Monday, August 30, 2010

Telling topics - tall tales

cross posted from massmouth

As you know, over the last few weeks we've been exploring the different kinds of stories you can tell. So far we've looked at personal stories, hero stories and scary stories. Today we'll look at tall tales.

Let's face it - we all lie. But when you tell a tall tale you can lie with impunity. Your audience expects it, wants it and is looking forward to how boldly you lie. A tall tale is a story with wildly exaggerated elements - the tall man becomes a giant, the small fish becomes a huge one, the harvest is over-run with giant vegetables - and it's usually witty or clever. Some common examples of tall tales include Paul Bunyan stories and shaggy dog stories. You can find some other examples here. But you can make up and tell your own tall tales out of your own life too. Here are a few tips and tricks to consider:
  • Start with something commonplace. A walk through your town leads you to a local person with some unusual characteristics. Playing a game of football leads to a player who can throw a ball so high you have time to go inside, watch tv, eat dinner and do your homework before you have to catch it. 
  • Use your imagination. Tall tales require exaggeration. If something was big it becomes enormous. If someone was strong they become the strongest person in the world. 
  • Don't hesitate to use outlandish examples and comparisons. The fish was bigger than a six-car train. It was so big that the hook we used to catch it was made from a piece of steel my strong uncle ripped out of a nearby building. 
  • Keep it relatable. Whatever it is that happens, your audience should have had a similar, though smaller experience. They should have at least heard of fishing if it's a story about a giant fish that got away. They should have at least seen football on tv if it's about someone with an amazing throwing arm who eventually is asked ot throw a space shuttle into the sky.
  • Keep it fairly short. If it goes on too long your audience may get tired of being asked to suspend their disbelief.
  • Try to end it with the possibility of another story. I don't know where he is now, but last I heard NASA had hired him for some other emergency mission. I keep watching the news to see if he'll turn up.
  • And have fun! You should enjoy the story just as much as your audience.
Don't forget, I'll be teaching storytelling at the Brookline Center for Adult Ed this autumn - you can sign up here.

Next week we'll wrap up this series with a look at fairy tales and myths. Keep telling those stories!

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why it's worth remembering childhood dreams

Because sometimes you're lucky enough to fulfill them!

Today I had the pleasure of spending time with two new friends, Bill Hanley and his wife Rhoda Rosenberg. These wonderful people have an incredible creative life. Bill is known as the "father of festival sound" while Rhoda is a talented artist and teacher. They are kind and generous and I count myself lucky to have met them.

Over the course of his travels, Bill has acquired some pretty impressive pieces of machinery. He needs them, since he builds massive stages and structures for sound equipment. Among other things, in his backyard, he has a crane. A big one.

When I was a little girl, my favorite toy was my Tonka Truck . My Aunt Betty gave it to me - she asked me what I wanted to play with, hoping I would say "a doll house" or some other equally girly thing, but instead I told her I wanted a Tonka truck. She loved me enough to take a deep breath and get it for me. I never got over that truck.

As I grew older I loved taking things apart and putting them back together again. I was one of the kids and then one of the adults who stared into construction sites. I've long thought that if I ever won the lottery I would get a sandpit and some construction equipment just to play.

When I saw Bill's crane I told him about my Tonka truck and how cool I think big machines are. So he asked if I wanted to operate it. I think I only squealed a little.

Today, in my grown-up body, 8-year old Laura got to play with a crane. I am still giddy with the experience. Thanks to Bill's generosity and kindness I was able to let my young self and adult self play with utter delight.

I hope you can fulfill some of your childhood dreams with such joy sometime soon too. Even if they don't involve heavy construction equipment.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Freedom to Worship

From the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

From the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

From Senator Joseph Lieberman, on the establishment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which states that the US may promote religious freedom as part of its public poilicy:

It because of a belief that no government has the right to tell the people how to worship and certainly not the right to discriminate against them or persecute them for the way they chose to express their faith in God.

I love my country. I honor the principles on which it was founded and recognize that they are noble, lofty and subject to interpretation. And I know that fear drives people to do and say things that they might not, if they were thinking from their kinder hearts. But right now? All of the rhetoric rising up from those who object to an Islamic center being built in Lower Manhattan shocks me. I want to believe we are better than that.

