The Healing Power of Story
A conversation with Kevin Kling.
Kevin Kling grew up in rural Minnesota with “a lot of elbow room.” He was surrounded by wide open wild spaces and stories, so very many stories. In college, he and his friends had a saying that goes, “Your night before was only as good as your ability to tell about it.”
Born with a condition which resulted in his left arm being significantly shorter than his right, and without a wrist or thumb, Kling was always embraced by his family. “I’d say the luckiest thing was my parents never treated me any differently because of it,” he said. “I was always expected to pull my own weight. I was always just part of the mix.”
In fact, when his grandmother realized that the fairy tales she would read to him were
troublesome, she made sure he knew that being different – his difference – wasn’t a detriment.
“In so many of Grimm’s tales,” Kling recounts, “if you didn’t fit into a prescribed look or way of being, you were ostracized. Disability was usually a sign of being an outsider, and my grandma was pretty clear that no, that’s not the way it is. She would tell me fairy tales and folk tales where being an outsider was actually a strength.” And so, he grew up with a strong sense of belonging.
He always loved telling and listening to stories but didn’t realize it was something he could do professionally, until one night in his mid-twenties when he found himself at a friend’s party.
“You know the best place to always be is the kitchen,” Kling remembers, “and I was just talking and telling stories like I always would in a kitchen, and little did I know there was a theater producer there. She asked, ‘Do you want to be part of our next season?’ and I said, ‘Doing what?’ and she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ So she put me on stage and away I went. That was about 35 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now a prolific storyteller, author of numerous books, and playwright with critical acclaim, Kling travels around the globe telling stories, performing and facilitating storytelling workshops. He will be in Salt Lake City Thursday, May 10 at the Mountain West Arts Conference, giving a keynote on the Healing Power of Story.
Always an enthusiastic storyteller, Kling did not truly understand the healing power of stories until he survived a terrible motorcycle accident. As he’ll elaborate on in his talk, he experiences a significant difference in the disability he was born with and one he acquired later in life.
“I was born with a disability,” he noted, “but I never associated that with needing healing. That was just who I was, and then in 2001 I was in a motorcycle accident and everything changed.
“When you do suffer loss, and it can be any kind of loss ― I lost the use of my right arm, but it could be a person, a relationship, a job, anything ― all of a sudden you’re a different person. But you haven’t grown into that person, and so you have to slowly grow into the new person you’ve become.”
After the accident, he went through a phase where he needed to know how he belonged in the world again. He sought the stories of others who had had similar experiences. As he found those stories, he found himself again; they were invaluable in helping him to come to terms with his injury, and they supported him to endure the challenges of growing into a new way of being in the world.
“When you heal, you really are changing your narrative. You’re changing your momentum, your trajectory, your perspective. We’re continually changing the narratives of our lives; we think in terms of story. We are stories, and so, when all of a sudden you change, your story changes. And when you can tell a story about something, it doesn’t control you any longer: it’s in your vernacular, the way you see the world. It’s a way of going from point A to point B in your life.”
Kling appreciates the value of stories on a personal level and a communal one, believing the arts to be “as important as anything else in a community, as important as a plumber. Storytellers reflect on where we’ve been, and where we’re going as a society, as a community. Do we want to be going in this direction? Do we want to be going in another one? They serve as a mirror, asking, ‘What is funny to us? What is sacred to us? What are the issues of the day?’
“In the health of a community, I think that storytellers really do play a large role. And they always have. And as is said every year since time began, ‘especially in these days.’ ”
Event details & links:
The Healing Power of Stories keynote with Kevin Kling will take place 1:45-2:45pm, Thursday, May 10, during the Mountain West Arts Conference at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley. For details about attending the keynote and conference registration, visit heritage.utah.gov/arts-and-museums/ resources-prof-dev-mwac.
Listen to a selection of Kevin’s stories and experience more of his work at kevinkling.com.
Giuliana Serena is the Beekeeper and Founder of The Bee, lovingly competitive (and occasionally curated) storytelling in SLC. Visit thebeeslc.org for more about The Bee’s monthly shows, workshops, and to listen to stories from the archive.