Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Not my resolutions, but...

I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions. I try to live my life with intent, so try not to need to resolve at the new year - it seems to be setting myself up for failure.

That being said, I love this list of New Year's resolutions from Woody Guthrie. I think I could add a few of these to my "how to live" list. Thanks to boingboing for posting this.

Do you do resolutions? Are there any you'd like to share?

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 19, 2011

On 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)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Prompt Sunday

Three images to amuse and inspire you. And don't forget to sign up for a hand-made assemblage, on this blog post!

All of these images are from the photography archives at the Smithsonian Institution.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Poem for a snowless Saturday in December

A Winter Without Snow

by J.D. McLatchey

Even the sky here in Connecticut has it,
That wry look of accomplished conspiracy,
The look of those who've gotten away

With a petty but regular white collar crime.
When I pick up my shirts at the laundry,
A black woman, putting down her Daily News,

Wonders why and how much longer our luck
Will hold.  "Months now and no kiss of the witch."
The whole state overcast with such particulars.

For Emerson, a century ago and farther north,
Where the country has an ode's jagged edges,
It was "frolic architecture."  Frozen blue-

Print of extravagance, shapes of a shared life
Left knee-deep in transcendental drifts:
The isolate forms of snow are its hardest fact.

Down here, the plain tercets of provision do,
Their picket snow-fence peeling, gritty,
Holding nothing back, nothing in, nothing at all.

Down here, we've come to prefer the raw material
Of everyday and this year have kept an eye
On it, shriveling but still recognizable--

A sight that disappoints even as it adds
A clearing second guess to winter.  It's
As if, in the third year of a "relocation"

To a promising notch way out on the Sunbelt,
You've grown used to the prefab housing,
The quick turnover in neighbors, the constant

Smell of factory smoke--like Plato's cave,
You sometimes think--and the stumpy trees
That summer slighted and winter just ignores,

And all the snow that never falls is now
Back home and mixed up with other piercing
Memories of childhood days you were kept in

With a Negro schoolmate, of later storms
Through which you drove and drove for hours
Without ever seeing where you were going.

Or as if you've cheated on a cold sickly wife.
Not in some overheated turnpike motel room
With an old flame, herself the mother of two,

Who looks steamy in summer-weight slacks
And a parrot-green pullover.  Not her.
Not anyone.  But every day after lunch

You go off by yourself, deep in a brown study,
Not doing much of anything for an hour or two,
Just staring out the window, or at a patch

On the wall where a picture had hung for ages,
A woman with planets in her hair, the gravity
Of perfection in her features--oh! her hair

The lengthening shadow of the galaxy's sweep.
As a young man you used to stand outside
On warm nights and watch her through the trees.

You remember how she disappeared in winter,
Obscured by snow that fell blindly on the heart,
On the house, on a world of possibilities.

Creative Commons License

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday fiction: Doorways

It was a scene out of a movie, one of those long trembling moments when the plot could fall one way or another, and each character is desperately hoping for a different outcome.

We’d been friends for years. It was the kind of friendship that had been broken and remade over and over again, something that, frankly, I don’t usually care for. I prefer the kind of friendship where you know the other person will be there, predictable, a straight road, maybe annoying, but reliable. Not this friendship. This was a storm-tossed ship, riding high then crashing low, unsure of its direction. If you asked either of us we’d agree it was because he was a little crazy and I was a lot impatient. And if you asked again one or the other might tell you it had something to do with the way he felt, and the way I didn’t, but then again, we might not. In any case, we’d been friends for years and navigated many choppy waters to finally find ourselves here, standing on opposite sides of a doorway.

It had been one of the good times, clear sailing on bright waters. I was in love with someone I found troubling and didn’t understand; he had no one but me. We’d been up late talking and it was time for him to leave. So many things hung in the air unsaid, so many things that I felt as though I was pushing through them as I walked behind him, towards the door.

As he stepped through the doorway he turned and looked at me and it was all there on his face, all the longing and love he hadn’t voiced, everything he wished he could say. I looked at him for a long moment and I knew, as clearly as if he acted upon it, that he wanted to reach through the door, take me in his arms, and kiss me. He opened his mouth and no words came out. I spoke, before his breath could organize itself into thought.

“Don’t say it. I know. And we both know it can’t be. Not now, maybe not ever. Thank you, though. Just, thank you.”

And we stood there a moment longer, looking at each other. I couldn’t be the first to turn away, the one to break the contact he needed so deeply. Maybe I needed it, too.

“Go home.”

And he did.

If this were a movie, someone would have written us better lines. Or turned my heart in that moment from the complicated love I was already in, to this simpler, longer, maybe more honest one. Or at least given him the gift of love waiting down the road if not at the foot of the stairs. But life isn’t quite like the movies. All that we were left with was that long moment in the doorway, bodies framed, and the lingering question of what would have happened if we were two different people at a different time, who instead had said “yes.”

