Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Telling Life: Teach what you know

I had the pleasure of attending the Northlands Storytelling Conference this past weekend. It was a joy. A bunch of people who love storytelling, gathered to tell, listen, talk, teach and encourage one another.

I presented a workshop called Storying Our Grief about using storytelling to process grief and then to help others. This is one of many workshops I teach on a wide variety of topics, a sampling of which you can see here, but it was by far one of the most challenging I have ever taught.

I struggled for months with imposter syndrome about this workshop. What right do I have to talk about grief and loss? I'm not a therapist, is this too dangerous a can of worms to open? Will anyone want to come? For that matter, do I know enough about storytelling to teach anything about it? My inner demons were alive and well as I worked on this one. It was rough.

I persevered. I kept working on it. Each time the negative thoughts got too loud I would counter them as best as I could.

  • What right do I have to talk about grief and loss? Well, I've experienced a significant loss. While each grief is different there are similarities too, and I can at least help remind people that we are not alone in our loss. 
  • I'm not a therapist, is this too dangerous a can of worms to open? True, I'm not a therapist. But I've attended and led risky workshops before and as long as I am clear about purpose and intention (remind everyone that this is not therapy but storytelling) I should be okay. Have some tissues on hand. Have a good strategy planned for help in case someone gets really upset.
  • Will anyone want to come? I can't control that. All I can do is offer something I believe to be worthwhile. 
  • For that matter, do I know enough about storytelling to teach anything about it? Oh, shut up. I've been doing this for 20+ years, I probably know a thing or two.

It went really well. I had maybe 20 people in the workshop, they all seemed to get something out of it, no one fell apart in a significant way and yet they all got to feel what they needed to feel. I learned more about how to facilitate a group, how to help people process, how to tell stories.

I was thinking about it afterwards and remembered that 1) I can't teach what I don't know and 2) every time I teach I learn something new. I do know something about storytelling. I do know something about grief. I would never have wanted this knowledge, this understanding of deep grief, but now that I have it, I may as well do something with it to try to make the world a more whole place. The rewards are huge.

Every time I teach I am sharing myself and my experience. I love it. I love seeing my students have their a-ha moments. I love everything I learn every time I teach. I love knowing that my offering will help them be more fully themselves and better storytellers to boot; it helps me in the same way. I hope that we all can come to a place where we recognize that we have something to offer, that our experiences give us something worth sharing, that we all get to be both teachers and students.

P.S. As always, I'd love to know what you think. And if you're interested in bringing me in to teach, let's talk!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What is Z for anyway?

Today marks the end of the 2016 A-Z Blog challenge. I've mostly enjoyed it though it has been, as named, challenging. I love the writing discipline, the alphabetic restriction is interesting and sometimes really annoying, and I'm looking forward to going back to 2 or 3 posts a week. I bet you are, too.

Z is a tough letter. English doesn't have many Z words that quite apply to storytelling. Do you really need to read a strained metaphor about how storytelling is like a zebra? No. So what do I do now? What word do I choose to end this blogging series? What do I want to make of this limited choice?

What this makes me think about, really, is that storytelling is what you make of it. So is life. As storytellers, we get to choose what content we present and how we present it. We get to choose who we present it to and how much we want to connect with them. We get to choose though within some limitations we set for ourselves. So it is, to a different degree with life. While we may not be able to choose our circumstances, the stories within which we live, we have considerable choice about how we respond and who we share it with.

What seems to matter, in the end, is this. Be kind. Be aware of your needs and the needs of those around you. Make your choices and then do the best you can with the results, because that's all any of us can do. The best we can on any given day.

Diligent enthusiasm helps. When we do the best we can with what enthusiasm we can muster, life and work feel less like chores and more like opportunities to do something new, create change, reach for new heights.

Z is for zeal. Tell with intent. Love your audience. Live big.

Thanks for taking this journey with me over April. May your stories both told and lived, soar.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 29, 2016

Yearning

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

It's been just over two years since Kevin died. I still find myself stunned. At the same time, I'm okay. Most days I think of him with great love and gratitude. Yes, there is some sorrow, but it is no longer the predominant emotion in my body. Two years ago I wouldn't have believed this would be possible.

Two years ago the only way I could think of myself was as a wound. I was ripped apart, bloody and raw. I was a ruined landscape, Dresden after the bombings. Hiroshima. You get the idea. What I felt was greater than need, greater than yearning, greater than anything I could describe. The only thing I knew to do was keep breathing. I made a deal with myself that I would get out of bed every day; that I would wait five minutes before doing something stupid; that I would try to remember that Kevin, who was my everything, still was.

It was a hard deal to keep, but it worked. Most days anyway. It worked well enough that I am still here.

