Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ask the storyteller: 11 thoughts on the business of art and more questions please!

Today on #askthestoryteller we're going to think a little about the business of art. I'm by no means an expert but a number of you have asked about my business practices.

Before we dive in I wanted to thank you for helping me with this column. It's been a good way to walk back into storytelling in this turbulent year. I'm looking for more questions to answer in 2015, so please send them to me! Thank you for your ongoing support and conversation.

Now, onto the question at hand. Like many artists, I find business practices challenging, but I believe that I must think of my work as a business if I am to succeed. I don't want this to be an endless blog post, so here is a list of some of the things I do to help me operate as the owner of a small business. As always, your mileage may vary, this is what I have found effective. I should also add, I don't do any of these perfectly.
  1. I make annual, monthly and weekly goals. Every year I list what I would like to accomplish; I have a business plan with a five-year outlook. I dream big. Then I break it down into specific goals with a timeline. There are many, many tools available to help you with this. If I understand my goals clearly I can work towards them.
  2. I schedule my time every day. Based on my goals, I come up with a monthly, weekly and daily schedule.  For example, Monday and Friday I look at my bank accounts. I pay bills. I see if I'm on financial track. I incorporate my goals into my weekly schedule. Tuesdays I develop mailing lists. Wednesdays I make phone calls.
    I use sticky notes to track everything and I give myself deadlines. My timer is my best friend. I use a modified pomodoro system that gives me blocks of time to work and blocks to rest. I keep lists.
    I have found if I don't have a real schedule I get very little done. It's much more fun reading, writing, watching tv, going for walks. I treat my desire to make a living as a storyteller as work. I am no more entitled to this work than anyone else is, regardless of talent and ability. I need to work for it.
  3. I revisit my goals frequently. Are they realistic? Are they helping me live the life I want? If a goal isn't working, why? By keeping goals in mind I have something to work for.
  4. I remain in contact. I go to networking events and conferences, answer emails and phone calls, post in my blogs, update my sites, remain active on social media. I recently relaunched my newsletters.I strive to provide excellent customer service. People need to know I'm there to hire me.
  5. I keep my ethics front and center. I treat others the way I want to be treated. I honor my customers. I strive to provide excellent customer service. I charge appropriate rates so I don't devalue our artform. People need to know I'm good at what I do AND reliable to hire me again.
  6. I keep my personal and business finances separate. This lets me see if I am actually meeting my fiscal goals. Money matters.
  7. I mind my brand. I use my logos, I keep much of my social media focused on the Laura Packer and thinkstory brands. Brands tell stories. What's yours?
  8. I outsource. I am not good at everything. I hire or barter for design services, some admin work and so on. Hiring a designer for my branding means I have products that look much better than what I would come up with on my own. A small investment saves me time and frustration. I look more professional.
  9. I strive to keep on top of current events. This serves several purposes. I can use current events to highlight the value of my services. I can also make sure I don't blunder when something big happens. I don't want to auto-send a post immediately after some horrible event. It makes me look tone deaf. Be relevant.
  10. I do something to feed my art at least weekly if not daily. At the heart of all of this is my desire to be an artist. I go on artist dates. I read fairy tales. I go to other art events. I do things I'm bad at like sketch. I strive to feed my creative self regularly. Creative nourishment feeds my heart which feeds my work.
  11. I don't go it alone. I have friends who help me, friends I help. I have a coach. Isolation is a sure way to kill our artistic intent (even Vincent van Gogh had his brother Theo). I remain as connected as I can. Being connected keeps me accountable and keeps me going.
A bonus, from photographer Sean Howard: Practice gratitude for every dollar. Yes! And I would add, for every gig and opportunity.

There are several resources I have found to be invaluable. Here are a few to start with:
  1. The Artist's Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love by Jackie Battenfield. A practical, hands-on guide to being a working artist.
  2. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Helps me get through resistance and keep going.
  3. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde (thanks to Bill Harley for pointing me towards it). This helps me remember the value of art in our world.
  4. Creative Capital offers some great webinars for artists trying to be more businesslike.
I'd love to know what strategies work for you and what resources have helped. Please add them into the comments below so we can all prosper! And again, I'm looking for more questions. Please send them my way so we can keep exploring storytelling together in 2015.

May the new year bring us peace, joy and prosperity.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Nine months: Birthing loss

A slightly different version of this post was published on Kevin's Caringbridge page. You can find other grief musings there as well as the posts related to his illness.

Today is nine months. I feel like I am birthing loss. His matter has now been gone for as long as it took to assemble it.

I have gotten through his birthday and mine, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In front of me is New Year's Eve and Day then the landmarks related to diagnosis, illness, death.

This time a year ago I was so worried about him, so afraid it was something serious. I knew it was serious though three doctors told us it wasn't. We still slept in the same bed, still touched, talked, laughed... I was so worried and he was in so much pain. Here I am now. Birthing a life I never wanted. Nine months ago I woke holding his hand. Today I woke holding a pillow. Nine months ago my focus was entirely in one small room utterly honed. Today my focus is diffuse, though that's not the right word.

I am so grateful to my family, both by birth and by accident. The kids and I are close. I am very lucky, I hear so many stories about step-families that don't survive the loss of the connecting thread. I am so grateful to my friends, known and unknown. I wish I was who I was and could be the kind of friend I used to be.

I find myself in a neutral land now. For a long time I was living with an internal landscape of bleak desolation, bombed destruction. Now it is blank. Lifeless but no longer just rubble. No green, no growth but less destruction. An unending road in a featureless land. I know this is probably progress, but in ways it feels worse. I am so afraid I will forget him; the desolation was full of memories, this landscape is as unmarked as fresh asphalt. I know this won't happen, I know I will remember, but this knowledge doesn't stop the fear.

I am certainly more functional than I was 9 months ago. I am birthing a new self. This new me feels diminished, but I know she is all I have now. I am amputated but learning to function without. I don't like writing about myself, I'd rather write about him, but I'm not sure what to say anymore.

Kevin was the best of what I am. He made me better as he made all of us better. I don't like writing of him in the past tense because for me he is still very present. I talk with him all the time. Sometimes he talks back. I live in a world of our mutual creation, only I have lost the map. But he is still with me in every breath. I sleep with pillows at my back so some of his warmth is reflected back to me.

Nine months to assemble, nine months gone and I remind myself that in every breath I inhale molecules he exhaled. I remind myself that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. I remind myself that he lives on in all of us.
Cold comfort but something.
Not always and never what I crave.
I would trade everything for him back, for one more touch, one more chance to tell him how much I love him. I still love him.

And I love you. I hope you all are well, that you have had holidays surrounded by love and light. I wish you the best for the coming year. Please keep in touch. Thank you for reading, for being my unseen companions through this place. Thank you.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas love letters: You make me want to write

So I got through Christmas. It was terrible. It was lovely. It was as full of cognitive dissonance as anything else on this journey. I am deeply grateful to my step-kids and other family for helping me through. I gave and received wonderful gifts. I was loved. The thing I want most in the world wasn't given to me, but it couldn't be, so I did my best. I am grateful. Thank you.

