Saturday, April 30, 2016

What is Z for anyway?

Today marks the end of the 2016 A-Z Blog challenge. I've mostly enjoyed it though it has been, as named, challenging. I love the writing discipline, the alphabetic restriction is interesting and sometimes really annoying, and I'm looking forward to going back to 2 or 3 posts a week. I bet you are, too.

Z is a tough letter. English doesn't have many Z words that quite apply to storytelling. Do you really need to read a strained metaphor about how storytelling is like a zebra? No. So what do I do now? What word do I choose to end this blogging series? What do I want to make of this limited choice?

What this makes me think about, really, is that storytelling is what you make of it. So is life. As storytellers, we get to choose what content we present and how we present it. We get to choose who we present it to and how much we want to connect with them. We get to choose though within some limitations we set for ourselves. So it is, to a different degree with life. While we may not be able to choose our circumstances, the stories within which we live, we have considerable choice about how we respond and who we share it with.

What seems to matter, in the end, is this. Be kind. Be aware of your needs and the needs of those around you. Make your choices and then do the best you can with the results, because that's all any of us can do. The best we can on any given day.

Diligent enthusiasm helps. When we do the best we can with what enthusiasm we can muster, life and work feel less like chores and more like opportunities to do something new, create change, reach for new heights.

Z is for zeal. Tell with intent. Love your audience. Live big.

Thanks for taking this journey with me over April. May your stories both told and lived, soar.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 29, 2016

Yearning

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

It's been just over two years since Kevin died. I still find myself stunned. At the same time, I'm okay. Most days I think of him with great love and gratitude. Yes, there is some sorrow, but it is no longer the predominant emotion in my body. Two years ago I wouldn't have believed this would be possible.

Two years ago the only way I could think of myself was as a wound. I was ripped apart, bloody and raw. I was a ruined landscape, Dresden after the bombings. Hiroshima. You get the idea. What I felt was greater than need, greater than yearning, greater than anything I could describe. The only thing I knew to do was keep breathing. I made a deal with myself that I would get out of bed every day; that I would wait five minutes before doing something stupid; that I would try to remember that Kevin, who was my everything, still was.

It was a hard deal to keep, but it worked. Most days anyway. It worked well enough that I am still here.

Two years on I still have very bad days. There are times when I don't want to get out of bed, that I need to wait before doing something stupid, that I need to remind myself of just how lucky I am to have had Kevin. Mostly though, my days are okay. Some are even pretty good. A few are incandescent with light and joy. That doesn't mean the yearning and sorrow have gone away; they are still my constant companions, but they are familiar now and softened. They are joined by other emotions like gratitude, forgiveness and hope. Even love.

I have a friend who was very recently widowed. I don't really know how to help her other than to be present and listen without censure, to be evidence that you can survive this and that eventually you will be more or less okay. I remember feeling the way she feels now. I remember having a sneaking suspicion, just as she does, that no one else in the world had ever felt as awful as I did, for all that I knew how very common what I was feeling is. I remember the yearning.

Now she asks me how I survived and I tell her about all the kindnesses great and small I was lucky enough to receive. I tell her about the deals I made and the rules I set. I tell her about how sometimes just one breath is all you need to do, and then the next. And then the next. Even though you are breathing in hell.

She asks me if it gets better and I tell her it gets different. I tell her all kinds of things about letting the light in, about gratitude, about riding the waves. I haven't yet talked with her about the yearning.

I am finding that, no matter how rich my life is now, there is a thread of yearning that runs through it. I want Kevin to know that I'm okay. I want him to see the work I'm doing. I want his encouragement and support. Hell, I even want him to meet my new love, I think they would like one another.

The yearning is always there.

And that's okay. I'd rather know what I am yearning for, what I am always leaning towards, than not know. I'd rather still have the love than never have had it all.

Still, there are days when it is harder than others. So I keep breathing. I get out of bed every day. I wait five minutes before I do something stupid. And I embrace the yearning, just as I have embraced the love, the loss, the gratitude. I embrace because I don't know what else to do, other than to live.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 28, 2016

X is for xenophobia

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Xenophobia:
An unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.

Annette Simmons has wisely said that Storytelling is an antidote to war. My friend and mentor, Brother Blue, believed that storytelling was the path to world peace because How could you kill someone if you know their story?

Storytelling strips the mask away from xenophobia. When we hear stories from people we consider foreign or strange we can choose to recognize our shared humanity or we can choose to embrace mindless fear and hatred. We can't do both. We must choose and we are revealed. It is in the stories that we find ourselves and our common ground so by listening we dare to set aside fear.

Shared stories break down boundaries. When we listen to folktales or myths from another culture we recognize our own. When we listen to someone tell stories about their life, their family, their hopes and dreams, we recognize ourselves. The U.S. military understands that we can change more hearts and minds through storytelling than we can with bombs or MREs. They have funded multiple studies that show over and over again how stories - told and heard - create empathy and change. More than guns. More than handouts. Stories give us a no man's land where we can find ourselves reflected in another's eyes. If the military gets it maybe we can, too.

Brother Blue's statement may seem over the top, but isn't it worth trying to connect with those we may find frightening before we lash out? Isn't it worth telling them a tale or two and listening to their stories first? What's the worst that happens if we try to set aside xenophobia and find common ground? War and prejudice can always be a second option. In this world, where it's so easy to make assumptions, where we're told we should be on the attack, taking the time to listen becomes a radical act.

Maybe storytelling can save the world. It's a least worth a shot.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Telling Life: Why?

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

This post was published in 2015 in a slightly different form. I think it still stands and is one of the important questions of any work.

*     *     *

Why do I tell stories? Why do I get up on stage in front of people and start talking? What is it that I love about storytelling? These are important questions for all of us to consider, regardless of what we do. Why do we do it? What drives us to get up and undertake something complex and challenging for more than the money?

I do it because I can't not do it. I can't not do it because it is a basic part of being human - we are the storytelling animal - and because it is a basic part of my truth in the world. Story matters. My voice matters as does yours. This is not a manifesto but maybe it's the beginning of one. Certainly it is incomplete, but what I know in this moment, which is all we ever have anyway. I'd love to know why you tell stories. Please tell me.

I love the connection. The visceral rush, the near-telepathy that comes with connecting to an audience. I love our combined breath, the gasps and sighs that come as I move through the narrative. It is as though we become one animal, constructed of story solely for the purpose of turning words into a living moment.

I love the mystery. There are times when I tell stories that it feels as though the universe is speaking through me. I listen to the story coming out of me as much as I construct it. I love the sense that I am part of something so much bigger. It's similar to the feeling I get when I look at enormous natural beauty, that awe for the world and my minute but integral place in it.

I love the variability. Every time I tell a story it's different. It may be something I've told a thousand times, but because the audience is different, because we are at different places in our lives, the story is different. It is new every time and yet ancient, in my bones.

I love the dance between teller, tale and listener. The story triangle is a description of relationships, but it also describes motion. We are all dancing together.

I love the listening required to tell a good story. I need to listen to my audience, to myself, to the world to be a better storyteller and teacher.

I love the solitary work that goes into the performance. Spending time with books, words and my own thoughts gives me a chance to consider what's important to me. What I want to share. What matters enough in this world that I will make myself so vulnerable as to step on stage and say, "Here I am."

I love the timelessness of it. Stories endure. I can tell a tale that is 3000 years old and it is still relevant. I can tell another I made up yesterday and it connects. What's more, storytelling removes me from the present moment, I go into a kind of trance when I perform or listen deeply that frees me from my cares and worries. I am transcended.

I love the connection with the past. The old tales link me to generations of dreamers, of tellers, of listeners. Through them I can see into my own past, the past of my ancestors, the dreams of those who have gone before.

I love the connection with the future. Every time I tell stories the audience might choose to go away changed. They may decide to tell stories themselves. Words loved and shared have power.

I love the accessibility of storytelling. Everyone has stories to tell and everyone should be heard. I love helping people find their voice, bloom as they realize that their story matters.

I love telling stories because of the places it takes me, the people I meet, the thrill of standing on stage, the one-on-one connection, the risk and success and failure, because of the change it creates, the ways it makes the world, bigger, the notes I receive saying "now I know I am not alone." I love telling stories because of how it challenges me, because I am transformed, because it sometimes an ecstatic thing, because of the glow I see on your faces. I tell stories because it is a way of earning my living that brings value to the world. And there is occasionally beer.

I love telling stories because it helps me craft the world with you.

Story matters. My voice matters as does yours.

I want to hear you. What else is there? What have I forgotten? What do you love? Why do you do it?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer (c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Vasilissa

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Oh, I love Vasilissa. This story is arguably the best known of the Baba Yaga tales. It's a Cinderella variant with a somewhat more independent and able heroine. Read the story for yourself here. You can find other great Russian stories and resource material on Karen Chace's blog here.

Some things to consider when telling Vasilissa or other stories like this:

  • How will you retain the connection to the original culture?
  • Who is the real villain? The real heroine? Do you want to depict nuances in these characters or is this telling simpler?
  • Who is your audience? What will they need? 
  • How will you present Baba Yaga? Is she just evil? What about her home with its scaly chicken feet? How will you explain a mortar to people who may not know what one is?
  • How do you pronounce the names correctly?
  • If you're fracturing it, make sure you can tell it straight first.

How do you develop stories from other cultures? What matters to you when you're telling heroic stories? Does the gender of the hero make a difference? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for unplug

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

I love my phone. I love my computer. I love all of my devices that help me organize my life, the tools I use for my work, those things that encourage me to fritter away time. Oh my god, did I really spend three hours on Facebook? Yup.

I try to unplug regularly. I try to turn off my phone, set aside my computer and iPad, then just be present in the world. I try to observe more and record/look up/share a little less. The world will not suffer if I don't upload a photo of my breakfast. Even if it was a really good breakfast.

It is, of course, ironic that I'm writing this on my computer and you will read it through a screen, likely having found it through some form of social media. That being said, I urge you to unplug from time to time. It can be remarkably refreshing after you experience panic and worry that you might miss something vital.

Chances are, you won't miss anything crucial if you turn your phone off for an hour or two. Go for a walk. Look at the trees. Swing in a hammock and contemplate the sky. Let the electronic sounds leave your body and mind for a little while.

The world will wait. Unplug. Dream. Live.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for truth

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Truth is such a tricky topic. One person's truth is another's lie. Witness reports always vary. So how do we handle truth in storytelling? I get asked this a lot when I'm helping someone work on a personal story. How much truth is too much? What if a detail or two is changed to make a better story or to protect the innocent?

These are really good questions to ask, and I usually answer them with a question or two. Or three. If you're considering telling a true story and are concerned about how true it needs to be or if the truth might be damaging, maybe ask yourself the following. The answers will help you understand how you should craft the work.

If the story is your story, it happened to you:
You own the story and the events in it. You get to tell them because they are your truth.

