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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An audio selfie about Kevin, me and bravery

In mid-October I had the chance to record an audio selfie for the NPR program On Being with Krista Tippett. I don't know if it will ever be broadcast and I don't really care.

The question I was asked to answer, along with others who recorded, was about bravery. I spoke about my beloved Kevin as he faced his death. If you love Kevin this will may not be easy to listen to. But it's true. He was the bravest person I have ever met. It was an honor to be his partner in life and, it turns out, in his death.

You can listen to it here.

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