Two years on I still have very bad days. There are times when I don't want to get out of bed, that I need to wait before doing something stupid, that I need to remind myself of just how lucky I am to have had Kevin. Mostly though, my days are okay. Some are even pretty good. A few are incandescent with light and joy. That doesn't mean the yearning and sorrow have gone away; they are still my constant companions, but they are familiar now and softened. They are joined by other emotions like gratitude, forgiveness and hope. Even love.

I have a friend who was very recently widowed. I don't really know how to help her other than to be present and listen without censure, to be evidence that you can survive this and that eventually you will be more or less okay. I remember feeling the way she feels now. I remember having a sneaking suspicion, just as she does, that no one else in the world had ever felt as awful as I did, for all that I knew how very common what I was feeling is. I remember the yearning.

Now she asks me how I survived and I tell her about all the kindnesses great and small I was lucky enough to receive. I tell her about the deals I made and the rules I set. I tell her about how sometimes just one breath is all you need to do, and then the next. And then the next. Even though you are breathing in hell.

She asks me if it gets better and I tell her it gets different. I tell her all kinds of things about letting the light in, about gratitude, about riding the waves. I haven't yet talked with her about the yearning.

I am finding that, no matter how rich my life is now, there is a thread of yearning that runs through it. I want Kevin to know that I'm okay. I want him to see the work I'm doing. I want his encouragement and support. Hell, I even want him to meet my new love, I think they would like one another.

The yearning is always there.

And that's okay. I'd rather know what I am yearning for, what I am always leaning towards, than not know. I'd rather still have the love than never have had it all.

Still, there are days when it is harder than others. So I keep breathing. I get out of bed every day. I wait five minutes before I do something stupid. And I embrace the yearning, just as I have embraced the love, the loss, the gratitude. I embrace because I don't know what else to do, other than to live.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for xenophobia

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Xenophobia:
An unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.

Annette Simmons has wisely said that Storytelling is an antidote to war. My friend and mentor, Brother Blue, believed that storytelling was the path to world peace because How could you kill someone if you know their story?

Storytelling strips the mask away from xenophobia. When we hear stories from people we consider foreign or strange we can choose to recognize our shared humanity or we can choose to embrace mindless fear and hatred. We can't do both. We must choose and we are revealed. It is in the stories that we find ourselves and our common ground so by listening we dare to set aside fear.

Shared stories break down boundaries. When we listen to folktales or myths from another culture we recognize our own. When we listen to someone tell stories about their life, their family, their hopes and dreams, we recognize ourselves. The U.S. military understands that we can change more hearts and minds through storytelling than we can with bombs or MREs. They have funded multiple studies that show over and over again how stories - told and heard - create empathy and change. More than guns. More than handouts. Stories give us a no man's land where we can find ourselves reflected in another's eyes. If the military gets it maybe we can, too.

Brother Blue's statement may seem over the top, but isn't it worth trying to connect with those we may find frightening before we lash out? Isn't it worth telling them a tale or two and listening to their stories first? What's the worst that happens if we try to set aside xenophobia and find common ground? War and prejudice can always be a second option. In this world, where it's so easy to make assumptions, where we're told we should be on the attack, taking the time to listen becomes a radical act.

Maybe storytelling can save the world. It's a least worth a shot.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Telling Life: Why?

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

This post was published in 2015 in a slightly different form. I think it still stands and is one of the important questions of any work.

*     *     *

Why do I tell stories? Why do I get up on stage in front of people and start talking? What is it that I love about storytelling? These are important questions for all of us to consider, regardless of what we do. Why do we do it? What drives us to get up and undertake something complex and challenging for more than the money?

I do it because I can't not do it. I can't not do it because it is a basic part of being human - we are the storytelling animal - and because it is a basic part of my truth in the world. Story matters. My voice matters as does yours. This is not a manifesto but maybe it's the beginning of one. Certainly it is incomplete, but what I know in this moment, which is all we ever have anyway. I'd love to know why you tell stories. Please tell me.

I love the connection. The visceral rush, the near-telepathy that comes with connecting to an audience. I love our combined breath, the gasps and sighs that come as I move through the narrative. It is as though we become one animal, constructed of story solely for the purpose of turning words into a living moment.

I love the mystery. There are times when I tell stories that it feels as though the universe is speaking through me. I listen to the story coming out of me as much as I construct it. I love the sense that I am part of something so much bigger. It's similar to the feeling I get when I look at enormous natural beauty, that awe for the world and my minute but integral place in it.

I love the variability. Every time I tell a story it's different. It may be something I've told a thousand times, but because the audience is different, because we are at different places in our lives, the story is different. It is new every time and yet ancient, in my bones.

I love the dance between teller, tale and listener. The story triangle is a description of relationships, but it also describes motion. We are all dancing together.