  • Will telling the truth hurt/embarrass/damage you or anyone else? If it will, are you willing to accept the consequences? If you're telling the story to enact revenge on someone I'd suggest letting this one rest for a bit longer.
  • If you do choose to change it (and frankly that is usually my advice if the story will be damaging) how can you change it without altering the things you most love about it, the truth it conveys? 
  • What happens if you just change names, locale, dates, etc? Is that enough? If you don't want to change those things ask yourself why. 
  • Is it appropriate for your audience as it is? If not, why are you telling them this story in particular?

If this is someone else's story and they gave you permission to tell it:
You know the person it happened to, they said it was okay to tell.

  • Have you talked with them about the parts you might want to change? What did they say?
  • You are planning to tell the audience that this happened to a friend and not to you, right?
  • If you do change it does it alter the truth of it?
  • Is it appropriate for your audience as it is? If not, why are you telling them this story in particular?

This isn't your story and you don't have permission to tell it:
My hope is that none of my students will do this. If they are then we talk about IP and how it feels to have your work stolen.

  • If it isn't in the public domain and you don't have permission then stop. It isn't yours.
  • There are literally millions of stories in the world. Can you find one that you don't have to steal?

How do you contend with truth and change in your stories? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 22, 2016

Still

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Dear Kevin,

You remember how much I love words. I know it made you nuts sometimes, the ways I would play with language through puns and other silly things. One of the things I love most is how a single word can carry so many different definitions.

Recently I've been thinking about the word still. It has all kinds of meanings. Some aren't relevant to this letter (for instance I have no plans to build a still in the backyard) but some... one word simply takes my breath away.

Still. I will never forget how still you were after.
You who always had such life in your face and body.
You who, even when you were deep in thought or asleep, was the focal point of the room.
You who danced and moved with such grace.
You were so still. It took awhile for the stillness to fall into you, a while for your body to know that it was in a different state but soon enough, there it was.
I remember your stillness and your motion both.

Still. I will always treasure those still times between us. Those times when it was only us and the room was quiet, dust motes drifting in the light. Each of us in our own thoughts, me in a book and you in your computer, the stillness would shimmer and connect us like a web. We would look at each other, smile and then return to shared stillness. We had those times in the hospital, too, mostly at night. We would hold hands and I would listen to your breath, wondering if you were awake, not wanting to disturb you if you were, but connected there in the dark.

Still. After you died I struggled to find stillness and it was in those quiet moments that I first began to find myself again. Not the moments when I was so exhausted with grief that I couldn't move but the moments of deliberate quiet. In meditation at first and then more broadly when I held myself still enough that I could hear the world, hear myself, hear you. I still find you there, when I still my thoughts and calm my breath, that is where I feel you close.

Still. Here I am, more than two years after you left this earth. I am still here. A year ago that would have been said with resignation. I am still here. Now there is light in again, and gratitude. I am still here.

I can't help but think of the Commodores' song, Still. When it first came out I was a child and swooned over the longing in those words, in Lionel Ritchie's voice. Now I hear it and I think yes, I understand that now though so much has changed. Yes, time has passed, I am in love with a good man who is not you but wholly himself. That doesn't mean I don't miss you and long for you and still need you, even though the you I long for is no longer here. That's okay. I'd rather live with this ache than never have had you at all.

Even with the rhinestones and big hair and the fact that this is a song about a relationship unlike ours, this song captures some of what it is to love someone who is no longer there. I know we listened to it together and held hands. I know we are still holding hands, even if I can't always feel you.

I do love you. Still.



(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for respect

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Performance storytelling is about a lot of things. It's about being on stage. It's about being heard. It's about entertainment, about craft, about provoking a reaction. It's about developing a relationship with the audience and, in order to do that, you must respect them.

It's easy to become jaded when you perform frequently. It's easy to forget that each audience is unique and has its own needs. It's easy to forget that it's your job to meet those needs the best you can, each and every time you perform.

Of course, every audience has some similarities. Ideally they are coming to your performance with some idea of what you are like and what they can expect. You can make some general assumptions that an audience of 4 year olds will have different needs from a festival crowd which will have different needs from elders in an assisted living facility. Of course. But it's our job as performing storytellers to pay attention to each audience, to respect them enough to do our best for them.

Each and every time.

Our best may vary, but if we remember that they are as hungry for recognition as we are, if we respect them enough, then we won't lose sight of the fact that they are taking time out of their lives to pay attention to us. Admittedly, a given audience might do things that limit your ability to respect them, but remember that the next audience is a new audience and just as deserving of respect at the outset as any other.

Some ways you can demonstrate respect:

  • Thank them at the beginning and at the end.
  • Don't make fun of them unless you already have an established relationship with them.
  • A personal bugaboo: Don't use accents unless you can do them flawlessly and accurately. Imagine an Irish person is in the audience and you use a not-very-good Irish accent. That could be interpreted as mocking them.
  • Respect your own art and time. Be on time. Stick to your time limits unless you have permission to exceed them.
  • Acknowledge that the audience is human. I wrote about this earlier in my piece on noise and interruption
  • Meet them where they are. Treat four year olds like four year olds and adults like adults.
  • Respect that they each come into the performance space with their own baggage, and they are doing the best they can. Sometimes that won't feel like enough.

Welcome your listeners as they are, respect their time and attention, and you will build a relationship with them that encourages repeat bookings, good word-of-mouth and more telling time.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Telling Life: Q is for Questioning

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Questioning is both among my greatest tools and the bane of my working life. It helps me craft better stories, deeper characters, and do things that are out of the ordinary, but at the same time my internal questioning frequent derails me and makes me wonder if I'm on the right path or just kidding myself. When my internal critics are at their worst it is sometimes a question that helps the most.