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Life is a collage: writer's block, a suggestion and a giveaway

Before we talk about this week's suggestion, let's take a moment to celebrate last week's winners! As you may recall, last week I talked about keeping a writer's notebook and offered two hand-altered notebooks complete with suggestions, games and other creativity triggers. While I received a few emails asking me for the notebooks, Elsa and Jo were brave enough to leave comments, so they are my winners. I'll be contacting them privately for shipping information. Thank you to everyone who contacted and even considered contacting me.

This week I want to write about getting over creative blocks. While a writer's notebook is a great way to capture ideas, sometimes an idea is elusive and really doesn't want to be set down. I sometimes find myself working on a story or a blog post and the words just won't come. When that happens, if I'm clever, I try to get at the idea another way. I get someone to listen to me. Or I try to use other parts of my brain to explore the idea.

Words are great. I love words. But sometimes if I can't find the right words, using images is a way around the block. So I doodle, or make a collage or an assemblage that uses some of the images and ideas floating around in my head.

Next time you get stuck, when the words don't come, when the paper or screen just mock you, try doodling out the idea instead. Try cutting out pictures from a magazine that have something to do with your story. Try gathering objects that your character might love. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, if the magazine isn't quite right or if the objects are distant approximations (a twig can be a magic wand any day) what matters is you're accessing another part of your mind. You're bypassing words and the anxiety you may have around the right word, so you can loosen up creatively and get moving again.

Leave a comment or send me an email about how you get over creative blocks, what you do when the words just won't come. I will give a custom collage or small assemblage to one of this week's commenters. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prompt Sunday - bingo!

I'm on my way home from Los Angeles. It's been a good trip, with various adventures and dramas. As I often do when I travel, I've been playing bingo. I make up an imaginary list of stereotypes and mutter, "bingo," whenever I see one of them.

My LA list included things like:

  • Someone carrying a little dog (bingo! a chihuahua)
  • Someone under 8 years old on a cell phone (bingo! and being pushed in a stroller by someone on their own cell phone)
  • Someone talking about working in the service industry while they look for their next role/sell their screenplay (bingo! three guys over brunch)
  • A celebrity (bingo! Kareem Abdul Jabar. He's very tall.)
  • The Pacific ocean (nope)
  • and so on.
I love this game. I play it all the time in all different kinds of circumstances, not just when I'm in new places. I find playing bingo makes me more observant and appreciative of the world around me. I see things I might otherwise miss, I make up stories and I amuse myself. 

Some of my every day bingo lists might include:
  • Something that could be mistaken for a UFO
  • A person who looks like they have a secret
  • A pair of red shoes
  • and so on.
I challenge you to come up with your own bingo lists. It will make you look at the world more acutely and give you terrific fodder for story, for art, for seeing the world without the lens of fatigue and disillusionment.

Feel free to post your own bingo lists in the comments, I'd love to know what you looked for and what you saw. And as a reminder, I'm giving away altered writer's notebooks with suggestions and prompts next week. Go here for a chance to win!

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday share: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

On Saturdays I am sharing some of my favorite resources with you. I love this poem by Wendell Berry. He is one of my favorite writers, a man of letters and conviction. This poem is one of my guideposts as I move through the world.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

(c) Wendell Berry Creative Commons License

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Fiction: Running away with Greta

I'm proud to say this story was was a selection from the 2011 Muse and the Marketplace for The Drum Literary magazine. You can hear it here.

*   *   *

When I was a little girl, somewhere between 5 and 10, my best friend was Greta Smith. She lived on the other end of our block with her mom and brother, Christian. I remember thinking it was odd that her brother was named after a religion.

Greta was my cool friend. There was a giant poster of some kind of sports car in her living room and I saw star trek for the first time at her house. I remember her mother tried to explain “divorce” to me. I didn’t understand – my parents fought all the time but they were still married.

Greta was the first person who told me that the way my father treated me wasn’t right, that it wasn’t okay that he yelled at me, threatened to hit me, told me I was a bad girl when I was just being a kid. She told me I didn’t have to suffer.

After one particularly bad fight I climbed out of my bedroom window, down the wisteria tree and ran to Greta’s house.

I expect I was crying but I don’t remember tears.

She said we should run away. I thought this was a grand idea. We found old broomsticks in her backyard brush pile, then took shirts from the rag bag. I would bring crackers, socks, peanut butter and my teddy bear. She had a map and a bottle of orange juice. Between us we had a few dollars. We agreed to meet at midnight on her front steps. I went home to prepare.

