Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Living the life of a storyteller

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I spend a lot of time writing about storytelling and various issues in the art. I’ve written about striving for excellence, various performances, listening, telling specific kinds of stories and so on, but I’ve not written explicitly about living the life of a storyteller, how to move through the world so story informs everything you do and everything you do is informed by story, moving through the world prepared to accept the gifts and challenges story brings. In some ways this whole blog is about living the life of a storyteller, so I demonstrate by example, but I thought it might be fun to come up with a list, a few ways that might change the way you think about your life and incidentally deepen your storytelling and other endeavors.

  1. “yes, and…” is the first rule in improv. It's also the first rule in the life of a storyteller. Every experience is fodder for the next story. You see a hippy walking a toy poodle? Great, that could be a story. Your mother calls and talks your ear off? That’s story fodder too. You accept life experiences, joyful or tragic, participant or observer, as opportunities for stories, even if you may never tell the obvious story in front of you. Maybe that toy poodle is really a magical servant. Maybe it’s a hallucination personified. Maybe the hippy is really a breeder of rare dogs. Maybe it was inherited from their just-deceased stock-broker son. You don’t know what the story really is, so you can make it up. It’s your story now. Even if you don’t use the idea immediately, add it to your compost heap, a file somewhere  that contains various ideas, phrases and inspirations for stories. “Yes, and…” also means that you’re willing to risk failing. If you work on a story that doesn’t go where you expected or you get stuck, it doesn’t mean it failed. It means you learned something new about your own process and maybe you should move onto a different story. This one will wait for you. Frankly, “yes, and…” is a pretty nice rule to have for life in general.
  2. Listen. The best storytellers I have ever known are also among the greatest listeners. They know that listening to other tellers and the world around them will only deepen their own telling. By listening intently to other tellers they learn more about the craft of storytelling and increase their understanding of how it works in performance and in the world at large. Great storytellers also listen to the audience. Remember, there is no fourth wall in storytelling, so you can react to your audience in real time. If the audience loves it when you talk about trees and you can do so appropriately in the context of the story, talk about trees more. The meat of the storytelling performance happens in the audience’s head. Listen to them and take advantage of it. Equally, storytellers need to be listened to; practice your new stories with a friendly audience who can give you useful feedback. You get to decide if you use that feedback or not, but a little friendly listening can go a long way. Lastly, when you listen to the world around you, it’s quite likely you’ll overhear stories just waiting to be told.
  3. Praise. Be abundant in your praise of other tellers. Don’t hesitate to tell others what you love about their work and their gift. Just as importantly, accept praise as you receive it. Don’t second guess it or deny the listener’s experience by minimizing their praise. What we don’t need but frequently get or give is “constructive criticism.” Newer endeavors especially thrive when they are fed, not when the roots are plucked off. Heck, be abundant with praise in general. If someone does something well or kind, let them know you appreciate it. How often do you feel appreciated? You’d be surprised how giving appreciation leads to being appreciated. Thanks to Doug Lipman for starting me down the path of being a routine appreciator.
  4. Fail again, fail better. In other words, take risks. If you take no risks in your art or your life you will never grow. Don’t be afraid of failing. Your job is to try new things, fail frequently and to learn from each experience, so you can reach new heights of success.
  5. Change is inevitable. You may be a superb teller of personal stories. You may one day find yourself drawn to tell folktales. This may be frightening but remember, change happens. The only time change stops is when you die. As you try new things, listen, praise and take risks, you will change and grow. The material you are drawn towards will change, as may your audiences. Embrace it. Find a way to make it your own.
  6. Value. No one else does what you do. Your art has value and deserves to be valued. Your whole self deserves to be valued. When you are living the life of a storyteller you may find people under-estimate the time and work you put into your craft. Don’t let them. Make sure they know that your skills are valuable. This must start with valuing yourself. If you don’t know what to charge for your work, ask other tellers what they charge. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth; you support yourself and your community when you do.
  7. Self-care. No one else is going to take care of you for you. You must understand what nourishes you and your art and provide it for yourself or ask for it clearly and firmly. What is conducive to you doing your best work? Do you need a cup of tea ahead of time? Do you need to run a mile? Do you need space and quiet in which to create? No one will know to give you these things if you don’t ask. Equally, you need to explore what helps you feel most whole, how you can take care of yourself. Maybe you need a bath before you can sleep, or you are renewed by eating sushi once a month. Find a way to care for yourself and you will be a more complete artist.
  8. Abundance and generosity. Assume the world is abundant. That there are ample gigs for all of us, that there are audiences, that you will learn and tell the next story. Be generous with your talent, your compassion and your heart. When we expect abundance the world becomes a much bigger place than when we assume there is scarcity. What we are given or create for ourselves can be accepted with that much more joy. When we are generous it becomes easier to accept the gifts of the universe, because we have become part of the gift of the universe. Envy (I’m a better storyteller than he is) greed (I want more gigs, even if they aren’t right for me) refusal to share (No, I don’t know anyone who can do that gig even though I can’t) all will only keep your heart compressed. Be like the grinch, let your heart grow three times in a day.

You may have guessed this manifesto is about more than being a storyteller, it’s about life. We are all storytellers; the world is our stage and we can decide if our life-long performance is a sold out success or a bust. Go for it. The world is waiting.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Oddservation - mental health

Two women next to me, practicing mental health assessments. Outside, a man is talking to himself. They adamantly ignore him. Creative Commons License

Oddservation - Pushing buttons

A man walks by pressing a button that emits a distressed bird call. Who or what is he hoping will respond? Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Poem: In the Library

First, a confession: Three of the women I love most on the world (my mother and two dear friends) are librarians. I believe librarians and libraries are holders of secret knowledge. Support them.

