Sunday Stories: “The Storyteller as Mentor”


The Storyteller as Mentor
(September 2002 to January 2003, Northern Ireland)
by Timothy DeLizza

In the fall after I graduated college, I flew from Brooklyn to Northern Ireland to apprentice under an established Irish storyteller who I’ll call Martha. After paying for my plane ticket, I had something like $1,000 in my bank account—and while Martha had agreed to cover room and board, the apprenticeship was not going to increase that number.

The plan was foolish, but in-line with a short list of desired jobs I’d written on an archaic typewriter in my senior-year dorm room. My list read in full:

Tim’s Career Ambition

  1. Professional writer/Storyteller (including film/play)
  2. Publisher
  3. College professor
  4. Be elected? (maybe/ maybe not)
  5. Normal Teacher (HS, likely)
  6. Book store, preferably used

How I’d come to think such a list was sensible is worth pausing on. My top fields were all (1) hyper-competitive to secure, (2) require large upfront investment, and (3) paid little to those few who broke in. Thus, there’s no surprise that in the United States these fields are overwhelmingly dominated by individuals from high-income backgrounds. By any measure, I wasn’t wealthy enough to hold such idealistic aims: I’d paid for college 1/3 with need-based grants, 1/3 with loans and 1/3 with my share of my maternal grandmother’s inheritance. No more money would be coming from my parents. 

Yet, I was a child of the nineties, a decade in which a sizable sub-culture of teens held an anti-consumerist ethos. In my Brooklyn public school circles, asking whether a given band had “sold out” was a regular debate. Pearl Jam had just gone on a world tour, avoiding Ticketmaster venues while suing them for monopolist behavior—putting fan pocketbooks over Goliath. Earlham, my beloved, neo-Hippie, Midwest Quaker school was ranked high on many “Colleges That Changes Lives” lists but low on alumni-giving. This stinginess was not because alumni didn’t want to give, but because the school is exceedingly good at fostering idealism. And my college-educated parents (both children of the sixties) had taught me I could follow any career path we wanted. They conveyed this message expressly and by example: my father was a self-employed carpenter, while my mom taught third grade. As such, they’d rejected materialism themselves. When I eventually pursued law, my mother asked, “Are you sure? That sounds really stressful.” 

During the summer before flying to the storytelling apprenticeship, I’d worked in two bookstores (life goal #6) while simultaneously interning for the pre-podcast-era version of The Moth storytelling organization. Back then, The Moth operated office space in lower Manhattan loaned to it by a small rental agency called Europe By Car. My first assignment was to acquire some of the free air filters the NYC government was distributing to help deal with the metallic smell still lingering from 9/11. 

In moving to Northern Ireland, I was trying out life goal #1. I told myself that apprenticeships were old world—something Harry Potter would do, and that’s why the choice seemed so odd and idealistic to American friends and family. Still, when I told the cabbie taking me to Martha’s place what the plan was, he asked, “Storyteller’s Apprentice? Where’s the money in that?” 

I settled right in. Martha’s place sat right outside a small town, and I stayed in a small BnB retreat that Martha had on her property. Among my weekly tasks was tending Gruffy, the storyteller’s goat. Gruffy was an asshole. Tending him consisted of feeding him and replenishing his water pail—which he often knocked over (on purpose). Feeding the dry food was easy enough, since he was leashed, I’d just put it at the edge of the leash. The water pail was the tricky bit—that was next to his little hut. He’d try to gouge open my stomach if I went near that. So, the game was: “Can I refill the water before he finishes his meal?” 

I bonded with a dog named Nancy, who in the teller’s Irish brogue sounded like “Nazi,” and who (like most dogs) loved humans and loved long walks, and on days without gigs I’d amble the countryside with her in the morning, write all afternoon (mostly a horror novel), then sip hot chocolate before bed. Email was already ubiquitous among my generation, and slowly being adopted by my parents—but I had no computer and only occasional access to Martha’s desktop with its dial-up connection in the main house. Phone calls were expensive. My contact with the outside still mostly world came through handwritten letters. This routine felt monastic, and left plenty of space to reflect on how I wanted to spend my life.

The gigs themselves dotted Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. I’d always tell one or two stories out of the lot. Martha’s bread-and-butter gigs were as special guests in school classrooms because the Northern Irish arts budget was quite generous for this sort of thing, and my storyteller had a gift for the business side of getting bookings. Later, after I became a lawyer, I’d joke that no judge could be as intimidating as a Dublin auditorium of preteen boys at a Catholic school. My favorite events were at festivals like one at Cape Clear where performers could get into longer, more adult, more complex material. 

Martha would make fun of the Moth storytellers, saying that their format of telling personal stories would never fly in Ireland, because “here telling people your personal problems is something you pay therapists to do, not something people pay to hear.” Irish storytelling was not about yourself but something larger. 

The hardcore ones only told stories in Gaelic, and refused to write their tales down. These really traditional storytellers, the Seanchaithe, were quasi-historians that told old morality tales about rural settings, fairy stuff, the Cúchulainn stories, and the epic pre-Christian story cycles (The Cycle of the Gods, the Ulster Cycle, the Fianna Cycle and the Cycle of the Kings). These Seanchaithe were often bound up with Irish nationalism as symbols of Gaelic culture to be preserved and revived.  

In Northern Ireland, where Martha was based, there also existed a newer school of storyteller that sought to use storytelling as a tool of reconciliation—emphasizing shared Catholic and Protestant storytelling traditions, or a more general multicultural tolerance. For example, “Spud and Yam”—an Irish woman and Jamaican man duo—sang fun interactive songs while exposing young kids to a bit of Caribbean folklore along with Irish standards. 

