Enter the Storytelling Ambassador

Musician and poet Ben Weaver rides his bike across a European landscape.

The MuseWeb Foundation’s place-based storytelling project Be Here: Main Street is going strong in Minnesota. With support from our partner organization, the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, we’ve had the Be Here crew collecting stories, sharing thoughts about the value and importance of storytelling, and doing a lot, a lot of listening. In a behemoth effort to engage with people across multiple Minnesota communities, Shanai Matteson of Water Bar & Public Studio and with whom we chatted in a previous blog, has been crisscrossing the land of 10,000 lakes with her chief storytelling ambassador Ben Weaver, a songwriter, poet, bicycle advocate, and dad. Ben’s role is to listen, to inspire, and to encourage others to tell stories. His own tale is pretty interesting too.

“A while back I decided to do things differently.  I stopped touring in a car and began carrying my instruments on my bicycle. Instead of performing in traditional concert settings, I began building tours around natural spaces, specifically around water. I wanted to give back, build communities, and learn more from the people and places I visited.”

Musician Ben Weaver plays a concert.Ben: When I first attempted to make a living as a musician I was diving around the country playing in little coffee shops and sleeping at rest stops in the back of an 1985 Ford F150. Those days were fed by an ambitious romanticism for a ragged, hand-to-mouth life on the road. It wasn’t long before the romantic edge wore off, and I began growing tired of playing to tiny audiences in sad bars. Luckily after releasing my third record, Hollerin’ at a Woodpecker, I got a break. Suddenly, I had all kinds of invites to go across the Atlantic and perform.

I received an invite to come perform at a festival in Katowice, Poland. I forwarded the offer to my European booking agent who recommended we add additional shows to the festival making the trip into a mini tour. . . . I’m gonna share a story from the first day of riding that speaks to what it was like out there, and also casts a bright light on the serendipitous experiences which keep me riding to shows.

A concern I had preparing for this trip was navigation. I needed to allow eight hours to travel the 100 or so miles between shows. Most days, soundcheck was at 4 pm, followed by dinner, and then the show. I also had to fit interviews in there as well.

People were intrigued by my traveling to shows by bike and even in a country with so much bicycle infrastructure, what I was doing was not normal.

When all was said and done, I was typically not back in my hotel room until midnight making each day was a jigsaw puzzle of hours. How I put them together made all the difference in my surviving the next. To ensure not getting lost, I brought a GPS, and Garmin was kind enough to donate a Euro map chip to my cause. A very good friend of mine and incredible guitar player, Mark Ziljma, lives in Amsterdam on the 3rd floor of a very, very old building. For those that have not climbed up or down Dutch stair cases, particularly the old ones, they are nothing like the giant rectangular stair wells we have in the U.S. The Dutch built their stairs steep, narrow and winding. In order to get my bike down Mark’s stairs, I had to hold it from the rear rack dangling it almost vertically while Mark took the front wheel and together we guided it down the stairs and out the front door.

On the first day of my tour I left Amsterdam planning to ride 103 miles to a town called Middleburg in the south of Holland. Immediately after loading my instruments on the bike and heading into the wind and rain, I began having problems with the GPS. Each time I deviated from the course, it froze. I ended up using my phone to get out of Amsterdam. Near mile 45, I took the Maasluis ferry across the Nieuwe Waterweg just west of Rotterdam. The GPS was still acting up and while taking shelter from the rain beneath a breezeway on the ferry, I decided to stop following the pre- planned course and try typing in the address for the venue in Middelburg.

My hope was that the issues I was having were in the pre-loaded course and that maybe in bypassing it, the GPS would stop freezing up. Quickly the unit built a new route, and I’d get some temporary relief. I trust my intuition and sense of direction more than any computer or GPS and after about five minutes following the new course, I had a feeling something wasn’t right. I stopped and checked the heading against my phone and sure enough, I was veering considerably more southeast than made sense. My original course had followed the coastline down to Middelburg. Now, I was being led inland. Normally this wouldn’t bother me but the area of Holland I was entering into is known as the Zuiderzee (one of the seven wonders of the modern world). This area is a former bay of the North Sea and now holds what is known as the Delta Works, a series of giant dams and dikes that have been constructed to control the in and outflow of water from the sea to the country’s canal system ensuring the entire place doesn’t just get washed away.