That night my mother made creamed corn for dinner, my favorite, usually reserved for my birthday or when she wanted me to know she was sorry my father and I fought. That she didn’t stand up for me. That I wasn’t a good girl. She wanted me to know she loved me anyway.

After dinner I went to my room. I played. I filled the shirt with stolen crackers, socks, a jar of peanut butter and what money I had in my piggy bank, then I tied the bundle to the end of the broomstick. I would be a hobo if it meant no one would yell at me anymore. I hid my prepared supplies under the bed.

My parents read to me, tucked me in and turned out the light.

I think I fell asleep around 11.

The next day I walked to Greta’s house, ashamed.

She asked me why I didn’t come, she’d been on the steps at midnight, why wasn’t I there? I imagined this little girl, in the quiet pool of the streetlight, waiting. The world was so big at night. I realized I never would have tasted my mother’s creamed corn again and I was glad I hadn’t come.

“I fell asleep.”
“Well, at least you didn’t chicken out.”

We played all day.

I got home before dinner, left my hobo stick under the bed just in case, and stayed up long past bedtime, staring out of my window, listening to the night.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Packing perfect beauty

God, I wish I could wear stuff like this - my mother says it was as uncomfortable as hell, but oh, everyone had a figure then. 

Just look at it! This is a marvel of engineering. The snaps and hooks and elastic are something else. So much force is required to mold me, or you, or almost anyone into that perfect shape. Suspension bridges have nothing on breasts and bellies; engineering schools should have courses on women’s undergarments. Maybe they do and I just took all the wrong classes.

I never liked the word. Girdle. I understand you can gird your loins before battle, but really, what do you do when you gird? It’s one of those nouns turned into a verb made more feminine by the -le on the end. Now when we gird our bellies and breasts, it’s with body shapers, certainly a better name and less painful to wear,  but those slick shadows don’t have the same allure as elastic and snaps, metal and straps.

Oh, those straps, like an octopus reaching down to grab soft silk stockings, shaped like legs themselves with a seam to draw the eye up and down. The delicate stitching along the sides, a zig-zag cartography molding hills into plains and flaring out over hips like a sudden curve in a road. Cups like reassuring hands, lifting what is or what isn’t there into high fairy tale pillows that no woman has ever really had but we all pretend we did, pillows that have no relation to their real purpose or shape.

Of course, if a woman is to be this beautiful, she can’t breath or bend. To touch her is to touch a hard surface, not warm skin and soft fat over muscle and bone, nor the hints of strength and possibility in her own body, but a construction designed for looking, not touching. And god forbid one piece of rubber or metal goes awry; you could lose a limb as it goes tearing out of your clothing. 

But, oh, to be a goddess from afar for a few hours, untouchable and unattainable. Gasping. Fainting. Perfect.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer
Please do not republish without prior approval. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The observed world: In Transit

Wednesdays bring you the world through my eyes. Two pictures in transit. And don't forget, leave comments on yesterday's post for a chance to win a hand-altered writer's notebook!

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The observant eye: a suggestion and a giveaway

I saw an adequate movie recently in which a man writes a barely fictionalized memoir that becomes a best-seller. The movie tracks the impact of the memoir on his family, his siblings and his relationships. It's not pretty though parts were terribly funny. My favorite part of the movie was a dinner scene, where the entire extended family gathered to celebrate the patriarch's birthday, someone characterized in the memoir as wonderful but really a mean-spirited, money-grubbing inattentive father and philandering husband. The dinner rapidly falls apart into some of the more painfully funny film scenarios I've seen recently and, in the midst of it, the memoir-writer pulls out a notebook and starts taking notes.

That was it, the golden moment of the movie, the glimmer of truth and the place where I saw myself.

I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. Most writers, artists, observers of the world do. I jot down all different kinds of things - overheard conversation, a name that strikes my fancy, a story idea, a poorly-rendered sketch of scene I don't want to forget. I often write things down at inopportune moments.

If you're not already doing so, I urge you to do the same. Make note of your world. Observe the planet around you, the shades of brown in bark, the sound of a taxi, the odd turn of phrase, how you feel in this moment in this place. You don't know what you'll do with this material, but at a bare minimum it will make you more observant of the world around you. And you may end up crafting your next great work from it.

To help you out, I'd like to give you a notebook. I've taken two Moleskine  notebooks (one red and one tan) and tweaked them. You can see them here:
What's more, I've put occasional prompts, questions, images and other items into the notebooks themselves. Each one is unique.

Leave a comment below or send me an email as to why you'd like one of these notebooks. I'll pull two names at random and will announce winners next week.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lightening the Load: The Artist's Survival Kit

(C) Keri Smith www.kerismith.com
Mondays can be tough. We re-emerge from our weekends back into the daily routine of work or school or other kinds of life. I think a lot of the Monday burden is really just about attitude; if we think of Monday as a chance to enter a new week, refreshed, it might be a little easier than if we groan about it too much. I only succeed with this sometimes.

