Monday, March 26, 2012

Story quote of the week: On not stopping

I could not stop talking because now I had started my story. It wanted to be finished. We can not choose to start or stop. Our stories are the tellers of us.
― Chris Cleave Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On love and being given the Brother Blue and Ruth Hill award

Typically on Thursdays I post in response to the story quote of the week. This week won't be an exception, but it's in an unexpected and overwhelming context, so please bear with me.

I've written before, many times, about Brother Blue and his wife, Ruth Hill. They are my teachers, my friends, my spiritual parents. Brother Blue died in November, 2009 and I still miss him. I talk with Ruth every week and see her several times every month. I don't know who I would be without them.

The Brother Blue and Ruth Hill award was instituted by the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling in 2002 to "recognize extraordinary commitment and efforts to promote a broader understanding of the art of storytelling and the support of storytellers in the development of their art. It serves, as Brother Blue, has said, 'To honor those who give their lives to storytelling to change the world.'"

This year my partner, Kevin Brooks, and I were the recipients. I cannot tell you how honored and grateful we are. To be selected by our peers as being worthy of this award, and an award established in honor of a couple who have shaped both our lives, is humbling and overwhelming.

Which brings me to the story quote of the week.

A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation... Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.
Ben Okri

Brother Blue always said that if we knew each other's stories we couldn't point a gun at each other. If we understood how much we were alike on an individual basis by hearing each others stories, we couldn't kill each other. If we told from the middle of the middle of ourselves to the middle of the middle of our listeners, there would be no reason to fear.

We understand ourselves and our lives through the stories we tell and hear. They create the worlds we live in. We need to be mindful of what stories we tell because they are how we learn, understand, shape and share our worlds. A well-told story can build walls or bridges.

And that is why I do the work I do, whether on a stage, in the street, a boardroom or class. Stories connect us. They keep us healthy because we can reach beyond ourselves and find we are not alone. They make our hearts larger because they give us the gift of seeing the world through a new lens and the realization that this lens is not so different from our own. Standing on the stage this past weekend, as we accepted the Brother Blue and Ruth Hill award, all I could see was the potential of hundreds of beating hearts, expanding to hold all the stories they heard, flying off to make the world a bigger place.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ethics and the power of storytelling

This American Life, a nationally syndicated public radio program, recently devoted an entire hour of their programming to a piece by monologist Mike Daisey, an artist walking in the footsteps of Spalding Gray. Mr. Daisey calls himself a storyteller, although he uses notes on stage. The piece, an excerpt of his longer performance work called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, focused on terrible working conditions in a Chinese factory that manufactures iPhones and many more of the electronic devices we’ve become dependent on. The piece asked us to consider the price of our convenience, our technology, our love of the shiny and new. This led to hundreds of thousands of people demanding that Apple be more accountable in its manufacturing practices, exposes in the New York Times and more. It was a powerful thing to witness, the richest company in the world having to answer to a storyteller.

This week This American Life devoted an hour of their programming to a retraction of the Mike Daisey piece. It turns out Mr. Daisey lied. Or elaborated. Or added dramatic content, however you’d like to phrase it. And all of this has me thinking about the power of storytelling.

I’ve written before about the ethics of storytelling, in particular regard to the ethical standards of performers and venue organizers. Mr. Daisey’s stage piece, the powerful response to it, his manipulation of the truth, and what is ultimately his unwillingness to be accountable for deceiving his listeners has me considering the astonishing power of a well told story, the boundaries between truth and fiction, and why storytellers - be they performers, CEOs, textbook writers or parents - need to be mindful of how they say what they say.

Storytelling is among the most powerful and action oriented of media. A well-told story can and has changed the world. The stories of Dr. Martin Luther King changed the world. So did the stories of Adolf Hitler. How we craft that story has enormous impact on our listeners and it is nothing less than unethical to present a symbolic truth as a literal one, because audiences so want to believe what we say. Personal storytellers may exaggerate details of their lives - the car might be bigger, the storm might have been worse - but if we are asked, we must admit the exaggeration. This doesn’t lessen the authenticity of the story, it merely moves a portion of the story into the realm of symbolic truth.

Performing storytellers ask their audiences to enter a specific world. They ask them to accept their narrative as holding some form of truth, whether it’s metaphoric truth (like you might find in a fairy tale) or literal truth (as one assumes exists in a personal story). When you tell a personal story, as Mr. Daisey does,  your audience wants to believe you. This means no matter how shocking, funny or moving, the audience agrees to believe the teller. This creates a bond between teller and audience, because it means that everyone realizes they are less alone; we find ourselves in other’s experiences, even if those experiences are foreign to us. When that contract is violated the audience has every right to feel distressed, because they came into the experience expecting to be told stories they could identify with. In the case of Mr. Daisey’s piece, the audience could identify with his shock and horror at the conditions in the Chinese factory, his shame at loving the products produced there and be moved to action out of sympathy for the oppressed workers.