My favorite storyteller was a man I’ll call Seamus. Seamus was a storyteller’s storyteller. His stage banter was sharp as a comedian’s. His stories were bawdy and delightful. He taught me fun Irish-isms like, “she’s so tight”—aka cheap—“that she wouldn’t give you the steam off her piss.” He never talked down to the kids we performed in front of—always sneaking in bits of maturity for the brighter kids while providing some slapstick for the cheap seats. Unlike Martha (a Protestant who’d only quit her middle-class job after she’d established her storytelling reputation), Seamus came to storytelling from Catholic blue-collar roots that still showed up in his accent (e.g., Catholics say “haytch” instead of “aitch” to pronounce the letter H). 

When I first met him, I felt cool learning from him and wanted to be him. He taught me that great storytellers didn’t memorize but just recalled key points, which they would tell differently (speeding up or slowing down) based on feeling levels of audience engagement. You could always win over a young male audience by throwing in a curse word or, when that wasn’t possible, throwing in something that felt like a curse word so the story gained an edginess. For young kids, if all else fails you just switch to songs. 

* * *

Towards the end of my apprenticeship, Seamus and I had a talk during a long car ride. We often had long one-on-one talks about the meaning of life and craft and history getting to-and-from gigs (as the Irish say, “two shorten the road”). On this particular ride, I asked Seamus what career I should pursue back in the states. 

 “For fuck’s sake, go make some money,” he said. Then he confessed that he relied on Martha for getting gigs because she understood the business side and had the connections in the schools. He was never good at cultivating that, and so he never made stable money. And the problem with not having money is he was always thinking about money. He didn’t ever have the freedom to just do the art. Like me, he preferred telling long stories for an adult audience, but he needed to pay the bills and he very rarely—just three or four times in a year—got to do the gigs he really loved. 

I said something like “at least the women must love you.” He looked at me like the world’s biggest sucker. He told me that that’s not how the world worked, and that women were the more sensible gender. They had too much sense to hitch their luck to a starving artist, especially if they wanted a family. Maybe if a person was independently wealthy, then being a storyteller might have good dating options. As far as women in his life went, there was this prostitute abroad whom he visited once a year when he went to this annual literary festival. He’d save money the rest of the year so he could afford her services. Over time, he’d developed a decent relationship with her (as much as one could) and he’d get his needs met enough to tide him over.

Seamus’s talk in the car resonated through me as something else clicked into place. Virtually nobody I’d met in the storytelling industry seemed happy. The main reason was they were all obsessed with where their next paycheck would come from. The storytellers with the strongest artistic impulses seemed the least satisfied because they rarely got to do the thing that drew them to storytelling in the first place. If nobody was making this work in the Republic—where creatives were famously exempt from all income taxes and there was a national obsession with preserving cultural heritage, or in Northern Ireland with all of the EU grant money dedicated towards promoting reconciliation—then where could a man write and make enough of a living to support a family? Certainly not in America. What was the point of refusing to sell out if the road led here, not doing what you loved anyway?

After my apprenticeship ended, I tried and failed to find under-the-table work in Dublin for about a month. I stayed in a shit part of the city in a hostel filled with mostly undocumented immigrants who were also hustling for work. Through this, I got a taste of how hard “selling out” was as my ideals crashed into a real world with a near empty bank account. I learned a friend back home would be starting a job with the NYSE, and moving into his own place in Queens. My first student loan payment came due, and at the time my loan servicer provided this thick checkbook-style books of receipt so you could tear one off each month to include with your actual payment such that I could flip through to see my next few years of debt. 

I felt loneliness in this young city that I hadn’t experienced up north, along with a sense that I was still doing childish things that my peers had already grown beyond even considering.

* * *

By 2006, just three years later, I was a “rising 2L” (technically, a “rising third-year evening student”) at Fordham Law School in Manhattan. Pearl Jam had long since given up their Ticketmaster lawsuit, and was touring large arenas again. The Millennials coming up underneath me—seeing the writing on the wall—all but embraced selling-out. (The taboo shattered when Moby licensed all the songs from his breakout album Play to commercials and movie trailers). 

That fall, I participated in something called “On-Campus Interviews” where students vie for “Summer Associate” positions that, if acquired, will typically translate into your first post-law school job. Basically, On-Campus is a speed-dating bonanza between rising 2Ls and all the major law firms in America over the space of a few days. I’d done well enough during my first year that I’d secured 27 preliminary interviews. When my idealistic mom learned what I’d potentially be making for a summer’s worth of work, she said “that’s not fair—that’s more than I made my first full year of teaching,” then paused, reflected, and added, “but at least if it’s not going to be fair, I’m glad it’s unfair in my son’s favor.”

During my 27 interviews, I was often asked “when did you know you wanted to be a lawyer” and the only correct answer was “as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer” like we were in Goodfellas. As though we aspiring lawyers had never thought of becoming veterinarians, or circus acts, or whatever-type-of-adventuring-archeologist-Indiana-Jones-was, like all the other kids. The law firm knew our answer wasn’t true and we law students knew it wasn’t true, but every applicant said it because what else were you going to say? They wanted true believers.

I said this lie so often that I started to believe lawyering was something I wanted all along, and was surprised in my early thirties to uncover my old list of goals that I had not, in fact, kept my eyes on. 

The true answer was that I’d never considered becoming a lawyer until I was in that car, listening to a blue-collar man who had pursued his creative impulse to its logical conclusion, and who was rewarded with a life scrapping by and whose most meaningful intimate life was a yearly visit with a prostitute. 



Timothy DeLizza lives in Baltimore, MD. During daytime hours, he’s an energy attorney for the government. He won the 2020 Barry Lopez Nonfiction Award. His nonfiction has recently appeared in Undark, Salon, and Earth Island Journal.

Photo original: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

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