I think the quotes above make the argument quite effectively, but I'd like to point out a few things.
  1. What greater gesture of reconciliation and peace could there be in these times of increasing fear and incendiary speech than a community center where kids can play, mothers can take a break and yes, people can worship? You can be sure, considering the neighborhood, that any incendiary speech will be noticed and commented upon. Besides, if it were a YMCA, YMHA, Catholic center or any of many other religious centers, this furor would not be. This is a chance to affirm that we are a nation of one built out of many. That we believe in the freedoms we go abroad to enforce.
  2. Because this is a Muslim community center, some people with loud voices are assuming all Muslims are radical Muslims and out to cause trouble. This is the same as me assuming all Germans are Nazis, a black person assuming all white people are in the KKK and a white person assuming all black people are thugs. Come on people, grow up.
  3. The hatred we are displaying in protesting this community center only adds to the hatred that can be redirected back to us. It's making us look really bad.
  4. For those who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attacks, I'm sorry for your loss. It seems as though you have been forced to take on the burden of the country's pain and rage, adding to your own grief. Right now, you have a chance to be a voice for peace that might help prevent someone else from experiencing a similar loss.
  5. And lastly? The community center is blocks from Ground Zero. I know it's close. I know it's still Lower Manhattan. But it's not in the middle of the Pit.
It's up to each of us to stand up for common decency and humanity. We all love our children, care about our homes and our futures. Let us be kind and forgiving to each other, support our neighbors dreams and by example, show the world that we are not the demons we sometimes fear we might be.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, August 23, 2010

Telling topics - scary stories

Cross-posted from massmouth

Over the last few weeks and for one or two more we’re taking a look at some of the topics you can explore as you expand your telling repertoire. Last week we took a look at personal stories while the week early we looked at hero stories. Today we’ll look at scary stories. I'd hoped to cover tall tales today, too (alliteration!) but scary stories turned into a long post.

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 Boston area, I'll be teaching a storytelling class at the Brookline Center for Adult Ed starting in September. 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) 2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 22, 2010

List: Worse times than the present

As you may recall, I've become enamored with Curious Lists: A Creative Journal for List-Lovers, a delightful compendium of suggestions for lists. I love lists in general and find them to be not only a great way to organize my life but a wonderful creative trigger. Today I opened to worse times than the present which seems fitting, considering all of the furor you can read in the news on any given day. So, let us consider:
  • The US during the McCarthy hearings. Shh, be careful of what you say, who you spend time with. You don't know who might be paying attention.
  • And heck, let's not forget the Cultural Revolution, Nazi era Germany, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, apartheid and on and on.
  • London, during the Plague. Heck, any European city during the Plague.
  • The Cretaceous Period. Come on, who really wants to be chased by dinosaurs?
  • The various dystopias predicted by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, Octavia Butler, Terry Gilliam, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and others. These are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head and they all terrify me.
  • Your worst birthday ever. 
  • Your worst break-up. 
  • When the dog died.
Alright, so this is a pretty dour list. Does it serve a purpose? I think so. In writing it, I was forced back into a healthier perspective. Things could be worse both politically and personally. I am very lucky that I'm not poor, living as an oppressed person or a voiceless one. Which leads to the most important thing I remembered while writing this list - I do have a voice. And I have a right to speak. Which alone makes this a pretty good time and place in which to live. 

It's just up to me to exercise that right.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oddservation: Cowboy hats

Yesterday I saw not one but two men wearing cowboy hats. Usual if you're in Texas, not so common in Massachusetts. What's more, both seemed to be self-made men.

The first was a 20-something white man walking a toy poodle while playing a ukulele. This was on a fairly busy residential street.

The second was a 40-something African American man wearing a blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, khaki shorts and low Italian style boots. He looked happy. He was leaving the supermarket, so maybe he just used a bunch of coupons.

I swear, I'm not making this up.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Telling Tales: Personal Stories

Crossposted from massmouth

Over the next few weeks we’re taking a look at some of the topics you can explore as you expand your telling repertoire. Last week we took a look at hero stories and how they are everywhere in our lives. Today we’ll look at personal stories.

Venues such as slams, This American Life and others are rife with personal stories. And why not? When we hear a story about another’s experience it helps us connect more deeply and realize that our experiences, no matter how funny, weird or tragic, are part of the human experience. 

Personal stories can range from short pieces about walking the dog to extended performances about life changing experiences. Regardless of the length or topic, these stories all share a couple of ingredients that you should keep in mind as you craft your personal story:
  • Know what your story is about. Is it about your relationship with your parent even though it's a funny anecdote about a car ride? Is it about coming of age via summer camp?
  • They are relatable. Regardless of the events in the story, there is something there others can identify with. You’re talking about your trip to Outer Mongolia? Great! Did you feel lost, alone, confused, excited? Did you have a meaningful moment of connection with someone? These are things people can relate to, even if they’ve never been to Outer Mongolia. 
  • Truth is flexible. So the dog fell into the bathtub and needed help getting out. The story might be funnier if you spend some time embellishing just how soaking wet and sudsy the dog, you, the floor and the walls ended up becoming. 
  • But don't lie. Your story must remain authentic to the event, the context and the people involved. And if someone asks, be honest with them about the facts and your elaboration.
  • Remove the stuff only you care about. If it isn’t relevant to the story of your college graduation that Great-Aunt Mathilda was married twice and her first husband was a carpenter then we don’t need to hear it.
  • Make sure it’s a story. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Is there a point you’re trying to make?
  • The story is appropriate for your audience. I would not recommend telling a sexually graphic story to a group of religious celibates (unless they’ve asked you to). 
  • You aren’t abusing your audience. Their job is to listen to your story and to connect to you through it. Their job is not to be your therapist. If you have difficulty with parts of your story make sure you’ve worked through them before you tell it. Additionally, your job as a teller is to let the audience sink into the story and imagine themselves in your shoes. If you decide you only want shock value then you’re denying them the opportunity to really become you.
Remember, storytelling is a collaborative experience – when you tell a personal story you’re inviting your audience to share a part of your life by imagining it’s theirs. 

