Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Telling Life: Storytelling, boundaries and well-meaning censorship

When I began storytelling (22 years ago, wow!) I initially told fairy tales without much embellishment or interpretation. Pretty quickly I moved toward radical reinterpretations of the same material, then original fiction and occasionally personal stories. I began to experiment with non-linear narrative, multiple point-of-view stories and taboo issues (sexuality and death in particular). Remember, this was over 20 years ago when most people told traditional material or mild personal stories so what I was doing was avant-garde and quite challenging for many listeners. I know that now sexuality and creative narrative forms are common, but then? Not so much.

I was experimenting and growing, and I loved it. I had found an art form that suited me where I could explore and expand. I had a community that supported my creativity and was willing to give me a pretty long rope to play with. I was careful about what I told to whom, where and when I tried more radical material. I paid attention to my audiences' needs while still feeding my own need for experimentation and creativity.

A few years into my telling career a beloved older mentor pulled me aside and told me that I had to reign it in. That I was offending people. That I didn't dress well so was insulting my audience and that my stories were largely inappropriate for any listener. She told me I had tremendous talent and gifts but that I was abusing it and my audience. Remember, I was in my mid-twenties, no one else was telling material like this and she was one of the community pillars.

I believed her.

I immediately went back to fairly strict interpretations of traditional tales and very little else. I acquired what seemed to be the appropriate wardrobe. I shrank and began to wonder if my stories were worth telling at all. I began to think no one wanted to hear my voice.

It was awful. For about a year I tried to fit in. I failed. I'm glad I did.

I eventually came to the conclusion that she was expressing her own discomfort with my stories and that there had to be an audience that would like them. I began to seek out new venues and build my own audiences. I started venues, went to places where storytelling wasn't the norm, expanded beyond my boundaries. It was hard work, but worth it. I regained my voice. I again told, and continue to tell, a wide range of material. Some of it's challenging, some of it isn't, but it's all mine and it's all work I relish.

It's hard to be an artist who stretches boundaries, regardless of the art form. I've been thinking about this quite a bit in these days after David Bowie's death. If he found a boundary, he pushed against it, and eventually became a role-model for so many of us who were struggling to find our own selves and own voices. When I was struggling to rediscover my authentic voice after that well-meaning but misguided advice, David Bowie was one of the people I looked to. If he could do it and so much more dramatically than I was, I could do it too.

The only thing I now regret about following my own passion for boundary-pushing work is that for a little while I believed someone who told me I was too much, that what I was doing was too extreme. I still push against boundaries. I'm sure I have a better sense of appropriate time, place and audience now than I did when I was in my mid-twenties, but when I see a boundary I tend to run at it. Honestly, this is one of the themes of my whole life. There is certainly a cost - for example, most people don't know I can tell a fine fairy tale appropriate for anyone so I don't get the bookings I might want - but it's a cost I've decided to pay.

Do the work that calls to you. Be smart about it, choose where and when to share it (for instance, I don't tell sexy stories to little kids, but I do tell them to consenting adults. Complete with dirty words sometimes.) but share it with the world. We need to push against boundaries, those we build for ourselves and those the world imposes.

Storytelling is so powerful because it's essentially a direct brain-to-brain connection. As storytellers, we open new worlds to our listeners. We are the explorers, the cartographers, the preachers, the scientists and the dreamers. So sometimes our work frightens others. Do it anyway. Break the boundaries and see what lies beyond. If you love strict interpretations of fairy tales, tell them. If you love historical work that challenges commonly held beliefs, pursue it. If you need to tell your truth then tell it as it stands. If you need to sing and dance and cry out to the sky as you tell, then sing and dance and ululate. Find your audiences. Tell your tale. Live the work.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. You rule, Laura. Maybe not all of us storytellers are explorers, but some of us sure we are. And we have to go further the comfort zone, come back, and tell stories about it, and help people to break their own boundaries. No regrets. Every experience is a treasure, all of them: the good ones as well as the bad ones. Because we are frontier storytellers, and when you live in the frontier, you have to use anything that is at your hand. I love your post and your attitude. Further, further!!!


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