Second, diversions: I tell several stories set in libraries. I wish any of them conveyed this much mystery this easily. And when my sweetheart suggested he give a room of our apartment over to a library, I knew I was with the right partner.

Third, a journey: I discovered this poet tonight when I was looking for a poem about watermelon. You can read why here.

And that's enough exposition.

In the Library
by Charles Simic

for Octavio

There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On persistence - Diana Nyad

I've written from time to time about various heroes. Pete Seeger. Mr. Rogers. John Lennon. Dr. King. I have another one.

Diana Nyad is a lot of things. She is a journalist and writer. She is a long distance swimmer who recently, at 61, attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She is a lesbian. She is a woman who has overcome any of a number of obstacles to attempt and often achieve her goals.

Why is she one of my heroes? Because of her determination, her outstanding goals and willingness to not achieve them in the effort to be more than she was the day before; attempting the goal, giving it everything, is worth it. Because she is undaunted by age and by the culturally imposed limitations of gender. Because she speaks out.

Diana Nyad undertook her most recent swim from Cuba to Florida for both personal reasons (the public personal reasons have to do with feeling better at 61 than she did at 29, when she last tried this swim) and public reasons (to remind those of us who feel too old to try things that age need not be a limitation). She chose to end her swim when she was just under half-way along, the currents and various physical challenges proved to be too much. Even this is monumental - she swam over 50 miles in 29 hours and made the decision to not permanently injure herself but to end when she could make a the decision to do so. This is the choice of a wise, mature woman.

While Diana didn't complete the swim, she inspired me to strive for bigger goals, to not be afraid of failure, to be strong. She has achieved her goal of inspiring me, and thousands others, to live big, regardless of age. Thank you.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Storytelling and meaning

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
                                         Hannah Arendt

When we stand in front of an audience and tell stories, we give our listeners the chance to apply their own meaning to the narrative we present. As storytellers, our job isn’t to be explicit about meaning, but to reveal it as if we are drawing back a curtain to a stage where the audience can both see the story play out and place themselves on the stage. A well-told story gives the listeners a chance to find their own meaning in our words and gestures; a poorly-told story requires that we be explicit in the meaning. It requires that we expose Oz as a fraud; when we spell out that there is no magic, we assume the listener isn’t clever enough to figure it out themselves and certainly not clever enough to understand the magic in the message of the story - that there's no place like home.

Let’s take a look at a story.

Think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A child goes into the forest after a warning not to stray off the path. She encounters a wolf, to whom she tells her destination. The wolf races ahead of her, eats her grandmother and ultimately the child. What is the meaning of this story? Is it a warning to not stray off the path? To not talk with strangers? To obey our parents? To be wily in sourcing our supper?

Maybe your understanding of the meaning in Little Red Riding Hood differs from that of your listener. For some it may be a simple warning about the dangers in the woods. For others it may be an allegory for growing up too quickly. Or for abuse. Or for how hunger drives wolves to extreme acts.

Does the story lose power if you conclude with, “And that’s what happens to bad little girls who disobey their mothers and talk to strangers”? Is it more powerful if you use all of your craft to show, not explicitly tell, your meaning in the story, thus leaving the audience with the image of the wolf’s bloody mouth and the child who has been silenced, allowing them to insert their own meaning into the story guided by your images?

I’ve written before about the wonderfully flexible nature of story, the way that the teller cannot control what happens in the listener’s head, so how ultimately our job is to get out of the listener’s way. Storytelling works best when all three players (teller, listeners and tale) are allowed to dance with one another without interference.

If you explicitly tell your audience what the story means then you are cutting into their dance with the tale. It’s inadvisable to do this unless it’s important that the moral be explicitly stated.

You may be thinking that none of this applies to you, that  your stories don’t have deeper meaning. Every story has meaning, because every story is commentary on some aspect of the human condition. When you describe your commute to work you are saying something about your community, your socio-economic status, your feelings about your employment and more. You are also giving your audience the chance to compare your commute story to their own, to put their own feelings and meaning into your story about your wait for the bus or drive through traffic or walk to your office. Stories reveal meaning because story allows humans to connect one to another.

When you develop your stories for performance, decide early in the process what meaning you hope your audience will walk away with. You may find your understanding of a story and your sense of its meaning will change as you tell it, but don’t forget throughout that there is meaning and your audience can be guided in a particular direction. Should they leave with a question? Moral certitude? Construct your telling so that meaning is a likely outcome, but bear in mind you cannot control the story in your listeners’ minds. The best you can do is guide them along a path.

If you want Little Red Riding Hood to be about staying on the path, make sure the danger in straying is apparent as she strays and the consequences are clear. If you want it instead to be about talking to strangers, make that the danger moment. Or, if it’s about cleverly finding new foods for dinner, make sure your wolf is sympathetic, leave little room for your audience to think otherwise.

In revealing meaning without defining it, you have the opportunity to dance with the story and your audience without having to tell them when to turn. You are letting them lead their own internal story and own it, thus making it a more powerful experience for the listener. They will be more invested in the story and in you as a teller, because you trusted their intelligence, the story and your own skill. You didn’t need to show them the man behind the curtain, they knew he was there all along and believed anyway.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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