journey together.
Howard: When you’re structuring a story, do certain kinds of stories work better for certain people because they’re used to that type of story, or would you tell a story to get the idea across?
Nick: At what point do you craft a story for the audience, and at what point do you craft a story because this is the purpose, regardless of who it happens to be? I think you can do either. My purpose is: crafting the story so its purpose comes out. I think you get more out of it. I acknowledge if you deliver a story or any kind of communication the way people are expecting it’s easier for them to digest. My concern only doing it for the audience their way is they’re going to be myopic in their understanding of story, or that particular story or purpose. So the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a very Eastern type of story. That story worked great in the US. As the quote goes: “Storytelling is one of the best ways to get an idea into the world.” This is how the person who doesn’t have money or power or influence gets a chance to say: this is important and I want to see it in your brain. I think in terms of my kid: she goes to school and there’s a new type of math. The rule is pick any way you want, and prove your work with one of the others. That’s what I want to do with story structure: here are different story structures, pick one that works for you, but if this is your end goal, here are the pros and cons of the one you’re picking, here are the different roads to get there. Let me find the right structure for the purpose of the story you’re teaching– then we’ll put that into the world and it will probably still work.
Howard: Interesting. Have you ever told the same storyline from say a Western perspective and then told the exact same story from an Eastern perspective?
Nick: I haven’t yet. It’s been a few months that I realized: “Man this student…There’s a story but it doesn’t fit what I’m used to. I’ve got to figure this out if I’m going to be a good instructor.” So I stumbled across this whole idea of the Eastern/Western story. It’s things that you know, but you don’t think about. But you saying that does make me think. Particularly if there’s something going on in the firehouse. Most of my stories are about me and my kid. I spend a lot of time trying to teach her to be ready for the world but I find what really happens is she teaches me to be a better person, not even just a better dad, but a better person. I’m talking more about my fire department experiences. Normally it’s just one or two other people, but there’s normally four or five people assigned to your apparatus. So there’s four or five people together. One assignment there were four of us, all completely different people, but we worked great together, because all four of us did our own thing. There was never a point where one of us was “ the person to follow”. If I could find a nugget of something like that, I would tell it that way: the four of us going through that experience and then getting to the other side. It’s not something I’ve done yet. Once I figure all this stuff out I’m going to try it, because that’s what I am.
Howard: I can see where certain storytelling methods would help emphasize certain things over others. Of course, then you’re back to: do you mess with the storylines? Do you stay true to one form or the other? How do you decide to tailor a story?
Nick: This is where the importance of understanding other storytelling genres comes in, because some are strict. One, I think it’s an Iranian type of storytelling, you will tell the story like this– period. There’s no deviation. There’s supposed to be a song here, the song will show up, you will sing it in this pitch. Whereas personal narrative storytelling, nobody’s going to tell you the story is wrong, it’s your story. Or you have something like liar’s tales, you start off with a kernel of truth in the beginning and the rest is off the rails. But people know, they’re with you. They’re like: “You’re not telling the truth, but this is a good story.” I could make up a liar’s tale that has a more Eastern approach, so now it’s a group of people doing crazy stuff. Where am I going to put the conflict? I don’t have to put it where I was going to put it before. The nice thing about a liar’s tale is technically there’s a change, but it doesn’t have to be life altering. Some people are doing great things where they’re doing different versions and styles. To me all those types are exciting. More people are drawn to storytelling, and more people think of stories of their lives, different ways to get their meaning, their purpose out into the world. If you’re not president of a country or a ruler or entertainer, you don’t have that platform. But you can tell this story really well and record it and send it out, it can still have an effect. Howard, I know you said with doing stones, you just started doing it as a kid, but what drew you to that? No one’s like: “By golly, I am going to go and carve stone!” At least, it’s not a common thing. How’d you get on that track?
Howard: I’ve always done carving as something I loved to do, it was not my full time job. I worked at Kaiser doing lots of jobs for thirty-six years. I knew something was up when I was in Boy Scouts, and we’d sit around the campfire and I would just carve things, and kids started to offer me money for what I was carving. “If you want to give me ten cents, a quarter that’s cool. I’m just doing it.” When my wife and I got married we lived in Northern California. We went out and collected driftwood for the fun of it. I started caving big heads, larger than life heads. And I would throw them in the fire and light them up. I thought it was cool watching these flames jumping out of noses and mouths and ears. People would freak out: “Why are you burning these things you just made?” I said: “I made them to be burnt.” I just kept carving. Someone came over to the house and saw carvings everywhere. “Dude, you’re running out of shelf space, you wanna sell something?” It spiraled from there. A buddy of mine was a jeweler. He said: “Hey man, for the fun of it, here’s a piece of deer antler, here’s a rotary machine.” I carved the bust of a knight in armor with the helmet lifted up and mustache and beard cameoed in. All the insignia on his shield, all his armor was cameo work. My friend freaked out: “Dude, come with me. I know a guy you’ve got to meet.” I went to this guy and said: “Hey, this is what I just did.” He gave me five or ten pounds of ivory. “Carve whatever you want. Let me have first dibs on buying it, and you can have the rest.” Someone else bumped into me who had a store in San Francisco. “Man, that stuff’s cool. Will you carve stuff for me?” Next thing you know I got a box of walrus teeth. I went to town, having fun. We lived in Australia, and I used to go to the slaughterhouse and chop horns off the butchered animals’ heads, making jewelry and all kinds of stuff. One time a guy came up to me: “ I’ve been looking for someone to carve a scorpion out of blue topaz. I can’t find anyone. Can you do it for me? I don’t have any money. Can I trade you some wine?” I said. “Sure. I don’t care. I’m just having fun.” I got a case of wine, and ended up carving everything, and it worked out great. What’s cool with a gemstone: you sit down, carve it, and when you’re done, it’s a carved gemstone. There’s something about the energy of the stone that elevates what I’ve done. It’s a partnership between me and the stone. I’ve been cutting rock like that for thirty years, forty years. Just stumbled into it, and kept on going, and ended up meeting people who wanted things carved.
Vel: What’s one thing you’d like people to take away for creating their own stories, and one thing that drives your own purpose?
Nick: There are so many ways to get your stories out. There’s not just one right way. You just have to find the one right way for you. I encourage people to try and find what that is throughout the many ways– classes, workshops, books–you can do that with storytelling.
Howard: In a similar vein with carving the stones: you can tell the stories against another perspective and a different understanding, and a way of seeing things in either a traditional way or a nontraditional way. It can spark your imagination and speak to your heart. You might hear it with your ears, but you really understand it in your soul.
Nick Baskerville is a firefighter, husband, and dad that enjoys telling stories and jokes and talking to folks. For more from Nick find him on his website www.stop365.blog, on Twitter @on_telling, and on Facebook @storytellingonpurpose365
Howard Friedler is a self taught sculptor now working primarily in gemstones. For more from Howard contact him at or find on his website at http://howardfriedler.weebly.com