Friday, May 31, 2013

Z is for... zowie PLUS an announcement!

This is going to be a self-indulgent post. Rather than writing about a specific storytelling topic, I'd like to take just a moment and say Zowie. This was really fun. 

Ultimately, that's what we should be saying after most of our storytelling experiences. Not all, sure. There are always the crummy gigs. The ones where the kids just didn't want to listen, where the parents talked over you, where you forgot something crucial, where your slides didn't work, where you just weren't into it, where it didn't gel. It happens. But most of the time we should come out of our storytelling work saying, yes, this. Zowie, this was fun. I did something meaningful. 

Because, really, why devote our lives to something that takes so much work and time if we're not going to enjoy it? If we're not going to feel as though we made a difference in the world?

We are so lucky to be storytellers, whether it's what we do for full-time employment or if we incorporate storytelling into our other work. We are so lucky to know that this artform is a basic part of what it is to be human, to be able to think and talk and live in story. We are so lucky.

My friend and mentor, Brother Blue, used to say that the room was full of angels, regardless of how many visible people were there. He was right. When we tell stories we evoke our own best selves, we become beings of voice and image and breath. We have a chance to remind ourselves of what we could be. We remember the connection one human can make with another. We are saying I'm here. I'm alive. I have experienced this, dreamed this and am sharing it with you. Now you can experience it, dream it. And if that's not a zowie I don't know what is.

I have some exciting news I'd like to share with you, but first I need to thank some people.

First, thanks to everyone who read these posts. Thank you especially to those of you who commented on my blog or reposted with my permission (that really helps in google search ratings), sent me private notes or commented on other forums. It means the world to me when I hear that something I said was useful or meaningful. If you want to use this material in other forums please let me know. Let's talk.

Second, thanks to Megan Hicks, who brought my attention to the idea of a-z blogging.

Third, thanks to my sweetheart Kevin Brooks, who brainstormed some of these ideas with me. I couldn't do what I do without him.

And my news. Many of you wrote to me privately suggesting I do something with this content. I have a lot of storytelling content on this blog and I've been debating for years how I can disseminate it more effectively. Well, the time has come. I'm going to take these a-z posts, expand them and publish the ABCs of Storytelling. At this point I will likely release some of it electronically then publish in print. I'm still working out the details. I'll keep you posted.

I do need some help. If there are topics you'd like me to address, let me know! I am planning on several entires for most letters. If you have stories that you think would be perfect for a particular topic and would be willing to let me use them, let me know. And mostly I need your good wishes. I'm very excited by this idea and hope you will be, too.

Zowie. The adventure continues. I think happily ever after really means they had a cup of tea and then got ready for the next adventure. I'm sipping my tea and can see the next adventure around the corner. Ready? Let's go!

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Y is for... yes, and...

Yesterday I wrote about how the unknown is always a possibility in any storytelling moment. Today I urge you to embrace it.

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. I try to go through the world saying yes, and... I encourage you to try it, too. Regardless of how you're using it, yes, and... will help. Working on a speech for your Rotary club? When someone asks a question try yes and... Stuck in a story? Try having someone say something outrageous about a character and respond with yes and... You get the idea.

So, here is a yes and... challenge for you. In the comments starting listing words that could go into a story that begin with Y. I'll start.

  • yellow
  • youngster
  • yowie
  • yenta
  • yaud
If you're an overachiever, make a sentence out of a wild y word and let someone else pick it up. It's a yes and... story.

And now it's your turn.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

X is for... x the unknown

Alright, I know I'm cheating with this one, but anyone who loves junky 1950s sci-fi movies as much as I do wouldn't be able to resist. Besides, X the Unknown has real application to storytelling.

You've prepared for your gig. You've learned your stories, organized your set, researched your audience, had a light and sound check, you're ready to go. There will always be factors you can't control. Maybe you're telling at an outside venue and the weather changes. Maybe a little kid wanders up on the stage. Maybe there is a significant global event that changes the nature of the world, making some of your stories less than ideal. You don't know what will happen. All you can do is adapt the best you can. Through in a story about how the rain is really the stars weeping. Incorporate a brave little kid into your story, then invite her parents to scoop her up. Acknowledge that the world is a difficult place and we need stories to help us through the dark.

The unknown is present in every performance. While some of it might be difficult (the weather, the kid, the world) you can also revel in it. The unknown might lead you to create a new and wonderful part of your tale. The story triangle means we collaborate with the unknown worlds inside of our listeners.

Solving for X lets us be more creative and grounded in the present instance. It encourages us to be flexible, to dance with the story, our audience and the very moment.

An anecdote, some observations about X.

The National Storytelling Telling Festival happens annually in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It's a wonderful event with some amazing stories. The town itself is a lovely historical place with, among other things, a freight line running through the back. Anyone who tells at Jonesborough runs the risk of having a lengthy freight train become an overwhelming accompaniment to their story. It is a very large and loud X.

I've seen tellers break out of their story and into new tales about trains. Others whistle or tap in time with the rails. Still others simply wait, smiling. Those who try to overwhelm the train with their voice, continuing their story, are the tellers who get lost and risk losing their audiences. By embracing X, the train, flexible storytellers can build a greater relationship with their audience by overcoming the adversity of the freight roar, they gain the sympathy of the audience and they can, sometimes, inject a note of play and fun by dancing with the inevitable.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

W is for… wx5+1

This topic was suggested by my friend Buck Creacy.
Do you remember, in maybe fifth grade writing class, when your teacher told you that all essays needed to answer six crucial questions? Storytelling is no different. The six crucial questions, five w’s plus one h, give you and your listeners the basic information required by most stories. Bear in mind, simply answering these questions will not make the story a great one, but it will give you a foundation to build on. 
  • Who. Who is your story about? What are their characteristics? If the story is about a girl, make it about a specific girl. Make it about the girl who sat three rows ahead of you in class, the one who always wore the same ribbon in her hair, the ribbon that got dingier over the year. The girl who didn’t come back to class after the class queen bee stole it from her. Make your who specific. We want to know what happened to that girl with the ribbon. If it was only about a girl we wouldn’t really care. What’s more, you can use one who to lead to another. I never knew what happened to her but I always wished I had stepped in. 
  • What. What happens matters. Decide what the girl cares about. She cares about the ribbon. The ribbon is stolen. What happens next? What is the actin that moves your narrative forward.
  • Where. Stories need to live in a place. The more carefully you paint the place, the more easily your listeners can go there. Use all of your senses, not just vision. What is carved into the wooden desktop? What does the classroom smell like? What does the light look like just before the ribbon is stolen? If this story is from your life, or if you want it to have a real world setting, give that to us. Where is more than physical space, it’s setting and mood.
  • When. This encompasses not only literal time, but emotional and personal time. When I was in third grade. When the world was young. Between the wars. Each when places you and your listeners in a time and provides context. Oh, this is a creation story. Oh, this is a personal story. Oh, this is a…
  • Why. The motivation, the drive, the cause for the action. This can be tricky, because you may want to leave some of this shrouded in mystery or even entirely unexplained, but you need to provide enough explanation that the audience can connect to the actions in the story. The wolf is wicked and hungry. The queen bee is acting upon her nature, preying upon the weak. The girl with the ribbon… well, that might be a place to leave enough white space for the imagination to run wild. The speaker who didn’t intervene was afraid, becoming the character we all know in our secret hearts. The why gives the listeners something to latch onto and identify with.
  • How. How brings everything together. How did the who commit the what? What’s more, how gives you an opportunity to pain a clearer picture - how did the girl’s face change when she saw the ribbon dangling from the queen bee’s fingers? How did you feel when you just watched?
Using these basic questions will help your stories be deeper and more interesting for your audience. They will help you show, rather than tell, details about your world. They will give you opportunity to decide where you want to insert white space and where you want detail, reminding you that what you say and how you say it matters.

