About Leo Sofer
In 1989 I began working in schools as a storyteller. In the following seven years I gave over two thousand performances to children in about three hundred primary schools all over Southern England. I told mostly European folk tales.
Towards the end of this time, you could say that I found the golden thread.
What’s the golden thread? Well, occasionally I would turn up at a school and tell my stories and something would happen between me and the children. Somehow, something magical would connect us, shifting us into a different place, and bringing a sense of meaning and beauty.
But it rarely lasted long, and I couldn’t work out how to find it again, although there was nothing else I looked for more in the work I was doing.
It wasn’t until the end of those seven years that I worked out how to reliably find it and sustain it throughout a telling. Here’s how I managed that:
I had developed a repertoire of about thirty folk tales, and of these had about a dozen favourites. Some of those stories I had told about fifty times, so that they became so familiar that I could tell them with great assurance. I didn’t speak them by rote, but I became so confident in the telling that I just wasn’t worrying about things any more. Not “I hope the teachers like this”, nor “I hope the children don’t get out of control”, nor, “I hope I don’t look stupid”. I was so comfortable there in what had been for most of those seven years a less than comfortable place (ie “on stage”), that I could just relax….
And as I relaxed I found myself sitting in front of thirty little children with their mouths open; their faces like little flowers, so sweet and cherubic that my heart could not help but open towards them. As I continued to tell my story, effortlessly, without having to think too much about it, I looked out at them and said inside “look at you, you are so beautiful, you are all so beautiful!”
This became the main event for me, and the main thing I was communicating. The story was still happening, like a conversation we were having together, but the magic was the love that flowed between us.
This was the golden thread!
The really touching thing was that it was obvious that the children could feel the love too. Like flowers opening in warm sunshine, they seemed to be drinking it in. I believe that all children are hungry for loving adult attention. And in that moment they knew they were getting the real thing.
And then that summer my work turned upside down, and all those folk tales that I had learned by heart were no use to me any more.
I sometimes think of this discovery of the golden thread as me affirming to the universe my good intent. “This is how I want to tell stories. This is what it’s all about for me!” And I often think of what happened next as the universe responding in kind.
By the end of this seven year period, the summer of 1996, I was jumping out of my skin. For the previous three years I had been living alone in a small cottage on the edge of Dartmoor (a wilderness in South West England). In the last year there I experienced what could be described as a growing sense of pressure inside me. If I was a bottle of champagne, then someone kept shaking the bottle! By the time the summer came, I had a persistent sense of pressure in my throat and a restlessness that had me wanting to try anything to burst my cork!
I packed up my cottage and left with a friend for the United States. At the end of that summer, while receiving some hands-on healing, my cork blew!
And what was it that had been fizzing inside me?
To my utter amazement I began to see vivid fairy tale scenes in my mind’s eye which, as I described them, would move on with a life of their own. I would also hear a clear “inner voice” which would prompt me with the right words to use, sometimes giving me whole sentences.
Most amazing to me was that the stories were coherent, meaningful and often very inspiring, coming always in a “story-within-a-story-within-a-story” format, rather like the Arabian Nights. And yet I never at any point had any idea of what was coming next; I would only see the next image, or hear the next few words in my mind.
And with this rush of stories came a huge sense of love, and blessing, and a profound sense of companionship. I am so grateful to have had this loving energy arrive in my life, bringing the stories with it.
And the stories clearly had a message: of how people can live happier lives; of how life’s real treasure is within, only obscured by the way we are perceiving things; of how a happier and more peaceful world is possible if only we could unlock our collective potential.
To be honest, I had been absorbed by such questions most of my adult life. This was one of the reasons I became so interested in fairy tales: with their symbols and metaphors and magical transformations, they were unique ways of pondering such questions.
What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to find a stream of fairy tales to come bubbling up inside me!
Nor initially were the teachings of the stories familiar to me; often they suprised me. I would regularly sit and listen to recordings I had made and ponder very deeply what I was hearing, as if taking in a lesson that was being offered to me by a source of wisdom far deeper than my conscious mind.
I have sought in my own life to move towards the vision the stories offer. In some areas I can say that I’ve really understood things and the stories have illuminated new ways of being and responding in the world. In other areas I have a sense that I still haven’t got it, that there are thresholds of change and transformation that the stories describe that elude me. I’m mostly okay with that, and remain optimistic that this path is do-able, and that given enough courage and community, I, we, can grow to a fuller and fuller expression of our potential.
But the sense of love and connection continues to grow, as I deepen into the whole process of receiving the stories and telling them as best I can.
In the beginning I could only tell a story with my eyes closed, lying on my back. Then I could sit up. Then I could open my eyes. Then after a year of telling stories to myself I started getting stories about witches who hoarded their own potions, carpenters whose homes were overfull with chairs that they had made but refused to sell, and so on.
I took this to be a shove into the world, and that’s mostly where I’ve been ever since, performing the stories to adults, and children. I still have no idea what’s coming next, but I am gradually getting used to that. I still find it scary to tell live in front of an adult audience (people who love me say they find it excruciating to watch me teetering on the edge in public like that!). I see the images more clearly, hear the inner voice more precisely, am increasingly slick with my words and can get more and more theatrical with the telling. But the unknown accompanies me the whole way. Especially around the time where the story “turns” (where the third, or central, story comes to a turning point) there is usually a moment when I find myself thinking “Oh God, this one is going to crash. It’s really, really awful. I have no idea what this is about, and all these people are going to go away thinking what a waste of time this was”. Sometimes when I listen back, this is the most powerful moment of the story. People in the audience will sometimes mention this point as especially captivating. Me, I’m usually lost, sometimes quietly panicking.
