Kevin Cordi discusses his latest project, ‘Playing with Stories’

Posted by | June 4, 2014

Kevin CordiPlease welcome guest author Kevin Cordi. For over twenty years, Dr. Cordi has told stories in forty states, England, Singapore, Scotland, Qatar, and Japan. His story work has been commissioned by the National Youth Storytelling Hall of Fame, Newsweek, and The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Currently he teaches “Applied Storytelling” and “Uncovering folktales, fairytales, and ghost stories” as an Assistant Professor at Ohio Dominican University, and is Co-Director for the Columbus Area Writing Project at Ohio State University. Dr. Cordi’s story “Gasoline Cat” will be featured on today’s episode of ‘The Apple Seed’, broadcasting from Brigham Young University in Utah. The episode goes live at 2 pm ET/11 am PT and will be rebroadcast at 11 pm ET/9 pm PT. It will also be available to stream at their website. We caught up with Dr. Cordi this week to get a bit of insight on what led him to write his newly published book Playing with Stories.



I am not the key storyteller in my family today. My mother serves in that role. In fact, she is the reason I am a storyteller. I was raised on the stories of their home life of Appalachia. My mother was born in Clay County, WV and my father outside of Morgantown, in Hioria. My father also would spin tales and it was a joy to hear the stories of who had what and who did not as a child. My mother would tease my father about having home-made bread daily on the table where she rarely saw this treat. These stories and this banter created invitational spaces for us kids to ask more questions and in turn receive more stories.


I, as well as my five brothers, traveled to these places every night. In fact this is the only way we traveled. We could not afford to take a family vacation except to WV once a year for two weeks. For the longest time I thought the only states were WV and Ohio. My mother’s (and father’s) stories were (are) better than anything on television.

We never tired of hearing about how Grandpa West would go toe to toe with a black snake. We didn’t need to see the old film reels; my mother painted enough of the story so we could not only see the snake but we could sense it was there.

We would hear endless exploits of how my mother, the Tom Girl of Clay County, would daily try her luck with the old bull. We would hear play-by-play how she would stare down his eyes and taunt the bully with her mind, but in the end, she would run as fast as she could to avoid being hurt by the horns.

I would hear about how Grandma West played a banjo in her youth, how my aunt did not go to the dentist but tied her tooth to the door, and “slam!”—out with the tooth. We all winced, but this was a story of survival. At a time when you could not afford the family dentist bills, you had to make do.

How the kids were last to eat and they would have the left overs and when I would think that was not fair, in her story, she would share how the adults had to be fed so there would be food on the table. These stories became the staple of our family.

I was raised on the story of Appalachia. First my parents taught me, and later I became a teacher and storyteller. In my travels I never forget the value that I learned from being raised with stories. I am able to bring stories of black snakes and penny candy to all these places.

Kevin Cordi in Qatar, demonstrating how stories can bring cultures together.

Kevin Cordi in Qatar, demonstrating how stories can bring cultures together.

It was on that dilapidated old couch that I learned to listen deeply and later developed an appreciation for play. Now I realize that students and adults still want to listen to the stories, but as people strive to be writers, teachers, and other imaginative thinkers, story making is a process that we must study, and most importantly, ‘play in the making’.

What this means is we should not always go to an isolated table to generate story ideas. Writing stories down is not the only way to develop stories. As much as my parents vividly recalled their stories, we need to practice and play with how we create our stories. We can do this be engaging in “word dancing” or oral exercises that generate story development. This can be done with a partner or a whole group.

I chronicle, demonstrate, and model this work in my new book. However, if it were not for those vibrant stories first shared by my parents, this book would have never surfaced. I so value the richness of an old mountain tale, a new tale of renewal, and most important the legacy we created with the powerful words of “Let me tell you a story…”

The stories of Appalachia are a changing story. They are about regrowth, struggle, and tradition. Others need to know how to tell these stories well. Engaging in collaborative play will help us revisit these stories and even find new accounts. We need to engage in play to help others share this evolving narrative. We need to use play to help people be empowered to the stories beyond stereotypes. We need to honor the rich tradition upon which the story is based. Whether it is an old Jack tale or a new tale of development, we can use play to honor the work and the teller.

Involving a group of students telling a collaborative story. Dr. Cordi calls this process “Ensemble Storytelling.”

Involving a group of students telling a collaborative story. Dr. Cordi calls this process “Ensemble Storytelling.”

We need to engage in more playful practices as adults in order to help kids of all ages work through the telling of their stories. This book addresses that idea and I hope in some way it enables youth and adults to dynamically tell their stories. Whether on an old couch, in a classroom, for a business meeting, let us play with keeping the narratives alive. After all, stories are the true legacy that we can pass on.


From ‘Playing with Stories’:

Why we should use play

I was raised on my West Virginian parents’ Appalachia stories. My five brothers and sisters and I would gather on our dilapidated old couch to listen as my father and mother would regale us with stories. I would sit spellbound in my old chair listening how Grandpa would kill an old black snake hiding out behind the barn or laugh out loud as my mother would recall when my sister took a giant bite out of a solid hard block of chewing tobacco thinking it was candy. Each night was entertaining and educational. We traveled to the days of yesterday and today. We really listened to the stories. As much I savored this experience, we didn’t wrestle with making our own stories. We didn’t create them together, but we listened deeply to what was said. This has helped me realize the value of deep listening to mediate and orchestrate play for and with others. Before play begins, a storyteller or writer must know how to listen for the story and later listen to where play would work to help accentuate it. In this book, I share methods to strengthen deep listening skills to build and focus the craft of storytelling.