This is the first Christmas in 15 years where I have not awakened to a love letter. Fifteen years ago Kevin and I decided to write each other love notes on Christmas. He didn't particularly like writing love letters while I love both writing and receiving them (as you may have gathered). He said our whole lives were a love letter so it seemed redundant to write one. This is a hard argument to refute, but I still loved reading them; this was a way for me to get that bit of romance and for him to not have to do it too often.

Our life was a love letter. Complicated, wonderful, turbulent, frustrating, joyful, precious. But the love was always there. It still is.

We would wake up on Christmas Day and sometime over the course of the morning we would give each other letters. I associate these letters with the smells of bacon and coffee, with slow waking and the shimmer of Christmas lights. We would read and beam at one another. I don't think he disliked writing them as much as he put on because he always was so happy to see me read it. Either way, it worked for us.

I'm not going to share any of his letters to me with you, they are private. Nor will I share the letter I wrote this year, that too is private. But I will share my letter from last year as a gift for the world. I think it makes sense in the context of this blog. Since the grief writing on this blog is also about the love, I want to remember with you the love before there was illness and loss.

I am coming to believe love transcends time, space, life and death. It gives me some comfort, at least in the easier moments.

May you all be loved.
May you all love.
May you all have the chance to mourn those you still love and never forget how well you are loved.

Please note, this letter may not be reprinted without my permission. Please ask first.

From Laura to Kevin, Christmas 2013

You make me want to write.

You make me want to write the way water wants to run downhill, the way snow succumbs to the sun’s rays, the way the waves can’t help but rush to the shore and throw themselves against it, over and over and over again each time hoping to consume the land and knowing they never entirely will.
You make me want to write the way shoots push their way out of the dirt every spring, green erections undeniable, persistent, urgent and true.

You make me want to write.

You make me want to write the way the moon can’t help but change her shape, each incarnation the same as it was just 28 days earlier but still unique and unrepeatable, the way clouds can never be static, the way thunder echoes and rolls and whispers itself to sleep thinking that it isn’t dying just fading away.
You make me want to write the way caves savor their echo, possible only by incursion and yearning into stony silence.

You make me want to write because of the smell of crushed leaves, the taste of water in the air, the brush of ink on skin colored paper.
You make me want to write because of the throb, the rhythm, the pulse of keyboard strikes, the beat of the words, the ebb and flow of each sentence hearing its own heartbeat.

You make me want to write because it is only through writing that I can know myself and in knowing myself I lay down all that I am, ink stained and wrinkled, rewritten and scorned, untouched by the editor’s knife, only for you.

You make me want to write.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Love your audience

This week on #askthestoryteller I am taking a slight detour from your questions, but it's an important one and something I believe in passionately. I thought in this, the dark time of year when we celebrate light, it would be a good time to talk about love and art. Please keep your questions coming, I love answering them.

I've written before about the relationship between teller, audience and tale. You asked and I had something to say. I'd like to take this a step further and talk a little bit about how the storyteller becomes the vessel for story, and how loving the audience makes this easier. I'm not talking about loving each specific individual, though if you can that's great. I'm talking about the kind of love that allows you as performer to get out of your own way and give the audience what they need as an ingredient in the performance.

What follows is an article I wrote for a recent issue of Storytelling Magazine, published by the National Storytelling Network.

May your holidays be bright and gracious.
May you find peace and comfort.
May you tell and be heard.
May you hear.
May you love and be loved.

*          *          *

A few years ago my apprentice told to her largest audience yet. She was nervous. Shortly before the performance I asked her to look at the audience. “Really look,” I said, “What do you see?”
“People staring at me.”
“People with the same hopes and fears you have. Love them and you won’t have anything to be nervous about. Just love them.”

When we love our audiences and recognize that they are no different from us beyond the fact that we are on the stage and they are our listeners, we can’t help but want to do our best for them. We can’t help but want to invite them into the shared experience of storytelling.

We must remember that our essential job as tellers is to leave the audience enthralled not only with us, but with the story and its meaning in their lives. We must love them enough to be willing to let them immerse themselves in the storytelling experience and perhaps experience something different from what we intended. Our goal is to be so good at what we do that the audience can claim the story as their own, regardless of whether it’s a personal story, a traditional tale, fiction or another kind of narrative, and give it their own meaning; we are the messenger as well as the message. We need to be willing to let the audience build their own world and that world may or may not have much to do with us. We need to be able to let the audience develop their own relationship with the story.

I find it easier to leave this room for the audience when I remind myself of several things.

  1. We don’t know what’s going on inside the mind of a listener. All we can do is offer them something that we know has meaning and trust them to take what they need,
  2. This is easier to do when we approach our audience with love. We don’t punish babies for having needs, we recognize those needs and do our best to meet them. Likewise with the audience. We may not know what those needs are, but we can admit they exist and leave room for them in our narrative by not demanding that the audience see every detail the way we do, instead constructing their own version in their own minds.
  3. The act of storytelling becomes a gift that can leave an audience transformed if there is room in the narrative for not only the teller and the tale, but the listeners. In design this is called white space. It is the space in which images, form and narrative structure exist, but with enough room that the audience isn’t crowded out. It is the silence between notes in music. Without white space meaning can be lost in the crowd.  Don’t worry, your audience will remember that you are the one who gave them space and permission to live in the moment of the story.

Storytelling is composed of relationships between the teller, the tale and the audience. When the teller loves the audience enough to let them form their own relationship with the tale we can't help but transcend the moment. As listeners we are moved beyond our every day experiences into new worlds. As tellers we become the sacred vessel that the best art is: a vehicle for transformation and connection between artist, art, audience and the world.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 19, 2014

Grief, holidays, things not to say

I've heard over and over that the first year of grief is the worst and that the holidays are particularly hard. The first year holds all of those land mine dates - the first birthday, the first memory of the illness, the first round of personal marks in the year and so on. The holidays are supposed to be a time of family festivity and so hold many reminders that the one we love most isn't here.

I can't say anything about the truth of the first year being the worst since I am still in the midst of it. I can say the holidays make everything feel more acute. Just as joy is enhanced by the accumulated weight of memories, so too is sorrow. I have many sweet memories of this time of year with Kevin. His delight in decorating, cutting down trees with the kids, bickering about what to get whom, his face as he watched us open gifts, the sacred moments of connection. I cannot tell you how much I want him here. Of course, every day has these moments regardless of the holidays. Hugging him on the staircase when he comes home from work, washing dishes together, his patient annoyance with me as I ask him to catch me up on his tv shows, the warmth beside me in bed, the sacred moments of connection. It is all there, all of this memory and loss, all of this life, held in stark contrast to where I am living now. The holidays just make it more acute. Maybe it's the media, maybe it's the zeitgeist, maybe it's just part of being alive.

