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
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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