Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Fiction: Derailed

I wish the damned train would come.

I’ve been sitting here for hours, I think, and it just won’t come. She said she’d be on the train and if the train doesn’t come then I won’t know if she’s on it. Makes sense, right?

Makes sense after our last fight anyway.

She told me that I was just like my father, always fussing with everything, always pushingpushingpushing to have my way and I told her she was one to talk, she was just like her father, hell she looked just like him and after all the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A double hit, that, since she couldn’t eat apples, had some kind of weird allergy and would puff up like a blueberry if she ate one. We found that out the day we drove up the coast and stopped the farm stand to eat cider doughnuts, oh man, that was a scare.

I wish the damned train would come. The rain is running down my back.

She got really quiet after I told her she was like her father, then told me that was the last straw. She began throwing things into a bag and wouldn’t talk to me anymore. “Never kid a kidder,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t go far.

Guess I was wrong that time.

Hey, can I borrow a cigarette? When she gets here I’m sure she’ll have one I can give you.

I reached out to her to try to stop her and she pushed me. She pushed me, can you believe it? When things were better we used to wrestle all the time, she’d push me, I’d push her, we’d always end up on bed and man, those were good times. I can still smell her hair, taste the sweat on her skin, feel her smile in my mouth. We’d laugh together until we weren’t laughing anymore, laughter turning into moans. Those last laughs were the best ones, the kind that just trail off into gasping, your stomach muscles hurting from so much joy.

So she pushed me and I fell, landed on my ass, my arm smacking the wall and my watch broke. The crystal shattered. I knew it was a cheap old thing, but it had been a gift from my sister, the last thing she gave me before she died and I got up and screamed at her to get out get out getoutgetout and she did. The watch hands froze when she left. See? I’ll always know when she was gone.

I think that’s when the train is due.

She used to come home on the train, this one I think, I’d meet her here. Sometimes I’d have flowers or a bottle of wine and we’d walk home together. The rain never bothered me then. Nor the snow. She’d point out each individual snowflake and those walks home took forever.

I hope everything’s okay, the train didn’t crash or anything. They’d tell us, right? Not like I’m trying to worry you, I’m sure whoever you’re waiting for is fine, will walk off the train smiling and happy to see you.

You’re not waiting for her. I know that. If you were you’d have that look in your eye as though the world were right and you, well,  not to hurt your feelings or anything, you look a little like me, a little like the world just isn’t what you thought it would be.

I wonder if I read the schedule wrong. A train passed by here a little while ago and she wasn’t on it, but six of one, half a dozen of another I guess, I can wait for the next train. It’s not like I have anything else to do.

After she left I waited around, for oh, days I guess. I kept the house clean, cooked dinner, her favorite – she loved eating breakfast at night. Finally I started coming here, to see if I could find her. I don’t know where else to look. But if you see her, tell her I’m sorry. Tell her I’ve changed, though maybe you don’t have to mention how. Tell her… Oh, you know.

You don’t know the time, do you? I swear that train must be late.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The devil is in the details - another round with identity

I've written before about identity, how we define ourselves in a multitude of ways and how those definitions change in different contexts. Lately I've been thinking about how self-definition can be shaped by the small details. This is especially true when we create general definitions of someone else (make assumptions) or when we focus in on one facet of ourselves to the exclusion of all others. This is both useful and dangerous.

For example, I was walking on the beach recently and met a woman who was very carefully picking up only one kind of shell out of the many available to her. Further down the beach I met a couple picking up a different kind of shell. Now I think of the woman as, "The lady from Michigan who likes the pointy shells," and the couple as, "The people with tattoos who like the translucent shells." They told me their names but I don't remember them. Were we to meet again it would be the detail of the kinds of shells they like that I'd remember. It's a handy memory trigger and, were I ever to encounter them again and tell them about it, they might tell me that I'm the woman from Boston who liked the shells with barnacles. True, I am, though I am also much more than someone from Boston who likes shells with barnacles, just as they are more than a woman from Michigan who likes pointy shells and a couple with tattoos who like translucent shells. We all have far more facets to our personalities. This generalization, as such, isn't particularly harmful to either of us.