Whatever it is, it sucks.

That being said, I am at least able to be grateful for the memories and for the time I will spend with those I love over the coming weeks. This gratitude doesn't mean I am grieving any less, just that I have broader vision now.

I think part of the holiday problem for those who grieve is that we stand out in stark contrast to those who have not suffered this kind of loss this year (they will eventually, and then it will be our job to walk beside them and point out land mines as they navigate the land of grief). This year I am an object lesson to remind everyone to be present in their love while they can be. This year I am the embodiment of the lack of Kevin.

Because grievers are in such contrast this time of year, I have found that over the past few weeks more people are saying things that don't help. I know it's done with the best of intent but, I assure you, I am still grieving even if I don't look like it at the moment. I've written before about what helps and what doesn't; this list still stands. My perspective has changed a little, since I am almost 9 months in, so I have some new thoughts on the matter. Here is a quick list of things to keep in mind if you are spending time with the bereaved over the holidays.

  1. Telling me how I feel doesn't help. I wrote recently about faking it. It isn't that I hurt any less. The loss is still traumatic and acute. It's that I've become better at functioning in the day-to-day. I've become better at seeing how my grief distresses you, so I don't share it with you as much. Telling me that I must be feeling better because I'm smiling suggests you have some insight into my feelings beyond my own. I know I'm smiling because it still feels unfamiliar on my face. Instead please just welcome it. Be in the moment with me and don't tell me how I'm feeling. 
  2. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief.
  3. Let me lead. If I'm crying I may or may not want to be touched. I know this isn't true for all grievers but I'm pretty good at asking for what I need, be it a hug or to be left alone. My life is all about the things I had no control over; let me control what I can.
  4. Don't pretend Kevin never existed. I love talking about him. I often love hearing your stories about him. Not all the time, but don't think the 15 years I spent with him have just vanished. Let him be part of the conversation.
  5. And please don't try to console me with platitudes. I'd rather you be quiet with me or tell me you don't know what to say. Telling me that Christmas is extra special this year because Kevin is with Jesus doesn't help me. If it helps you that's great, but for me all it does is accentuate his loss.

I'm not trying to be harsh with this list. I'm trying to find a way to make the holidays safer for me and for all the others who grieve. I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't. What you have found comforting.

Mostly I am grateful that you are here. Thank you for being on this journey with me. May the holidays and coming year bring us all ease.

(38 weeks. I love you. I hope you like the Hanukah candles.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Sourcing and appropriating traditional tales

image courtesy of child's play
Hello everyone and welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. I hope you're enjoying this series where you pose your questions and I answer them to the best of my ability. It's a place for conversation and debate. I'm having a great time and am grateful for your participation. I'm looking for new topics all the time so please send me your questions in an email entitled Ask the storyteller or post them in the comments below. Thanks!

I've had several people ask me about sourcing and appropriating traditional tales. I opened a conversation about telling traditional tales several weeks ago; today's post will delve more deeply into sourcing a story and living mythologies. As always, this answer reflects my own biases and experience.

I love traditional material. I hold a degree in folklore and mythology and have never stopped exploring the world of traditional stories. I tell many folktales and myths, though I have some criteria for the stories I choose to tell. I'll get to that shortly.

Today's question is really two questions.
1. How do I determine if a story is in the public domain and, if it is, how do I then tell it?
2. May I tell stories from other cultures if I am not of that culture?

Let's start with How do I determine if a story is in the public domain and, if it is, how do I then tell it? 
Many storytelling organizations ask their tellers to have three separate sources for the traditional stories they tell. For example, I may find a version of Snow White in one of Andrew Lang's books, in a collection by Jane Yolen and in a picture book. Each version has subtle differences of plot and phrasing. I can cite these three examples as proof that the story in it's most basic form is in the public domain.
My personal version of the story must be distinct from all three cited examples. I cannot emphasize this enough. Storytellers do not get to steal the intellectual property of other artists. If we do tell a version of a story that isn't our own creation we must have permission to do so or it must be a piece that is wholly in the public domain. I may tell Snow White word for word from Andrew Lang because it is in the public domain. What's more, I should cite my source and make sure my audience knows this version isn't original to me but was written by Mr. and Mrs. Lang. I may not tell Jane Yolen's version without her express consent. This is really a topic for another post if you're interested, but suffice it to say intellectual property theft is still theft. How would you feel if someone told one of your stories verbatim without your permission?
Once I have my sources I then play with the material. I love doing this. I think about the story from different points of view, I imagine the settings, I engage my senses, I think about what most resonates with me in the tale. I create my own version of the story. We all can do this. We may be inspired by Jane Yolen's telling, but we are all able to take the same plot elements and put our own interpretation onto it. Start with sense and what you love. Get someone to listen to you. Dream aloud.

Finding three sources is all well and good, but what if the story is specific to a culture you are not part of? This gets tricky. What follows are my personal guidelines, the steps I go through before telling a traditional story. Your mileage may vary.

  1. I get my three sources to determine that it is, in fact, a traditional story in the public domain.
  2. I do some research. Is the story a sacred tale? More importantly, is the story sacred in the culture from which it originated, whether or not I consider it sacred? If it is, I then have two choices. If I know the story is widely told in my culture I decide if I want to tell it. A good example of this might be an Anansi tale. I ask myself how I would feel if someone told a similar story I find sacred. If I decide I do want to tell it I craft it with as much cultural relevance and respect as I can. When I tell it I always give it context so the listeners hear not only the story but gain an understanding of its importance.
    If my research tells me that this story is still sacred and then either is still used in sacred ways or is not a part of the common vernacular, I stop. It isn't my story to tell. Again, consider how you might feel is someone took the stories most sacred to you (say the Christmas story since we're in the season) and told it out of context without believing it. That might make you uncomfortable.
  3. On the rare occasions that I feel deeply drawn to tell a living sacred story I contact representatives of the culture from which it comes, preferably elders, preferably storytellers. I approach them respectfully and talk with them about the story, about why I feel so strongly I want to tell it. I do the work to ensure that the story remains sacred. Sometimes I've been told yes, I may tell the story. When that happens I give it as much context as I can and I express my gratitude each time. Sometimes I've been told no. When that has happened the story leaves my repertoire. Period. It isn't mine to tell. To the best of my ability I will not engage in cultural appropriation
All of this being said, different tellers follow different rules. There are some people who believe that no one who is not of a culture should tell that culture's stories. There are others who believe all stories belong to everyone. I fall in the middle, with a set of personal guidelines to help me make my decisions. 

I have certainly made mistakes but generally speaking these guidelines work for me. I know the stories I tell are mine to tell. I know I am not stealing anyone else's work, that it is my own intellectual property and that I am being respectful of other cultures.  It's not a lot of work, when you get down to it, to make sure you aren't stealing or blaspheming. And it makes me feel better about the stories I tell.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and your questions. Are you interested in hearing more about intellectual property? How about fracturing fairy tales? What else? I'm going to tackle some of the practical aspects of being a working storyteller in the next post, I hope that is of interest to you.