In short, it is all water. I was confused as to why the GPS was leading me inland and not down the coast (which was the shortest route). In addition, I was skeptical it had found the necessary bridges and or ferrys to get me across all the water between my current location and Middelburg. I tried to zoom out of the course to make sure it was actually leading me to Middelburg, and the map, albeit very hard to read, showed that it was. So despite my feelings of uncertainty, I decided to trust the computer. The Netherlands are the epitome of a developed and engineered landscape. The Zuiderzee and Delta Works being the most extreme example. Throughout all my riding, there was never a time where I felt anywhere even remotely close to wilderness. That isn’t to say it wasn’t beautiful much of the time, but even when riding through national parks and wildlife areas, everything felt highly managed, weighted and purposefully constructed toward the benefit of civilization.

As the new course led me further inland the population density decreased. I spun further and further into the strangest kind of nowhere. The landscape so full of human sign and manipulation yet humans themselves were nowhere around. Just field after field, bordered by canal after canal. The way through this landscape on a bike was across narrow concrete paths about eight inches wide that ran along the spines of the dikes.

At a certain point into this strange nowhere, I ceased being mad at myself for trusting the GPS instead of my intuition. I was content to be right where I was,in the grey wind and rain.

It was at this moment that the dike I had been riding along dead-ended at the base of a steep hill. A narrow road tee’d off to either side and on top of the hill, three sheep stood looking down at me through the rain. Still in my moment of contentment, I looked up at them and smiled. The GPS told me to turn right and quickly I found myself atop the hill where less than a football field away was a huge river five or so times as wide as the Mississippi. The sense that something was wrong, returned. To my right as far as I could see, there was endless fields and dikes. To my left, barely darker than the fog, way off in the distance loomed what appeared to be an extremely long bridge. I continued on the GPS course which was now leading me straight towards the giant river.

Quickly the road turned to gravel and ended at a locked gate. Here the GPS said, “Go to dock A and get your ferry.” Not only was the gate locked, but from what I could see, all that awaited beyond the locked gate was a handful of sail boats, a couple parked cars and a small house. I didn’t see anything resembling a ferry. I shook the gate and called out. No one answered. I called again, still no answer. I knew from having studied the map in Mark’s apartment the evening before and from my knowledge of the Delta Works that if I couldn’t get across here my day was quickly going to go from 103 miles to 100 and many many more miles. This was not an issue for my legs, but my concert schedule did not have time to accommodate a delay of that kind.

Ben Weaver rides his bike in front of a lake with windmills.
I shook the gate once more and hollered. This time louder. A woman emerged from one of the parked cars in the lot and said, ‘Yes.’ I hollered back, ‘I am looking for the ferry.’ She said, ‘There is no ferry here, you need to go 1000 meters that way.’ I thanked her and headed off, my stress about time temporarily at ease. A few minutes later, I spotted a ferry pulling away from the shore. I raced down onto the landing and waved at the captain. In seeing me, he backed up lowering the gate. As I pushed my bike onto the metal ramp he stuck his head out of the pilot house and said, ‘Are you going to the island to go camping?’ I said, ‘No, I am going Middleburg.’

It is never a good sign in these circumstances when the response someone gives you begins with a laugh.

Chuckling, the captain told me this ferry only went to an island in the middle of the river. It did not go all the way across. He then pointed off into the rainy, windy, foggy distance at the long bridge I had noticed earlier. There, my fate awaited. I thanked him as I turned my bike around and began pedaling towards the bridge. I thought of JayP and his motto of always pedaling forward. I was thankful for that mantra. A few moments later a car pulled up alongside me and stopped. The driver door opened and a woman got out. It was the same woman from the marina.