One story two ways.

Version one.
When I was young, I remember there was a girl in my class who clearly didn’t have much money. Her name was Frannie. She wore the same clothing most of the time and always had the same ribbon in her hair. One day Justine, the class bully, stole the ribbon from her when the teacher was out of the class. Frannie cried and screamed until she could barely breathe. I think she was sent to the nurse’s office by the hall monitor who ran in, while Justine pranced around with the ribbon. I just stood there and watched. The teacher took the ribbon and put in her desk. But we didn’t see Frannie again. I wonder what happened to her.

Version two. 
I was a pretty shy kid, especially in middle school. I remember my fifth grade class seemed like it was full of yelling and spit balls. I pretty much kept to myself and drew with my scented magic markers, they were all the rage then. A few rows in front of me was Frannie. I was grateful to her, because she was the reason I could be invisible. She was poor. Her clothing smelled because she didn’t wash it often enough. She always wore her hair the same way, tied back with a greasy red ribbon and, in fifth grade when fashion was starting to count, this was her biggest sin. She would rub its soft sheen against her cheek, staining it darker each day.

One afternoon the teacher told us all to be quiet while she went to talk to the principal. Most of were. Most, except for Justine and her clique of Bonnie Bell wearing friends. They surrounded Frannie and began commenting on her clothing as if she weren’t there. “Did you see what that smelly girl had on the other day?” I remember thinking someone should do something, make them stop, but I wasn’t that someone. I guess everyone was thinking that. Frannie didn’t do anything, just sank down into her chair a little more.

Then Justine snatched the ribbon from Frannie’s hair. “Look, I have a snot rag from her hair!” She held it between two fingers, high above Frannie’s head. Frannie began to scream then, a high wail. I’d never heard grief like that before. I don’t think I’ve heard it since. Justine and her girls began to laugh while Frannie screamed louder, her face the color the ribbon might once have been. A grown-up came rushing in. Justine ran back to her seat, holding the ribbon in the air like a flag the whole time. Frannie kept screaming. The adult tried to calm her down, but her scream didn’t stop. I didn’t know how she could breathe.

Eventually the room was full of adults. Someone picked Frannie up and carried her, like a portable siren, out of the room. Someone said something about a nurse. Our teacher took the ribbon from Justine without saying anything, put it into her desk drawer, locked it, and tried to teach us the capitals of Europe, though no one was really paying attention. Justine couldn’t stop giggling.

Frannie didn’t come back to our classroom, not that afternoon or that week or that school year. I wondered why none of us said anything. I wondered where she was. I wondered what happened to her ribbon. Did it stay in the desk drawer all that time, hiding so no one could see it? Did the teacher cover it with papers so she wouldn’t remember? Did it go someplace where stains don't matter and it's only the soft satin that counts?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, May 27, 2013

V is for...voice

Onto a practical aspect of storytelling.

Our voice is our instrument. We need to learn how to control our voices in a variety of ways to be effective speakers. As you prepare for your performances, ask yourself:
  • Can my audience hear me? Make sure you have appropriate amplification for your venue. Your needs will be different in a theater, a gym, outside and in an office. An audience composed of elders will have different needs than pre-schoolers.
  • Do I know how to use the amplification equipment? Make sure you have time for a sound check and understand how to modulate your volume when you have an amplifier.
  • Do I know how to protect my voice? If you don't have amplification equipment, make sure you know how to project, how to protect and how to most effectively use your voice. You can learn more about this from a voice teacher and other storytellers.
  • Are the voices I'm using appropriate? 
    • If you have different character voices make sure they are easily distinguished and consistent.
    • If you're trying to use an accent, make sure you do it really well. A badly done accent is distracting to the audience and insulting to the people you're trying to sound like. Accents rarely make a story better.
  • Lastly, remember to breath, remain hydrated and hold yourself upright. Because our voices are our instruments and are part of our bodies, we need to treat our bodies well. Take deep breaths. Drink some water. Stand up. You'll feel better and sound great.
The voice is really nothing short of miraculous. When you tell a story, your brain wraps images and ideas in language. That language is made audible by contractions of your vocal cords, movements  your tongue, lips and teeth, and air expelled from your lungs. Those vibrations in the air then move through the world, until they reach the timpanic membrane of your listener's ear, where they are interpreted and turned into the listener's own images and ideas as shown in the story triangle. The voice allows a direct route from one mind to another. Relish it. Respect it. And it will carry you to new and unexpected places. 

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, May 26, 2013

U is for... uncomfortable

I'm sorry I fell of the alphabet bandwagon for a couple of days. I had family visiting and they needed my attention.

It's easy to do what's comfortable. For instance, I love telling fairy tales. I love telling twisty, difficult, dark fairy tales. Some people find this surprising, they think it must be hard to tell these stories because they go in such odd places. It's not. It's very comfortable.

What's uncomfortable, for me, is telling personal stories. For years I avoided it, telling any kind of fiction, myth and folktale instead. I told people I didn't have any personal experiences to tell stories about. It was so uncomfortable I turned down gigs instead of revealing things about my life in any kind of factual way. Eventually a kind friend helped me craft some stories from my life. Light ones at first and then increasingly difficult stories. It wasn't easy and it certainly wasn't comfortable, but spending time with that discomfort and working through the problems telling these stories presented made me a much better storyteller.

When we go to the places where we are uncomfortable, we grow. It's the same thing when we use our bodies; we need to be a little uncomfortable to build new muscle and endurance. Try using storytelling in new ways. Try telling the kinds of stories that are challenging. Try telling to audiences you might have avoided. Tell from an uncomfortable perspective. Find safe ways to do so and you will grow. What was uncomfortable might become your new favorite thing. At a minimum you will stretch in new ways, learn new skills, and know your limitations are farther away than you thought.

(c) 2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, May 23, 2013

T is for... triangle

I know, this is the storytelling alphabet, not the geometry alphabet. But the story triangle is a crucial piece of storytelling theory and something I would be remiss to overlook.