I hope this season of light and dark finds you safe, warm and with those you love. Keep telling your stories.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Repost: Grief in action. Two years from Newtown.

I wrote this two years ago today. I think it still stands.

I am sitting in a cafe.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, watching crows wheel and turn against the grey sky.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, watching crows wheel and turn against the grey sky, crying for the almost 30 people who died in Connecticut today. For the teddy bears that will wait for their child. For the many sleepless nights that will follow.

I will not talk here about gun laws; those of you who know me know my stance, those of you who disagree with me will not be swayed by my arguments.

I will not talk here about the media frenzy; those of you who know me know that I watch in awe and horror as we create modern mythologies in a moment only to tear them down a heartbeat later. By next week the media will be admiring the next new horror.

I will not talk here about my overwhelming ache at what happens now to the family of the young man who did this, my wonder at what led him there or what demons drove him.

What I want to talk about is this. How we treat each other matters. How we treat each other in the wake of something like this especially matters. We can create change and prevent tragedy only by beginning with a willingness to admit that change is necessary, tragedy is preventable and your viewpoint as well as mine may bring something valuable to the table. When we treat each other as if we are all human, as if we all have value, then we can take this collective moment and do something to prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.

If we let events like this harden us, make us more cynical, more convinced of our own rightness and their wrongness, we will never create change. We must be willing to let those we consider the opposition have a voice. What’s more, we must listen and ask the deeper questions. Why do you feel this way? What really matters here? When we ask and answer these questions we may find more common ground than we expected and, from there, we can build consensus to create change. 

We all know kids shouldn’t be shot. Let’s start with that. We all know our mental health care system has significant room for improvement. Let’s go from there. 

I have no illusions that one writer, one storyteller can individually effect the course of the world. But I do know that collectively, we are unstoppable. That if we take our collective grief and horror, if we put aside our smaller rivalries and disagreements, that we can create tremendous change. That we can together craft a new and better story that no one - not the media nor our legislators - can ignore. But we must decide to act, to use the pain we feel as fuel for passion that leads to action.

Let us tell a story of a future where we have learned from the events of today, of last week, of this year and the years prior. Let these deaths be the last time something like this happens and we remain voiceless. Let us ask what we can do that might create a world where we do more than weep, where instead we stand up and say, “No, that is not the story I will tell. That is not the world I will live in.” 

Let us act. And, in the midst of action let us be civil, let us use words as tools not as weapons. We have enough weapons already. 

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 12, 2014

The physicality of grief

Dear god am I tired. I thought about writing a whole post about fatigue and that alone made me weary, so I decided to give myself a little more room and write about the physical experience of grief.

Emotions live in the body. We get butterflies in our stomachs, we feel giddy with joy, we burn with anger. For me, grieving is an intensely physical process. I think it is for many of us who grieve deeply, but there is little room in our society for it. You can't really call into work saying, "I'm sorry, I can't come in today, I have a grief headache. Give me 6 months or so and it will go away."

While Kevin was sick my body performed miracles for me. I gave it far too little sleep and exercise, far too much bad food and stillness, yet it kept going. I didn't get sick all winter because I was caring for him. There was no time for me to be sick. He needed me.
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Language, language

Welcome to #askthestoryteller, a weekly column where I answer your questions about storytelling, performance, craft and narrative. If you have a question you'd like me to address please comment below or email me with the heading Ask the storyteller.

This week's question comes from Ward R. It's a great question and one with several facets, so I'm going to include the whole question pretty much verbatim before getting down to business.

Been enjoying your series, Ask a Storyteller, both because of the answers you give and the discussions it sparks. A lot of the questions or things I ponder have to do with generational aspects of storytelling; here's one of those.

I cuss in a fair amount of my storytelling. Partly that's because it's authentic to who I am as a person, and storytelling is, to some extent, about relating to an audience in an authentic fashion. Partly that's because I tell stories that would be hard to tell without using profanity - the story calls for it. In all cases, I believe it's an artistically sound decision. When I take a gig, I ask for language restrictions and give the curator a solid sense of the work I do, so I also consider professional concerns around language.

Nonetheless, the most common piece of feedback I get from members of the older generation of tellers is that I ought not use profanity. Not that a particular piece of profanity was a poor choice of words, but that profanity in general ought not be featured in storytelling. I've lost friends from that community over this particular issue.

We accept the role of profanity in literally every other word-based art form. Shakespeare cussed; Ursula K. LeGuin cussed. Bukowski cussed; Sinatra cussed. The blanket statement that profanity has no place in storytelling seems baldly preposterous. What are your feelings on profanity in storytelling? What are the origins of this anti-profanity aesthetic, and why does it persist?

I love this question. Generational issue have been around since there were generations and are present in every aspect of human life. I imagine Australopithecus parents shaking their heads of the outrageous antics of their young.

As always, this answer reflects my own experience and biases.

Ward, not too long ago I was one of the young new tellers. I was frustrated that storytelling didn't seem to reflect a broad range of experience (this was before slams were prevalent) and I wanted to hear stories that included me, as we all do. So I began to tell stories that included swear words, sex (and were sometimes R rated), observations about age, race, weight and gender. I was told that I was inappropriate and was sullying the art. Like you, I was told this by older storytellers. I struggled with it, because I was telling authentically, just like you, but these were my respected elders. Ultimately I made the same decision you have; I still tell those stories (and more extreme versions sometimes) but I make sure it's appropriate to the audience. I check with the curator and I make my own decision in the moment. Kids in the audience change my content though I have been known to talk with parents when they bring children to a show that was advertised as adults-only. Every venue I have ever run has a free-speech clause, asking only that tellers let the audience know if they are including PG-13 or greater content so the audience can decide if they want to hear it.

This is my experience. This should tell you my general feelings on the matter. I think you're handling it correctly by being up front about who you are, what you tell and what your audience should expect. I assume you don't swear when telling to little kids and so on, that you have good common sense. Now, onto generational issues and what you might do about it.

You ask about my feelings on profanity in storytelling and the origins/persistence of this aesthetic. It's easier for me to think this out as a list, so here we go.