Let's take a look at questions as tools and as self-sabotage.

Questions as tools

I find it very helpful to ask myself all kinds of questions when I'm developing a story, workshop or class. After performing, consulting, teaching or coaching I ask myself questions to help me assess how it went. I ask my coaching clients all kinds of questions as a way to help them explore new avenues. Here are a just few examples of each.

Story development questions:

  • Why does this story matter to me? What is, to borrow from Doug Lipman, the most important thing?
  • What do I want the audience to take away from it?
  • Is it appropriate for me to tell this story?
  • I might ask a friend to interview me as one of the characters, asking me questions that help me deepen the telling.
  • Questions for coaching clients are similar.
Class, workshop or consulting questions:
  • What have I been hired to do? What are the expectations I must meet?
  • With whom will I be working? What level of expertise might they already have?
  • Will I need to convince them this is worthwhile and, if so, what do I know about them already that could help?
Post-performance/event questions:
  • Did the audience/students seem to get something out of it?
  • Did I meet the set expectations? Did I exceed them? 
  • If something went awry, what can I learn from it?
Some thoughts about self-sabotage and some tools to break the cycle

Oh, I question myself constantly. I struggle with imposter syndrome and wonder if I have any right to do what I do, let alone try to help people. I ask myself questions like:
  • Why would anyone want to hear my stories?
  • I don't really have anything worthwhile to say, what makes me think I have any right to teach this stuff?
  • How dare I send a newsletter to people who signed up for one? Do I really have anything to say?
I'm telling you this NOT so you will reassure me, but because I'm betting some of you question your own artistic worth from time to time, too. I know I can't stop you from doing this, I struggle to stop myself, but I remind you, your voice matters. The world needs all of our voices and talents. Please don't quit.

When my internal questioning becomes too loud and I struggle to work, if I'm lucky and smart, I do several things. 
  • I get away from the work for a little while, taking a little walk or do something else for a few minutes. 
  • I might ask a friend to tell me something to counteract the fear.
  • And I ask myself questions, things like:
    • Can you remember one single time your work seemed to make a difference for someone? (yes)
    • Okay, so maybe you're making it up as you go along. Does that make it less useful? (not usually)
    • Why are you running yourself down like this, is it about something else? (often) So what can you do about that other thing?
You get the idea.

Questions can be one of our greatest tools and one of our greatest impediments. It all comes down to how we phrase them and if we give ourselves a chance to ask better questions next time. For me, in this #tellinglife, I remind myself all the time that questioning myself can make me a better artist or it can remove my voice from the world. The choice is mine.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is for personal stories vs. traditional

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

This post was originally published several years ago. I've modified it slightly to reflect my changing views.

The popularity of personal storytelling is soaring. Venues like The Moth have brought thousands upon thousands of new listeners to one of the oldest art forms. It's thrilling. And yet it can be frustrating for those who tell traditional stories and aren't interested in telling the personal. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of personal and traditional telling and see what common ground we can find.

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.

Let's start with a tiny bit of history.
  1. People have been telling stories for as long as we have been people. I expect this includes both "personal" (real, first person) stories and "traditional" (metaphoric or fictional) stories.
  2. About 40 years ago storytelling festivals began to appear in the United States. They may very well have existed for longer in the U.S. and longer in other countries, but I'm recounting the history as I know it.
  3. In the late 1990s the Moth launched in New York City, which focuses on personal narrative.
  4. By the mid-2000s story slam were proliferating and festivals were experiencing declines in attendance.
This set up some apparent conflict between storytellers who leaned towards traditional stories and those who came up through the slam scene or otherwise leaned towards personal stories. There is a lot of grumbling on both sides about relative value.

I find this grumbling to be unfortunate and divisive; I believe there is power and value to both forms of narrative and each can learn from the other. I also suspect some of it is generational. I know I sometimes find myself feeling like an old geezer, frustrated that everyone thinks this stuff is new and has no interest in the fact that I've been doing it for 20+ years. I'm sure there is room for both.

Definitions

It might be useful to have clear working definitions of "personal" and "traditional" storytelling. These definitions are for the purpose of this article and so start with the assumption that we're talking about live performance without a script-in-hand, operating on the principles of the story triangle. With that in mind, I will define "personal storytelling" as first-person narrative that the audience believes recounts something that happened to the individual telling it or someone they know, something that's more-or-less true. First person, nonfiction, personally experienced. I will define "traditional storytelling" as first or third person narrative, recounting a story with roots in the oral tradition that the audience believes is fictional and metaphorical. First or third person, fiction, not personally experienced.

I'm setting up these parameters because there are worlds of story that don't fall into either of these categories (fiction, literary, historical, etc). These other categories are wonderful and important, but I'll set them aside for now. I want to work with the clearer forms I just described.

Cultural role and meaning

Both traditional and personal narratives have important cultural roles. Like all stories, they give us a chance to look at our own lives and actions through a narrative lens. We hear or tell a story and relate our own experience to it

Traditional stories use metaphor. These stories give us a chance to interpret signs and symbols for deeper meaning. They often carry cultural knowledge about morals, danger, ethics and so on. When we tell or hear a traditional narrative we have an opportunity to scratch under the surface and find the authors intended meaning as well as decide how we wish to interpret the same material. Is Red Riding Hood about ignoring your mother? Talking to strangers? Puberty? Delivering goodies to the infirm? There is a potential open-ness to the narrative that is both empowering and isolating. We are given the tools to make our own meaning but often must make meaning for the story to make sense. We have to stretch further sometimes, to accept a world with talking animals and clearly defined morals. We are required to accept that the symbols have meaning and that the teller makes it worth it for us to suspend our disbelief. If we don't then the story may not be engaging.