That, I guess, is my current learning edge, and in a way has always been something that I have been struggling with in this work.
Another thing with which I have struggled throughout has been the issue of integrity. If I don’t know what I am saying next, or indeed what the story’s message is, then what on earth am I doing? Storytelling is a powerful act. You gather people, you set the scene, and then you spin a tale of images and metaphors, you speak in a language that’s archaic, that speaks to the unconscious mind. And so what, exactly, are you intending to communicate?
I haven’t always been sure. I come from a skeptical, thoughtful family. My grandfather was the editor of The Economist magazine in the 1940s and 50s, and both my parents were successful professionals. Growing up in literate, intellectual North London, I learned to set a high value on independent critical thinking. So this telling stories from, er, from… well, you can imagine it was quite a challenge.
In the early 2000s I was drowning in doubt, and almost gave it all up. You’ll notice that there are not so many stories in the catalogue from this period. My problem was that I had begun to question the whole process. I was sorely disappointed that the public performances I had given had not taken London by storm, and I found the process of repeatedly putting myself on the line on stage quite bruising. I didn’t speak to myself very kindly when I judged a story to have gone badly. And my personal life was not looking at all like a fairy tale. I had run through several dissatisfying relationships, and felt like all the great plans I had for my life had come to very little.
And in the midst of this, I began to doubt the stories. I wondered whether I was really in touch with something truthful, or just something pink and fluffy; my worst fear was that I was just droning out new age truisms, with no real spark, no real authenticity.
And there didn’t seem to be an easy answer to this. And yet I kept on telling, only this time I had retreated again to my recording studio. I couldn’t go on stage with all the doubts, and had decided that the stories just weren’t good enough, that I was hampered by the intuitive process itself, and that what I needed to do was to take charge somehow.
So I started to edit them.
I sat in the studio for long periods, telling and retelling sequences until the words came out “perfect”, the sentences sounded “just right”. Then I would edit them on a computer for hours, removing all the fluffed sentences and hesitations. I thought I was creating better work, but what I was really doing was sitting on the spring, squeezing the hosepipe, and suffering.
It’s hard to say what exactly got me out of this hole. I was doubting my work in a very deep way, and yet by doing so I created, eventually, a deeper connection with it. I do not assume such periods will not return, they are perhaps something of a creative “dark night of the soul”, and thus a way of strengthening my inner connection.
Actually, I can say something about what got me out of this hole. Having read for years books about how our thoughts, beliefs and intentions affect our lives, I decided to take a chance and put some of that stuff into practice. Within weeks I began a friendship with Stella, who shortly after became my partner and is now my wife. And not long after getting together with her I moved to the Findhorn Community, where I spent seven increasingly happy years.
I got more grounded, made some really wonderful friendships, began teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and became a father to two lovely children, Luke and Lara. Life has become more and more satisfying and meaningful, and I put a lot of it down to a conscious use of words and deeds, as well as a growing awareness of how my deepest longings move both.
And it’s not as if I stopped doubting, but there were some decisive shifts in me that assuaged the big doubts that I was having. I came to trust that the stories were really expressing the deepest truth that I knew, just that my expression of them was limited by my current levels of skill and understanding.
So, slowly I began to take my foot off the hosepipe. Still in the studio, I began to tell without editing, just letting the stories flow again. And they got better, and I started enjoying myself with them again. In about 2005 I dared to go back on stage with them again, but my NVC awareness meant that that when things went badly I didn’t beat myself up, but rather empathised with the deep longing within me to do the work, to do it as well as I can, to shine my light as brightly as possible.
In time I could tell the stories with more humour and more storytelling licks and tricks. And as I got more confident, something funny started happening: I’d be telling a story about a Giant, and let’s say a Queen goes to see him, and he says “fetch me a large stone, three eggs and a long piece of string.” And I know that these are going to be central to the story, how could they not be? But I’ve no idea how they are going to make sense, and it’s going to be more challenging to let that happen than if they weren’t announced ahead of time. It’s like an upping of the ante. I need to be sharper, but more importantly, I need to trust more.
And that’s the thing that, on a technical level, is the most important that I’ve learned so far. The stories come out the best when I can trust. Trust everything, every image, every word, and just tell it, tell it with abandon, tell it for all I’m worth. I’ve created my best work like this, and my worst work when I’ve not trusted, but sought to polish, to modify, to improve upon what’s coming.
So, there I am on my edge, my growing edge of trusting, and trusting more and more outlandishly. And the work feels more and more solid inside me, the longing reveals greater and greater depths. I’m happy with how things are going now, with people all over the world listening to the podcast and downloading stories from the site. I have begun giving workshops on intuitive storytelling, and have launched a site of stories for children, The Palace of Stories.
There’s a dynamic that the stories commonly refer to, that my early storytelling experiences hinted at: there is a Gold inside us, like a Love that wants to bless the world. Our task is to find it, learn how it wants to be expressed, and then get out there and do everything we can to shine it in the world. On a personal level that’s the most valuable thing I’ve learned from the stories so far.
Shortly after I had just started storytelling, I read somewhere that in medieval times an apprenticeship would last seven years. Then the apprentice would become a journeyman, and only after thirty years would he become a master.
I’ve always loved the idea of that long, long journeyman period. It reminds me that it takes time and patience to develope the full potential of any craft.
I’m glad I’ve got so many years to go, because I’m beginning to really enjoy this journey.
Thanks for joining me, it’s great that you came!
(This bio written 2009)
PS For an inside account of what it’s like to tell stories the way I do, see this article.