Every storytelling experience is about managing a set of relationships between the teller, the story and the audience. The story triangle is a dynamic interaction between these three elements that are present during any storytelling experience.  The teller, story and audience interact in such a way that the story experience is different every time. The story triangle itself is derived from Aristotle's rhetorical triangle, which encompasses reason, character and emotion.

The story triangle, rather than emphasizing narrative elements, focuses on the players and relationships present during a storytelling event.

The Storyteller
The simplest definition of storyteller is one who interprets, shapes, and expresses the story. Whether they're telling their own material, a traditional story, giving a speech or presentation, the storyteller’s choice of words, tone and body language makes that story uniquely theirs.

The Audience
The audience takes in the story as told by the teller, and uses the teller’s words and performance cues  to interpret the story, in addition to their own life experience. They react to the whole story and its individual parts by applauding, laughing, crying, yawning, etc.  Their mere presence affects the storyteller and the story.  While a story may exist before it is told by the storyteller, even in written form, the primary and most important place a story exists is in the individual minds of the audience during the story experience.

The Story
The story itself has a life apart from both the teller and the audience.  Stories are both containers and triggers.  As containers, they carry and convey characters, experiences, events, and even worlds to a listening audience.  As triggers, they set off sparks and flashes of recognition and meaning within the minds of the audience.  Like a molecular reaction, stories can bond to the life events of the audience, which allow stories to feel more authentic.  By identifying with the characters and events of a story, we sometimes have the opportunity to see our own lives differently.  We see what the characters see, we learn what the characters learn.  Stories fulfill both container and trigger roles simultaneously.  They have the capacity to present the new and the old, the novel and the recognizable to an audience.

From the participants, we now can consider the relationships.

The storyteller and the story have a relationship. 
The teller studies, thinks, practices, builds their story. They consider their movement, language and more. The story is shaped by the teller. It is an intimate relationship.

The storyteller and the audience have a relationship.
The audience watches and listens to the teller, absorbing their interpretation of the story. The teller, in turn, watches the audience and responds to them. Because storytelling is such a fluid art with little or no fourth wall, the teller can change the story as needed to meet the needs of the audience. Does the audience really love trees? Fine, spend more time in the forest. Does the audience not appreciate your humor? Fine, let's move on.

But the most important relationship in the storytelling performance experience is the relationship between the audience and the story.
As tellers, we can't control this. All we can do is craft our story and pay attention to the audience as best we can. It's what happens in the mind and imagination of our listeners that makes the magic. Every single listener will interpret your words and actions in their own way, colored by their own experiences. Every single listener will hear a different story.Every single listener will have their own relationship with the story. Yes, the teller is the vehicle that allows it, but our job, as tellers, is to do the best we can, then get out of the way and let our listeners' infinitely creative minds dance with the words, the images, the narrative. 

I am awed every time this happens. And it happens every time I trust myself, my story and my audience.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

S is for... scary

Every storyteller needs to have a scary story or two in their back pocket. I wrote this post several years ago and thought it would make an excellent S entry. Over on my organizational storytelling blog I've written S is for storytelling, check that out if you're interested.
One of the fun things I get to write about is how to tell specific kinds of stories. We've looked at personal storieshero stories, fairytales/myths and tall tales. Today we’ll look at scary stories. 

In the context of this blog post scary story means a story with some kind of supernatural or horrific element (haunted house, movie-style killer) rather than a story of real-life horror (bank foreclosure, natural disaster, real-life murder). These stories are meant to give your listeners a delightful chill, not a lingering dread.

Whenever I tell stories with kids and ask them what they'd like to hear, they always ask for a scary story. It seems to be what kids are most familiar with in a "storytelling" context, maybe from camp or from other media sources. Because these stories have such deep appeal for children I'd recommend that you have several in your repertoire that are appropriate for younger people. You can always tweak details to make them more appropriate for adults.

The single most important element in telling a scary story is you, just as it is in all storytelling. You have to believe what you're saying; it's even better if you think the story is creepy. If you are insincere your listeners will know and won't be drawn into their own imaginations. You can increase the intimacy and believability of scary stories by lowering your voice, lowering the lights, looking around as if you're nervous and telling your listeners that you don't usually tell this one, because it scares you.

Some other common elements in effective scary storytelling are:
  • Locale. It really helps if you can include regional details your listeners will recognize. It will make the story more believable. Yes, this means changing the story. As long as you're telling a traditional story (more on where to find these momentarily) or making it up yourself, that's okay. If you're telling someone else's story then you have already gotten permission and discussed the alteration with them. If you are a region you don't know, so can't make the story local, then make it local to you. It happened in your neighborhood, near your school or at your summer camp. If it's a traditional story where the locale must remain distant, make sure you set that context appropriately. "This is a story from ancient Japan. People still tell it around campfires and they know it's real."
  • Eye-witness accounts. If appropriate, for example when telling an urban legend, tell them you heard the story from the person it happened to. This increases believability. If it's something that happened to you, tell them.
  • Vocal control. If you're telling a jump-tale (a story that ends with a bang so your audience jumps) make sure you don't broadcast it ahead of time. Keep your voice at the same volume right up to the yelling part.
  • Select the right story for your audience. Remember who you are and who they are. This goes back to basic storytelling technique. If you can't do an accent well, don't do it, your listeners will be distracted. If you're a white, middle-aged man don't pretend to be a young black woman if you're telling about a haunted place in the 'hood. You can always say you heard the story from a student. Additionally, select the right level of creepiness for your audience. Kindergartners don't need to know all of the horrible details, while college students might revel in them.
  • Internal logic. Be aware of logical holes in the story, especially when telling with kids. If everyone dies in the story then how did you hear it? Kids will ask you about it.
  • Practice. You will be a better storyteller if you practice your craft and approach it as work worth investing yourself in.
So where can you find some good scary stories to tell? Folklore is rife with scary stories. This is a good resource as is the urban legend database. Remember to tweak those details to make it local. I tell a version of the vanishing hitch-hiker that I always change to include wherever I am: In the Northeast you're never far from a cemetery, I bet wherever you are you can find something spooky nearby. 

Folklorist Alvin Schwartz has collected many American folktales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Boxed Set. Another good book is The Ghost & I: Scary Stories for Paticipatory Telling; I especially like this one because it includes both telling tips and stories for adults as well as kids. Additionally, the authors have given permission for storytellers to tell these tales. 

I'm sure you can find many more good resources at your local library or bookstore. Just remember to ask permission to tell other people's stories. For those in the Kansas City area, I'll be teaching a storytelling class at Communiversity starting in June. I'd love it if you came and told with me!

Have fun telling these tales. Scary stories are among the most dramatic and playful of stories you can tell. I'm sure you'll enjoy experimenting with them. Next time we'll take a look at tall tales. See you soon!