Personal narrative (as defined above) doesn't need metaphor. These stories are recounting true events with the meaning sometimes explicitly described in the narrative (I learned that the woods are dangerous) and other times left open for the listeners to entirely fabricate (I never went to my grandmother's house again). Because the narrative is assumed to be factual the cultural meaning exists in the actions and words of the story, not in the hidden meaning behind them. The hidden meaning may be there if the author crafts it in, but it isn't required. We may find it easier to empathize with these stories because they don't require the stretch of metaphor; the meaning may be easier to find. We need to be willing to believe the teller and let whatever they say relate to our own lives simply, without symbolic trappings. If we are not inclined to find ourselves in others' lives these stories will be less engaging.

Historically we know that traditional stories were (among other things) teaching tools. We told and heard these tales as a way to understand our world without having to put ourselves directly into risky situations, they helped us through different stages of our lives. Personal narrative can do the same thing, although much of the prevalent form of personal storytelling seems to be built more on the extraordinary, so these stories don't require interpretation or offer as much as teaching tools, but provoke empathy and may help build connection. It may be that traditional stories are more about the communal learning/hearing experience, while personal tales are more about the sense of not being alone because of the empathy provoked by the story itself.

The story triangle

Both of these forms of narrative rely on the story triangle for their power. The interaction between teller, tale and audience is very much at play as these stories are performed.

Personal stories well-told allow us to gasp in awe at the lives of others. Depending on the tale and teller, there may not be as much room for the listener's interpretation, but these stories help us built bridges across culture, class and ethnic boundaries. We all have had crummy times, adventures, loss and triumph. Hearing another's story at the least reminds us that we are not alone.

Traditional stories require more meaning-making, something that I think is not in great vogue these days. Nonetheless, when hearing a well-told traditional tale we can marvel at the power of our own imaginations, touch other cultures and maybe learn a little about how to move through the world. Some of the oldest stories remind us that we all have commonality of experience and, at the least, reminds us that we are not alone.

It may be that traditional stories are more about the communal learning/hearing experience, while personal tales are more about the sense of not being alone because of the empathy provoked by the story itself.

So what do I think?

If you've gotten this far then you know that I think both forms of story have value. I think the current cultural love for personal narrative isn't surprising; we live in a voyeuristic society where the selfie matters and sites like tmz add to our hunger for personal anecdote. I think it's misleading to say that traditional stories have lost value, we need only look at other forms of storytelling to remember that traditional material still resonates (films, tv shows, etc).

I think the problem may come down to segregation. Personal story events draw listeners because they know what to expect; true(ish) stories that show their peers as fallible, heroic, tragic; the same qualities they find in themselves, only larger and well articulated. If these audiences are never exposed to well-chosen traditional material that includes the fallible, heroic and tragic, why should they ever come to a traditional event? If someone loves fairy tales why would they think they might find meaning in a coming-of-age tale? We, as storytellers, need to market our material wisely. Organizations such as massmouth and Portland Story Theater are doing a good job of cross-pollinating. What if a story slam included a special teller who told a short, funny, ribald traditional story? What if someone known for traditional material included a story about their personal life? Both stories could echo the theme of the event.

There was a time when I refused to tell personal stories; it felt like an invasion of my privacy. Then I remembered the wonderful Fellini quote, "All art is autobiographical." With that I realized that the traditional stories I told were meaningful because I gave them meaning. It no longer was frightening to tell personal tales or make a fairy tale personal. Now I tell more stories, connect with more audiences and learn more about the craft every day.

One other thought is about merging genres. Since I began telling professionally I have told fairy tales as if they were personal stories and woven magic into my personal stories. Here is an example, Persephone's story told from her mother's point of view, as if it were a personal story. In truth, telling this story helped me process my feelings about never having a child of my own so for me this is a deeply personal story. Both traditional and personal stories offer the teller the chance to examine their own lives; both tools have value.



Let's end with a story.

Once upon a time there were two siblings living on an island. This island had two tall peaks and a flat valley. One day they stood in the valley and looked to the ocean where they saw the dark line of an incoming tsunami.
"Quick! Climb my mountain!" said one sibling.
"Mine is taller, climb this one!"
The siblings stood in the valley, shouting at one another. The roar of the tsunami grew.

What if we recognized that all stories, regardless of traditional, personal, or other, have value when they are well told, when there is room for the audience and when we remember that stories are about human experience, whether true or metaphorical? What if festivals opened themselves more to slams, personal narrative along with traditional material? What if slams opened the door for less-than-true tales? What if we opened that door for all listeners and gave them a chance to experience a broader world of story? What if we decided that both mountains are tall enough?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, April 18, 2016

O is for opposites

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

It's Monday so it's time to play a little.

It can be fun to tell stories from completely different points of view. These tellings don't need to be a part of your performing repertoire, but it might help you think of a story in a new way or may give you more information that you could weave into a known telling.

Today let's think about opposites.

I'm sure you've experimented with telling stories from different points of view - Cinderella's stepsisters, for example, might have something to say - but what if you flip one element to its opposite and see how it influences the telling?