A funny thing to note here is that she didn’t just roll down the window, but stopped, shut off her car, and got out to talk to me. This was a dead giveaway that I was deep in the Dutch countryside. She asked if I was okay or needed anything. I confirmed with her that this bridge off in the distance was indeed my best and only way to Middleburg. She confirmed and also noted that the ferry my GPS had sent me to only ran in the summer. She wanted to give me a ride, but I refused. I asked to use her phone to call my friend Tonnie in Middleburg and let him know I would be late for the show. However, after dialing his number the call didn’t go through. There was no reception. I thanked her for stopping and headed towards the bridge.

For a long time, this bridge, known as the Zeeland Bridge was the longest bridge in Europe and today is still the longest in Holland. Two days before my crossing it, there had been 40-plus mile an hour winds from the south. A group had staged a championship bicycle race against the wind across the bridge. It turns out for my crossing of the wind had dropped to 26 mph but ended up aligning with the sun set. (One of the more spectacular I have to say.) Watching it go down into the water, I felt some redemption for following the GPS over my intuition. The sky like a bonfire above the river. In the end, I made it to Middelburg half an hour before dinner.

My GPS-induced detour added around 36 extra miles to my day. Despite those miles and headwind, I managed to maintain my record of never missing or being late to a show. The next morning I woke up to a 20 mph tailwind and sunshine. I rode the 93 miles along the ocean up to Haarlem in just under 7 hours, a great change from the day before. I arrived at my hotel in time to shower before heading to the venue for soundcheck and dinner. Before my set, I was standing in the back of the room watching the opening band play their set. I noticed a woman walk in and at first glance I thought she looked a lot like the lady from the day who I had taken to at the marina and on the roadside, but that seemed impossible.

My show that night was one of the best of the tour. I played a bunch of new and old songs and the audience felt like a room full of old friends.

After the show I was standing at the merchandise table selling cds when I heard a voice say, “So, you already forgot me from the side of the road?” I’ll admit I was a little freaked out until she told me that because I had called my friend Tonnie from her phone, his number was still on the screen when she got home. She felt responsible and decided to call him and let him know she had run into me, that I was okay, but would be late. Tonnie hadn’t mentioned this when I saw him in Middleburg but it turns out they had a fairly long conversation. Her father had just passed away and in their talk, Tonnie had shared with her who I was and what I was doing out there on my bike. She was curious about my music and looked up my tour schedule online to see if I was performing anywhere close by. It turns out she was curious enough to drive an hour to see me play that night in Haarlem.

I thanked her for coming, still somewhat stunned, flattered and eternally thankful for the mysterious connective energy that follows you around when embracing your sense of adventure by bike. Before leaving the club that evening she said this to me, ‘You know, it’s all the little things you do. The tiny chances you take, the detours. You never know what you might learn, what you might see, what might find you.’

And there you have it. The reason I ride.

How Storytelling Creates Understanding

Water Bar glass at studio space in Minneapolis, Minnesota

An interview with storytelling thought leader Shanai Matteson of Water Bar & Public Studio, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tell us about yourself. How did you find yourself as a storytelling ambassador?

Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis
Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis

“I’m an artist, a cultural organizer, a writer, a mom. I live in northeast Minneapolis, which is a neighborhood (like all of Minneapolis) that is close to the Mississippi River, and in the Mississippi Watershed. I grew-up in a very small town, population of about 100, also on the Mississippi River. My mom was a farm girl who never really left the town where she was born, and my dad was a musician and artist who traveled a lot in his youth, touring with bands. I think the push and pull between the two of them had a big part in shaping my own inclinations as a storyteller, and a reluctant city-dweller. I love living where I live now, but I grew-up in a place and with people who lived a lot closer to land and water. They weren’t necessarily environmentally conscious, but they understood that their lives were intimately shaped by nature, and as a kid I spent a lot of time outside. When I moved to the city, I used to get very nervous when there were storms, because I couldn’t see the horizon line or which way the clouds were moving. My introduction to storytelling came early. I had a big family that told stories around kitchen tables and bonfires and a dad who wrote and performed music, and was always coming and going with stories from tour, or from something he’d heard along the way. When I think about storytelling, I think about its common origins and purposes. We tell stories to understand and communicate.”