On Mondays throughout December, I'll post something to help lighten the load. These links, thoughts, images and so on are all things I have found useful. I hope they help you. And please feel free to post your own load-lighteners in the comments!

Keri Smith is one of my favorite artists, writers and creativity gurus. She uses simple illustrations to help you and me break out of our ruts, to help us remember that the world is an adventure and we are all explorers. Her work helps me step away from consumerism and back into my own creative possibility.

In 2010 she issued an Artist's Survival Kit on her blog. This generous gift is for everyone, not just artists. It's for the days when the world grinds at you, when you feel as though you just need a break and an encouraging word, when you question your own creative spirit. I carry it with me to help me through the tough times. I am incredibly grateful to her for sharing this with us.

You can find the post explaining the kit and download it here. It's free. But it would be really nice if you checked out some of her books too, like The Guerilla Art Kit, Living Out Loud, How to be an Explorer of the World, Wreck This Journal, and The Non-Planner Date Book. They would make great gifts for the creative people in your life. You know, your mom, your son, your cousin whom you never see, the mailman... maybe even yourself.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"No way!"
"No lie!"
"Not yet." Creative Commons License

Prompt Sunday

As promised, here are some images that you might find interesting. I'd be curious about what these inspired, if you were moved to write something, wonder about them, imagine something new into being.

I took these photos and, if you really need to know, can tell you more about them.


(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lights in the darkness: Resources to help with holiday headaches

While I am not Christian, I enjoy the story of Christmas. When I think of it as a world-wide birthday part, a celebration of a baby and the possibility of miracles, it gives me pause and makes me smile. What I have come to find more and more challenging is the rampant consumerism Christmas has come to represent, at least in the U.S.

Today I’d like to offer you some resources and ideas to escape the consumerism of the season and maybe get closer to its roots; a celebration of miracles, of community, of light in the darkness.
  1. Breathe
    The holiday season can be so very hectic, it feels like we don't even have the time to breath. When we become breathless our bodies generate more stress hormones and we can feel like we're panicking. We become short-tempered and agitated. 
    Take the time to breath. When you're out running around, slow down, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Better yet, learn to meditate and take a few minutes each day to care for yourself by taking easy breaths and letting go of the stress that's consuming you. This site has some nice tips and guided meditations.
  2. Give something away
    I know, this time of year you're already thinking a lot about giving gifts. But I mean a different kind of giving. Some recent studies have found that money can, in fact, buy happiness, but not the way the researchers expected. When people spend money on themselves their happiness is far less and far shorter lived than when they use the same amount of money to do something nice for someone else. Not because they have to, the way we have to around the holidays, but simply because they can.
    Make a donation to your favorite charity; better yet, make a donation to the favorite charity of someone you love. Give clothing that doesn't fit to a worthy organization. Buy a homeless person a cup of coffee. You may find you benefit from this simple acts of kindness more than you ever expected.
  3. Create a miracle
    You can have a huge impact on the life of someone you don't know, simply by taking a little time and giving a little money. I have become a supporter of micro-financing programs like kiva.org which helps impoverished people around the world start their own businesses. It's a chance to give someone in some of the world's most impoverished places dignity and self-determination. And if that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is.
  4. Be a light in the darkness
    These are dark days. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, we're leaning away from the sun and are wilting from lack of light. These are dark days. If you take in the news in any form, you can't help but think the world is coming to an end. Here's a tip:
    It's not. The world will survive. The light will return. It may take awhile and it may be painful, but we as a species and our planet are quite resilient. With any luck, we'll learn something, maybe even change for the better. (I know, cynics are laughing at me. I'm laughing at me. But I'd rather hope a little.)
    In the meantime, what can we do? What we have always done. We do the best we can and we strive to be a light in the darkness. Be kind when you can. Maybe be a little kinder than necessary. Say "please" and "thank you." Remember that everyone else is as stressed and harried as you are, and maybe the jerk who cut you off in traffic is rushing home because their kid is sick or their soldier spouse is finally coming home. 
What else do you do to cope with these rushed, crazy days? What brings you solace and comfort? What are your lights in the darkness?

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday (non) fiction: Life saving story

Stories save our lives in all kinds of ways. Sometimes you hear the story you need at exactly the right moment to realize you’re not alone, to find the solution to a problem, to feel comforted in the midst of darkness. Sometimes you tell a story that gets you out of trouble, connects you to a solution or a person, helps you understand who you are. And sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle, the right story, the right time, the right life.

