Thursday, March 28, 2013

Story quote: We are the heroes we've been looking for

We are the hero of our own story.
 - Mary McCarthy

How have you been heroic lately?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Story quote: How to have a happy ending

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
- Orson Welles

Do all endings have to be happy?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Happy Mr. Rogers' Day

I originally published this way back in 2008, but I think it's worth reconsidering today. Why today? Well, today is the Spring Equinox, a time of possibility and hope. It's also Fred Roger's birthday.

Mr. Roger's was a staple of my childhood and, in all likelihood, yours. He was that constant force that told me, no matter how weird I was, someone out there liked me. I believed him. Kids have unerring bullshit detectors and Mr. Rogers knew that, so he was this sincere and had this much respect for everyone.

What's more, he answered every letter he got from a kid, was kind to just about everyone and with dignity and respect more than once told congress a thing or two about living and governing humanely. Mr. Rogers is my hero.

What follows is a lightly edited piece I wrote some time ago about Why Mr. Rogers is worth remembering, celebrating and emulating. For today, at least, let's all try to be a bit more like him. Have a great day, neighbor. I like you just the way you are.

*     *     *

This morning on NPR I heard a brief piece about Mr. Rogers. You know, Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I listened to it and got teary, remembering just how much I loved him, how good I felt while spending time with him, how I knew he was talking just to me, not any other kid. They played this clip, recorded shortly after the 9/11 attacks and near the end of his life, directed at all of us who are now grown-ups but still need someone to like us, just the way we are.

Watch A Message of Hope on PBS. See more from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

I don’t think we should have to win an Academy Award to realize that “You like me! You really, really like me!” It stinks, really, that we need that level of affirmation and, let’s face, it, we all have days where we could use an Oscar to feel better about ourselves. Our culture isn’t set up to help us believe the best about ourselves. We’re too tallshortfatthinoldyoungblackwhiteasianlatinoetc
smartdumbrichpooroutgoingshymalefemalestraightgayidon'tknowetcetcetc too human to be good enough to stand up to the ideals and false standards we’re presented with and hold ourselves too.

Inside none of us measure up.

So let’s hear it for someone who told us, over and over again, that he likes us, just the way we are. I’ll ignore my inner critic who is suggesting that this post is just a bit too maudlin. You can ignore something else. Go ahead, like yourself.

Happy Fred Roger’s Day.

(c) 2008 and 2013 Laura S Packer
Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Story quote: On being bitten

My stories run up and bite me on the leg - I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.
- Ray Bradbury

How have you been bitten lately?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 8, 2013

Some thoughts on manipulation

As a storyteller, part of my job is figuring out where my audience will feel emotional resonance with my subject. How can I thrill them, make them ache or laugh or yearn? I am in the business of creating empathy and connection. Some might call this manipulation, but I think it's more complex than that.  There is an implied contract in any art experience; the audience goes into it knowing they may experience emotional manipulation and, by agreeing to be in the audience, to some degree they are complicit with the manipulation.

As storytellers, we are ethically bound to not abuse this trust. There have certainly been those who have; Hitler, Pol Pot and McCarthy are a few I can think of offhand. But as artists and creators, we need to recognize that our audiences have given us permission to move them, within a certain set of boundaries. They want to be moved by the story, perhaps moved to reflect on their own lives and actions, maybe even moved to create change. But it isn't our job or right to deceive them with our stories into believing things they might otherwise find reprehensible.

We aren't the only ones who use manipulation in our daily work. Almost everyone does. Doctors, lawyers, graphic designer, marketers, architects, salespeople, landscapers, anyone who is passionate about what they do will use some form of emotional manipulation to persuade their audience or clients that what they offer is the best choice.

This is where it gets hazy. To what degree is it ethical to manipulate someone who hasn't agreed to the implied contract we have with our audiences as storytellers? What happens when this manipulation is the basis of the job? What are the societal implications?

I was spurred into this line of thought by a video released by Dove. This company does a great job of manipulating me. Their Real Beauty campaign argues that presenting artificial images of beauty is harmful and that they support a wider range of what can be beautiful, be it size or skin or ability. All of this, of course, is in the hope that you’ll buy their products. While I don’t use Dove products, I do love the message, that when we alter images artificially it creates impossible expectations of beauty that are harmful.

The video they released is below, give it a look. I like its subversive nature and, obviously, it got me thinking on the boundaries of acceptable manipulation. Modern advertising, pop culture, couture and more are built in these manipulated images, so it’s not going to change any time soon, but what would happen if it changed a little? And what are the boundaries of acceptable manipulation? In advertising, in art, and in our own lives.

I’d love to know what you think.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Story quote: life is a diary

The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.
- James Barrie

What story did you intend to write?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

A tale told in tweets: Baba Yaga

I just completed another tale told in tweets. This is the third such retelling: the first (Tatterhood) and the second (The Magic Pot) were a lot of fun, so I decided to give it another go. It’s a good challenge, thinking about how to tell a traditional tale in such tiny chunks; retaining the meaning while making it fit in this modern medium is exactly the kind of thing I like to think about.

I picked Baba Yaga for this tweetale. I love Baba Yaga. She is such a complex character, certainly not good, but not entirely evil. She is a sly, wily witchy woman who lives in sly, wily tales full of gory detail and rich language that are a delight to tell. What’s more, this Baba Yaga story has four well-drawn and distinct females in it; Baba Yaga herself; the girl who finds a way to rescue her brother and her own self; the wicked stepmother, full of fear and longing for love and the safety of her own children; and the wise but ineffective grandmother. It thrills me that kindness is the magic weapon in this story, the tool the children use to find help and effect their escape. The whole story is kind of a dance between cruelty and kindness. This story also asks the question why did the father let his children be abused? It’s directly in the text, a question that’s often overlooked in other wicked stepmother stories. 

I love these complicated, traditional stories. Maybe I particularly love Baba Yaga because of my own Russian heritage, but regardless, it is a juicy story with much to recommend it.

Here is my text, modified for twitter. If you’d like to see it in situ go to my twitter stream and look for the #tweetale hashtag. I’m planning to do another the week after next, so keep an eye open.

Baba Yaga
Adapted for twitter by Laura Packer

Once upon a time, somewhere in Russia, there were born twins to a poor peasant couple.

The babies, a son and daughter, were beautiful and strong, but their mother never recovered from their birth.  

Their father mourned sincerely for a long time, but eventually decided he must remarry, and so he did.  

Perhaps his heart was buried with his wife, because he did not choose a kind woman for his second wife.  

Soon enough the father and his new wife began to have children, and the stepmother grew envious of her stepchildren.  

The stepmother's cruelty knew no bounds. She scolded them, starved them and sent them away from home whenever she could.  

We can only wonder at what pain lurked in her heart to make her so cruel to her step-children. we can only wonder that the father was so blind.  

Her bitterness finally drove her to wonder how she could be rid of her stepson and daughter for good. Who among us has never had a wicked thought?  

The stepmother's wicked thought grew like a poisonous vine that strangled what kindness may have been left in her soul. She decided… 

…to send her stepchildren to visit the old witch, thinking surely the hag would consume them alive.  

"Dear children," she said to the orphans, "go to my grandmother who lives in the forest in a hut on hen's feet. Do everything she asks and she will give you sweet things to eat."  

"You will be happy."  

The children left their home. But instead of going to the witch, the sister, a bright little girl, took her brother's hand…  

…and ran to their own old, old grandmother and told her all about what had happened.  

The good grandmother wept with sorrow for their fate, for their wicked stepmother, for their blind father.  

"You would not be safe here, so you must follow your fate. But here is a hint: Be kind and good to everyone…"  

"…do not speak ill words to any; help the weakest and always hope that for you, too, there will be the needed help."  

The good grandmother gave them milk to drink and cookies to eat. There are cookies everywhere, even in Russia, and then…  

She sent them off to their fate.  

The children felt so small in the big wood. One might have wept and the other might have cried. But soon enough…  

They found a strange and wondrous hut. It stood on scrawny chicken legs with a rooster's comb belching out smoke. The toes were crossed.  

They cried out, "Izboushka, Izboushka! turn thy back to the forest and thy front to us!"  

The hut did as they commanded. The children looked and saw the witch resting inside, her head near the threshold, feet in the corners.

The children were afraid, and stood close, very close together, but in spite of their fear they said very politely…  

"Grandmother, our stepmother sent us to serve thee." The old woman looked at them and stroked her hairy chin.  

"All right; I am not opposed to keeping you, children. If you satisfy my wishes I shall reward you; if not, I shall eat you up."  

The witch ordered the girl to spin thread, and the boy to carry water in a sieve to fill a big tub.  

The poor girl wept at her spinning-wheel in fear for her brother. At once, all around her, appeared grey mice squeaking and saying…  

"Sweet girl, do not cry. Give us cookies and we will help." She gave them the cookies left over from her kind grandmother.  

"Now," squeaked the mice, "go find the black cat. He is very sad; pull the burrs from his fur and he will help."  

Soon enough the cat was purring in the sunlight, his fur smooth and clean. "I shall help you as you have helped me."  

Meanwhile, her brother was in tears. No matter how hard he tried the sieve would not hold water and the tub was dry.  

Little birds, flying near by, chirped, "Kind-hearted little children, give us some crumbs and we will advise you."  

The children gave the birds some crumbs left over from their cookies and the grateful birds chirped again…  

"Some clay and water, children dear!" then away they flew through the air.  

The clever children understood the hint, spat in the sieve, plastered it up with clay and filled the tub in a very short time.  

When they returned to the hut they met the black cat on the threshold. "Dear Kitty-cat, tell us what…"  

“…Must we do in order to get away from your mistress, the witch?"
"Well," very seriously answered the cat…  

"I will give you a towel and a comb and then you must run away. When you hear the witch running after you, drop…"  

"…the towel behind your back and a large river will appear. If you hear her once more, throw down the comb and…"  

"…there will appear a dark wood. This wood will protect you from the wicked witch, my mistress."  