Had he chosen to tell his audience at the outset that parts of his story were dramatized, I don’t believe it would have lessened the impact of the story or the connection he forged with them. Spalding Gray, the great monologist, often started his pieces by letting everyone know exactly what was real and what wasn’t. The pieces were still powerful.

By violating the trust of his audience, Mr. Daisey has undermined his own determination to change the truly deplorable working conditions in these factories. We, his listeners, now question his entire story, not just the pieces known to be less than factual. What’s worse, next time we hear a story about people working in terrible conditions, while we may feel sympathy, a small voice inside will wonder if this is true and we might hesitate to act more than we would have before. And that violates ethics well beyond those of a storyteller abusing the trust of the audience and the power of story.


Update, 20 March 3:30 pm. The New York Times reports Mr. Daisey has slightly modified his show in light of the controversy.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, March 19, 2012

Story quote of the week: On the heart

A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation... Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.
― Ben Okri
Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Storytelling as a river

The story quote of the week let us spend some time with Mole as he sat by the river and listened to its tales. I think rivers are great metaphors for storytelling (and life in general). Think about it.

  • A good story moves you. You flow from image to image and are transported along the narrative.You find yourself someplace new, a stranger in the world, after you hear a great story.
  • A good story is never the same each time you tell or hear it. Stories change with experience, so the parts of a story that are meaningful in one telling may not be the same as the next. What's more, stories change with the audience, so no two tellings are ever the same, since audiences vary while tellers grow and change. 
  • A good story harbors many. Even the simplest stories are rife with images and metaphors that linger long after the telling. You may find yourself coming back to it later and discovering hidden depth. There is a story I first told maybe 15 years ago; each time I tell it I discover something new about myself, a new image swimming around, new hidden treasure.
  • Just like rivers, stories that are dammed up can be immensely powerful or immensely destructive. We need to be heard. We need to know that someone values our stories and our work. If we have no one to listen to us, the stories we hold inside can become warped and dangerous and, in turn, warp us.
  • Stories have tributaries, you don't know where they might lead and what connections they may harbor. A simple folk tale could become an epic. A heart-breaking personal story may lead to an ocean of commonality. Each story, teller and listener is connected, just the way a river is connected to a spring, is connected to a glacier is connected to the rain is connected to the ocean.
  • Good stories keep us alive. They are an ecosystem. We are nourished by the stories we hear and tell. They move us to listen more effectively and tell better stories. Just like a healthy river that sustains myriad life forms in its flow, its banks and for miles around, stories keep us strong, sustained, filtered, alive.
As the weather becomes warmer, take some time. Go listen to a river. It may tell you a story you never expected to hear.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, March 12, 2012

Poem: Thinking of Work

Thinking of Work
by James Shea

A brief storm
blew the earth clean.

There was much
to do: sun to put up,
clouds to put out,
blue to install,
limbs to remove,
grass to implant.

(The grass failed.
We ordered new grass.)

A limb had cracked
in half in the short storm,
short with its feeling.

We saw its innards,
all the hollow places.

Something flew out of
the window and then
the window flew out of the window.

(Please note, I find many of these poems courtesy of You should check it out.)

Creative Commons License

Story quote of the week: On the river

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Creative Commons License

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why we need fairy tales

Yesterday's story quote of the week was from Einstein:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

I love fairy tales. I grew up hearing Grimm's stories, not from books, but passed down to me by my mother from her mother from her mother, through the oral tradtion. I went on to read as many fairy tales as I could find and essentially got my degree in them. I love the mystery and magic, the possibility and even the moralizing. I learned how to solve problems, trick my way out of dangerous situations and see beyond the obvious.

I've written before about how to tell fairy tales. As a storyteller, I know if I tell a fairy tale or a story structured like one, my audience will understand what I'm doing and come along for the ride. They are a common cultural language, with familiar symbols and pathways, that let us connect more easily with one another.

Fairy tales are potent for retelling and healing. When we tell the story of our own broken youth, we can tell it as a fairy tale and make it easier to both state and hear. We can talk about the dark and process those experiences without frightening ourselves any more.