About 15 years ago I was dating a guy who, while sweet, had a little bit of a macho problem. He wasn’t a very large man and I think that bothered him, so he moved through the world with some attitude, a swagger. I’m sure some of you know people like that. Maybe even you are like that. And maybe, like me, you sometimes find that kind of attractive.

One night we went out to dinner in Chinatown, before Chinatown was neat and tidy, back then it was still known as the Combat Zone. You were much more likely to see people selling drugs or themselves than you are now. My date kept glancing around as though daring bad guys to leap out at us; I just kept an eye open and walked towards our destination. We stopped off at a convenience store ATM and it was as we were walking out into the night that it happened.

A fellow who looked pretty down on his luck barreled into my date. They bounced off of one another and became puffer fish, bigger and spikier by the moment. My date, knowing I hated this stuff, stayed quiet, but wouldn’t back down when the other man loomed over him and yelled.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You think you own this place? Huh? Well?”

The man’s face got redder and redder and he accused my date of things he couldn’t possibly have done. Soon my date’s face was turning red as he heard his mother insulted, as he was accused of planning to be in this man’s way on this very night, as he heard his own manhood demeaned.

And then the angry man pulled out a hungry knife.

“What, you want me to cut you? Huh? Is that what you want?”

I don’t remember doing it. I just know that I found myself standing in between these two men without thinking about it, planning or even being aware of my own movement. I was facing the yelling man. He looked as surprised as I was.

“Hey,” I said, “What’s wrong?”

He blustered. “This asshole got in my way.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to, I think he just bumped into you by accident, nothing to get mad about. What’s going on, why are you so upset? What happened?”

He deflated, all of the air gushing out of him. And he told me his story.

“Lady, I’m really tired of people walking all over me. I work construction, been doing it since high school. I got laid off and I can’t find a job, I’m doing day work when I can get it. You every do day work? It’s hard and ugly. You shovel shit or plant trees or build walls, whatever they tell you to and you don’t get breaks. There isn’t any union, that’s for sure.
“I’ve been looking for work every day for months and can’t find a damn thing. My wife got fed up with it, she was working two jobs, so she took the kids and left. She’s staying with her parents but says I can’t see the kids until things are more stable. That’s what she says, stable. Since she left I can’t pay all the bills and the electricity got turned off yesterday, so it’s not like stable is happening any time soon.
“I got a message today that my dad got sick, but he’s in Arizona and I can’t get out to see him. So I don’t have my kids, my wife, a comfortable home and I’m not gonna have a chance to say goodbye to my father.
“I’ve been sober for over 2 years, but it seems to me like this is a damned fine time to have a drink, because, hell, it’s not like I have anything left to lose, so when this guy got in my way, yeah, something happened.”

He stopped talking and glared at me for a moment, then just looked uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry, that sucks.”

“Yeah, it does.”

I wish I could tell you I talked him into going to a meeting or helped him find a job. But that wouldn’t be true. I can tell you he shrugged his shoulders as if he were feeling his skin again, fitting back into his own body. “I guess you people are going someplace. I guess I don’t need to go in there right now. Mister, I’m sorry I knocked you over. Lady, I’m glad you got in the way. Thanks for asking.”

He walked off. My date and I had dinner, but I just couldn’t see him the same way after that; he had been looking for a fight and I found a story.

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t asked. If I hadn’t found myself stepping in. I do know that knife curved into a wicked grin. I do hope that telling his story helped and maybe gave him enough of himself back to maybe save his life.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A month of Sundays: Posting daily in December!

I’ve decided to try to blog everyday for the month of December. Really what I’ve decided is to blog and write more frequently, but sometimes setting a BIG but specific goal seems more achievable than a smaller, less specific dream. 

Alright, it’s not really a month of Sundays, but it will be a lot of writing and discipline. I’ll need our help.

Here is what I hope to accomplish from this experience:
  • Better writing habits
  • More engaged readers (you)

To help me do this I’ve come up with an editorial calendar. Not to give too much away (hey, I need to keep some things surprises, right?) in general I plan to do the following:
  • Thursdays: Some kind of observational essay, like much of this blog already is. Today is an exception, since I'm using today to state my blogging intent.
  • Fridays: Fiction.
  • Saturdays: Something from someone else (a poem, an image, links, etc) because there are lots of interesting people in the world.
  • Sundays: some kind of creativity or writing prompt.
  • Monday: something to lighten the load of a new week.
  • Tuesdays: A piece of creativity, something inspirational and a contest.
  • Wednesdays” the observed world. An overheard comment, a photo, a description of something I’ve seen.