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

R is for... research

I love research. I love digging in and finding the seeds of old stories, ferreting out variants and linguistic roots and cultural meaning. I love it. It makes my mouth water.

When I research a story, be it a myth, a folktale, a legend, a historical piece, the fact-based parts of original fiction or the details of a personal story, I give it greater depth. While my research might never make it into the final piece, it does inform how I tell the story. If I know, for example, that my great-grandmother never really got over the boyfriend she left behind in Prussia, then that might color the way she talks to my grandmother about boys.

Good research shapes each character, setting and event in your story. While it isn't a prerequisite to being a storyteller, when you really love a piece you want to know more about it, so research is a natural side-effect.

There are many great resources online for story research. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Sur la Lune is a great fairy tale site with variants and annotated versions of hundreds of fairy tales.
  • Karen Chace's Storybug blog is a great, frequently updated resource for stories on a wide variety of topics.
  • Encyclopedia Mythica is a great myth resource, with cross references.
  • Artcyclopedia is a really good online art reference. This helps you visualize time periods and places.
  • The Library of Congress has a fantastic website, rich with images and articles on almost anything you could want. Want to hear Warren G. Harding? This is the place!
  • The Public Library of Science answers your science questions
  • The New York Public Library Digital Gallery can help you visualize almost anything.

There are so many more. These are just a few I use regularly. Please add any great research sites you love in the comments!

I hope you have fun with your research. Remember, the better you know the background to your stories the better your telling.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, May 20, 2013

Q is for...quiet

I have a great need for quiet in my life if I am to be creative. I need time and space around me within which I can think. I certainly need to be listened to, need to talk and think things through with friends, but quiet is where it starts.

That quiet can actually be quite noisy. It could be the rumble of a coffee shop, the crash-and-hiss of the ocean, the wind in trees... any kind of white noise works as well as quiet. What doesn't support my creative process is interruption, directed noise or voices I need to attend to. I don't work well if the music around me is in English, for example.

It's important that we figure out what kind of environments support our creativity. I know I need quiet, I need blocks of time, I need good light and a comfortable place to curl up. What do you need?  What fosters and supports your creativity?

And if you are in the position of helping others be creative, what do they need? Do cubicles and florescent lights really support their creativity? What might help?

Put some thought into your environment. Find the quiet and space you need to listen to the still, small voice inside. You might be surprised by what it has to say.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Storytelling Alphabet, k-p

As you know by now, I'm blogging the storytelling alphabet daily through May. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here. This week we covered k-p; here is a summary.

K is for Karma
What goes around comes around. When storytellers are good listeners, help other tellers and behave ethically, it helps them and their communities. There is abundance for all. You can read K is for Karma here. 

L is for Listening
Storytelling starts with listening. Storytellers need to listen to the world around them for material. We need to listen to other tellers to learn more about telling and to support each other. We need to be listened to, in order to hone our craft. The world is a better place when we listen more. You can read L is for Listening here. 

M is for Monsters
As storytellers, we are intimate with monsters. Not only the monsters that haunt any artist, but the monsters in our material. When we understand our monsters better we can build more sympathetic characters and a better relationship with the audience. You can read M is for Monsters here.

N is for Nonsense and News
Some tips and tricks on the value of nonsense in stories.  And some thoughts about what to do when the news intrudes on our storytelling life and how to accept and incorporate outside events into our arts. You can read N is for News here. 

O is for Opportunity
We never know when we'll have the opportunity to tell a needed story, hear the right tale or get a gig. We need to be open to opportunity and accept it in all its guises. You can read O is for Opportunity here. 

P is for Practice
Storytelling is like any other art: We need to practice. It can be hard to remember this in the drunken moment of performance, but everything we do is part of our storytelling practice. Some tips and tricks for practicing stories. You can read P is for Practice here. 

We're on the downhill side of the alphabet now. Stay tuned to find out hos I handle Q,  and Z!

(c) 2013 Laura Packer

Creative Commons License

Saturday, May 18, 2013

P is for... practice

You know how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? Practice.

It's easy, in the first flush of falling in love with storytelling and the audience, to forget that we need to apply as much time and practice to our art as any other artist does. Because so much of we do is about connecting with the audience, many novice tellers pretend we don't need to work, craft and practice before we get up on stage. But we do.

The best storytellers I know are diligent about practice. They work on their craft like they're building houses, starting from the foundation up, paying attention to each and every corner and window. It's work. It takes practice.

There are many ways you can practice your craft. I do all of these.

  • Write an outline. Remove all the excess and tell only from the sparse notes.
  • Find a trusted friend and tell your story to them. Ask them to tell you the things they love the most about the story.
  • Tell your story to a tree or the ocean. You might hear things you didn't notice before.
  • Hold a small house concert. Invite people who will be happy to hear a practice run. Wine might help.
  • Video yourself telling. Then watch, so you can see what body language worked and what didn't.
  • Hire a story coach or director. They have experience and an eye that might be quite useful.
  • Go to an open mic and tell part of the piece there. Nothing like having a live audience to help you along.

You story may very well change as you practice. Let it. These changes might be great new facets you never before explored. And don't be afraid to let parts fall by the wayside. It doesn't mean they're bad, just that they might belong somewhere else.

Remember that each telling experience is a chance to practice. Because storytelling is such a flexible art, your story will change with each telling, but practice means you know the rhythms of the story. You know the hard places. You know how audiences tend to react and you're prepared when they react in new ways.

And besides, practice is really just a chance to tell your story again. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your storytelling practice. And isn't it grand that we can always learn more about our art and craft!

I'd love to know what practice techniques work for you.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 17, 2013

O is for... opportunity

I love the letter O. I love its openness and roundness and the possibility it suggests. O is for optimism and opportunity. 

We never know when a chance to tell stories will come upon us. I have found myself unexpectedly telling stories on public transit, in business meetings, in hospital and to random strangers on the street. We never know when the universe will say here. Now. Tell a story. Here is an opportunity to share. We need to pay attention for these opportunities and be ready when they arise. Don’t be afraid.

What’s more, we never know when we will be given the gift of story fodder, the opportunity to craft a story out of the world around us. It might be in the overheard conversation, in a moment inspired by a book or movie, in the time spent with strangers or loved ones. We never know when the universe will say shut up. Listen. Here is an opportunity to hear something magnificent. We need to pay attention for these opportunities too, and remember that storytelling starts with listening.

Beyond opportunities to remember we live in a world rich with story that needs ours as much as anyone else’s, we also never know when we will have an opportunity for work. It could arise out of a casual conversation, a referral, almost anything. We just need to remember to be grateful and to be ethical in the work we do. But really, we never know when the universe will say try this. You’ll be great. We need to pay attention for these opportunities as well, strive to make them and accept them when they arise. And, because the universe sometimes needs a bit of help, carry business cards. 

All of this reminds me of a joke. 