Where this becomes more dangerous is when we make generalizations about someone and then don't let them outside of those boundaries - they are a nationality, a religion, a gender, a kind of shell. I'm sure you can think of many examples when this has born terrible results. We can also internalize those limitations and be bound by them. I'm a woman so I can't be athletic. I'm white so I can't understand oppression. You get the idea.

Another internal risk of definition by detail is when we take one detail of who we are and make our whole. It's where obsession and limitation can be born. Some of these obsessions can lead to amazing things. If someone believes that they are only a scientist or artist or writer then the world may be richer for it, but if they never achieve success in their chosen field, while the world won't know, their life may be full of the pain of perceived failure.

I know people like this. They wanted to be an artist, for example, but set such a high standard for themselves that anything else seems like failure. They couldn't see the other facets of their life - family, friends, career, connection - as a success, so have accepted the definition of failed artist as their only definition. With each subsequent setback in their life, whether associated with their career, their health or some other setback no different from that which any of us will experience, they retreat further into the definition of failure. By embracing only one aspect of their identity - artist (or whatever label you may have embraced), they have forced themselves into a small and airless box that allows for little hope of change. Had they been willing to pick a broader set of details with which to define their life then they might not now feel so trapped by their circumstances. It's heartbreaking to watch but not something anyone can convince them to change. Other examples of detail-driven identity that can function as trap include fear of success or failure and fear of choosing an identity at all.

Of course, we all engage in all of these detail-oriented behaviors to some degree. We all make assumptions about others, internalize external assumptions and create minute roles for ourselves. It's what we do with these devilish little details that matters. If we embrace them knowingly and with a positive cast then we can at least strive to use them for positive change ("I will be the best artist I can be, even if no one else knows") rather than turn them into our own gilded cages.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, April 19, 2010

16 years

It's funny how time flies.

In 1994

Today I am 16 years cancer free. It's my second sixteenth birthday, so I'm wishing myself a sweet sixteen.

In the sixteen years since I began to learn what it means to be a cancer survivor I have:
And really, what more is there? I am alive and grateful for each breath. My love and thanks to all who are accompanying me on the journey.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer
image courtesy of Einstein's Lock Creative Commons License

Storytelling Excellence, Part 3

It’s two days before the Big MouthOff. The contestants are in a lather preparing their best four minute stories. Audiences are preparing their listening ears. Judges are sharpening their pencils.

So let’s finish thinking this three part series (because storytellers love threes) exploring what makes a really good storytelling experience with a look at the last three questions Bill Harley suggests storytellers ask themselves. In my last two posts I covered Narrative, Language, Voice/Physical Instrument and Performance Skills. Let’s wrap it up. Harley’s questions are in italics

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

I’ve written before about how storytelling really happens in the audience’s mind. The storyteller facilitates the white space that let’s the audience do the heavy lifting of imagining and building the story. When a teller creates a relationship with the audience that’s built on trust then the audience will go where you take them because they know they can. They don’t have to take care of you and they know you’ll bring them back to a place of safety. Storytelling is all about building relationships; as a teller you are lucky enough to build relationships with whole audiences at a time.

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

While this isn’t applicable for a slam (there isn’t time for one teller to tell multiple pieces) when you do have the opportunity to tell longer sets please consider the way the stories mesh together. If you choose dissonance then make it a deliberate choice, not an accident. And if you’re performing with someone else please take the time to talk with them ahead of time and plan out your sets – you may not  want to tell your version of Little Red Riding Hood right after they told theirs.

Think about how Bill Cosby’s jokes flow one into the other. At no point are you wondering how he got there, you just trust him and go along for the ride.

Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

This brings it all together, regardless of your venue (slam, street or concert hall). Practice your piece, know why you’re telling it and have something to say. Please. It will make you a happier, better performer and will help your audiences lose themselves in your performance more easily.

And one last point I’d like to add – love your work. Like any craft, storytelling improves vastly when the practioner loves what they’re doing. Have fun. Play. Don’t be afraid to risk especially in practice. Greet each telling experience as an opportunity to do something daring, new, wonderful, even if it's a story you've told it a hundred times. Court it into a new place and you won't be disappointed.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer
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Storytelling Excellence Part 2

Last week we began to take a look at Bill Harley's questions for storytellers. Today we'll look at his next few questions storytellers should ask themselves as they work on their craft; please take a look at the original article, it's a valuable piece. This closer examination may be of use for slammers preparing for the Big Mouth Off: I hope it will be useful for everyone who practices the fine art of oral storytelling. Regardless of whether you're an experienced teller or a novice, there are points here to consider. I certainly found myself cringing here and there as I wrote this piece.