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis says that there are four basic kinds of personal stories: The ha-ha story, where we laugh. The ah-ha story about the moment of discovery. The ah story with the moment of emotional change or resolution.  And the amen story with spiritual meaning. Know what your story is about. Get rid of the extraneous parts. Tell it like you mean it.  Practice a few times. And your listeners will come right along with you.

Next week we’ll take a look tall tales and ghost stories. And keep telling. We can't wait to hear you. 

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fiction: Aliens

This was written for the 10 Weeks 10 Stories class given by Grub Street Writers. The assignment was to write a story in one, long sentence. Take a deep breath and away we go...

*  *  *
I listened to her in increasingly slack jawed amazement, as she told me what it was like to be abducted, about the first time it happened when she was just a little girl and how she wasn’t expecting it, but now it was a regular thing that she almost didn’t mind, even felt lonely when it didn’t happen for too long in spite of the indignities visited upon her when they took her away, and I tried not to notice the glances and snickers around us, the growing silence as others grew still to eavesdrop (I felt a slight shame remembering all the times I grew still and silent so I could eavesdrop, thinking I was unknown and unnoticed - I never knew I was so obvious) but she continued unabashed, maybe even welcoming the extra attention, because, I was thinking, that’s what this is all about, the attention, when they come and take her that makes her special, that means she’s different from the rest of us who have to get up every day and go to work, slog through our lives and come home to everyday chores and the same beds we’ll probably die in, when I realized I wasn’t quite listening anymore and she was leaning across the table, saying in that particularly breathless tone she has, “You know, I think I remember seeing you there once, that’s why I wanted to talk to you, are there ever any nights you just don’t remember, when you don’t know where you were?” and all I could think was of course, who can remember every moment of every night, I think that’s a blessing, I would hate to remember every moment, in fact I wish I could forget this very moment right now but instead I just sat there stock still (recognizing, too, the tiny wish to be special the way that she thought she was) and not wanting to hurt her because of all the years of not-quite-friendship but not-just-acquaintances either, I just kind of shrugged, told a half lie by not answering and knew that I was about to become part of her story that she would begin by leaning across some other table in a growing listening silence, where she would start by saying, “I know this sounds crazy, but I have to tell someone and I need you to believe me when I tell you…”

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Fabulous Flash Award! Thank you!

I am honored and delighted to have been given a Fabulous Flash award by Diandra, writer and creator of Short Stories and Mad Rants. You should read her blog, she has some wonderful stories posted there.

She gave me this award stating that my flash fiction stories are, "short, imaginative and fun to read, and they sound fresh." Cool! I'm really tickled.

The requirement of this award is that I pass it on, so check here next Friday for four great flash fiction authors you should be reading. And if you'd like to read any of my flash fiction just click on the fiction tag to the right.

Thanks again, Diandra, you really made my month.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A modest proposal

This past weekend was the Pan Mass Challenge, a fund raising bike ride for the Dana Farber Cancer Center. I've done this ride several times in the past, riding 160 miles in two days. It changed my life, who I know myself to be and how I move through the world. I raised over $20,000 for cancer research. I realized that having cancer in my 20s was only a tiny piece of who I am. Over the course of those two days, I felt like a hero - the route is lined with supporters holding signs and cheering. It has been one of the peak moments of my life.

Last year, for various reasons mostly related to my back, I decided not to ride. It was the right decision. I didn't ride again this year and, while I still know it was the right decision, I miss it. But what is that I miss?

I still ride my bike, so that's not it. I am doing good in the world in other ways, though with less visibility, so it's not the impact I miss. I know who I am, as a survivor, fighter, athlete, human being, so that's not what I miss.

I miss feeling like a hero. I miss have a few moments in my life when I am part of the parade and I know they are cheering for me. And I miss knowing that this is in every way deserved. It's kind of a drug, that kind of support. And it's something we all should have a chance to experience a few times in our lives.

So here is my proposal:

We all do heroic things. We give money and time to a cause we believe in. We are kind unexpectedly. We go above and beyond the call of duty. We love our kids even when they're monsters. We love strangers' kids when they're monsters. We don't strike back at those who have hurt us. We keep going.