There was a great flood and a man found himself stranded on the roof of his home. He began to pray, asking God to rescue him. After a few minutes some people in a canoe came along and invited him in. “No,” he replied, “I’m fine. God will take care of me.” 

He kept praying. The water kept rising. It lapped at the edges of the roof.

Soon some people in a rowboat drifted by and asked if he needed help. “No,” he replied, “I’m fine. God will take care of me.”

He kept praying. The water kept rising. Now the water was as high as his toes.

Soon a helicopter hovered over him. They threw down a ladder and called out, “Climb on!”
“No,” he replied, “I’m fine. God will take care of me.” 

The helicopter roared away. He kept praying. The water kept rising. Soon the house began to shudder and then it collapsed underneath him. Try as he might, he soon drowned.

The man found himself in Heaven. He asked God, “Why didn’t you help? I prayed!”
And God replied, “Hey, I sent two boats and helicopter, what more did you want?”

The storyteller’s work fits in just about anywhere. We just need to pay attention and the opportunities are there.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, May 16, 2013

N is for... nonsense and news

We're over halfway through the storytelling alphabet journey! To celebrate, we'll cover two topics today, nonsense and news, though the two are often indistinguishable.

Nonsense is delightful, regardless of the age of your audience. A bit of nonsense can be inserted into a tale as a kind of repeating chorus. It can also be a touchstone that identifies specific characters or places. I tell a series of stories about Crazy Jane, a holy fool. These stories are generally told to adults, though kids like them, too. Most Crazy Jane stories include some kind of nonsensical event or language early on, because Crazy Jane is crazy - she revels in nonsense, in rhymes and riddle and things that are just silly. The story may eventually go in a much more somber direction, but the silly start lets the audience know that this is Crazy Jane, she is crazy and wild and unpredictable.

Other storytellers have used nonsense to great effect. Brother Blue would routinely insert scat into his stories. These nonsense syllables were punctuation, a way he could give both himself and the audience a chance to pause and think about the story. It was one of his signature storytelling moments.

Even business speakers might find a bit of nonsense useful; you can use it to contrast your real facts and figures or to poke fun at the seriousness of the moment.

It's worth playing around with nonsense and seeing what you make of it. You might find great sense hidden there.

A less intentional kind of nonsense is the news. We are surrounded by a steady stream of current events coverage, making it very hard to escape the challenging events that seem to occur daily in this world we live in. As storytellers, we can talk about news events in a variety of ways.
  • We can tell personal stories about our reaction to the news. This could include recollections, stories about people we know or have created who were present during an event, or other realistic stories. These stories help us all remember we're not alone in our reactions to these difficult times and can bring new information to your listeners.  The danger is that the storyteller must be able to tell the tale without falling apart. You don't want your audience to have to take care of you, instead of being immersed in their own response to the story.
  • We can tell allegories. Many traditional stories can easily be recast into responses to current events. This lets us think about the tough stuff through metaphor. Just make sure your audience has room to come to the metaphor on their own terms. Equally, understand what your story is about. I recently retold The Abduction of Persephone from her mother's point of view; this was a week or two after the shootings in Newtown, CT. It was only midway through the story that I realized I was telling a story of parental grief, so we could all grieve these lost children. It was a hard moment in the telling, when I had to rely on all of professionalism to keep going. I've written more about that experience here and you can see the performance here. 
  • We can acknowledge the event and move on. Sometimes we just need to move past something and proceed as we originally intended. If the event is big enough, it becomes another presence in the room. Acknowledging it means your listeners know that you understand why they might be distracted. They know you are, too. And they know that together perhaps you can escape for just a little while.
  • We can use the event to create a new story. How many of us have stories about where we were when we heard about 9/11? The Challenger explosion? The King and Kennedy assassinations? What about a story of foreclosure or marching for civil rights or watching the moon landing? We can take those moments after they've had time to crust over, put them in a personal and historical context, and build something new. We can share our lives and our history with each other, using those moments as a way to talk about something else entirely.
Every storyteller will have to contend with the world beyond their performance. We are lucky, our work is about connecting with other human beings. When we remember we are of the world, not separate from it, even the most difficult moment can be wrapped in story.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

M is for... monsters

Oh, but there are monsters in the world! As storytellers, we can talk about monsters, real and imagined, in safer ways, venturing to the edge of the world and back. We can conjure kraken and werewolves and vampires and ghosts, just as easily as we talk about real life monsters.

Whenever I tell a story with a monster in it, I ask myself:

  • Who really is the monster? Imagine how that poor hungry wolf felt, being denied a meal by those greedy pigs. And maybe Goldilocks is really a story about a home invasion. If my monster is the expected villain, I still try to understand them. Are they simply evil? Are they angry? What's going on?
  • What is the monster's point of view? It can be very interesting, exploring the story from the other side. Telling the story from the monster's POV but letting it remain monstrous is an interesting challenge, one worth exploring if you have the time.
  • Where does the monster belong? Maybe my listeners never need to really see the monster, the threat might be enough.
  • When do I want to reveal the monster? And how terrifying is it once revealed? 
  • Does the monster change as the story progresses? Do I want to build sympathy for it or do I want it to remain terrible?
  • And ultimately, why is the monster there? What would happen if I told the story without the monster in it? Would it still get my point across?
When I tell a story with a real-life monster, I may need to do some internal work to make sure I'm ready to tell it. It doesn't help if my fear of my third grade bully is still making me shake. I need to make the bully terrifying, sure, but I also need to make the bully as real for the audience as the fear is. If the monster is a subtle one - say a problem at work or an intractable situation - then I need to make sure I set it carefully in its context.

There are certainly standard monsters - ghosts, goblins, ghoulies, giants, (and other things that don't start with g) etc - but I also sometimes consider if there might be a hidden monster in a story. If I'm telling Demeter's story, is her grief monstrous? Does it drive her to do terrible things? If I think of the grief as its own monstrous character, how does the story change? What if I'm the monster?

We are surrounded by monsters. We often are monsters. As storytellers, we explore the darkness with narrative as our torch. If you know your monsters inside and out your telling will be richer, more believable and your audience will more willingly venture into the unknown, here-there-be-monsters places with you.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

L is for... listening

This post was originally published back in 2011. It still captures much of what I want to say about Listening.

There is a wonderful program called This I Believe, in which various people, some well-known and most everyday, wrote and read essays on their core beliefs. These ranged from forgiveness to science to faith and more. I would listen to these essays on NPR, transfixed. I was moved to write my own This I Believe essay; I ended up writing more than one, as I found I have several core beliefs. But I kept coming back to the same thing. 

I believe in listening. When asked to define myself, I often start with, “I am a listener.”

This may seem like an odd thing for a storyteller to say, after all, my craft requires people to listen to me, do I have to listen to them? Yes. When you think about it, storytelling starts with listening. Without a listener, the storyteller, no matter how superb, is talking to the wind. The wind may be an excellent listener, however because storytelling is an experience based on relationships, and most of us don’t have two-way relationships with the wind, we need active and engaged listeners. Storytellers listen to their audiences while they tell their stories and shape the tale to meet the needs of the audience. It’s a relationship, a dance, not just a rote performance.

Storytellers who listen to the world around them in their daily lives can craft stories that are more readily recognizable, where the audience can find themselves and their own story with more ease. These stories, where the audience doesn’t have to work as hard, give the storyteller a way to reach their listeners and connect with them more deeply, thus creating a more satisfying experience to all. We’re more likely to remember a story where we found ourselves, in some way, than a story we found completely alien. We’re all Luke Skywalker, Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf, after all.

But there’s more to it than that. We all need to be listeners to the world. When we listen intently to those around us, we have a much better chance of understanding them. We also model for them the way we want to be listened to. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you were interrupted constantly? Where that person kept diverting the conversation to themselves? Where your experiences were only launching pads to their own stories? We have a chronic listening deficit in the western world (maybe globally, I don’t know). We are taught from a very young age that if we shut up and listen we’re passive, giving up the advantage, that we won’t gain anything from the interaction. I disagree. By listening to those around me, by giving those with the greatest need to talk a chance to be heard, I have forged deep and meaningful relationships, helped people find their place in the world and ultimately had opportunities to express my own ideas in a wider range of forums than I would have otherwise. 

Listening is the base of every workshop I teach; it’s inevitably the hardest part for participants. Being still and listening to others is harder than standing up and telling a story, harder than finding a new company vision, harder than working through your own life for your next story. Without listening, without being listened to and listening to others carefully, all of these tasks become much more challenging. 

We can learn to be better listeners, it’s a skill like any other.

Next time you’re talking to someone you love, just listen to them. Don’t interrupt with a question or your opinion, just pay attention and listen. Wait until they wind down before you praise, ask or empathize. You may learn something you never knew.

Try sometime just letting the interrupter talk. Listen to them. You may find they wind down after a while and become your ally because you are the person who took the time to hear them. 

Listen to those whose views you oppose. You may find they have the same basic concerns that you do. They love their families, care about their communities and want to be happy just as much as you do. By listening to them you may teach them that the enemy isn’t so frightening after all. If you can extend them that kindness maybe they can extend it back to you.

Leaders need to be great listeners. They need to remember that everyone in their organization has their own measure of wisdom as well as opinion. By listening to them you may learn things you never knew about process, engagement, success or failure and potential improvement. But you need to be willing to listen.

It’s not easy. We want to share our own stories and have our own voice. You will have that chance, but if you can listen, you may learn more about the world and yourself than you ever expected.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, May 13, 2013

K is for...karma

As you know, I'm storytelling my way through the alphabet. You can find summaries of a-e here and f-j here. Dig around the blog for more as you'd like!

K is a tough letter in English, so I'm cheating and going to Karma. You know the basic concept, that what goes around comes around. This applies to storytelling as well. While I find some deep spiritual value in this, there are real, practical ways we can see karma at work in storytelling.

When storytellers practice good listening, when we remember that other tellers are as worthy of being heard as we are, we help build a community of listeners. And we need listeners for our own stories, so modeling good listening comes back to us. If we are ungenerous and don't listen to others, why should they listen to us?

When we are ethical about the gigs we take and refuse, passing on the ones we believe could be better fulfilled by other tellers, we help build a better reputation for storytelling as an art. None of us is accomplished at everything. When the right artist is in the right job we are viewed as more professional, more accomplished and more creative. We build a better a environment for all of us to tell in. What's more, if we are generous and pass gigs to the right people, they are more likely to pass gigs back to us.

When we help less experienced tellers we are ensuring the art survives long after us. As we grow from new tellers to journeymen to mentors to elders, we are able to share our accumulated wisdom. Hoarding it won't help the world and won't help build a community of tellers and listeners.

All of these actions and more build good karma.

A story.

One of my signature stories is about a woman who is dissuaded from suicide by someone who might be Coyote. I've told this story hundreds of times. I know it makes an impression. I've been telling it for maybe 15 years.

About two years ago I received a thank you card from a suicide prevention organization, letting me know that a donation had been made in my honor. The note included an email address if I wanted to know more.

My curiosity couldn't be contained. I wrote and asked.

The donation was made by a mother. Her son heard me tell my story, talked to me after (she said he told me he didn't know anyone else every felt that way. I've heard that a lot. Every time I tell people they aren't alone and they can get help if they need to). He then told his mother he was thinking about killing himself. He got help. He was going to be okay. He'd been accepted to a good college and was building a better life. A life. One he would not have had, she believed, had he not heard that story on that night.

As storytellers, we impact untold numbers of people every time we tell, listen and teach. As storytellers, we impact untold numbers every time we give less than all we have, every time we don't listen, every time we turn away from the teaching moment.

We never know how our actions will be reflected back to us, only that they will.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Storytelling alphabet F-J

As you know, I'm working my way through the storytelling alphabet. Each week I'm posting a summary of the last week's adventures. You can find a-e here.

F is for fun.
If you're not having fun when you're telling stories then you might want to take a good long look at what you're doing. Storytelling is a playful art, one that requires us to be agile, quick and responsive to our audiences. When we tell stories, even hard ones, with a sense of wonder and delight in the world, the story, the audience and ourselves, how can it not be fun? You can read more about fun storytelling here. 

G is for gratitude. 
We are so lucky to be storytellers. Each time we tell a story to an interested audience, we are lucky. Each time we hear a story that moves us, we are lucky. Moving through the world and through our storytelling lives with gratitude means we are not taking this incredible art form for granted. When we express our gratitude we are letting other storytellers and listeners know we can't do this alone. We are more connected and more responsive. You can read more about storytelling and gratitude here. 

H is for healing.
Storytelling is a healing art. As Elizabeth Ellis says, when we tell our stories of hard experiences we are saying to our audiences I've been through hell and back. Here is a map. This might make your journey easier. You can read more about storytelling and healing, including a list of further resources, here.

I is for imagination.
Stories are composed of images. When we know the detail behind each image (be it a character, an event, a scene, a setting or some other facet of the story) we can make that image come alive for the audience. Imagination, like any other skill, has to be practiced, so by pushing ourselves to imagine more and better, we become better storytellers. You can read more about storytelling and imagination, including a list of exercises, here. 

J is for jokes.
Humor is a part of storytelling, though not all stories are humorous, Incorporating jokes into our stories is a risky proposition with high risk and high reward. You can read more about jokes and storytelling here. 

And we're off to explore more of the storytelling alphabet. See you next week!

(c) 2013 Laura Packer

Creative Commons License

Some quick thoughts on mother's day

I'm not a big fan of holidays like mother's/father's/valentine's etc day. Their history suggests the modern interpretation is more about commerce than real affection and respect and, more than that, they are a great opportunity for exclusion. Those of us who are not conventional mothers struggle with this holiday.

That being said, I'm lucky, my mom is alive and we love each other. I called her today and told her I loved her, but I do that on other days too. I am grateful to my mom.

Today I also called the other mothers in my life, the women who have helped shape me into who I am, have mothered me through the ups and downs and trials of being human. I am grateful to them, too, because they chose to be here with me, without the obligation of biology.

Today I thought about those whom I have mothered, whether as a step-mother, a friend or chosen family. I am grateful for those relationships, for what they have taught me about the world. It's hard being a woman who hasn't mothered in the traditional ways, all of our models for womanhood include rearing children, but I know I have done the best I could. I love my step-kids, my chosen family and friends fiercely.

Because of my dislike for holidays like today, I suggest this: be grateful every day. Remember those who have gone out of their way to make sure the world is a little easier, that we are a little stronger, those who have been kind when it wasn't necessary. And let them know how much they mean to you every day, not just on mother's day.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, May 11, 2013

J is for... jokes

Humor is an important part of storytelling. It can help underscore a point, ease a tense moment or just give the audience some fun. Think about how many speeches you've heard that use a joke to point out something that needs to be changed. Think about how often in the midst of something deadly serious, we use a joke to take a breath. Think about how good it just feels to laugh.

A good joke can be effectively woven into a story as a way to lighten a moment, or a story can even be built up to a punchline. A badly told joke will ruin the moment and leave the audience with a bad taste in their mouths. They won't remember how well you built up to it, how cleverly you included it, all they'll remember is that they didn't like the joke. But if you do it right, your audience will feel that much closer to you and you'll have moved your narrative along exponentially.

Not all of us are naturally good at telling jokes. Frankly, I struggle with jokes in stories, which is part of why I wrote this post.

If you choose to use jokes in your storytelling please choose ones that are appropriate to your audience, work on your timing and make sure you like them. Give your audience time to laugh, don't rush them through the funny moment. We're not stand-up comedians, but you may want to take the time to watch those who use longer forms to tell stories, building jokes into the narrative. Check out Eddie IzzardChristopher Titus and John Leguizamo among others. I'd love to know which comedians you also consider good storytellers.

And remember, the best way to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Alphabet blogging - thoughts?

We're almost a third of the way through the alphabet. Are you enjoying this? Any suggestions for upcoming letters?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Story quote: Myth vs. journalism

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”
― Joseph Campbell Creative Commons License

H is for... healing

The cracked pot, an Indian story.

A water-bearer carries two large pots on a yoke across his shoulders up the hill from the river to his master's house each day. One has a crack and leaks half its water out each day before arriving at the house. The other pot is perfect and always full of water after the long walk from the river.

Finally, after years of arriving half-empty, the cracked pot apologized to the water-bearer. It was miserable. "I'm sorry that I couldn't accomplish what the perfect pot did."
The water-bearer says, "What do you have to apologize for?"

"After all this time, I still only deliver half my load of water. I make more work for you because of my flaw."

The man smiled and told the pot. "Do you see all the lovely flowers growing on the side of the path where I carried you? I noticed your leak and scattered seeds. The flowers are so lovely because of the water you leaked. There are no flowers on the perfect pot's side."

None of us is without flaw, without pain, without scars and cracks.

When we tell our own stories of pain and survival, we heal. When we listen to others tell their stories, we heal. You don't have to be a therapist, you need only be an ordinary compassionate human being who listens to someone else. As tellers, we can process our own pain and turn it into performance that is, as Elizabeth Ellis puts it, a roadmap to hell and back. I went there, the same place you are now. I survived. I returned and I healed. Here is a map. 

Storytelling helps us heal. I have seen miracles. The woman who began telling the story of her rape, over and over, and now sings praise songs to the universe. The man who told the story of his son's birth and death, so he and his family could heal, discovering along the way that he was actually celebrating his son's life. My own retellings of fairy tales and myths that are really about mental illness or loss. Storytelling helps us heal.

This has been the case since we began to communicate; think of Prometheus' terrible pain, of Ishtar's grief, on and on. Story has the capacity to help us heal. I address healing story in organizations here.

There are some wonderful online resources to get you started with healing story. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • The Healing Story Alliance an organization dedicated to storytelling as a healing art.
  • Postsecret a website where anyone can anonymously share a secret and we realize none of us are alone in the dark.
  • Healing Histories a neighborhood in New Orleans collected stories to heal post-Katrina.
  • Elisa Pearmain is a storyteller and my friend. She uses story for peace work, healing and more. She has written several books of these tales.
  • Lastly, the biggest example of healing story I can image: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Rather than imprison or kill those who had committed atrocious acts of bigotry, a nation told their story. People listened to each other and decided to build something better. While the impact is debatable, it was done without bloodshed. This is nothing short of miraculous, and it was all done through story.

Spider Robinson, a wise and wonderful science fiction writer, wrote Shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased. Storytelling is the vehicle. Let us heal together.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

G is for... gratitude

Our storytelling alphabet continues.

Thus far we have:
A is for about
B is for beginnings
C is for character
D is for death
E is for ethics and endings
F is for fun.

Today is about gratitude.

We are so lucky to do this work. No matter the size of your audience, if you have one person who really wants to hear you, you're far luckier than many, many people. No matter what critique you get if you get up and tell again, we are lucky and strong and should be grateful for the opportunity. No matter if you fail, make a mistake, struggle with jealousy or insecurity or any of the other demons that haunt us, every time we stand on a stage, we are so lucky that we can step beyond our own limitations.

We are so lucky to hear these stories. Every time we listen to a story we are being shown into someone else's world in a deep and intimate way. Every time we listen deeply to a storyteller we are giving them the gift of doing the work they love. Every time we are kind to a beginning storyteller or are moved by an accomplished one, we are opening ourselves up to awe, to connecting with someone else, to stopping the tumult for just a little while.

All of this is no accident. By our own hard work, talent and the whim of the universe, we are able to stand up and tell stories in front of interested audiences, be they kids, festival crowds, business people or conference attendees.

I once told my apprentice, just before her first big gig, to love her audience. We went to the balcony and looked down at everyone and I urged her to open her heart, to love each listener, to be grateful to them for their attendance. I do this every time I perform. I look at my listeners, I love them silently and I thank them out loud. It helps me be a better storyteller and more responsive to my audience.

Be grateful. Be grateful for every performing opportunity, for every audience member, for every time you hear a story even if you're heard it a million times already. When we are grateful we expand the possibilites for storytelling. Our gratitude will be obvious to the world.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Storytelling the alphabet A-E

crossposted from massmouth
It's a pleasure to come back and write the occasional guest post for massmouth. Thank you for this opportunity.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Laura Packer. I'm a storyteller, writer and consultant. I just moved to Kansas City from Boston and am continuing my storytelling adventures in the Midwest. I am writing an A-Z of storytelling over on my storytelling blog. With massmouth's permission I'm going to post summaries and links to the longer posts every five letters or so. I hope you find this useful and entertaining.

