Kevin Kling is a master storyteller and down-home philosopher from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He takes on a serious tone quickly cracked by humor, and while you’re softened by laughter, that’s when he’ll go straight for the heart and pulls those strings like a puppet master.
He was born with a shortened left arm, missing his thumb and wrist. His grandma always called his disability a gift, and that informed the way he saw the world. It made made him special. It made him who he was. But then in his early 40s, he lost the use of his right arm in a deadly motorcycle crash. That forced him to become a different person and take a hard look at loss.
“When we lose something, we grieve, and you grieve only as much as you loved something,” he said.
Kling is fluent in inspirational sayings and positive affirmations. His plucky, can-do spirit almost makes you wish for affliction if only you could be guaranteed that you’d come out the other side a better person, sounding something like the optimistic storyteller himself.
He will be performing in Orange City at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Trinity Reformed Church. He’ll also do a storytelling workshop, called “Chicken Soup for the Chicken: The Healing Power of Story” at the Old Factory Coffee Shop at 10 a.m. Saturday.
He talked with me about humor, healing and creating community.
KARSYN: How did you become humorist, or why did you lean on humor to communicate your experiences?
KLING: Humor really connects us and as a storyteller, you really need people to trust and go into your story with an open heart. One of the things that humor does -- it’s a connector. Some people think that humor is universal. It really isn’t. Humor really relies on family, on faith, on community, so when you tell something and everyone in the room laughs, we’re immediately family. We’re immediately connected. And that’s really important in telling stories. It also opens the heart. A standup comedian will close the door with a joke, but when you’re a storyteller, you really open the door with a joke. Then you can get into other stuff. It’s really to get us all in the room together as family.
KARSYN: You’re featured in a PBS Documentary called, “Kevin Kling: Lost and Found.” In that, you talk about the power of storytelling and what it means to release a story. You said, “As soon as you can tell it, you’ve already taken a step away from it and are looking back at it, which means you’ve started to control something that used to control you.” What have been some of the losses in your life, and how have you come to understand loss?
KLING: To be human is really to experience loss. The longer I’m around, I realize that almost all forms of loss go through the same series of healing. When you can tell a story about something, again, it’s that you’ve already taken a step to control something that’s greater than yourself. I think that loss and story and grief go hand in hand. And humor as well. When you can laugh at something, it doesn’t control you any longer.
Stories are really important in terms of healing. Our stories ask our biggest questions. Where do we come from before life? And where do we go after life? What’s funny in this world? What’s sacred? What’s edible? When we ask, even if we don’t find the answer, we know we belong. We know we’re family in these questions. We know we’re family in these mysteries that we share together.
Part of those mysteries are loss and how we heal from things that aren’t with us any longer. That can be a person or a limb – like I lost the use of a limb. I think stories are really important in terms of our narrative and how we heal.
One thing I heard a long time ago – the definition of resiliency is maintaining one’s shape. And how do you maintain that shape when it’s been compromised? A lot of it is through our stories – we maintain our shape through our stories.
KARSYN: Well, I wanted to talk to you about storytelling and healing. Because I’m actually the founder of a live storytelling series here in Sioux City
KLING: Yay! Fantastic.
KARSYN: So I was really excited to talk to you. I’ve described it as this theatre-meets-therapy type of journalistic entertainment.
KLING: Oh… (Laughter.) I love it. Yep, that’s it.
KARSYN: Why does storytelling seem have such a therapeutic quality to it? And how is sharing your story on a stage different than releasing your thoughts into a journal or diary that only you read?
KLING: They’ve done studies on people where they hook up sensors to the brain, and when you read a story, knowledge is transferred, but when you hear a story and someone tells a story, the actual experience is transferred. Those parts of your brain that light up when you throw a ball -- light up when someone talks about throwing a ball. So there’s something that happens in a room with a storyteller, with an actual person, that really transfers the experience.
One of my favorite definitions of a storyteller is by Nabokov, the writer, and he says a storyteller should entertain, educate and enchant. I love the last word. I love the idea of enchanting because it’s that the thing that happens in the room that you can’t quite describe that is that magic of storytelling, of being in the room with a person. We all remember it as a kid. Somebody came in the room, and we were transported. There’s a lot to be said for that.
KARSYN: That’s something I still struggle with – how to tell people why they should come to our live storytelling events. I just say, you know, okay, so people stand on stage and they tell trues stories about their lives, and it’s wonderful. I don’t know how to put into words the magic that happens there.
KLING: It is hard to put into words. I completely agree with you. I try to explain to people what I do as well, and I say you just have to go. Once they go, they go, Wow, why didn’t I know about this? You just have to go. You can’t believe what happens in the room. Once you go, you go back because you know what it is.
KARSYN: It’s so much of a feeling that you get.
KLING: It’s the feeling of community, the feeling of belonging. You know, that we’re all in this together. It’s a very social activity. It feels great to belong.
KARSYN: You’ll also be leading a storytelling workshop while you’re in Orange City. In doing your work with that, what do you notice about people? Why do they need help telling their stories or what keeps them from telling their stories?
KLING: A lot of times it’s just giving people permission. I don’t think people know that you’re an expert at your own life. I have to say, I would rather hear a story than tell one. When I’m in a workshop, it’s just amazing what happens when people tell stories. Everyone is an expert. It should be really easy, and it should be really fun. The key to storytelling is enjoying yourself.
KARSYN: Going back to you, now that you’ve said you don’t like to tell you story.
KLING: No, I love it. I love telling stories. I just said that I love hearing stories. (Laughter.)
KARSYN: I’m sure you get asked a lot about being born with a disabled left arm and then losing the use of your right arm in a motorcycle accident. Do you ever get tired of telling certain stories from your life? Or do you find it empowering to find an audience for these tales?
KLING: I do always wonder -- is it going to be too much? Part of the secret of storytelling is that it is has to really live in the moment. The story has to be the right story for the right moment, and when you tell the story, it has to come to life just as if it’s the first time. Besides, every time I tell a story, I learn something else. Something else jumps to the surface. I think you touched on that with the question. A lot of that has to do with the audience. When you’re telling a story, you’re meeting people halfway. What does this audience bring to this story that I’ve never realized before? Because storytelling, when it’s done right, is more like like a conversation.