Let's tackle the next few topics one-by-one, Harley's comments in italics.
Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • Don't use an accent or modified speech pattern (street language, for example) unless you can do so authentically and consistently. If done poorly few things are more distracting to an audience or insulting to the culture you're trying to evoke.
  • If you memorize your stories make sure the rhythm of the language sounds spoken, not read.
  • Choose your words wisely - and watch out for ums, uhs, ands, he said/she said.
Voice and physical instrument

Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?  (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • Please try not to mumble, speak in a monotone, yell constantly, etc. Remember, as a storyteller your voice is your instrument. How you use your voice matters. Try recording yourself in practice and make modifications based on what you hear - would you want to listen to you? And listen to recordings of other tellers you admire, think about how they use their voices.
  • Use your body appropriately. Videotape yourself and determine what kind of body language you want to use; too much inappropriate movement can be distracting as can no movement.
Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout? (c) 2010 Bill Harley

  • If you choose to integrate other skills into your performance please make sure that they equal your storytelling chops. Struggling for chords or singing off key may distract your audience. 
  • The underlying work should be extensive (practice) and invisible. 
So what does this all come down to? Practice your craft. Don't be afraid to make artistic choices that will better serve your story and audience, even if it means editing out bits you might love - if it's not in service to the story and audience then it doesn't belong. Be honest with yourself about your skills and abilities; stretch, but don't do things that will knock the audience out of the story trance because they exceed your reach.

This weekend I'll finish up Harley's list with Relationship with Audience, Show Structure and Aesthetic. I'd love to hear what you think about today's post.

Have fun, practice those stories and I look forward to seeing you at the Big Mouth Off on April 20 at the Boston Public Library!

(c) 2010 Laura Packer

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Sunday, April 11, 2010


I spend last weekend unplugged, alone with very limited access to the internet and email. It was wonderful and restoring.

We are so connected that it's easy to forget how lovely it can be to not think about everything at once. I know I often forget that really, I don't need to check email every 30 minutes. That the world will not end if I don't know what CNN has to say. That Twitter, as much as I love it, will get along just fine without me.

For the last few days I did only one thing at a time. I was a singular entity.

If I was eating, I ate. I felt the textures of my food and took the time to taste each bite. I didn't have a book open or the tv on while I consumed my meal thoughtlessly.

When I wrote I was thinking only about the structure of each sentence, the way the paragraphs connected. There was no music, no wondering when I would get to the dishes. I was only mind and fingers on keys.

When I walked felt my muscles pull and lungs expand. I was in the world, of the world.

I was singular, not struggling to do multiple things at once. How lovely.

It's easy to forget that we evolved to do one thing at a time most of the time. Red Riding Hood got into trouble when she did too much at once. But Jack saved his family by doing one thing at a time.

Be Jack. Be a trickster who knows when hide, knows when to run, knows when to chop. And does each thing for itself, very well.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Curious Lists

I love lists. I've written about this before, both how lists can help you understand yourself and figure things out and how lists can function in other ways, including as stories.

Lists can also help spark runs of creativity and break blocks. I'm having a great time playing with Curious Lists: A Creative Journal for List-Lovers and I bet you would too. It includes all kinds of prompts for lists, many of which you can interpret as either quite mundane or as permission for flights of fancy. It's broken into general topics and then specific lists.

Topics include:
  • Lists for Tuesdays
  • Lists for Bedtime
  • Lists for Friends to Help With
and specifics within topics include:
  • Gourds better for carving
  • Elaborate schemes for avoiding a call
  • Walkable cities
  • Rattling objects
See what I mean? You can be pretty straightforward or go way out on a limb with these. I'm finding it quite inspirational and an awful lot of fun, so from time-to-time I'll post one of my lists here. I'd love to see your additions to my lists.

Nomadic Cultures (c) Curious Lists
An anthropological whimsy, by Miss Laura S. Packer, observed in her travels and over many pancake breakfasts.