I’d really love to have your feedback - this is the help I was talking about. Please let me know what you think of any of these posts. If I say something that inspires you or makes you think, please let me know! Part of the appeal of blogging is to interact with the world. I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

As if all this weren’t enough, I’m also going to be blogging more regularly on my cooking blog and my organizational storytelling blog. Check those out later this week for more information.

Thanks for the support. I hope I write something interesting or useful for you!

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

A poem for Thursday

Bird-Understander by Craig Arnold : The Poetry Foundation

Of many reasons I love you here is one

the way you write me from the gate at the airport
so I can tell you everything will be alright

so you can tell me there is a bird
trapped in the terminal all the people
ignoring it because they do not know
what do with it except to leave it alone
until it scares itself to death

it makes you terribly terribly sad

You wish you could take the bird outside
and set it free or (failing that)
call a bird-understander
to come help the bird

All you can do is notice the bird
and feel for the bird and write
to tell me how language feels
impossibly useless

but you are wrong

You are a bird-understander
better than I could ever be
who make so many noises
and call them song

These are your own words
your way of noticing
and saying plainly
of not turning away
from hurt

you have offered them
to me I am only
giving them back

if only I could show you
how very useless
they are not
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Creativity takes time (video)

You know it. I know it. When you are given a hard deadline and the mandate to be creative.... NOW! we get brainfreeze.

KreativMagazin put together this nice video to demonstrate that creativity takes time. I liked it and I think you will too.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, November 14, 2011

Prompt Sunday

Here is your prompt for today. Why are Superman and the Hulk getting high? Who is in the back seat? What universe is this?

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Prompt Sunday

Here is your visual writing/creativity prompt for today. Who is she? Who are they? Who took this photo and what happened next? I'd love to know....

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Getting out of dodge

image from Kalidassa on Deviant Art
I don't know about you, but sometimes I get stuck. I get stuck in my own patterns, my own drama, my own skin. I don't always notice it as quickly as I might hope, but when I do, I panic. OH MY GOD WHAT DO I DO I'M STUCK scream all of my internal critics. They all suggest that being stuck is an eternal state and I won't be able to do anything about it.

They're wrong. There are a ton of things I can do about being stuck, things you can do too.

Some of those things are pretty simple, like talking to a friend, going for a walk, helping someone else, standing on your head, things like that. Stuff that gets you out of your own mind and out of your rut. But sometimes that isn't enough. When that happens, I get out of dodge.

I know, I'm nowhere near Dodge City, Kansas and you probably aren't either. But I get out of my current locale, I go someplace else where I can meet new people, have new experiences and be someone else or, more accurately, remember the best of who I already am. When I was younger I used to go overseas every few years and pretend to be someone else. I would tell stories about another life, the kind of life I wanted to live and create a person I hoped I might be when I got home. But I never was that person and these adventures only left me with a vague sense of longing, so now I go to other places and give myself permission to be my best self, without the baggage of the day-to-day that so easily can pull me down. I have permission to soar.

I've become more selective about where I go for these moments, so I can be both genuine and fed without any temptation to be someone else, and recently I had one of the most enriching out-of-dodge experiences of my life. I went to the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. If you've not heard of the conference, this is how they describe themselves:

We’re a global community of innovators, working together to expand the edge of change.

When I was there I absolutely felt as though I was part of that community. I felt enhanced by possibility and moved to action.

It was three-and-a-half days of talks, conversations, excellent food and inspiration. I met people who had great ideas to change the world and acted on them.

I realized that I have every opportunity to be one of them. As a storyteller, I change the world every day when I listen to someone, when I tell a story that moves an individual or a group. What's more, I met dozens of wildly creative, intelligent people who got it when I told them I am a storyteller, who understood the broad application and possibility of story and narrative.

I felt as though I had come home to a family who had just been waiting for me to walk through the door.  By getting out of dodge I was able to remember who I am and carry it back home with me. I am energized and motivated in ways I haven't been in a long time. This trip out of dodge did everything I needed and more. I have remembered the best of who I am and am acting on it. I am so grateful that I was wise enough to go, so grateful that these experiences exist and the community welcomed me.

All of this begs the question: Why don't I give myself permission to soar all the time? Why do I have to get out of dodge to be my best self? The easy answer is about the daily grind, the commute, the bills, the things that wear me down. But the better answer, one I think you and the PopTech community will understand is much simpler.

I have permission to soar all the time. I just need to remember that I have wings.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prompt Sunday

Starting today, I'm going to start posting a picture every Sunday. These are pictures that amuse or intrigue me and might, I hope, spark inspiration.

Let me know what you think, what you imagine in response to these images.