For example:

  • Red Riding Hood has a grandfather instead of grandmother
  • Sleeping Beauty has insomnia
  • Clark Kent has the superpowers and Superman is kind of every day
  • Captain Kirk is cautious instead of impulsive
  • Goldilocks fixes things and leaves
You get the idea. Take one element of a familiar story and flip it. You might learn something about the characters or yourself that you never knew before.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, April 17, 2016

N is for noise - six tips for performance interruption

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Okay, so I am a day late with this post. I'm sorry.

Every performer has to deal with interruptions sometimes. It just happens. Live performance is like that. I remind my students that it's their job to be prepared and have some strategies to deal with noise, babies, puppies, trains, etc. They need to be able to maintain their performance, their own comfort and the audience.

Please note, this post is NOT about hecklers. That's a whole different ball game that I will address another time.

Here are some tips that may help you, should you ever have to deal with noisy interruptions to your show.
  1. Prepare in advance. Talk with the venue manager about what you might expect and what you can do ahead of time to minimize the likelihood of interruptions. Be prepared. That's the most important thing; stop problems before they start.
  2. Know your material well. If you do get interrupted you want to be able to pick up where you left off without great difficulty. It will also make it easier for the audience to get back into the story.
  3. As you go into the gig, think about how you might respond to a noise. Will you incorporate it into the story? Will you wait until it stops? Will you acknowledge it happened, take a moment to chat with the audience, and then move on? What would be comfortable for you, so you have a plan?
  4. Know your audience. If you're telling at a family story hour you might expect more interruptions than if you're telling in a black box theater. When you have some sense of what kinds of noise may happen you can strategize appropriately.
  5. Remember that most of the time no one is making noise to sabotage you and acknowledging it give everyone a chance to get over it. People are people. Kids make noise. Trucks make funny sounds. Technical difficulties happen. By acknowledging that a noise has happened, demonstrating you're not upset about it and then moving on, you put your audience at greater ease.
    I saw the amazing Judith Black in performance with a very cute kitten underfoot. She was telling a fairly serious story, but the kitten kept wandering onto the stage, rubbing her legs and making adorable squeaks. Everyone was paying more attention to the cat than they were to the story. Judith looked down at the kitten, made the appropriate cooing noises, picked it up and held it while she continued her story. The audience was able to pay attention to her again, because they weren't all thinking about how much they wanted to pet the kitty. The cat felt attended to and, when it wanted to jump down, wandered away because it had received the attention it needed. Judith was able to continue her story with the attention she deserved. It was masterful.
  6. If you need to ask for help, do so politely so the audience remains on your side. Give the noise maker another option. I was telling at a festival once, in a fairly small tent. There were two young boys playing portable video games in the front row. The noise was distracting everyone. Their parents were nowhere in sight. I asked the boys if they could help me with my story. They were immediately engaged. I had them tell a couple of lines for me, then asked if they needed to keep playing their games, maybe they could do so at the back of the tent. They didn't feel brushed aside and the audience was able to concentrate.
Most of dealing with noisy interruptions is planning ahead, knowing what you might do should it happen, and making sure the audience feels cared for. I'd love to know how you deal with performance interruptions!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for more

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Everyone who has lost a loved one knows the feeling.
I want more. It's not fair, there wasn't enough.
More.
Now.

I want more of Kevin's smile.
More of his laugh.
More of his touch.
More of the gasping breath.

I want more of Kevin's insight.
More of his scent.
More of his optimism.
More of his life.

More more more more.

Death is the cruelest thief. It steals not only the present but the future. It stole all of my more, leaving me only with memories and no way to build more future.

And yet.
And yet.

In his last days Kevin asked me to be okay. He told me he wanted me to live, to love, to thrive, all without him. He told me that he would always love me.

He wanted me to have more. More sweetness. More love. More life.

I won't. I can't have more Kevin. But there is more sweetness, more love, more life.

It isn't as easy as deciding to be okay, to look on the bright side. Anyone who tells you that is full of bull. But part of it is deciding to be willing to accept that more may be possible. It just won't be the same.

To do less would be to dishonor him.
To do less would be to reject what more he could give me.
To do less would be to lie to the world about the ongoing nature of love and life and hope.

There is more. It's just not the more I expected or ever would have wanted before I lost what I thought of as my future.

I want it now because I am living for two.
I want it now because it is in my nature to live. As it may be in yours.

There is more. It's just not the same. Nor should it be.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for love

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

I've posted this before, but I think it's one of the most important things I can say about storytelling. 

I've written before about the relationship between teller, audience and tale. I'd like to take this a step further and talk a little bit about how the storyteller becomes the vessel for story, that there is something sacred that happens when we let ourselves become that vessel 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.

*          *          *

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.”
“And?”
“Listeners?”
“And?”
“Just…people.”
“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 talking and they are listening, 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 can't help but make room for them and create a new experience together.

Something sacred and almost mystical happens when we love our audiences and include them in the creative moment. The story we tell, the one we have crafted, shaped, practiced, leaves our lips and bodies and becomes theirs. They absorb it and shape it with their own experiences, hopes and dreams. In so doing, the art we've made expands well beyond our original intent and can change a life for a moment or forever.

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 be willing to get out of the way enough for this to happen, and the easiest way to do this it to 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 understand 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 so they can be transforming.

This in no way takes the story from us. It makes it bigger. When we tell our stories well and love the audience enough that they can hold the story int heir hearts, they will return to us again and again, because they know we have room for them. It's not a one-way art.

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 when 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)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Telling Life: K is for kindness

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Kindness is my abiding value. Be kind whenever possible and remember that it is always possible, though the form of kindness may change. Today, for example, I've had a raging migraine for most of the day so I was kind to myself and delayed writing this post. I'm still tender, so please forgive rough spots; I want to get it up but don't really have my usual brain power.

