Wright Clarkson’s grandmother had plans for entertaining the family on the annual trip to the North Carolina coast, and none of them involved the television. When recalling how storytelling became his passion, Clarkson remembers his grandmother and those lazy, hazy days of summer.
“She didn’t want to see us wasting our precious creativity on the boob tube, as she called it. When we were very young, she told Mom, Dad, and everyone else that they were not allowed to bring that stuff — TVs or radios — to the beach,” he says, his eyes twinkling and his lips turning into a smile framed by his beard. Instead, Clarkson’s grandmother wanted the grandchildren to spend their vacation days coming up with skits and songs to entertain the family after dinner.
“There was time to sit on the beach and come up with stories, and then we’d stay up telling them until 10 o’clock at night,” Clarkson recalls. “She died at 104. When she turned 100, we came up with a story to tell her that showed [her influence] was going to live on.”
Although Clarkson’s storytelling roots ran deep, it took years for him to pursue the activity professionally. First, he spent time as a Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools teacher followed by a career in telemarketing. After his daughter was born, Clarkson re-evaluated his life.
“I thought, ‘I could keep doing this professionally and be very unhappy.’ It led me on a whole journey. I asked myself, ‘What do I do the very best?’ The answer was ‘tell a story,’” he says. “So I looked into teaching preschool, thinking that might be the way to bridge the gap.”
Teaching preschool was indeed the perfect segue into professional storytelling because it gave Clarkson a daily audience willing to tell him what did and did not work. Even today, Clarkson finds that his youngest audiences are among his most honest assessors. Not too long after Clarkson began teaching preschool, someone challenged him to quit sitting on the fence and jump into storytelling full-time. With the support of his wife, Clarkson made that leap five years ago.
“Beside every great artist, there is someone who really believes in him,” Clarkson says of his wife’s encouragement.
A creative passion
Now, Clarkson fuses his love of music, his business acumen, and his creative passion for storytelling into a profession that brings him great joy. His audiences range from preschoolers to senior citizens, and he uses call-and-response, costumes, puppets, and unusual instruments to enrich his programs. His experiences have made him adept at knowing how to tell a story and what story to tell to a particular audience.
“As storytellers, we concentrate on the pictures before we can concentrate on the words to make sure you can transfer the image into your mind. We don’t memorize stories, although we may practice them. When the story is there, you know it,” says Clarkson of his craft. His mission is to “share a story, open a mind, and touch a heart” with his stories that are geared toward multicultural and personal topics.
“My first story with an audience tells me which way I am going. I can switch or stay the course. I like talking to kids as much as adults,” he says. Clarkson’s stories often lend themselves to a general audience made up of various generations. He tries to wed humor, remembrance, and history into the stories he creates to give his audiences, from North Carolina to California, an experience.
“Storytellers have the opportunity to tell the other side of the story,” Clarkson says of the way that storytelling can be educational. Indeed, many of his presentations are in formal educational settings like schools, libraries, and camps.
In addition, Clarkson performs at festivals, teaches workshops, and even works with cancer patients.
“I am more oriented to the teaching and healing arts. I am interested in what I can do to help teach or heal. Working with patients who have terminal cancer or are surviving cancer is some of the most rewarding work. Seniors have wonderful stories to tell. I seem to be good at helping people find the right prompt to bring it out.”
Clarkson is most motivated by how storytelling helps his audiences relate to their own stories. And nothing, he says, is better than the electricity in the audience when everyone connects — to each other, certainly, but also to their own truth.
“The true joy is having people look at their own stories as something that can be just as interesting, exciting, and funny as the stories they read,” says Clarkson. “Everything is wide open. We are all about reconnecting people.”
Reprinted with permission from Our State magazine and the author. The author of this article is Rosie Molinary.