  1. Where did this aesthetic come from? Generational issues have always and will always exist. A few examples: Video games, rock n roll, stockings, brassieres, hip hop, Beethoven, Italian food in America and so on. What's more, it's not only generational. It's cultural, too. Not all older people will be offended by harsh language. Not all younger people won't be. I think it's part of being human. It's very easy to decide that we have the moral high ground and be shocked when someone disagrees with you. 
  2. It will persist because different people have differing moral senses. I am reminded of this every day on Facebook and Twitter. People I care about deeply may hold opinions I find repugnant. I'm sure I offend others regularly.
  3. Ultimately it's your audience and their reaction that matters. The older tellers who say profanity is inappropriate probably aren't telling to the same audiences you are. If they are, then the audience gets something of value from both of your styles. I would urge you to keep telling your stories in your way; we need diversity of voices. Honor the wisdom of the older tellers by listening to them, learning from them and being grateful for all that they have done. And keep in mind that some day you will be one of the older tellers and will then have the opportunity to delight in being startled by what your younger colleagues say.
  4. Let the audience self-censor. I make sure my curator and my audience know what they are in for. I absolutely believe in free speech. I also believe that everyone can choose what they are exposed to. Let your audience know you use salty language so they can decide if they want to hear it or not.
  5. Use your common sense. If you are hired to tell to pre-schoolers you might want to tell stories that don't include swear words. Give parents forewarning (as I mentioned above) if they show up at an adult oriented gig with their kids. If you're telling to 90 year old nuns mind your manners. Common sense goes a long way.
  6. Authenticity matters. If the language makes sense in the context of the story and who you are then it belongs there. I would never, ever ask a teller to be anything but authentic. 
  7. Ask yourself why the friendships ended. Was it only over a disagreement about language or was it deeper? This isn't a personal advice column (I'd recommend Dan Savage (especially if you like salty) or Ask Amy if you're looking for that) but a friendship that ends over a disagreement about swearing might have had other structural faults. Personally, I value my friendships with those whom I have radical disagreements. As long as we both can talk about it civilly and recognize there is at least personal value in the other's opinion, we learn from one another. And sometimes those disagreements make it clear that the friendship can't continue.
  8. I want to end this list by saying fk'em if they can't take a joke, only with the word spelled out. But I am choosing to censor myself because I don't know who is reading, I want to respect all my potential readers and you get the point anyway.

I hope this helps. I'd love to know what you think. I'm looking forward to answering more questions next week on #askthestoryteller.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 5, 2014

Faking it

Many years ago when in the midst of an episode of depression, someone told me to smile. He said that the body responds to smiling by producing the hormones we experience when we have real reason to smile, so fake smiling may help reduce stress and improve mood. "Fake it til you make it" was his recommendation.

I never found this to be particularly effective and even less now so when I am in the midst of grief. But it does raise some interesting questions about how the grieving fake feeling better to help those around them. I expect this is especially acute during the holidays because we don't want to bring those around us down.

For example, I was recently at a family gathering and genuinely felt good. The mood came and went, but I decided to behave as if I felt okay because I didn't want to upset those around me. Some of my family finds my grief distressing. I got through the event, came home and fell apart for awhile.

The grief community might argue that this was the wrong call. By suppressing my grief I was emotionally dishonest. I was doing it for others and, frankly, those of us grieving justifiably selfish about feeling what we feel when we feel. This isn't a culture that makes it easy to grieve, so there is some militancy about our need to express our feelings unapologetically. I agree with this. I think it's important that everyone can express their emotions honestly and effectively. So why did I put on a happy face?

Because I love my family. Because I didn't want to bring everyone else down. Because the work involved in honestly expressing my emotions felt as though it would be greater than just smiling for the time being. I'm not saying my choice was right or wrong. It just was.

But what if we tried something different this holiday season? Holidays are notoriously hard for the grieving. There are so many memories and holes that it's hard to understand how we can or should behave. So what if we tried something different.

What if those who love the grieving find a way for them to feel safe enough that they can express their emotions and then experience what joy they can? It would take work. Those who love us would have to ask honest questions, be willing to open the door to the sorrow as well as joy, and welcome whatever honest answer is given. It would require not flinching and not judging. Sometimes stepping back. It would require always accepting that the grief is valid, not matter how new or old.

If the grieving knew that this was possible, what if we found a way to smile, even if we have to fake it sometimes, because we know it would be safe to not smile? Would the sense of safety make it easier to relax and find what joy we could in the moment?

I don't know. I hope so. I know that the stress of faking it is immense, but there must be some way the bereaved and those who love us can work together to make this hard season easier. I think it requires honesty. Conversation. Space. And maybe a little faking it on both sides, only acknowledged and appreciated.

I know this won't sit well with a lot of you. But I think it's worth a try. A little honesty. A little gentle fakery, acknowledged and appreciated. Might be worth a try.

I don't know. But I'm trying to find out.

(36 weeks. See? I'm smiling, right?)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Traditional tales intro

I'm really enjoying #askthestoryteller and I hope you are, too. A number of you have written in with questions about telling traditional stories. That's a really big topic, so I wanted to start by reposting a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote in 2010. At the time I was posting Telling Topics, which aren't so different from #askthestoryteller, but I was coming up with the issues. I'm enjoying your questions far more.

I wrote this piece about telling fairy tales and myths. I still stand by it and it seemed like a good starting point for questions about telling traditional stories. I've edited it slightly and will explore these points further in relation to specific kinds of traditional story and what I do with them in coming posts, if you'd be interested. This post is rather generic, but a good starting point. What questions does it raise for you?

Please keep your storytelling questions coming in the comments section. I love this challenge and am looking forward to seeing what we come up with!

This was originally posted in October 2010 as part of the Telling Topics series. You can read the original post here. 

Fairy tales capture the whole range of human experience. Regardless of the culture in which they originated, they help us understand our lives and how our individual experiences are more alike than different. They give us a roadmap to use as we travel our lives. These are the stories that ripple through our lives, giving us a common language with which to understand the world. Here are some basic things to consider when telling fairy tales.
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Monday, December 1, 2014

The world through my eyes: Here and there

As you know, I've taken to carrying my camera around and watching through a lens. Here are some of the things I saw in November. Do you have a favorite?

All images copyright Laura Packer, 2014.

Make a wish

Empty chair


Sit with me



Cat pizza



Jewels in sand




World's end



(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Yesterday was Thanksgiving, the first without Kevin. It was a lovely day, full of family and food yet with a looming vacancy. That seems like such a selfish thing to say. Grief makes me selfish. There it is. 

First night sleeping without you.
First time grocery shopping only for me.
First birthday alone.

I talk with a lot of people who have lost their loves. Every single one says something different. The first year is the hardest. No, the second. No, it's the third. 

First time paying bills without you.
First movie by myself.
First Sunday night trash alone.

I don't know the truth of it, I only know this is very hard. Each new first scrapes away the scab. Makes it more real. Draws more blood. Each first is a surprise even when I'm braced. When they become seconds and thirds I find myself numb. The waves of grief are unexpected and seemingly unrelated to the first or second or third, but they still come.

First cold without you.
First home repair by myself.
First basket of laundry, mine alone.

I feel as though I should write something about gratitude, about thankfulness, because I have so much to be thankful for. I had 15 years with the love of my life. I had (and, as far as I'm concerned, have) a love of my life, that's more than many people get. I have friends and family who love me. For all of that and more I am grateful. For the hand held, the tears honored, the meals shared, the good and loving care. Thank you.

I don't have that post in me today, the celebration of how graced I am. Maybe soon. There is no reason to reserve gratitude for Thanksgiving alone, I try to practice gratitude daily. It's harder now but I still practice. I am still grateful but in this moment everything is coated with soot. I live in moments now.

First meal cooked without you.
First performance by myself.
First Thanksgiving, surrounded by people who love me, alone.

I can even be thankful for this grief, but not the loss. Never the loss. At this moment the loss is what consumes me. I am an emptiness illuminated by sparks of memory. Eventually the emptiness will fill and I can again be grateful. That, too, will be a first.

(eight months. 35 weeks. I love you. And I miss you so damned much.) 

(c) 2014 Laura Packer
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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Seven things I learned from Brother Blue and Ruth (Thanksgiving edition)

Welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. Today we will wander into the personal and universal as we look at Tony T's question, What did you learn about telling a story and storytelling from Brother Blue and Ruth Hill? 

What a wonderful question, thank you Tony. I thought this was a good question to answer on Thanksgiving week. This is a more personal #askthestoryteller than usual, I promise I'll get back to more analytical stuff next week. Please post any questions in the comments below or email them to me here.

For those of you who don't know, Brother Blue was an amazing storyteller who influenced me and many others. He was instrumental in the launch of the modern storytelling movement. It was my honor to have him as a mentor and friend for almost 20 years; there are many for whom he was mentor and friend for longer. His wife Ruth Edmunds Hill was his rock, she enabled him to do what he did and so we have her to thank as well. She is amazing in her own right, a scholar and mentor to many. 

Brother Blue and Ruth ran a storytelling venue in Cambridge, MA for many years. When Blue died Kevin and I took it over for a time, then passed it onto a committee. It continues to this day and is a nurturing place for many storytellers. Brother Blue died in 2009. Ruth remains my friend.

So, what have I learned from Ruth and Blue? More than I can tell you. Here are the top seven things I have learned from them, things I hope will be useful to you. There are a lot of links in this post that I hope you'll explore. They are deeper explorations of many of the items on this list.
  1. Together we can change the world. Brother Blue always said that storytelling could save the world because how could you hurt someone else if you knew their story? Once we recognize that we all have basically the same concerns, the same hopes and fears, it becomes easier to embrace each other regardless of skin color, religion, age, economic status and so on. That's why it's important to me that I tell all kinds of stories whether personal or traditional or something else. Stories are bridges. Stories matter.
  2. It's okay to be a little crazy. Brother Blue was quite a figure. He wore blue clothing, bells and butterflies. He wasn't tightly bound to the earth. Some dismissed him because he seemed to be crazy, but he was an incredible artist, brilliant, compassionate and inspirational. I think at some point Blue decided that it would be easier for others to tell their stories if they thought he was already the most ridiculous thing in the room. It made it easier for others to risk if they knew he already had.
    When we let ourselves be a little crazy we might find art, friendship and love that we would have rejected had we been clinging too tightly to being sane.
    I've learned feeling awkward, embarrassed or silly isn't going to kill me and it might open the door to something amazing.
  3. Be kinder than necessary. Brother Blue always found something kind to say to everyone. Those who listened to him prospered under his kindness. Ruth is kind as well, in her quieter way but with no less meaning. I believe in kindness. No matter how bad your day, how rough your life, Blue would find a way to help you remember your basic goodness by being kind to you. I try to do that. We can all do it for each other. Kindness sometimes seems like a rare commodity, but we all are capable of being kind.
  4. Tell every time as if it's the most important performance of your life. Storytelling is always about more than just you. You never know who your story will move and why. So put your whole self into each telling, love the audience and the story. Brother Blue certainly did. You don't know who in your audience needed that story in that moment. Tell every single time as if it is the most important performance of your life. It might be the most important performance of someone else's.
  5. Don't go it alone. Brother Blue couldn't do what he did without Ruth's support. I couldn't do what I have done without the support of Brother Blue, Ruth, Kevin, my communities and family. The lonesome artist is a lie. Everyone needs support. So let's help each other. I run venues where new or experienced tellers can safely take risks. I coach people. I ask for help. You can too.
  6. Listening matters. I've written before about how important listening is in storytelling and in life. Brother Blue could listen the story out of a stone. His listening had an eloquence and interest that I've never seen anywhere else. Kevin came close. Doug Lipman does too. I try. When you hear a story, listen. When you are working on a piece, get someone to listen to you. 
  7. Be grateful. I am so grateful that I have had Brother Blue and Ruth in my life. I have been so very lucky. Blessed.
    Be grateful for the stories you hear. For those you tell. For the people you encounter. Each act of storytelling is a blessing. Brother Blue knew that. I do too. And so do you.
    We never know when something will end. We have so little control over the circumstances of our lives, only over what we do in response to them. Brother Blue grew up poor, went to war, to college, to the world. He changed so many people, influenced so many lives. He was grateful for the gifts he was given and shared them.
    All we can do is love one another. Be grateful and tell each other. Use our gifts in gratitude. And then begin another story. 
 Once upon a time ago, a nickel and a dime ago, there was a....

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer
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Friday, November 21, 2014


Earlier this week I was puttering in the kitchen, putting away clean dishes, wiping down the counters, doing the work of keeping my living space habitable. I had NPR on, my frequent companion throughout the day. I was listening to an interview with Norman Lear, the producer of 1970s television shows such as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and so on. It was a good interview. Lear is a fascinating man who made no bones about using television as a tool for social justice and the interviewer, Terry Gross, asks good questions. I was enjoying it.

And all of a sudden I was sobbing.

Kevin loved television. He was shaped by the shows he watched as a boy as so many of us are, only he wasn't afraid to admit it. He told stories about watching tv with his grandfather who was mostly blind. How the shows they watched together shaped their relationship and the world. How he learned to be a man from some of those shows.

In an instant I went from a passably good mood and competence to the cold kitchen tiles, wailing. I never liked many of those shows until Kevin taught me how to watch them, helped me understand how revolutionary they were. The association was overwhelming. I wanted him here, now, listening to this with me and talking about it after. I wanted him helping with dishes. I could see him leaning on the counter as he had so many times. I remembered the last time he leaned on the counter as I washed dishes. He said he wished he could help more, but he was feeling terrible. I told him it was okay, when he was better he could do dishes for days. He was diagnosed three days later. He never did dishes again.

After awhile I got up from the floor. I blew my nose. I put the kettle on. I finished putting dishes away. I made a cup of tea.

That's what my life is like now. The world is full of emotional mines, triggers that make me explode without warning. All I can do is ride it. Notice it. Cherish the memories and then take a breath and another. Until the next time.

(34 weeks. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Personal and traditional stories

Hello everyone! Welcome back to another installment of #askthestoryteller. I feel like I'm in a Perils of Pauline serial, only more thoughtful and without the death-defying escapes.

For those of you new to this series, Ask the storyteller takes your questions and gives you my best answers for them. You can submit a questions in the comments below or email them to me. Please don't hesitate to ask; it may take me awhile to get to your question but I will do my best to get to them all.

Today's question came from several readers, including Ralph and Sara. They both asked my opinion of the power of traditional stories and the power of personal story. It's a good question and one that's quite relevant these days as the storytelling landscape seems to have changed considerably.

As always, this answer reflects my personal experience, research and opinion. Your mileage may vary. This is a long post and I'm sure not everyone will agree with it. I look forward to your thoughts.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Baselines. An open letter to Kevin.

A public letter to Kevin.

Dear Kevin,

Here it is, 33 weeks after you died. 42 weeks from your diagnosis. It's still unreal but there are moments of knife-sharp clarity. You aren't coming back. Nothing will change what has happened and, as you know, I really hate unchangeable situations. Talk about powerlessness.

I am powerless. No one wants to feel as if they have no agency in their life and every day is reminder of how little control I truly have. I couldn't save you. I can't save anyone. A tree might fall on me any moment, I can't change the weather and I certainly can't do much about our government. But life goes on.

I don't like this new life. It doesn't feel like any kind of life. But it's the only life I have, just as your life was the only life you had. Damn it.

My experience of grief is changing, as it should. I am generally more functional than I was. I get of bed pretty much every day. I don't sob everyday, though I can see the changes in my face. Just as I have moments of clarity that you are gone, I also have moments of... I wouldn't call it joy or happiness, but maybe ease. These moments are just as painful in some ways, because each is a reminder that I am learning to live without you. I never wanted to live without you.

I was talking with a friend recently and he asked how I was doing, then immediately backpedaled. He apologized, saying that he knew there was no real way I could answer that. I told him it was okay, that I know he cares and was asking out of love. I told him it was okay to ask but I didn't know how to answer.

That thought led to this and I think it's an important step in learning to live in this world without you.

Everyone has an emotional baseline, the place we settle to without external influence. It's the place to which we compare all of our other emotions. If it's a good day, we're above baseline. If it's a rough one, we're below.

I was really lucky for 15 years. With you my baseline was pretty high. Even a crappy day wasn't so bad because I knew we would talk, hug, sleep holding each other. Now you're gone. I don't have that daily reassurance of love, worth, connection, intimacy. Damn it.

If I keep measuring my moods against the old baseline I will never come anywhere close to joy let alone ease with this life. I will never be able to have a good day because you will not be there at the end of it. I need a new baseline.

If my old baseline was a 7 on a scale of 1-10 my new baseline is maybe a 3 or 4. That isn't great, but understanding that I'm at a 3.5 most of the time means if I hit a 6 it's been a pretty good day. Before a 6 would have been an off day. Does this make sense?

I think it does. It feels right to me. In truth, I don't know what my new baseline is, I'm still the grief roller coaster. But I can pay attention and notice where I might be on an okay day. What a good moment feels like in this new setting. Frankly I suspect this is something we do throughout our lives without noticing. Now I need to notice. Maybe the noticing will be useful for others, too.

I hate that this is necessary. But it is. It will take time. I still compare my current life to my life with you and one is a thin shadow of the other. But it is the only life I have.

I know you are with me as much as you can be. I carry you with me every day. You are still a part of my baseline. You always will be.

Kevin, I still I love you. I always will.


(33 weeks. Damn it.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ask the storyteller: The story triangle

Welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. As you know, I am answering your questions about storytelling, one a week, until you run out of questions or I am utterly stumped. Last week we looked at scripted vs. improvised storytelling, an aspect of performance. This week we're delving a little more into mechanics and philosophy.

Vanessa B. wrote via email: I am interested in the three-way relationship involving the story, the teller and the audience – do you want to comment on that? Happily.

Every storytelling experience is about managing a set of relationships between the teller, the story and the audience. The story triangle is a dynamic interaction between these three elements that are present during any storytelling experience.  The teller, story and audience interact in such a way that the story experience is different every time. The story triangle itself is derived from Aristotle's rhetorical triangle, which encompasses reason, character and emotion. I love the way the story triangle helps me craft my stories with the audience at the forefront of my mind. I love the way it helps me move beyond my own experience as the artist and into something much bigger.

The story triangle, rather than emphasizing narrative elements or performative aspects, focuses on the players and relationships present during a storytelling event. For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about live, oral storytelling events. I'll touch on how the triangle exists in mediated storytelling below.

Let's start by looking at the individual participants.

The Storyteller
The simplest definition of storyteller is one who interprets, shapes, and expresses the story. Whether they're telling their own material, a traditional story, giving a speech or presentation, the storyteller’s choice of words, tone and body language makes that story uniquely theirs.

The Audience
The audience takes in the story as told by the teller, and uses the teller’s words and performance cues  to interpret the story, in addition to their own life experience. They react to the whole story and its individual parts by applauding, laughing, crying, yawning, etc.  Their mere presence affects the storyteller and the story.  While a story may exist before it is told by the storyteller, even in written form, the primary and most important place a story exists is in the individual minds of the audience during the story experience.

The Story
The story itself has a life apart from both the teller and the audience.  Stories are both containers and triggers.  As containers, they carry and convey characters, experiences, events, and even worlds to a listening audience.  As triggers, they set off sparks and flashes of recognition and meaning within the minds of the audience.  Like a molecular reaction, stories can bond to the life events of the audience, which allow stories to feel more authentic.  By identifying with the characters and events of a story, we sometimes have the opportunity to see our own lives differently.  We see what the characters see, we learn what the characters learn.  Stories fulfill both container and trigger roles simultaneously.  They have the capacity to present the new and the old, the novel and the recognizable to an audience.

From the participants, we now can consider the relationships. Each of these relationships are two-way. Every player influences the others.

The storyteller and the story have a relationship. 
The teller studies, thinks, practices and builds their story. They consider their movement, language and more. The story is shaped by the teller. It is an intimate relationship. The teller may very well be shaped by the story as well, when they consider the meaning of the story to themselves, to the audience and to the world.

The storyteller and the audience have a relationship.
The audience watches and listens to the teller, absorbing their interpretation of the story. The teller, in turn, watches the audience and responds to them. Because storytelling is such a fluid art with little or no fourth wall, the teller can change the story as needed to meet the needs of the audience; this is often where improvisation comes in. Does the audience really love trees? Fine, spend more time in the forest. Does the audience not appreciate your humor? Fine, let's move on.

But the most important relationship in the storytelling performance experience is the relationship between the audience and the story.
As tellers, we can't control this. All we can do is craft our story and pay attention to the audience as best we can. It's what happens in the mind and imagination of our listeners that makes the magic. Every single listener will interpret your words and actions in their own way, colored by their own experiences. Every single listener will hear a different story. Every single listener will have their own relationship with the story. Yes, the teller is the vehicle that allows it but our job, as tellers, is to do the best we can, then get out of the way and let our listeners' infinitely creative minds dance with the words, the images, the narrative.