Kindness is part of my storytelling practice. I strive to be kind to my audience, to those who hire me, to the narrative and to myself. This leads to some best practices that I find easier to enact when I remind myself that they come out of kindness. Let's take a look at what that means.

Being kind to the audience. 
I try to craft my shows so they take my audience into account. I work to tell stories that are appropriate to the people who are listening to me and to what I may know about outside events. A dramatic example of this was when I was hired to tell a story that included people jumping from a burning building. I was hired in August of 2001, for a show in October, 2001. After the events of September 11th, 2001, I spoke with the program organizer and suggested a different story instead, one that had similar meaning but didn't include jumping from a burning building.
Additionally, I acknowledge that the people are people. Things happen. If a baby starts crying, if a cell phone goes off, if someone walks out, I don't take it personally. I have no idea what the extenuating circumstances are.

Being kind to those who hire me.
Whenever I am hired, I make sure we all have reasonable expectations. I listen to their concerns and do my best to answer them and make sure they feel heard.
When I am hired to perform I make sure I meet expectations in terms of material, timing (I don't run long or short if at all possible) and venue. To do otherwise is to be disrespectful to the event planner who is relying on me.
When I am hired to coach or teach I use kindness as my first principle. I present new ideas in ways that are accessible. I listen and I support. The dissection and discussion can come after the value of the work is affirmed.
When I am hire to work with an organization I strive to find out as much as possible about the current state of morale, engagement and so on, so I can be kind to the people who take the workshop. I want to make sure I meet their needs as well as the needs of those who hire me.

Being kind to the narrative.
I make sure I understand why I'm drawn t a particular story and then honor it. I try to make sure its roots are not forgotten, I get permission to tell a piece if it's crafted by another artist, I tell it to audiences who I think will appreciate it.

Being kind to myself.
I get listened to and try to minimize my own isolation. This helps keep my self-doubt at bay and allows me to be kinder to myself when I do make mistakes. I hydrate. I try to take care of my body. I try to be gentle with myself if I am feeling stressed. I do something good for myself every day, even if it's as simple as having an extra cup of tea.
When I perform I take a moment to feel centered on stage so I don't feel anxious. I ask for changes in the house lights so my eyes don't hurt. I do what I need to feel connected to the audience. I take my time.

How does kindness influence your work? What are your best practices about kindness? What am I forgetting because I have a headache?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

J is for Jack


I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Oh, Jack gets up to all kinds of mischief. Jack is a trickster figure from British Isles folklore who has emigrated to the Appalachia mountains. He is often portrayed as foolish or innocent, but through his wits manages to prevail.

I love telling trickster tales. When I tell a Jack tale I try to remember that Jack must be believable. The audience is already in the joke. They know what to expect, that Jack will (by wit or by luck) find his way through the trial, ending up rich and happy. My job is to patronize neither the character nor the audience but to tell them the story in ways the listeners can identify with, to amuse and delight them, and to let Jack have his moment in the sun.

Listen to the video above, master storyteller Ray Hicks telling Jack Old Fire Dragon. What did you like about it? What was compelling? How would you tell this story?

Some things to think about when preparing to tell a Jack tale:
  • Don't forget your context. In Mr. Hicks' telling he includes a great deal of local knowledge that made it more entertaining to his audience. How can you help your listeners identify with the story?
  • Believe in your Jack. He is your hero and, fool or no, if you believe in him then your listeners will, too.
  • If you decide to fracture the tale, make sure you understand it's original meaning and context. This story is a direct retelling of a British Isles Jack story, but with local flavor and meaning.
  • Make your Jack relatable. We all want to be the hero now and then.
  • Don't be afraid to be a little foolish; if Jack can do it, you can too!
(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, April 11, 2016

I is for...imagination, updated

This post was originally published in 2013, when I first participated in the A-Z Blog challenge. I think it still stands, so I offer it again, updated for 2016.

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
- Albert Einstein

My favorite toy in the world is my imagination. As a storyteller, I get to play with my imagination and the imaginations of my listeners every day. It delights me and I hope it delights you.

Imagination is essential for any storytelling experience. Every time I work on a story I draw on my imagination for images across the range of my sensory experience, so I can more fully paint the work I share with my listeners.

There is a world of difference between
Once upon there was an old woman who lived in a house
and
Once upon a time there was an old woman with a red, floury apron and a three-legged dog. They lived together in a crooked house. 

Or
When I was in fifth grade I got picked on
and
When I was in fifth grade I got used to the teasing about my ratty clothing. It was when they said I smelled that I felt my eyes begin to sting.

The additional detail in both of these examples comes from imagining the scene with more clarity and deciding which images I want to share with my audience.

