Storyteller Bobby Norfolk shares experiences in new memoir

Bobby Norfolk grew up a shy child in North St. Louis with a debilitating stutter. Now a professional touring storyteller, Norfolk reflects upon his life’s journey in his new memoir, “Eye to the Sky: Storytelling on the Edge of Magic” (Parkhurst Brothers, 223 pages, $14.95).

Son of an elevator operator and confectionery clerk, Norfolk’s future was hazy when he was young.

“What could a lost, lonely, discouraged kid from the low-rent blocks of St. Louis do with the rest of his life?” Norfolk asks in his memoir.

Norfolk’s path toward storytelling and success began in 1961 when he suddenly overcame his stutter when performing in a fourth-grade poetry recital.

From that moment, his teachers helped him to grow as both an individual and a performer.

“They saw things in me I didn’t see in myself, which is the mark of a master teacher, to see inside the student with low self-esteem (who) hasn’t found his or her gifts,” Norfolk said in a recent interview. His teachers put him in drama class, Greek club, poetry recitals and talent shows. “Whenever I performed, I wouldn’t stutter,” he said.

Throughout his memoir, Norfolk reflects on how his teachers, friends and experiences as an African-American in the 1960s and ’70s propelled him along a windy road of happenstance.

Along the way, Norfolk gained performance experience as a stand-up comedian, learned narrative skills as a National Park Service ranger and docent, and discovered meditation and mysticism with the aid of his teachers and the public library system.

Norfolk, 64, says that this variety of experiences allowed him to combine his interests and passions into a profession. Most notably, he developed an interest in metaphysics and the hard sciences.

“I found out just from my research that the human brain is hardwired for storytelling,” he said. “Neuroscientists figured out a long time ago (what the) mystics and the magi figured out thousands of years ago,” Norfolk said. “There was (a) study done where they had electrodes hooked up to some kid’s temples. It was a study group on storytelling, and they rolled in a television on a cart and watched all this stuff on PBS and they looked at the brain activity on the graph and it was almost flat lining. Very little brain activity, very little rapid eye movement. Then they rolled the TV away and brought in a storyteller telling stories live and they looked at the graph and it was almost off the chart. Synapses were being fired in the brain, and imagery, the (areas of the brain) that create imagery were firing.”

Norfolk says this sort of hypnotic reaction is what he loves about the power of storytelling.

“I have the (Harry Potter) CDs narrated by Jim Dale, this British actor. He created 125 voices for ‘The Goblet of Fire,’ every utterance, that Rowling put in the book, he did it in the studio. … I was trying to drive home one night, I know where I live, I was only five miles from home, and I had this thing in the tape deck and I’ll tell you I missed my exit by three miles, and when I looked up I said ‘where am I at?’ That’s the power of storytelling. When it has that effect. When you can’t find your way home,” Norfolk said.

Now a touring storyteller who does many school visits, Norfolk has come to see himself as more than just an entertainer.

“I came to realize that what I do — though some see it solely as entertainment — is important work. The folktales, poems and stories I perform make a difference in forming values and beliefs,” he said.

What Bobby Norfolk • When 7 p.m. March 1 • Where Library Headquarters, 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard • How much Free • More info 314-944-3300; slcl.org/authors

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