The wandering shoes
  • Usually bi-color
  • Rarely in pairs, tribes of lefts or rights
  • Found under beds, gone the next morning
  • Coming of age rituals involve hunting dustbunnies

The lost hipster tribes
  • Known for their cool silence and occasional witty sayings
  • Artifacts include coffee cup sleeves, shed technological items, beard trimmings
  • Sightings said to presage the opening of another Starbucks

Landbound fisherfolk
  • Travel in landcruisers
  • Native costume includes slightly too tight t-shirts from obscure tourist resorts
  • Extensive mythology around lost objects nearly found
  • Mating rituals include fire dances
  • Mythology passed on around firepits, during ritual sacrifice of mallows found only in marshes

Hordes of traveling salesmen
  • A questing horde, driven by religious fervor for “Deal”
  • Wander from sales meeting to sales meeting
  • Regarded w/ great fear by hospitality industry
  • Known to be reckless and destructive in search of the elusive “Deal”
  • Should one of the tribe rise above the rest in their quest they are sacrificed to “mammon-ment”
(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Storytelling excellence

Last month at Sharing the Fire: Northeast Storytelling Conference Bill Harley presented a keynote that raised worthwhile questions about storytelling as an artform. He challenged the storytelling community and storytellers as artists to strive to be better, to not settle for the label of folk art but to do the necessary work to raise storytelling to the same level as theater, dance and other fine arts. This rings resonant with my work as a producer and performer. I believe that yes, we are all storytellers, because that it is part human nature to tell stories. But as performing artists we have a responsibility to always improve our art, to work on the craft, to not just assume that the label “storyteller” makes it okay to be sloppy.

Bill Harley laid out several questions we can ask ourselves to help us become better artists. If we take ourselves and our work more seriously the world will too. In the next few weeks I’d like to look at some of these issues in detail with the hopes that it will help all storytellers of every stripe, from slammer to epic performer.

Harley has the following checklist for every performer to consider as they develop a piece (to read it in detail click here. And you should):
  • Narrative Form

  • Voice and Physical Instrument
Performance Skills

  • Relationship with the Audience

  • Show Structure

  • Aesthetic

Let’s start with Narrative Form. Harley suggests every performer ask themselves the following about narrative form:
Is the structure of the piece strong – does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?  ©2009 Bill Harley

Massmouth slam judges are asked to rank three criteria, the first being narrative form. Does the story have a beginning, middle and an end? Does the story make sense? It makes sense that this is a point of judgment because in any narrative artform we long for coherence. We want motion and closure. Checkov said, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." The same applies to storytelling. Every element needs to be there for a reason. If you’ve practiced your piece you have a chance to cut out the narrative fat, the unnecessary elements, no matter how beloved they may be.

Storytellers have an additional burden that most narrative artists don’t have. They work in real-time with a live audience. If you don’t know what the story’s about or you lose your train of thought because you are so busy trying to tie up loose ends, the audience knows. You don’t get to rewrite, try a scene again or rewind the DVD. You must know your story, why you’re telling it and why each part is there.

Slam storytelling provides different challenges than longer form. You have very little time to create a coherent narrative, so your story must be direct. You need to know what you’re saying and why. This may be part of why slams are so effective for newer tellers – they aren’t tied up in trying to get all the little nuances in, they just want to tell the story. The short time limit means you don’t have time to worry about narrative fat.

Long form storytelling offers both more and less freedom than slam stories. While you have more time to spin out your narrative, more opportunity to weave interesting characters and explore the interstices of the story, you also have more opportunities for loose ends, more opportunity to get lost in your own love of a particular detail. You do have more time to build tension and have a satisfying ending but more room for failure. It takes work to build a successful long story. These stories in particular can fool the artist into thinking they know their own meaning. How often have you worked on a piece (anything – story, writing, art, etc) then come back to it years later to find meaning hidden that you never realized was there? This is a particular risk with long, told stories. If you find unexpected meaning in the middle of a performance, you risk violating the audience’s relationship with the story if your performance falters as you have your revelation. 

And that’s what it comes down to. Know your story. Know what matters in your story and what doesn’t matter. Tell what matters. Discard the rest. Leave your audience the white space to do the heavy lifting and trust them.

Next time I’ll look at Language and Voice and Physical Instrument. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this post!

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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