Fairy tales help us understand that the values of once upon a time aren't so different from our values now. We still yearn for love, for fiscal comfort, for a better life for ourselves and our children. We want to overcome the ogres, move to better pastures, be cared for as best we can. If those values, carried across time, still endure, then perhaps values across cultures can be similar as well. Fairy tales help us break boundaries of time and culture.

And fairy tales feed our imaginations. The wondrous is matter of fact in these tales, so we are encouraged to look for wonder in our own lives. We are given permission to see the world as one of possibility. Einstein also said Imagination is more important that knowledge. If you believe that, as I do, then fairy tales are one of your most potent tools to feed your imagination. 

It's important that we keep these stories in circulation, even the disturbing ones, because they tell us so much about what it is to be human. They allow us to talk about dark and scary things through metaphor (how many wolves have you met today?) and find ways through the woods in the safety of our own homes. They help us understand that yes, there is a woods, and yes, there is a wolf, but if we are wise or kind or clever, we will survive. They offer us unexpected solutions to the oldest problems. They remind us that strangers can offer kindness when we are kind in return. They teach us that we do not need to be alone.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Story quote of the week: Einstein on fairy tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 
- Albert Einstein
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr. Marquez

Today is Gabriel Garcia Marquez' birthday. If you don't know who he is, you can read about him here. He's been hugely influential on me, for the lushness of his language, for his imagery (yeah! Magical realism rules!) and for his bravery.

To celebrate his life and work, here are a few of my favorite quotes from his work.While he's written with enormous eloquence on love, I've selected a wider variety for your perusal.

Thank you, Mr. Marquez, for everything.

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”

“I've always imagined heaven to be a kind of library”

“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but ... life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

“There is always something left to love.”

“The world must be all fucked up," he said then, "when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”

“A lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.”

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”

“Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.” 

“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”

“Florentina Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months and eleven days and nights. 'Forever,' he said.”

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Shutting up the voices

I have voices in my head. Not psychotic voices, at least not so far as I know, but destructive little murmurs that tell me I can't do some things, will never be the best I can be, should stop and consider the consequences of my actions rather than being bold and risky. I'm betting many of you have them too.

These voices have kept me from trying many things or have held me back from really committing myself to grand adventures. Sometimes I conquer them: When I first got on a bike 10 years ago the voices were terrible, telling me I could never be an athlete. I've learned to ignore them, can ride for many miles and have learned to love being active. And sometimes I can't. That's when I become reticent, stumble, am afraid to take any risks because I might fail. Even writing a blog post seems impossible when the voices get going.

Who wants to read that anyway? What have you got to say? Just watch tv.

I read an article today about a new technology, low-level electrical stimulation of the brain, that appears to make the voices shut up and encourages the state known as "flow." What if we could wear a "thinking cap" that made us more confident? Less afraid? Able to be who we are, without fear or voices intruding?

The author of Better Living Through Electrochemistry makes it clear that her experiment with a thinking cap was extraordinary. While she wore the cap she could learn more easily and more confidently. She was able to get out of her own way.

The potential ethical considerations of this technology are considerable. If only the wealthy could afford thinking caps, would that make the opportunity gap between rich and poor even greater? And there isn't good research yet available on the long-term effects of low-level electromagnetic stimulation of the brain. Is it a good idea to have what is essentially mild ECT to help you through the day? Does your brain adapt, will you need greater and greater dosages for this to keep working?

But I have to tell you, when I read about the thinking cap and that it made the voices simply stop... I don't know that I would say no if someone offered one to me. Even if I knew that the effects weren't permanent, that I would need more treatments at greater dosages. If I could shed the voices and uncertainty, what would I give for the chance to be my best self, all the time? What would I trade to achieve flow without trying? A great deal, I suspect.

That understanding of myself and my relationship with the voices in my head leads me to this: How sad it is that I cripple myself with my own doubt and worry. Because that's what the voices are, even if they sound like family or teachers or society, they are my own self-sabotage in whispers and hisses.

So I have to ask myself, how can I silence the voices, really rid myself of them (not simply muzzle them, because they still can make me flinch at the wrong moment even if I can't hear them) without mechanical assistance? How can I live in flow more often?

I don't know.  Beyond living my life as fully as I can, beyond remembering to take risks and accept success as well as failure, beyond forgiving myself for my inadequacies, I don't know. I'd love to know how you keep your voices at bay.

I'm doing my best to kill the voices, one by one, by doing exactly what they say I cannot. I don't need a chorus in my head, just one strong voice, telling me I can achieve my goals. I just need that voice to be my own.

(c)2012 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
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails