Twenty-five years ago, Susan Klein leapt into the void, counting on her muse to catch her. She was 30 years old, born and raised in Oak Bluffs, but she just knew "it was time to go."
"I had just bought the house, the mortgage was due," she recalled. "I'd quit my job, I had no health insurance, no retirement, no savings. I had $300 and I drove away. I had nine days' of work scheduled for the rest of my life."
She had a little Chevette, in the back of which she often slept because she could not afford hotels. Apart from that, she had a head full of stories.
Those stories - and her telling of them - have made an impression. At 6 p.m. Thursday at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha's Vineyard will present her with the 2007 Creative Living Award.
Ask her now, 25 years later, what inspired her to pursue storytelling. For once, she struggles for words, before getting to the heart of what drove her:
"I didn't want to wake up and be 90 years old with a mouth full of woulda, shoulda, coulda," she said.
Her mother, Elsie, a German emigree who washed up on the Vineyard, was a bit like that - a woman with unfulfilled dreams of being a teacher and an actress.
"I was the manifestation of her dreams," Ms. Klein said
And also the manifestation of her talent, for her mother was a great natural storyteller.
"What I learned was at my mother's elbow, in the kitchen," she said. She was a fabulous cook [and] at that time on the Vineyard, in the fifties, we really still worked the kitchen seasonally. Whatever was ripe was what was going on. We canned our food, we made jelly, all those kinds of things.
"And she would be mixing a batter or something - she always held the bowl in her lap and she always wore an apron and a house dress so the bowl sort of had this little nest in her lap cradled by the apron - and she'd hang onto it for dear life, and she'd be whackin' away and while she was doing that she'd say, ‘It was a gray day and your uncle was wearing a blue shirt and your aunt was sitting in the chair with the flowers on it . . .'
"Her ability to paint a picture straight out of the third eye was so intense that she invited you in immediately and she always took good care of you while you were inside the story.
"I ended up many years later writing the book for the storytelling trade on professional courtesies and ethics, and one of the basics is keeping your audience safe," Ms. Klein said.
"That is the one key to the art. You have to leave your audience a way home, you have to tie up the loose ends, not leave anything hanging, and never ever snap them suddenly out of the storytelling trance."
As an art form, it is far more immediate than a book or film, she said "which have something that separates you from the heartbeat of the artist.
"In this there is no separation. That's why I don't use a podium."
"Also, stories change with each telling, according the response of the audience. They're never, complete and over until you remove them from your repertoire.
"And another thing: stories are universal.
"When I lived with the Yup'ik Eskimo people in Alaska when I was storytelling up there, the kinds of motifs and themes that were in their stories are not unlike some of the Maori stories, for example. And you know they weren't visiting by kayak.
"There aren't any new stories, just reworking of the old themes. Love and war and challenge and blessing and celebration and ritual are still inside all stories. The particulars are what makes them unique, but the universal resonance is the thing that perpetuates story telling as an art form, because we want to hear how other people have managed their problems."
But let's get back to Ms. Klein's story, which contains its own generous share of love and blessing and challenge.
Although the gift for storytelling came to her from her mother, it was a long time before she realized its power to change her own life.
Ms. Klein went on to become both an actress and teacher, as her mother had wanted. She went to the University of Massachusetts, where she exploited the opportunity to create her own major, melding performing arts and education to gain what was called a bachelor's degree with individual concentration.
"So I came out with a degree that could not be applied to the American job market," she said with a laugh.
"That was just the beginning of having to admit I was a square peg in a round hole. I waitressed for years, became a school teacher here, in kindergarten and first grade, which was very theatrical when the kids got hungry."
But she did not consider storytelling as a job until years later when Jay O'Callahan appeared on the Island. A friend persuaded her - against her inclination - to see him, telling her, "That's what you do."
"It changed my life," she said "I'd never heard of him before, but I went up afterwards – I don't usually do that; I respect performers' privacy - and I said, ‘I don't even know the questions to ask, but whatever it is, I want a piece of it somehow.'"
She was working on her master's degree at the time and wound up being taught by him. Then she spent a couple of years gathering a repertoire, and hit the road.
It was the beginning of a remarkable odyssey. Her journey took for several months down through Appalachia to Florida, then to Alaska – the summer before she left, she had made a connection with a woman who arranged for her to work in schools there.
In Alaska she met an actor who was doing a theatre component of the same educational program, Ron Milton. They created the Empty Spaces theatre company. They also performed at logging camps, sometimes floating on log rafts. In the end, she said they made five or six trips back.
Then, in the 1990s, she got a gig teaching in Europe. It happened because her mother had a heart attack while they were on a trip back to Germany, and wound up spending an extended period there in hospital. Ms. Klein got the idea of contacting the Defense Department to see if there was work she could do. She there got a job teaching the dependents of American military personnel based there. Over the next decade, she made regular trips to Germany, England and Italy.
Between times, she founded and directed and produced a storytelling festival on the Vineyard each year for a decade. And then there is her 1995 memoir of a wonderful childhood on the Island, called Through a Ruby Window, and dedicated to "that wildly joyous and raucously opinionated German weib who spawned me."
Over the years, her career has expanded in many directions.
"I'm not just a storyteller," she said. "I'm a director and producer for spoken work audio. I do commissioned pieces occasionally and I teach at least a dozen different kinds of workshops.
"I teach memoir writing – a system for trapping memories. Eventually we have to re-remember; it's a system for trapping and organizing your memories."
She teaches children's picture-book writing, does private coaching in storytelling and edits work for academics, history writers, novelists, memoirists, even annual reports and programs.
"If you're an artist on the Vineyard," she said, "you have to have your fingers in a number of pies in order to exist. "Mine now happens to be a national and international pie. It has taken me all over, [yet] I was born 10 houses up the street.
The Vineyard of today, of course, is a far, far different place from the Vineyard of her childhood, where life was almost subsistence for three-quarters of the year, where people ate what was in season, where kids played games that roved over acres of open land, where there were no permits and few boundaries.
"We did live by the seasons," she said. "We burned our fields in the springtime, gathered seaweed to put on the garden. We ate either shellfish or an animal that had been shot and cleaned up four or five nights a week.
"You didn't lock your doors. You'd come and there's be a bass or a bluefish in the sink that somebody had dropped by and nobody necessarily needed to tell you who it was. We had quail and pheasant and deer and rabbit and duck and goose, and shellfish according to the seasons."
"And yet something survives despite all the changes. Having traveled so much I get to see a lot of places. Sometime you wake up and look out your window and its Anywhere, America. Same strip malls, same franchised food, shopping malls. The personality of the Vineyard doesn't exist in so many places. What a comfort cedar shingles and gingerbread are. It cradles you when you come home."
And how satisfying it is now to be recognized in her own community for her achievements. The annual Creative Living Award that she will receive is given each year by the Ruth J. Bogan and Ruth Redding fund, overseen by the Permanent Endowment.
"It's in the memory of Ruth Bogan," said Ms. Klein. "She was a woman who could do very many things. According to the Permanent Endowment's Web site, it's given to persons who exhibit a ‘luminous and creative spirit.' Isn't that sweet? It's kind of embarrassing. It's a pretty sweet thing to have."