It has not been easy to value play. Mainstream culture urges us to rush
and finish what we are working on to quickly advance to the next task at hand. Too often we must punch our time clock forward without much consideration. As the minutes and hours move, we indirectly communicate both to ourselves and the world no time remains to play; we must work. For in work, many tasks get done. Parents rush to prepare young kids to “grow up” and act their age. Recess is eliminated as kids mature.

Time is spent preparing young adults for college or to be a democratic participant in the country and hopefully the world. More time is dedicated to reducing playtime in favor of the work involved to be successful.

Teachers train students to seek answers, but not how to answer questions naturally developed through play. We expect people to simply know how to relate to others because they have been taught or we modeled it. We do not use role or playful techniques to explore what would happen if this person became angry or confused; instead, by sheer osmosis we expect he or she to know what to do or how to behave in any situation. Some of us develop this ability, but if it does not happen, we don’t engage in any rehearsal of the situation. We let things happen and rarely have time to look back, let alone replay the action. Play provides a chance to review and even change our actions, but it is rarely used.

In many occupations even the thought of pausing our work to play with the ideas of yesterday before beginning the work of today would only invite laughter. We cannot stop our English teachers to request more time for an essay assignment because we are playing with the ideas. The clock ticks on and we feel forced to answer. Regardless, spending time playing with our ideas will help bring fruitful results so we press forward. With play, time is dedicated to re-consider and re-design a work decision, but still the modus operandi is to move on without play.

We evaluate others based on the number of tasks they complete. Assignments are assigned; work consists of tasks. Despite that the world around me does not value play, in my creative life, play is necessary. In fact, I have discovered it is the real work I do as an artist and teacher. As a storyteller, writer, teacher, and imaginative thinker, it is play that has produced the most desired results in my life, in my work, and especially, in my creativity. Through play we experience who we are and begin to extend our choices. Play is not consciously prepared; it is discovered in the moment. It invites reflection. fact, Plato once shared, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Play as my guide

Play has been my guide for years shaping my work and creating my identity as a storyteller, writer, and teacher. Through play, I transform into an imaginative thinker.

The importance of play and writing

In high school, I read from the traditional “dead white writer” cannon made to memorize the details of their major works. I also remember when I asked what it meant to be a writer the teacher replied, “You will never make the mark of these writers, but the best preparation is to read as much as possible.” He told me not to try writing only to read as much as I could. I did read, but I read so slowly. With each book, I felt more distance from becoming a writer myself.

Over the years, I did not value my skills and sometimes even now still fight to be encouraged by my writing. It is easy to think I can’t be a writer, but now I draw on the idea that writers should invite play with ideas in order to complete them. The first draft is not the last. The revision and reflection that occurs in play will improve the outcome of the work.

As I began to see myself as a playful writer, I ignored those people who felt they had to declare comments about my writing, and instead work with others who help me by providing the permission to explore my writing and my choices. Listening to these advisors helped me believe I had something to say and that I would need to use play to refine the words.

So I didn’t try. Like so many, I was fearful to show my writing to someone until it was ready, which did not occur often. The English teacher said I should read as much as I could to be a writer. As a writer, I do more than read. As a writer, I observe, note, write, reflect, remember and most of all, play. Reading is valuable but so is examining what we write. Trying it out and recasting in other ways can move direction for story.

For the last seven years, I have served as a co-director for the Columbus Area Writing Project at The Ohio State University. Every summer, we head off to Kenyon College for a writing retreat with k-college teachers. Before the retreat we provide interviews to know the teachers and gauge why they elected to be involved in the writing institute. One would expect we involve those who are serious writers or at least serious about writing. This is not always the case. We often invite teachers who simply want to know more about writing and how they can provide better ways for their students to write. What we tell them, but they also soon discover and experience is that we not only learn about writing but we work together as writers. We provide time to play with the writing to build a community of support. We partner with them as they write, rewrite, reflect, and revisit their own work.

When people are provided this time, he or she is amazed at what happens. Too often the third grade teacher is awed from the response when she reads
a poem about her old home and the impact it has on everyone that listens.
A high school teacher is so taken by the story he or she wrote the day before immediately sharing with the larger writing group. We engage in quick writes and students experiment with styles and forms of their work. We create a community where voices are honored in the writing (and telling) process. They are invited to revisit and re-position their first drafts as we spend the next two weeks playing with our words.

Under the direction of my colleagues, David Bloome, Robin Holland, George Newell and Melissa Wilson, we form writing groups to bounce around our ideas playing with our choices. I have spent countless hours devouring rough drafts or working with Robin Holland (2013), another co-director, author of Deeper Writing, as she demonstrated new ways to create impactful writing.

It is here I also learned what happens when someone supports you, without their agenda, as you explore writing choices. Too often we don’t learn from and with each other. This is a place where we orient our direction. This is important for anyone involved in the craft of writing and telling. Writers, tellers, and other imaginative thinkers need to have room to write, speak,
and basically create without judgment. If a person is negatively evaluated on their work especially in the early stages, the creativity can stop. Story crafters need to be surrounding in caring communities seeking partners that honestly support their choices.

At the Columbus Area Writing Project, I found it to be a place that I realized how important it is to develop a playful environment when a person wants to be creative. After all, if we write for publication this is our goal, but does it develop us as creative artists? Too often people gather for the sole purpose of being in print, but is this the only reason we create? Do we always have to seek print publication to be valued? When we strip the ego out of the environment and work from knowing there is something in all of us that is creative, we begin to build creative work. Only in this environment can my words dance.

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