Vancouver General Hospital remembers 100 years: Surgery, 1905 by Vancouver Coastal Health
Vancouver General Hospital remembers 100 years: Surgery, 1905, a photo by Vancouver Coastal Health on Flickr.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

On birthdays and blessings

Today is my birthday. I have taken to writing a list on this day every year to celebrate the things in the world I most cherish, the things that help me understand my place and role, the things that simply make my heart soar. If you're interested in previous lists just go to other Octobers on this blog, you'll find them there.

I am so grateful to be in this beautiful, perfectly broken, transcendent world. And I am grateful for:
  1. Each breath.
  2. My lungs and heart and body.
  3. My senses.
  4. Luscious tastes.
  5. Colors and patterns.
  6. The world rushing by my ears.
  7. And even the persistent whine of tinnitus, that reminds me that I am alive.
  8. The scents that waft by, noticed and ignored.
  9. The touch of my lover's hand, the rasp of my clothing on skin, the breeze on my cheek.
  10. The beloved people in my life, known and unknown.
  11. My family.
  12. My chosen family.
  13. My dear, dear friends.
  14. And those who wander further from me, my co-workers and those I see in passing.
  15. And the strangers I will never know who each have their own complexities, dreams and birthdays.
  16. Story
  17. Art
  18. Music
  19. And the wisdom to occasionally remember that these things feed me as much as any food.
  20. Work. Not merely a job in these tight times, but the work of my hands and my heart.
  21. Craft, the labor to make something good.
  22. The places books take me to.
  23. The joy of discovery. "Oh yes!"
  24. And sharing that discovery. "Oh yes, and..."
  25. My mind. And the range of emotions.
  26. And the minds of others.
  27. The resilience of my body.
  28. The gifts of age.
  29. Wonder.
  30. Disagreement.
  31. Problems to be solved.
  32. And mysteries to ponder.
  33. The places I will never go.
  34. Wildness.
  35. Water.
  36. Wagging dogs.
  37. Language.
  38. Singing, even if others may not appreciate my voice.
  39. Laughing until my stomach hurts.
  40. Good food.
  41. Change. The passage of time and the knowledge that things will change.
  42. Silence.
  43. Unexpected beauty.
  44. And this life. This singular, glorious life.
Any others? 44 seems like such a short list.

I wanted to end with this picture and the reminder that, no matter how tired, frustrated or fed up we are at any one point in our lives, things will change, whether or not we want them to. We can influence most of those changes and, even if we can't, we can moderate our own responses. The person I was at 12 didn't yet know about the smell of the air in Tuscany, the joy of listening to a new storyteller, that persistence pays off. I feel so tender when I look at her, wishing I could tell her that things will get better. Someday I'll look back at the person I am now, at 44, and marvel at what I didn't yet know.

Oh, and let me add - the cat's name was Taffy. She lived to 18 and was a great friend.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Storytelling in a suit: the art and craft of business storytelling

I wrote this article for the Connecticut Storytelling Center's newsletter, HearSay. It's a great publication with all kinds of useful resources. I thought you might find it of interest, so am sharing it with you here. I hope you find it interesting. If you're interested in other storytelling articles, click here. As always, please contact me for reprinting permission.

Human beings are storytelling creatures. From our earliest hunter-gatherer days we have used story to explain and understand ourselves and our world. This is true of organizations as well. The stories organizations tell about themselves (branding, marketing, vision and mission) are how they wish to be seen externally. The stories they tell internally (newsletters, intranets, gossip, employee chatter) are how the organization sees itself. The stories they tell themselves about their customers shape the products they make and the services they offer. None of this is a surprise, of course, since organizations are created and maintained by humans, the storytelling animal.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of business and art, and for the past ten years I’ve worked as an organizational storytelling practitioner helping companies and their employees tell their stories. In the course of this work, I’ve heard a huge range of stories and seen how story helped companies find their voice, solve internal problems, develop new products, expand, grow into better places to work and become better global citizens.

Organizational storytelling is quite different from our usual model of storytelling and yet surprisingly similar.  As storytellers know, when you “story” something, you give it life and depth and meaning. This is true in organizations, as well. Storying a company, a process or a product humanizes it – in a way that a memo or spreadsheet does not – and thus extends ownership throughout the organization or community. The story itself actually becomes a deliverable, a product, alive and vital to the audience, whoever they may be.

But it’s not always a simple process.

Organizational storytelling requires a lot of homework. First, how does the client want to use story? To sell an existing product or service or to design something new? To raise more funds? To attract better talent or further engage their employees? To clarify or develop a mission statement? The practitioner must have an understanding of their client’s stated needs, as well as a toolkit for new needs that may arise.

For example, I was hired by a large agricultural advocacy group to help them develop a new mission for the 21st century so they could grow their membership and attract more funding. They were interested in collecting stories from the farmers and educators within the organization, as well as from other company stakeholders, including board members, marketing personnel and administrators. My client also told me that each invested group thought that their own story should be the focus of the mission, to the exclusion of the others. In short, I was being asked to re-story an organization that had become highly factionalized.