Baba Yaga came home just then, her stomach growling in anticipation of tender child stew.  

"Well," she said to the children, "today you were brave and smart; tomorrow your work will be harder. I hope I shall eat you up."  

The poor children went to bed, not to a warm bed prepared by loving hands, but on the straw in a cold corner.  

Nearly scared to death from fear, they lay there, afraid to talk, afraid even to breathe.  

The next morning the witch ordered all the linen to be woven and all of the firewood to be brought from the forest.  

They knew it was time to make their escape.  

The children took the towel and comb and ran away as fast as their feet could possibly carry them.  

The sharp-toothed dogs were after them, but they threw them the cookies that were left; the gates did not open themselves, but…  

the children smoothed them with oil; the birch tree near the path almost scratched their eyes out, but… 

the gentle girl tied a pretty ribbon to it. They went farther and farther, ran out of the dark forest into the wide, sunny fields.  

The cat sat down by the loom and tore the thread to pieces, purring with delight.  

Baba Yaga returned.  

"Where are the children?" she shouted. "Why did you let them go, treacherous cat? Why did you not scratched their faces?"  

The cat hissed, "I have served you so many years and you have never treated me with kindness, while the children combed my fur."  

The witch railed at the dogs, the gates, and the birch tree near the path. Her spittle flew like rain.  

"Well," barked the dogs, "you may be our mistress, but you have never done us a favor, and the children were kind to us."  

The gates squeaked, "We were always ready to obey you, but you neglected us, and the children soothed us with oil."  

The birch tree lisped, "You never put a even simple thread over my branches and the girl adorned them with a pretty ribbon."  

Baba Yaga knew that there was no help and followed the children herself. She grabbed her broom, all that was loyal, and left.  

The children heard the wind howl at her coming and threw the towel behind them. At once a river, wide and blue, flooded the field.  

Baba Yaga hopped along the shore until she finally found a shallow place and crossed it.  

Again the children heard her hurry after them and so they threw down the comb. This time a dark and dusky forest grew…  

…in which the roots were interwoven, the branches matted together, and the tree-tops touching each other. The witch… 

tried very hard to pass through, but in vain, and so, purple with rage, near to bursting, she returned home.  

The orphans rushed to their father, told him all about their great distress. "Ah, father, why do you… 

"…love us less than our brothers and sisters?"  

The father was ashamed and became angry. He sent the wicked stepmother away and lived a new life with his good children.  

From that time he watched over their happiness and never neglected them any more.  

How do I know this story is true? Why, one was there who told me about it but I promised her I would not tell  

(c) 2013 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, March 1, 2013

Oddservation - overheard

"Mandatory gravy." Creative Commons License

Adventures in storytelling: Starting a new venue

Moving to Kansas City from Boston has been great. I really like this city and, for the most part, am delighted to be here. One of the few things Boston has over KC is a very active storytelling scene. I was part of building that scene over the last 20 years, so I know how long it takes and how rewarding it can be. Here in KC there is the local guild, River and Prairie Storyweavers which hosts two annual festivals, and a slam series, but not much else. Both of these are great, and there's room for more.

One of the wonderful things about storytelling is that it's an expansive art, with room for many different kinds of people and venues. My first real storytelling experience was in an open mic series, hosted by Brother Blue. I went on to run several other series based on his model. Coming out here, I wanted to start something similar, but also use some of what I learned from the slam series run by massmouth.

My first task was to find the right venue, which was easier than I could have dreamed. Prospero's Books is a fantastic used bookstore. A few months before I arrived in KC they opened a new location with a space specifically designed for performance. The manager, Will, was excited about storytelling, we picked a night and he told me to run with it.

Speak Out Storytelling KC was born. It's a storytelling series with monthly themes, an open mic and two features. The themes, idea borrowed from story slams, give all the tellers direction for their tales and gives the evening a cohesion it might not otherwise have. Unlike slams, the stories don't have to be true, they just have to relate to the theme in some vague way or another. We decided to have two shorter features rather than one longer one because it gives more artists a chance to strut their stuff and it will help us build audience.

A month later - last night - we had our first event. The local entertainment newspaper ran a feature on us, our facebook page was getting attention, we were as ready as we could be.

Joyce Slater
The weather here in KC is not the kind you want to go out in. We've had more snow in the last two weeks than there's been in the last three years. So, all things considered, we had a pretty good turnout. About 20 people came to hear and tell.

Our features were Joyce Slater, a KC storyteller and organizer, and me. Joyce had a great story about her first boy girl dance, while told about several first time experiences. We had several open mic tellers, all nervous and all on theme. Most of our attendees had never been to a storytelling event before and left excited and ready for more.

Mission accomplished. Storytelling venue launched. If you find yourself in KC on the fourth Thursday of the month, come by. It's a great space and fun event. We look forward to hearing you.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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