I love the listening required to tell a good story. I need to listen to my audience, to myself, to the world to be a better storyteller and teacher.

I love the solitary work that goes into the performance. Spending time with books, words and my own thoughts gives me a chance to consider what's important to me. What I want to share. What matters enough in this world that I will make myself so vulnerable as to step on stage and say, "Here I am."

I love the timelessness of it. Stories endure. I can tell a tale that is 3000 years old and it is still relevant. I can tell another I made up yesterday and it connects. What's more, storytelling removes me from the present moment, I go into a kind of trance when I perform or listen deeply that frees me from my cares and worries. I am transcended.

I love the connection with the past. The old tales link me to generations of dreamers, of tellers, of listeners. Through them I can see into my own past, the past of my ancestors, the dreams of those who have gone before.

I love the connection with the future. Every time I tell stories the audience might choose to go away changed. They may decide to tell stories themselves. Words loved and shared have power.

I love the accessibility of storytelling. Everyone has stories to tell and everyone should be heard. I love helping people find their voice, bloom as they realize that their story matters.

I love telling stories because of the places it takes me, the people I meet, the thrill of standing on stage, the one-on-one connection, the risk and success and failure, because of the change it creates, the ways it makes the world, bigger, the notes I receive saying "now I know I am not alone." I love telling stories because of how it challenges me, because I am transformed, because it sometimes an ecstatic thing, because of the glow I see on your faces. I tell stories because it is a way of earning my living that brings value to the world. And there is occasionally beer.

I love telling stories because it helps me craft the world with you.

Story matters. My voice matters as does yours.

I want to hear you. What else is there? What have I forgotten? What do you love? Why do you do it?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer (c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Vasilissa

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Oh, I love Vasilissa. This story is arguably the best known of the Baba Yaga tales. It's a Cinderella variant with a somewhat more independent and able heroine. Read the story for yourself here. You can find other great Russian stories and resource material on Karen Chace's blog here.

Some things to consider when telling Vasilissa or other stories like this:

  • How will you retain the connection to the original culture?
  • Who is the real villain? The real heroine? Do you want to depict nuances in these characters or is this telling simpler?
  • Who is your audience? What will they need? 
  • How will you present Baba Yaga? Is she just evil? What about her home with its scaly chicken feet? How will you explain a mortar to people who may not know what one is?
  • How do you pronounce the names correctly?
  • If you're fracturing it, make sure you can tell it straight first.

How do you develop stories from other cultures? What matters to you when you're telling heroic stories? Does the gender of the hero make a difference? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for unplug

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

I love my phone. I love my computer. I love all of my devices that help me organize my life, the tools I use for my work, those things that encourage me to fritter away time. Oh my god, did I really spend three hours on Facebook? Yup.

I try to unplug regularly. I try to turn off my phone, set aside my computer and iPad, then just be present in the world. I try to observe more and record/look up/share a little less. The world will not suffer if I don't upload a photo of my breakfast. Even if it was a really good breakfast.

It is, of course, ironic that I'm writing this on my computer and you will read it through a screen, likely having found it through some form of social media. That being said, I urge you to unplug from time to time. It can be remarkably refreshing after you experience panic and worry that you might miss something vital.

Chances are, you won't miss anything crucial if you turn your phone off for an hour or two. Go for a walk. Look at the trees. Swing in a hammock and contemplate the sky. Let the electronic sounds leave your body and mind for a little while.

The world will wait. Unplug. Dream. Live.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for truth

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Truth is such a tricky topic. One person's truth is another's lie. Witness reports always vary. So how do we handle truth in storytelling? I get asked this a lot when I'm helping someone work on a personal story. How much truth is too much? What if a detail or two is changed to make a better story or to protect the innocent?

These are really good questions to ask, and I usually answer them with a question or two. Or three. If you're considering telling a true story and are concerned about how true it needs to be or if the truth might be damaging, maybe ask yourself the following. The answers will help you understand how you should craft the work.

If the story is your story, it happened to you:
You own the story and the events in it. You get to tell them because they are your truth.

  • Will telling the truth hurt/embarrass/damage you or anyone else? If it will, are you willing to accept the consequences? If you're telling the story to enact revenge on someone I'd suggest letting this one rest for a bit longer.
  • If you do choose to change it (and frankly that is usually my advice if the story will be damaging) how can you change it without altering the things you most love about it, the truth it conveys? 
  • What happens if you just change names, locale, dates, etc? Is that enough? If you don't want to change those things ask yourself why. 
  • Is it appropriate for your audience as it is? If not, why are you telling them this story in particular?

If this is someone else's story and they gave you permission to tell it:
You know the person it happened to, they said it was okay to tell.

  • Have you talked with them about the parts you might want to change? What did they say?
  • You are planning to tell the audience that this happened to a friend and not to you, right?
  • If you do change it does it alter the truth of it?
  • Is it appropriate for your audience as it is? If not, why are you telling them this story in particular?

This isn't your story and you don't have permission to tell it:
My hope is that none of my students will do this. If they are then we talk about IP and how it feels to have your work stolen.

  • If it isn't in the public domain and you don't have permission then stop. It isn't yours.
  • There are literally millions of stories in the world. Can you find one that you don't have to steal?

How do you contend with truth and change in your stories? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 22, 2016

Still

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Dear Kevin,

You remember how much I love words. I know it made you nuts sometimes, the ways I would play with language through puns and other silly things. One of the things I love most is how a single word can carry so many different definitions.

Recently I've been thinking about the word still. It has all kinds of meanings. Some aren't relevant to this letter (for instance I have no plans to build a still in the backyard) but some... one word simply takes my breath away.

Still. I will never forget how still you were after.
You who always had such life in your face and body.
You who, even when you were deep in thought or asleep, was the focal point of the room.
You who danced and moved with such grace.
You were so still. It took awhile for the stillness to fall into you, a while for your body to know that it was in a different state but soon enough, there it was.
I remember your stillness and your motion both.

Still. I will always treasure those still times between us. Those times when it was only us and the room was quiet, dust motes drifting in the light. Each of us in our own thoughts, me in a book and you in your computer, the stillness would shimmer and connect us like a web. We would look at each other, smile and then return to shared stillness. We had those times in the hospital, too, mostly at night. We would hold hands and I would listen to your breath, wondering if you were awake, not wanting to disturb you if you were, but connected there in the dark.

Still. After you died I struggled to find stillness and it was in those quiet moments that I first began to find myself again. Not the moments when I was so exhausted with grief that I couldn't move but the moments of deliberate quiet. In meditation at first and then more broadly when I held myself still enough that I could hear the world, hear myself, hear you. I still find you there, when I still my thoughts and calm my breath, that is where I feel you close.

Still. Here I am, more than two years after you left this earth. I am still here. A year ago that would have been said with resignation. I am still here. Now there is light in again, and gratitude. I am still here.

I can't help but think of the Commodores' song, Still. When it first came out I was a child and swooned over the longing in those words, in Lionel Ritchie's voice. Now I hear it and I think yes, I understand that now though so much has changed. Yes, time has passed, I am in love with a good man who is not you but wholly himself. That doesn't mean I don't miss you and long for you and still need you, even though the you I long for is no longer here. That's okay. I'd rather live with this ache than never have had you at all.

Even with the rhinestones and big hair and the fact that this is a song about a relationship unlike ours, this song captures some of what it is to love someone who is no longer there. I know we listened to it together and held hands. I know we are still holding hands, even if I can't always feel you.

I do love you. Still.



(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for respect

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Performance storytelling is about a lot of things. It's about being on stage. It's about being heard. It's about entertainment, about craft, about provoking a reaction. It's about developing a relationship with the audience and, in order to do that, you must respect them.

It's easy to become jaded when you perform frequently. It's easy to forget that each audience is unique and has its own needs. It's easy to forget that it's your job to meet those needs the best you can, each and every time you perform.

Of course, every audience has some similarities. Ideally they are coming to your performance with some idea of what you are like and what they can expect. You can make some general assumptions that an audience of 4 year olds will have different needs from a festival crowd which will have different needs from elders in an assisted living facility. Of course. But it's our job as performing storytellers to pay attention to each audience, to respect them enough to do our best for them.

Each and every time.

Our best may vary, but if we remember that they are as hungry for recognition as we are, if we respect them enough, then we won't lose sight of the fact that they are taking time out of their lives to pay attention to us. Admittedly, a given audience might do things that limit your ability to respect them, but remember that the next audience is a new audience and just as deserving of respect at the outset as any other.

Some ways you can demonstrate respect:

  • Thank them at the beginning and at the end.
  • Don't make fun of them unless you already have an established relationship with them.
  • A personal bugaboo: Don't use accents unless you can do them flawlessly and accurately. Imagine an Irish person is in the audience and you use a not-very-good Irish accent. That could be interpreted as mocking them.
  • Respect your own art and time. Be on time. Stick to your time limits unless you have permission to exceed them.
  • Acknowledge that the audience is human. I wrote about this earlier in my piece on noise and interruption
  • Meet them where they are. Treat four year olds like four year olds and adults like adults.
  • Respect that they each come into the performance space with their own baggage, and they are doing the best they can. Sometimes that won't feel like enough.

Welcome your listeners as they are, respect their time and attention, and you will build a relationship with them that encourages repeat bookings, good word-of-mouth and more telling time.

(c)2016 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.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.laurapacker.com.
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