Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Living the life of a storyteller

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I spend a lot of time writing about storytelling and various issues in the art. I’ve written about striving for excellence, various performances, listening, telling specific kinds of stories and so on, but I’ve not written explicitly about living the life of a storyteller, how to move through the world so story informs everything you do and everything you do is informed by story, moving through the world prepared to accept the gifts and challenges story brings. In some ways this whole blog is about living the life of a storyteller, so I demonstrate by example, but I thought it might be fun to come up with a list, a few ways that might change the way you think about your life and incidentally deepen your storytelling and other endeavors.

  1. “yes, and…” is the first rule in improv. It's also the first rule in the life of a storyteller. Every experience is fodder for the next story. You see a hippy walking a toy poodle? Great, that could be a story. Your mother calls and talks your ear off? That’s story fodder too. You accept life experiences, joyful or tragic, participant or observer, as opportunities for stories, even if you may never tell the obvious story in front of you. Maybe that toy poodle is really a magical servant. Maybe it’s a hallucination personified. Maybe the hippy is really a breeder of rare dogs. Maybe it was inherited from their just-deceased stock-broker son. You don’t know what the story really is, so you can make it up. It’s your story now. Even if you don’t use the idea immediately, add it to your compost heap, a file somewhere  that contains various ideas, phrases and inspirations for stories. “Yes, and…” also means that you’re willing to risk failing. If you work on a story that doesn’t go where you expected or you get stuck, it doesn’t mean it failed. It means you learned something new about your own process and maybe you should move onto a different story. This one will wait for you. Frankly, “yes, and…” is a pretty nice rule to have for life in general.
  2. Listen. The best storytellers I have ever known are also among the greatest listeners. They know that listening to other tellers and the world around them will only deepen their own telling. By listening intently to other tellers they learn more about the craft of storytelling and increase their understanding of how it works in performance and in the world at large. Great storytellers also listen to the audience. Remember, there is no fourth wall in storytelling, so you can react to your audience in real time. If the audience loves it when you talk about trees and you can do so appropriately in the context of the story, talk about trees more. The meat of the storytelling performance happens in the audience’s head. Listen to them and take advantage of it. Equally, storytellers need to be listened to; practice your new stories with a friendly audience who can give you useful feedback. You get to decide if you use that feedback or not, but a little friendly listening can go a long way. Lastly, when you listen to the world around you, it’s quite likely you’ll overhear stories just waiting to be told.
  3. Praise. Be abundant in your praise of other tellers. Don’t hesitate to tell others what you love about their work and their gift. Just as importantly, accept praise as you receive it. Don’t second guess it or deny the listener’s experience by minimizing their praise. What we don’t need but frequently get or give is “constructive criticism.” Newer endeavors especially thrive when they are fed, not when the roots are plucked off. Heck, be abundant with praise in general. If someone does something well or kind, let them know you appreciate it. How often do you feel appreciated? You’d be surprised how giving appreciation leads to being appreciated. Thanks to Doug Lipman for starting me down the path of being a routine appreciator.
  4. Fail again, fail better. In other words, take risks. If you take no risks in your art or your life you will never grow. Don’t be afraid of failing. Your job is to try new things, fail frequently and to learn from each experience, so you can reach new heights of success.
  5. Change is inevitable. You may be a superb teller of personal stories. You may one day find yourself drawn to tell folktales. This may be frightening but remember, change happens. The only time change stops is when you die. As you try new things, listen, praise and take risks, you will change and grow. The material you are drawn towards will change, as may your audiences. Embrace it. Find a way to make it your own.
  6. Value. No one else does what you do. Your art has value and deserves to be valued. Your whole self deserves to be valued. When you are living the life of a storyteller you may find people under-estimate the time and work you put into your craft. Don’t let them. Make sure they know that your skills are valuable. This must start with valuing yourself. If you don’t know what to charge for your work, ask other tellers what they charge. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth; you support yourself and your community when you do.
  7. Self-care. No one else is going to take care of you for you. You must understand what nourishes you and your art and provide it for yourself or ask for it clearly and firmly. What is conducive to you doing your best work? Do you need a cup of tea ahead of time? Do you need to run a mile? Do you need space and quiet in which to create? No one will know to give you these things if you don’t ask. Equally, you need to explore what helps you feel most whole, how you can take care of yourself. Maybe you need a bath before you can sleep, or you are renewed by eating sushi once a month. Find a way to care for yourself and you will be a more complete artist.
  8. Abundance and generosity. Assume the world is abundant. That there are ample gigs for all of us, that there are audiences, that you will learn and tell the next story. Be generous with your talent, your compassion and your heart. When we expect abundance the world becomes a much bigger place than when we assume there is scarcity. What we are given or create for ourselves can be accepted with that much more joy. When we are generous it becomes easier to accept the gifts of the universe, because we have become part of the gift of the universe. Envy (I’m a better storyteller than he is) greed (I want more gigs, even if they aren’t right for me) refusal to share (No, I don’t know anyone who can do that gig even though I can’t) all will only keep your heart compressed. Be like the grinch, let your heart grow three times in a day.

You may have guessed this manifesto is about more than being a storyteller, it’s about life. We are all storytellers; the world is our stage and we can decide if our life-long performance is a sold out success or a bust. Go for it. The world is waiting.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. I'm not a teller but am a grateful listener to your yes ands

  2. I had this on my browser until I had time to read it slowly and take it in and I am glad I did. I wonder if this could be expanded into a book - Living the Life of A Storyteller. All the things you talk about are, as you say at the end, no just about storytellers, but about life. I never thought before that by playing down compliments would be putting the person giving the compliment down! That is something I struggle with - you gave it some depth I had lacked in recognition of the issue.
    Thanks again Laura for a great post.


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