Cal Poly professor Russell Swanagon doesn’t teach English, literature, speech or theatre. Swanagon teaches storytelling — which requires all of the above. His office is filled with children’s books, fairytales, ghost stories, mythologies and folklore from around the world, and he shows how these stories are still relevant in people’s daily and personal lives.
“We can all, in some way, relate to these ancient stories, even if we can’t tell our own story,” Swanagon said. “We can use one of these ancient stories to speak our own truth.”
Swanagon is a professional storyteller. He received a master’s degree in storytelling from East Tennessee State University and teaches liberal studies storytelling classes and how to apply it in education.
“It’s an extremely effective vehicle for transmitting information,” Swanagon said. “Things that we learn in narrative form, we remember to a much greater degree than if we learn facts and skills in isolation.”
But Swanagon’s audience goes beyond Cal Poly. He also teaches people how to heal through stories.
One such audience is the California Men’s Colony, where a training program allows inmates to volunteer at the prison’s hospice to work with sick and dying prisoners.
“I work with them in personal stories, healing stories and life review stories,” Swanagon said. “The idea behind this particular hospice program, and I assume others, is that in order to help heal those that are dying, you (have) also got to heal yourself. And, probably one of the most effective ways to do that is through story.”
Swanagon remembered one inmate with a life sentence who did just that, saying the Greek myth of Sisyphus was his own story.
“He said that every day you get up in prison and it’s the same thing,” Swanagon said. “It’s the same walls, the same bars, the same routine. The same, everything is the same. It’s just like this task of Sisyphus, of rolling this boulder up this mountain. The same boulder, the same mountain, every day and getting the boulder to the top of the mountain only to have the boulder roll down again and having to go down to the bottom of the mountain and getting to roll the stone up yet again day after day after day, year after year after year. And he was saying this was very much what his life was about.”
The inmate came to the conclusion that, even if his day was filled with repetition and routine, he could still choose how to approach it and find joy and creativity in just living.
“He may be within the walls, but he’s involved in the very creative act of telling his own story differently every day that he opens his eyes,” he said.
The elderly of San Luis Obispo have also been impacted by Swanagon’s storytelling.
Swanagon works in convalescent hospitals and long-term care facilities, such as Sydney Creek Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Community. His audience ranges from 80 to 100 years old and can be comatose, mute or non-communicative in some way, he said. He tells stories such as “The Peddler of Swaffham,” and listens to the patients who can tell their own stories.
“They get excellent care, but the thing that is often lacking is the ability of an elder to share their stories, to share a narrative of what is important to them in this particular time in their lives,” he said. “It’s kind of reverse storytelling, story-catching. It’s providing a space in which the story can be held.”
Swanagon’s work has touched many people in the San Luis Obispo community. His influence even reflected on someone he said he considers a mentor — Elizabeth Ellis.
Ellis is a professor at East Tennessee State University, a published author and an award-winning professional storyteller. Swanagon was one of her students when he was working on his master’s degree, and she described him as intuitive, hardworking, insightful and an “outstanding storyteller.”
“It takes a special teller to take people into areas that are dark and painful without losing their listeners,” Ellis said. “If you are not very good and quite careful, you lose them because people become frightened initially, and they draw back from what you are trying to tell them instead of trying to become involved in it. (Swanagon) is one of those rare tellers that (is) able to take people to places that are darker and more demanding.”
Ellis’ favorite story Swanagon tells is one she gave him herself.
Titled “The Handsome Young Fishwife,” it is a story about a fairy queen who gives her son to an Irish fisherman’s wife. The woman raises him and teaches him to grow, laugh, work and be a man. Swanagon said he considers this story to be his personal one.
“A lot of (Swanagon’s) interest is in story that deals with helping boys become men, helping young men figure out how to take on the role of being a man in our culture,” Ellis said. “Not many things help men do that. They often have to struggle and learn things by trial and error that earlier in our culture would have been taught to them by people who were mentoring them.”
Another person impacted by Swanagon’s storytelling is Bob Liepman, an amateur musician who sometimes accompanies Swanagon in public storytelling at venues such as the Steynberg Gallery.
“He is captivating; he doesn’t rush his storytelling,” Liepman said. “He’ll give you an idea to think about, you think about it, and it unfolds. He speaks softly so you have to lean in and get into it. I’m really listening to what he is doing and then where there is a space, I put a little music in.”
Musician Chris O’Connell said he is moved by Swanagon’s storytelling. O’Connell is the lead musician at Hospice Partners, where Swanagon often volunteers his time. O’Connell has known him for 15 years and said Swanagon’s work exists on many different levels.
“I have a whole bunch of memories working with Russell, telling stories with Russell,” O’Connell said. “All that he’s done in the community to foster and further storytelling as an art form and also as something we just do every day, not just something that’s done up onstage.”
Editor’s note: For tips from Swanagon on being a storyteller or improving your own storytelling skills, watch the video at mustangdaily.net.