Thursday, May 16, 2013

N is for... nonsense and news

We're over halfway through the storytelling alphabet journey! To celebrate, we'll cover two topics today, nonsense and news, though the two are often indistinguishable.

Nonsense is delightful, regardless of the age of your audience. A bit of nonsense can be inserted into a tale as a kind of repeating chorus. It can also be a touchstone that identifies specific characters or places. I tell a series of stories about Crazy Jane, a holy fool. These stories are generally told to adults, though kids like them, too. Most Crazy Jane stories include some kind of nonsensical event or language early on, because Crazy Jane is crazy - she revels in nonsense, in rhymes and riddle and things that are just silly. The story may eventually go in a much more somber direction, but the silly start lets the audience know that this is Crazy Jane, she is crazy and wild and unpredictable.

Other storytellers have used nonsense to great effect. Brother Blue would routinely insert scat into his stories. These nonsense syllables were punctuation, a way he could give both himself and the audience a chance to pause and think about the story. It was one of his signature storytelling moments.

Even business speakers might find a bit of nonsense useful; you can use it to contrast your real facts and figures or to poke fun at the seriousness of the moment.

It's worth playing around with nonsense and seeing what you make of it. You might find great sense hidden there.

A less intentional kind of nonsense is the news. We are surrounded by a steady stream of current events coverage, making it very hard to escape the challenging events that seem to occur daily in this world we live in. As storytellers, we can talk about news events in a variety of ways.
  • We can tell personal stories about our reaction to the news. This could include recollections, stories about people we know or have created who were present during an event, or other realistic stories. These stories help us all remember we're not alone in our reactions to these difficult times and can bring new information to your listeners.  The danger is that the storyteller must be able to tell the tale without falling apart. You don't want your audience to have to take care of you, instead of being immersed in their own response to the story.
  • We can tell allegories. Many traditional stories can easily be recast into responses to current events. This lets us think about the tough stuff through metaphor. Just make sure your audience has room to come to the metaphor on their own terms. Equally, understand what your story is about. I recently retold The Abduction of Persephone from her mother's point of view; this was a week or two after the shootings in Newtown, CT. It was only midway through the story that I realized I was telling a story of parental grief, so we could all grieve these lost children. It was a hard moment in the telling, when I had to rely on all of professionalism to keep going. I've written more about that experience here and you can see the performance here. 
  • We can acknowledge the event and move on. Sometimes we just need to move past something and proceed as we originally intended. If the event is big enough, it becomes another presence in the room. Acknowledging it means your listeners know that you understand why they might be distracted. They know you are, too. And they know that together perhaps you can escape for just a little while.
  • We can use the event to create a new story. How many of us have stories about where we were when we heard about 9/11? The Challenger explosion? The King and Kennedy assassinations? What about a story of foreclosure or marching for civil rights or watching the moon landing? We can take those moments after they've had time to crust over, put them in a personal and historical context, and build something new. We can share our lives and our history with each other, using those moments as a way to talk about something else entirely.
Every storyteller will have to contend with the world beyond their performance. We are lucky, our work is about connecting with other human beings. When we remember we are of the world, not separate from it, even the most difficult moment can be wrapped in story.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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