How is storytelling bringing people together in Minneapolis?

“What I’ve been most interested in, lately, are those places and people and projects that are creating space for storytelling to happen as a means of building more equitable and resilient communities, by encouraging storytelling for and about essential aspects of life. There’s a local artist I really admire, for example, named Amoke Kubat. She started an organization called Yo Mama! Mothering Mothers Institute, and she leads a series of Yo Mama! get-togethers for women that she calls the “art of mothering” workshops. There are always an art activity, and women of all ages can come and go – it’s very informal, and always welcoming and real. What happens in that space that Amoke and the other women create together is a lot of storytelling – while they work on creative projects. And because it’s women, and what connects them is this broad theme of mothering, the stories and conversations are very personal and always get to the heart of what’s on everyone’s minds: How do we sustain ourselves, our children, and our communities in dark and often violent times? These kinds of projects give me hope, because they are not just projects. They’re living examples of new (but very old) ways of relating to each other and living in place and community.”

What role do artists, musicians, and cultural organizations play in connecting people?

“I think more than anything, artists and musicians  – the good ones – remind people that culture is essential to all of our lives. We tell stories, and we make music because it’s how we explore the complex and common relationships we all have to place, to people, to the lives before our own, and to the futures we hope and fear. It’s not a boutique experience only for the wealthy ‘arts patrons’ – It’s not even only for people who call themselves artists. Many indigenous cultures don’t even have a word for ‘art’ – it’s just what people do. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of transmission that moves between us, across place and time, like a river – and those of us who are alive at this moment get to dip our toes in, swim, make waves . . .”

It seems like there’s a lot of real-world problems affecting people in the U.S. Is there really a need for storytelling right now?

“Absolutely. I think a lot of people (myself included) are searching for the stories that will help us to understand and find purpose in this moment in time. In some ways, the stories many of us know the best are failing to sustain us. For example: Stories about things like land, and water – what it means to be human, or to live among other people. A lot of us have grown up hearing stories that glorify individualism and control over nature. Many of the big problems that people talk about stem from these kinds of stories, and the way that we relate to land, water, and each other as a result. We have to think and act collectively now more than ever, and we need to accept and learn to love our interdependence. So yes, I think we need to be telling stories, and we also need to be asking ourselves and each other why stories matter. What are the stories we tell, and what other stories could we be telling?”

What advice can you give to people who are trying to make a difference right now in their communities?

“‘To change everything, start anywhere.’ I’ve got a postcard on my fridge that says this, and when I feel overwhelmed – like I’m not doing enough, or the right things – I remember that meaningful change happens slowly, and it can start anywhere, including very close to home. It can start with the way you relate to yourself and to the people around you. Many of us feel disconnected from the the places where we live, because we don’t really know our place, or because so many of our relationships are transactional: We give money, get food; We give money, water comes out a tap; We give money, get an education, etc. Making a difference can start with questioning the stories we’ve been told about how we’re connected to things like food, water, place, culture. To me, that’s what it means to be engaged – to look and listen and feel, to question and to continually create. There are formal mechanisms of political organizing and action – getting involved in local government and advocacy for example – and it’s never too late to do that too! But I suspect that what really keeps us committed to the places and things we care about, is how well we know those places, and whether or not we recognize that our lives depend upon things like land, and water, place, culture.”