A is for about.
What is your story about? I'm not talking about the obvious summary (a little girl goes for a walk to her grandmother's house, disobeys her mother, talks to a wolf and gets into trouble) but the deeper meaning. The meaning of the same story can change from teller to teller, listener to listener and even telling to telling. Take some time to get to know what the story is really about for you. Knowing this will help you tell it more effectively and will let you enjoy it more. Really, you don't want to be telling a funny story about your childhood neighbors and suddenly discover it's about how sad you were when you moved from your old neighborhood. You can read more about storytelling about here.

B is for beginnings. 
The beginning of your story is not when you start speaking. It's when you walk onto the stage and look at your audience. It's in your body, your movement, your eyes and then your voice. The beginning of your story is the doorway you open to invite your audience into a new world. Do so with confidence and they will be eager to go along with you. You can read more about storytelling beginnings here. 

C is for character. 
Your characters are your storytellers. You need to know them inside and out, far beyond the reaches of your current narrative. When you deeply understand your characters - heroes and villains - you can portray them, give them voice, with greater authenticity. When you love them - heroes and villains - your audience will, too. It doesn't matter if they are real or fictional, you need to know and love them as their voice in the world. You can read more about characters here.

D is for death. 
Death is part of life and so, it might be part of a story you tell. As the teller, you have an obligation to guarantee the audience's safety if you're taking them someplace dark. They need to know they can trust you if you're going to ask them to think about death. Storytelling is a great way to work out our own feelings about death, since we can do so through metaphor and other safe methods. As the teller, you can help your listeners go to the land of the dead and come back safely. You can read more about telling stories about death here. 

E is for ethics and endings.
Two issues in one post. Because storytelling is such a powerful art, one that can move audiences to great emotion and action, we have a variety of ethic obligations to our audiences, our stories, our work, our colleagues and our events. Remember to ask yourself, am I honoring the story? the audience? myself? my colleagues? Do I build the art up by telling this?
The ending of the story will linger with your audience long after you've left the room. A good ending can make a mediocre story soar while a poor one can drown the best told tale. Some hints and tips for crafting effective endings.
You can read more about ethics and endings here. 

Coming up? Fun, healing, images, justice and k... what to do for k...

(c) 2013 Laura S. Packer  (c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

F is

Today's post was suggested by my friend, Mike Lockett.

Thus far we have:
A is for about
B is for beginnings
C is for character
D is for death
E is for ethics and endings.

It seemed like time for a little fun.

If you're not having fun storytelling then you need to take a good, long look at what you're doing. Storytelling is one of the most playful things you can do, regardless of the age of your audience or (often) the content of your story.

Think about it.

Storytelling requires us to be agile, to think on our feet, to interact easily with those around us. We're the center of the world for a few minutes when we tell a story well. We have a chance to get adults to play like children and to treat children like the adults we hope they will become.

Each performance gives us a chance to play with our audience. We can do so overtly, by asking them to sing or chant or respond to us, or we can do so covertly because there is no fourth wall - you can always ask someone with the giggles what's so funny. You may very well be delighted with their answer.

Each time I tell stories, even if they are difficult ones, I am filled with wonder that I have the opportunity to connect with my audience. It is a humble kind of awe. And I know each time I'm on stage that I am exactly where I should be, that my course is clear, that my actions have integrity and authenticity. It may not be the same kind of fun as riding a roller coaster, but it's certainly as thrilling.

Every time we tell stories to a live, listening audience we are connecting with our most ancient traditions. We are reaching back across space and time to our primal selves and saying Yes, we are still here. These things still matter. We are still on this journey together.

What's more, we can use storytelling to make people laugh, to get them to sing or dance. We become bigger than we are in the everyday when we tell and listen to stories, when we collectively reimagine the world.

How can that not be fun?

When we approach our craft with a spirit of joy and abundance we are creating a world where stories change lives. Where children squeal with glee. Where adults gasp in awe. Where we all get to live happily ever after, even if it's just for a moment or two.

That seems like the best kind of fun on the world to me. I'd love to hear about some of your fun moments, too.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, May 6, 2013

E is for... ethics and endings

Our story thus far...
A is for About
B is for Beginnings
C is for Character
D is for Death

Today is a twofer.  E is such a rich letter, the most common in the English language, that I wanted to give you a little extra.

First, let me point you to several posts I've already written about storytelling and ethics. As storytellers, we have a strong ethical obligation to our audiences, our material and ourselves. Because storytelling is such a powerful and immediate art form we must be clear about the boundaries between truth and fiction, understand the ownership of the works we tell, charge what we are worth and so on. It's easy to slip in snake oil with storytelling, so we need to be mindful.

Since I've already written about this elsewhere I'll send you to the posts.

Boundaries between truth and fiction, the importance of disclosure.
Ethical obligations of the teller to the audience (right teller, homework), the story (professionalism) and other tellers and organizers (pricing, marketing, easy to work with).
Ethical obligations of the organizer (care and feeding of tellers, promotion, advocacy).

Please take a look at these posts. These are important issues and not to be passed over lightly.

Okay, onto Endings.

Endings matter. A poorly executed ending can ruin an otherwise beautifully told story. The ending doesn't have to be a clear resolution nor is every ending is happily ever after, but it does need to leave the audience with a sense of completion or at least satisfaction and curiosity.

Some stories don't have well defined endings, because not everything in life comes to an easy resolution, but you can acknowledge that. Because storytelling can easily violate the fourth wall, the teller can directly address the audience.

  • Jack and the princess stood there, looking at each other. I don't really know how this story ends, but I do know this. The giant was dead. The princess was free. Jack discovered himself to be a rich man, and that, of course, is another story.
  • We are still growing and changing. I don't know what the future will bring, but I do know we'll face it together.
  • And I am still here.
The crucial elements for effective endings are:
  • You like the ending. It gives you a sense of completion and you feel as though the story is at a natural resting place.
  • The audience is left with a sense of completion. They may have questions, they may be uncomfortable, but they leave the story experience knowing this was a stopping point.
  • The audience is not left worried about you. If you're telling a personal story they need to be able to walk out of the experience believing you will be okay. It's cruel to do otherwise. It also turns the storytelling experience from art and performance to therapy.
  • The ending is somehow related to the rest of the piece. An ending that is completely disconnected may be interesting art, but it doesn't serve the audience's narrative expectation.

You may want to give your listeners a cue that you're done. Bow. Pause and smile. Say thank you. This is especially useful when you aren't using a formulaic ending like "happily ever after."

A good ending, one with emotional and narrative punch, can elevate an otherwise adequate story. Your audience may remember your ending long after the other memories begin to fade; don't neglect it. Give it the time and attention it deserves, both you and your audiences will be happier and more satisfied for it.

(c)2013 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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