Pleasant DeSpain has never been afraid of adventure. He spends over half his year living in Thailand and much of the rest traveling the world to “discover” fresh folktales that he can share with a wider audience. We had the opportunity recently to talk with Pleasant about his development as a writer and storyteller, and he took us on a global journey. Enjoy!
Emilie: I thought we could start with talking about your history with storytelling, specifically storytelling in your childhood.
Pleasant: I grew up in rather humble circumstances in that my parents were not well educated. We didn't have art or music or books in the house. But my mother would read some bedtime stories to my brothers and to me, and I just really loved that.
But when I was in the third grade, I wrote a story for the first time, tried it out, for my buddy, his name
was Ricky. And I got in a bit of trouble interrupting class. Ricky wanted to read it and we were supposed to be working on math problems and I got called up to the front of the class and my teacher made me read it out loud. And they liked it! She got a notebook for me, she said your spelling and handwriting is just terrible. But the amazing this is that many years later, 20 years later, that book was published and sold 200,000 copies. It's called The Mystery Artist. It was made into one original children's book—very colorful pages and all of that—that sold in school book fairs. Over several years I was able to hold up that book when I was in schools, which I really don't do any longer, and tell them this story and show them that you can begin now here in the third or fourth grade.
But what really happened that set me I think on my track, not only with story but with my life, is this. We had a very small library, it was a small school, and in the library I found the child's version of the adventures of Marco Polo. It inspired me in incredible ways. As you know, it happened back in the late 1200s that Marco Polo traveled with his father and uncle, and over a period of 17 or 18 years helped open up the Silk Road. But near the end of the book, he visited an island that was south of India off the coast, and of course it was Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. And what he said about that island inspired me. He said that it was the most beautiful island in the world, and oh I wanted to go see that! I said to myself: "I will go and visit this island and see these people."
And that actually happened! About 1999, I was invited by a cruise ship company out of Canada to join the cruise (it was an around the world cruise), and they flew me from Philadelphia to Australia. So I thought, well if I'm going that far I want to get there a week early before I board ship. And so I got to explore parts of Australia. And then I spent two weeks aboard and disembarked in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I told the cruise company I'm going to be spending about 10, 12 days here before I fly back, and they accommodated me. And I did get to visit the island. It is no longer the most beautiful in the world due to over population and ecological devestation, and the war was going on at that time. But the first time that I met the Sinhalese, ah! They are so beautiful and seem to have an innate noble ease. These are wonderful people. So I finally got to do that.
And that's sort of how my childhood relates to story, because I have a visual memory. Story, I knew, would play a vital role in my life.
E: So it sounds like you started off as an author and writer before becoming a storyteller.
Pleasant: Yes, I always had a dream to be a writer and to make stories. And then, I went to school. In college I studied speech, communication, and the oral interpretation of literature, and I put it all together. I'm one of the 12 of us who can actually claim to be one of the pioneers of the American Storytelling Renaissance. We all caught the pendulum at about the same time—1970, 1971—when there was no such thing as a professional storyteller. So I put the drama, the speech making, and the literature all together and said, well, I'm going to make a living telling stories. And everyone laughed! And it did take five years to learn how to make a living telling stories. And the same thing from those early days from talking with other beginning tellers in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We all have a very similar story, how it took us a number of years to figure out how to make a living, and everything grew out of that. And I started with my storytelling primarily because of my love for tradition and culture, telling folktales, fairy tales, myths legends, and even zen stories. And so many people would say "well where can I get a copy of that?" And so I started writing them down the way I tell them. And that led to several things. I got a newspaper column in the Seattle times. I had to have a story ready every week, and before long a publisher came to me in Seattle and said "let's make a book!" That became my first two books. Then I've just been writing those stories ever since. And of course doing all the traveling that I do.
Emilie: Can you talk a bit more about your traveling? You live abroad for a lot of the year.
Pleasant: HA! Yeah, I am a vagabond. I told my mother three things when I was nine years old. When I was 35 years old, she repeated them back to me, and she said "how did you know?" And what I told her, and I'd forgotten until she reminded me and then it all came back. We were in our small kitchen and mom was baking a cake. And she said, “Honey, you look very serious." And I said, “Well yes! I've made some decisions." "Well go on, tell me." And I said, "well 1) I'm not going to be in army this time, meaning military. 2) I'm not going to have a regular job." She said, “ Oh, you don't know what you're going to be doing, of course you will! And what else?" And I said, "I'm not going to get married this time." And then at age 35 she said 1) "how did you know?" and 3) “What did you mean by 'this time'?"I started a meditation practice over 40 years ago and I maintained it. And it has led me to journeys within as well as to journeys without. Part of my reason for spending a great deal of time now in South East Asia is to be among the Buddhist culture. And I'm not Buddhist. I'm Western, I'm Christian, but I really believe we have many, many lives, many many stories, but only this one counts. But all the others have gotten us to this point. And the stories we're living and making in this one take us to the next and so forth. But I've really come to understand the differences in Eastern culture and their story and Western culture and our story and the similarities. We're much more alike than we are different. But that's what I meant by 'this time.' When I was nine, I had an idea that I would go out and seek and find.
E: What are some of those similarities and differences between Eastern and Western storytelling traditions?
Pleasant: I'm much more familiar with Western culture and storytelling, and how it's grown and now is taking place throughout the world, including Eastern cultures. But here in America and in Canada and Europe, storytelling has such a broad appeal now to everyone, because it's more than entertainment, it's more than learning teaching, it's more than hearing, it's open now with story slams and all the story shows and programs—everyone can tell. I think that's a fantastic result of where we all started some 40 years ago. In Eastern Culture, it's not nearly as broad. Stories are told in the temples and it's all about teaching and learning. Now I'm not telling at this point, particularly because I know the language is so difficult.
Emilie: In working with August House, you're working on writing stories for children. Why do you think stories are important for childhood development and inclusion in schools?
Pleasant: I think it's vital that a child actually uses his and her imagination. When I first started, in the
early 70's, more than one time I would have a child come up after a program so excited, eyes wide open, so happy saying "I didn't know I could do that!" Story helps children learn how to use their imaginations and how exciting that is. And now, particularly today where there's so little money for art of any kind, let alone inviting storytellers in. On the other hand, storytelling is taking place throughout the country in all kinds of venues, where before storytelling meant reading from the picture book to the kids, and now it's actually story telling. I'm very proud of that.
I think for those of us who helped begin all of this, took the risk and made it into something real, that we accomplished something so important that storytelling is alive and growing and will just continue for years. So kids really do get it. I think what happens to the child is that story broadens their horizons. It makes things possible. It does more than entertain. It does more than teach. Story touches upon that vital aspect of being inspired. And that leads to creation. Something I used, quite a few years back, with my earlier website Storytelling for Leaders— to lead is a message that every child should somehow acquire. To lead is to create and to create is to manifest. It's always imagination first where things actually begin. The seeds are planted and begin to grow. And, our lives are our stories, and any story worth telling is about life, even when it's made up. Something that I'm really pleased with is that some of these stories I set down 40 years ago, and they're in print, and they're still valued and being used, and probably will be read and used far beyond my life, and that makes me very happy.