The audience will be changed by a well-crafted, well-told story. The story changes, too, both in their minds and in our performances.

Mediated forms of storytelling, such as film, books and television, also use the story triangle, though axes and angles may change, because there is a greater distance between the audience and the teller.

For example, a film maker (the storyteller) is deeply influenced by their story; if it's a well made film the audience will be, too. The audience has less control over the creation of the art, so that relationship is minimally two-way, unless they are at a test screening and even then, their influence is limited. This means the triangle still exists, but with less equality of relationship. That isn't to say these art forms are less meaningful than live storytelling, but there is a different expectation from all the players because the relationships are different. It's less intimate and immediate though far less constrained by issues present in live performance and the linear nature of time.

This is what makes oral storytelling so special. We can respond to each other in real time, we are influenced by the art itself and the audience. It is a dance that gives equal value to all participants. I am awed every time this three-way dance happens. And it happens every time I trust myself, my story and my audience.

Vanessa, thank you for your question. I hope this answer helped. Please comment or email me if you have further thoughts. If anyone has a question they would like me to tackle please add it into the comments or email me here. Until next week!

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 7, 2014

The glorious ordinariness of love and grief

I'm going to tell you a secret, one I'm a little ashamed of. I thought Kevin and I were something special. That we built something just a little brighter than what I saw in many other couples. It was a wonderful secret to hold inside of me and treasure.

I'm not alone in this secret; you may feel that way about your love. And you should. Each love is amazing, wonderful, sacred but not any more unique than the love of the couple next to you. I am coming to treasure the very ordinariness of love and feel sad that we don't live in a culture that knows ordinariness can be a wonder.

We are surrounded by media (movies, books, art) full of big, dramatic Love. We can't help but yearn for something similar. We all want happily ever after which, according to lots of movies, books and art, means we will never again fart, have to wash the dishes, pay bills or get annoyed at our loved one. Once we realize that isn't true we still yearn for our own version of the Princess Bride. I don't think we can help it, we're taught that True Love is incredibly rare and makes the every day vanish.

As I talk with more and more people who have lost the love of their life, as I have lost mine, I become more and more certain that love is one of the glorious every day miracles. I listen to women who tell me their husbands were the most handsome, the smartest, the kindest, the funniest, the sexiest men who ever walked on this earth. They show me pictures and I am struck again and again at how very ordinary they seem to be. Yet it's true, they were the most handsome, smartest, kindest, funniest, sexiest men in their relationship. And each relationship is its own individual planet, its own place in the universe. In the broader context these men and relationships may have seemed ordinary, but to at least one person, they were everything.

And I think that's the glorious ordinary miracle of love. We transform those we love into the Handsome Prince, the Farm Boy who remains pure, the Princess whose nobility cannot be disguised by rags or dishes or laundry or even the occasional fart.

If Love is so gloriously ordinary, grief is too. Because most of us are able to love so deeply and so well that we transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, we also are able to grieve to a place beyond description. That, too, is an ordinary miracle; we love, we experience loss, but we still continue to love each other, as ordinary as we are. That's why I so resolutely believe that no grief supersedes another, we each can love miraculously, so too can we grieve beyond language. It is utterly every day. And utterly sacred.

Kevin and I were special. It's not a secret. Just as the specialness of all who love isn't a secret, nor should it be. I am so grateful that the world can hold this much love, this much pain and the hope for easier times ahead.

(32 weeks.
All told, I'd rather still have my secret and still and you.
I miss you. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Scripted vs. improv storytelling

I am delighted by the responses you've sent me; I'm looking forward to answering your questions. Please keep them coming, they are helping me think about storytelling again. I can't promise I'll get to every single one but I will do my best.

TBinKC asked, How much of your storytelling is planned and scripted, vs. improvised in the moment based on how the audience responds? Is there a process of writing or improvising and then 'locking down' a story?

Great question, TB, thanks! Please keep in mind that I can only answer from my own experience. Every storyteller has their own methods and preferences; what follows is what works best for me and what I teach my students.

I do not memorize my stories. I want to remain flexible in the language I use and in my response to the audience.

I learn the structure, what I call the bones of the story. I will often write an outline that includes basic plot points and narrative flow as well as any key phrases I want to make sure remain consistent from telling to telling. When I practice the story I keep the bones in mind and take note of any particular gestures or physical feelings I may experience in the course of telling the story; a great deal of my understanding of a performance piece lies in my body and how I feel as I tell. I don't write out bones for every story I tell, but I never learn a story directly from the text. I don't want to be bound to specific words. I may have a mental outline or a written one, but I deliberately move away any long-form written narrative, so there is room for me to improvise language, respond to events and pay attention to the audience.

By not tying myself to specific, memorized narrative I can more effectively dance with the audience. The dance is the give and take between audience and teller, the way the listeners shape the tale. Let me give you an example.

If I were working on Little Red Riding Hood the bones for telling might look like this:
  • little girl lives with mother in house at the edge of the wood
  • mother gives a basket of goodies, tells her to take it to grandmother
  • stay on path, don't talk to strangers, wear red cloak
  • sets off, wanders off path for flowers. woods, path, shadows
  • wolf appears, queries, girl replies to grandmother's
  • "I'll take the road of needles, you take the road of pins"
  • etc.
The bones may be more or less detailed than this. Please note that anything in quotation marks indicates a specific phrase I want to remember. As I practice the story I will make mental notes about the gestures I use, such as raising my arm to represent the trees. I will take note of my emotions at specific points in the story. Oh, the woods are friendly at first but become scary. Good to know. This will inform my inflections.

When I perform the story I pay a great deal of attention to the audience. The audience's reaction and needs may over ride the bones. If the audience is particularly enjoying the dialogue between the wolf and the girl I may spend more time there, improvise more conversation. If they seem bored by it I will move along quickly. The audience drives much of the story, even as I stick to the general plot and structure. It's a dance. We all know the steps but we pay attention to each other and respond to one another.

You asked how I "lock down" a telling. To be honest, that happens by telling it over and over, seeing what works and dropping what doesn't. I deliberately try to keep my telling as flexible as possible. Even with that flexibility the stories remain basically the same in both narrative and duration. This allows me to do what I love most in storytelling: play with language and play with the audience. It is an art of the moment and that is a big part of what I love about performance storytelling.

I hope this is a useful answer. I'm sorry I can't give you a magic formula but, like anything worth doing, it's worth doing again and again, learning each time, honing our art and craft as we go. There are some amazing performers who memorize their pieces word-for-word and you would never know. Play around with it and see what works for you.

All that being said, wanna dance? Let's tell each other some stories and see what happens.

Please keep your questions coming. You can post them below or email me. I'll be back next week with another installment of Ask the Storyteller.

(c)2014 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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