What long-term outcomes do you imagine might come out of projects like Be Here: Main Street

“One of the things that is difficult about this kind of work is that a lot of the impacts are personal, or ripple outward in ways that are difficult to track. People tell a story, or they hear a story, and it changes their perception. How that will impact the decisions they make over time, or how they relate to place, is impossible to measure. My hope in all of this work is that we are encouraging people to see the importance of relationships – to other people, to the land and water on which they depend, to the cultural histories and future of the places they live and love – and to get involved in telling the stories that will shape the future. Over time, my bigger hope is that this relational way of being becomes the norm, and more people live as if their very lives depended on things like clean water, air you can breathe, the well-being of their neighbors. I think a lot can happen when we change the stories we tell about ourselves and our places. The future isn’t written.” [Be Here: Main Street is a storytelling partnership with MuseWeb Foundation and the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program.]

What current projects are you working on?

“I’m working on a lot of things that I hope are all connected. I’m helping to develop Water Bar & Public Studio as a space for artists and others to connect, create, collaborate – all to serve water, in many ways and forms. I’m also working with MuseWeb on the Be Here: Main Street project, which I love, because it is getting me outside of Minneapolis and into conversation with people around Minnesota. I love hearing stories about the connections people have to place and water. When I hear those stories, I feel a sense that we are all in this together, which isn’t a feeling I get anymore reading the newspaper. As an artist, I’m trying to carve out more time for creative writing and printmaking, which are things I do in order to connect with my own stories. It’s not a project, but I’m also raising two young kids, and they definitely impact the way I see myself in the world, and the choices I make about what I do with my time in community.”


Storytelling Tips

A chalk board shows notes about water-related issues. Inside the Water Bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visitors talk about how water issues affect their lives.

Through our “Be Here: Main Street” project (#bHereMainSt), a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, we’ve had an opportunity to travel about the country listening to fascinating community-oriented stories. We know a good story when we hear it, but what exactly makes a story compelling? We recently chatted with storytelling expert Shanai Matteson, from the Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis, to dissect the anatomy of a story worth listening to. Here’s what she had to say. For anyone embarking on a storytelling or story-collecting project, this is an essential place to start.

“When I’m gathering, telling, or  prompting stories from other people, these are the things that I think are helpful.”

1. Personal Voice

“I think better stories come from speaking or writing in our own voices, and not trying to sound a particular way, or to censor ourselves for a perceived audience. Tell the story as you’d tell it to someone close to you. Talk about your own experience, and if you want to, how that experience changed you. I try to discourage stories about other people’s experiences.

If someone is uncertain about their voice, a good exercise is to have them go into a public place and to just listen to how other people talk. It’s a good exercise for writers to develop authentic-sounding dialogue, but it also makes a person listen more intently to the ways they speak and tell stories, which can be helpful.”

2. Places / Foods / Things We Love

“Asking people to talk about places they love, and why; (or foods they love, or anything they love). Basically, stories about what we love and how we came to love those things tend to be good for connecting with others.”

3. Exploring Emotions 

“A lot of people worry that they don’t have any stories to tell, or that their stories are ‘boring,’ but people rarely get bored when they hear stories about how other people experience human emotions, especially the emotions we are often afraid to talk about. It’s like we’re wired to connect on that level, so if a person can’t think of a story, I’ll ask them to talk about a time they felt real joy / anger / fear / shame / jealousy. Usually, that gets them to something.”

4. Details & Sensory Experiences

“What did you notice first? How did it taste, feel, or sound, etc.? What was going through your mind? What are some other details about the scene you can add to really transport people there?”

5. How Not What

“Stories about how a person did something, or how something happened, are often better than stories about what happened. Asking ‘how?’ prompts a storyteller to slow down and can open up more personal and reflective accounts, especially if you give yourself time to really follow the ‘How?’ thread back in time a bit.”

Shanai Matteson is a writer, artist and arts organizer who leads and supports collaborative public art and design projects. She’s interested in work at the margins of established fields and practices, and believes that edges and intersections provide fertile ground for artists and designers to learn and create, with and in community.