Why not have a few parades a year where we get to cheer for each other? One could be for parents, grandparents, step-parents, anyone involved in raising a child, even if that child is grown. Another could for people who are nice to their co-workers, a third for those who are nice to strangers. Whatever. We could make banners proclaiming our heroic acts and march proudly along, the local high school marching bands could strut their stuff (which I think is pretty heroic - come on, playing the tuba in high school?! How brave is that!?) while our friends and neighbors line the street and cheer for us. They can hold up signs that say things like You are an everyday hero! And when it's their turn to be in the parade we can hold up the same signs for them.

We'd all feel a little better, feel acknowledged and maybe be a little kinder to each other. I think it could work. What do you say, wanna be a hero?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, August 9, 2010

Telling topics – hero stories

Cross-posted from massmouth.

When I tell people I’m a storyteller I typically get one of three reactions:
  1. So you read books to kids?
  2. Cool! I heard this great storyteller somewhere and…
  3. Wow. I could never do that. I don’t have anything to say.
Each one of these reactions gets a different response:
  1. I explain that a storyteller tells and try to encourage a conversation about the living art of oral storytelling.
  2. I listen with delight and we compare notes on who we’ve heard.
  3. I tell them that actually everyone is a storyteller, they may just not know it yet.

Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some of the kinds of stories you could tell. These tales could be told at home, on stage, at a slam or at an open mic. Massmouth is hosting a series of storytelling workshops, so you can even try out some of your great new ideas with supportive teachers. You probably already have some of these stories ready to go, you just might need a little encouragement. Consider yourself encouraged.

For now, let’s start with hero stories.

Joseph Campbell dominated late 20th century thinking about the hero story. His model of the hero’s journey is a powerful structure for stories about grand adventure and personal growth. You know – the hero leaves home, encounters quests, helpers and trials, then eventually returns home a changed person. Gilgamesh. Luke Skywalker. You know. But we all have our own hero’s journey too. You grow up, leave home, encounter people who help and hinder you, fight your own demons. Our personal heroic journey stories can be quite stirring.

What about
  • Fighting a disease
  • Going to another country
  • Going away to college/leaving home
  • Learning to live with a room mate
  • Struggling to have or raise a child
  • Coming home from war
Each one of these kinds of stories has heroic components and can be crafted into a heroic journey story. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life. Feel free to share some in the comments.

We can also tell stories about the unsung heroes in our lives. The taxi drivers (maybe a wanna-be Helios?) our parents, our kids, the check-out clerk at the grocery store or a really good waitress. I’m always looking for unnoticed acts of heroism. These could be great little stories that move from funny to meaningful.

Of course, you can always tell some of the classic hero tales. Heracles. Boudicca. Whoever has a story that moves you powerfully as they overcome odds and learn something of themselves in the process. And what if you reset some of these characters into modern times? Imagine Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox taking on Madison Avenue. The possibilities are endless.

Next week we’ll take a look at personal stories and how you can easily mine your own life for telling topics. I hope someday to never again hear, “But I don’t have a story to tell.” I know you do. You just have to look.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unnoticed heroes

I've been thinking lately about everyday heroes, the ones we don't see because they are so very ordinary.  I expect most of you know what I'm talking about - some of you are probably nodding and thinking Oh yes, I know who she means. Heck, most days I feel like one of them. I do too sometimes, so have been trying to notice the unrecognized around me and let them know that I see them and appreciate what they do by saying, "thanks, I saw how you did thus and so and I appreciate it." Sometimes I get a great reaction, a blinding smile or  story, other times they just look at me like I'm intruding. I think both are reasonable and appropriate reactions. I'm sure sometimes I am intruding.

I realize this may seem trite - isn't good customer service what we pay for? Aren't we supposed to be kind to one another? Well, sure, but so often we're tired, cranky, overwhelmed by the world that being kind and patient becomes a kind of heroic act.

Here are some of the unnoticed heroes I've been trying to pay attention to:

  • The woman who bagged my groceries and took the time to put all the cold stuff in one bag. I also noticed her speaking patiently and clearly to the old lady behind me who seemed to be having a tough time getting through the line.
  • The school crossing guard from my grade-school. Loretta's aunt. I never did say thank you to her when I was a kid, so I'll do it now. Thanks for keeping us safe and never getting mad when we were brats.
  • The customer service rep at the bank who called me to tell me my credit card had unusual charges. I know it was his job, but he was friendly and patient when I panicked.
  • The kid who picked up some trash dropped by his friend without making a big deal out of it.
  • The people behind the scenes who make the big acts of heroism possible - the 911 operators, the police dispatchers, the staff at suicide hotlines, the maintenance staff at hospitals.
Who are some of the unnoticed heroes in your world? What have you noticed lately? Who do you need to thank? Take the risk. It's a small heroic act in itself.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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