I spent the weeks prior to my first meeting with the group learning as much as I could about their sector of agriculture, about their history and competing organizations. I also sent questionnaires to the workshop participants, and from these I learned essential information about the organization, preliminary stories and a sense of internal themes. I also learned that most of the participants thought storytelling was useless and the event was likely to be a waste of time and money.

On my first day, I wore my suit so everyone would know I took them and their work seriously. When I arrived in the meeting room, each faction sat separately from the other. Arms were crossed. Faces were closed. I began by establishing my credentials: about business, about their business in particular and about storytelling. We introduced ourselves, discussed expectations and set the ground rules – listening skills, honesty, open-mindedness. I talked about how story works and its importance in business. Then I asked them to tell each other stories.

We started with success stories: Tell a story about something you are proud of in your work. Or, tell about a specific time when the work you did had an impact on an individual. From successes, we were able to move to frustrations: Tell a story about a time when you felt hindered in your job.  Finally, they felt safe enough to talk about experiences they perceived as failures. As they told these stories the different factions began to realize that they all were telling very similar stories, with similar themes, that reflected similar values.

Over the course of three days, all the participants told their stories, in small groups and to the whole room. Farmers were talking to educators were talking to other stakeholders. Slowly, they began to distill the values of the organization as it is now (not as it had been) and they came to see the utility of storytelling and listening. By the end of the session we had developed a set of stories that every stakeholder could use, a new set of corporate values derived from those stories and a new mission statement.

They also discovered tools to help identify new talent whose values were aligned with their own and realized the importance to the organization’s growth of hiring people with skills beyond the agricultural realm – that is, to bring in new ideas and new stories. And now they had the skills for listening and collecting those stories.

The board chair told me later that she had been quite skeptical about storytelling as a tool for their organization, "But," she said, “You got us. You understood us.” Because I had learned as much as I could about agriculture and their specific history, I could speak their language, listen for useful motifs and navigate their politics. Had I not done my homework, I would not have been able to help.

When an organization decides to build a storytelling practice, it commits itself to greater authenticity and engagement. Externally, a storytelling organization is better able to articulate its value, regardless of its service or product. Think about your favorite brand. Why do you love it? What stories does it tell? Apple tells stories of good design and human connection. Chrysler recently started telling a new version of the American story with its Imported from Detroit advertising campaign. The Red Cross is there in times of need. Each of these stories somehow resonates with an aspect of being human, some story we wish to tell about ourselves or our community: technology so simple your grandmother gets it yet you still look cool while using it; strength and patriotism; helping and being helped. What’s more, each of these companies tells these stories as personal experiences – someone specific using their product or services.

Internally, a storytelling organization is a listening organization. They listen to their employees’ stories so they can help them become more engaged in their work. For example, I was asked to help a division of a government agency understand why much of their work force had low morale. Because I was a neutral observer, employees were much more forthcoming with me than they would have been otherwise and it quickly became clear that the style of management and conversation was one based on volume, not quality, of ideas. During several listening-based story workshops I lead, the leaders were able to develop new styles of managing while the less assertive employees began to speak up. Employee engagement and retention rose significantly.

A leader who uses story authentically and listens to their employees’ stories can’t help but connect more effectively to everyone they contact in the organization. It becomes harder to make thoughtless management decisions and, as a more positive work environment builds, the organization flourishes.

Storytelling is a broad and flexible tool that can be used successfully in any organization and it gives storytellers a chance to extend the impact of our work. Whether we listen to stakeholders to identify new values, problems or directions; coach a leader to be a better speaker and listener; develop story to communicate how a product or service will or could be used; or help build organizational cohesiveness, storytellers help businesses remember their roots – that they are composed of people, and people, each and every one of us, are composed of story.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We live in a generation of autobiography...

A lovely look at autobiographical travelogue by Lucy Knisley. Worth looking at for any personal storyteller, regardless of medium, particularly the first 10 minutes.

"it's worth knowing you have an audience to share it with, it makes for more responsible work."

"it's important to recognize events in your life, even if they're small and transitional...they help us understand ourselves better."

"journaling is a way to collect your scattered and confused thoughts."

Life is the Story from Lucy Knisley on Vimeo.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The visible world

I've lately been taking photographs every day, printing them and pasting them in my journal. I've found I often don't want to write about my life, but I still want to record it, so this seems like a reasonable compromise. I thought I would start sharing some of them with you. None are staged, all are exactly as I found them.

Some of these images act as writing prompts, others simply remind me of where I've been and what I've seen. I'm giving them to you without context, so you can dream them into your own worlds.

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