You need to have clear images in your own mind to be able to convey them to your audience. As you develop your story, ask yourself questions like:
  • What color clothing did the main characters wear? Did they chafe? Were they new or old?
  • How did the environment smell?
  • Was it warm or cold? Raining? Clear?
  • What did the inside of the porridge bowl look like? Was Red's cloak lined with satin? What color were Granny's eyes?
Draw upon all of your senses to imagine a scene. Move beyond sight. 
  • How did the Beast smell?
  • What was the texture of your fifth grade desk? If you don't know, make it up!
  • Did your grandfather's fingers hurt when he worked? How did that feel?
  • What did Persephone's pomegranate seeds taste like?
Imagination is like any other skill. You need to practice to keep it agile and robust. Children have wonderful imaginations because they haven't yet bought the lie that they need to color within the lines. I urge you to stretch your imagination every single day. Your world will become more interesting and amusing if you do so. I love stretching  my imagination with games like these:
  • Next time you're on public transit, look only at people's feet. Pick one pair of shoes and make up two stories about the wearer, one you think might be right and one you think is outrageously wrong. Then look at the rest of the person and decide which might be closer to the truth.
  • Next time you're in slow traffic imagine you're in a very, very slow road race. Become the announcer.
  • Go into a room you visit every day. Lie down on the floor and study the ceiling, something you likely ignore. Forget about the cobwebs - what other kinds of rooms could that ceiling belong to?
  • Get some construction paper and crayons. Draw out the images from your stories. Map out the journey. See where you might go.
  • Buy a coloring book and pull out your crayons again. Spend a little while with purple zebras, drawing in the background on the pages, going outside the lines.
When we deeply imagine something, when we populate it thoroughly with images across our senses and experiences, we make it live. We become better storytellers because the audience knows we believe what we're saying, that we have seen it, smelled it, tasted, heard and touched it. They imagine with us and we move into new worlds together.

(c)2013 and 2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 9, 2016

H is for hello

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

What do you do when you first walk onto a stage or other performance venue? Many novice tellers rush right into their story, without taking a moment to greet the audience and assess the space around them. When you're not comfortable with telling, with the material or with the environment, you may find yourself diving right in without taking a moment to say hello. This may lead to your story sounding rushed or the audience losing the first few beats of the telling because they didn't have a chance to focus their attention. If you do this, you're not alone. We all rush into the telling sometimes without taking a moment to be present.

When we rush into telling because we're nervous or concerned we won't have enough time several things happen. You don't have a chance to look around and develop a sense of who is in front of you and what space you're working with. The audience doesn't have a chance to look at you before they have to concentrate on listening. They need a moment to get used to you. By taking just a moment to gather yourself together and for the audience to see you, it's much easier to build rapport and connection.

Next time you're about to perform, take a moment before you launch into your performance. You can do this without it appearing forced in several ways.

Walk to the mic or telling space then
  • pause and smile at the audience. 
  • take a breath then begin your story.
  • fiddle with the mic to ensure it's in the right place.
  • develop a signature way of greeting your audience or starting stories. I often walk on stage and say "good evening" (whatever is appropriate for the time of day) or "thank you."
  • what have you done in the past to say hello to your audience?
It may feel very vulnerable, letting the audience see you before you launch into your performance, but vulnerability is part of what makes good storytelling. It allows the audience to feel more connected with you and gives them permission to be vulnerable in turn. Taking just that moment to acknowledge them, to settle into the moment and to give yourself a chance to breath means your performance will be more centered, more powerful and more connected.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 8, 2016

G is for grief

I’m participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge throughout April.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

Well, today's title was a bit of a no-brainer, wasn't it.

Webster's defines grief as deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement. Such a simple set of words for something so complex. It's a word that (like so many of our most powerful words) has been diluted. "Don't give me any grief" a stressed parent might say to a willful child. I shudder whenever I hear that, thinking that should the child truly give the parent grief, their heart would be broken beyond repair.

So it is, grief is a heart broken beyond repair. The word comes from Middle English, meaning calamity and that is what grief is. It's a calamity. An undoing.

My experience with grief has included numbness, pain beyond description both physical and emotional, a sense of deep isolation. I am not who I was before Kevin died. My heart has broken and slowly I am finding a way to knit the pieces into a new heart. My old heart is gone. What is emerging is something familiar and similar, but different.

I like to think that I have been a reasonably kind person for most of my life. Kindness is my abiding belief, that we must be kind to one another, but I am learning a new form of kindness now. A deeper sense of compassion. It's not consistent, what is, but it is there.

So grief is also a teacher. It is one of the few teachers we all will encounter, if we are lucky. If we are lucky we will love someone deeply enough that when they die (and some of them will die) we grieve. We break. We are formed anew. We are not alone in our grief though it may feel that way; the oldest recorded story is one of friendship and grief.

Perhaps I should say that, instead of grief being a heart broken beyond repair, it is a crucible. Grief melts us down until we are unrecognizable and then gives us the opportunity to be formed anew. Not the same. Never the same. But into something that might reflect light back to the world with more grace.

There are so many things I am grateful for. Highest among them is Kevin. His life. His gifts. His love. And yes, because I have no choice in the matter but how I respond to it, his death. I would never have chosen for Kevin to die, certainly not when and how he did. But his death has allowed great grief to enter my life and I have been destroyed and am rebuilding. I have changed. I have written and spoken and carried his light into the world.

Without allowing myself to grieve, this wouldn't have happened. And I am so grateful for it all.

G is for gratitude. Which is, perhaps, the mirror image of grief.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, April 7, 2016

F is for friends and family; the risks of having a storyteller in your life.

The A-Z Blogging Challenge continues.
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

My husband and storytelling partner-in-crime Kevin Brooks told personal stories long before it was fashionable. Twenty years ago he was mining his own life for material and crafting stories that were funny, poignant and meaningful. He often said that God had given him a crazy family as material for storytelling. He didn't hesitate.

I was amazed. At the time I couldn't imagine telling stories about my own life, let alone the lives of my friends and family. It seemed too revealing, too personal. I preferred to tell truths masked in metaphor. We had many long conversations about the ethics of telling stories in which other people's truth are revealed. He was adamant that 1) these stories were important, that people needed to hear them; 2) that no one was harmed even if he told something embarrassing; and 3) that I should tell personal stories, too. Kevin insisted that this was one of the risks of having a storyteller in the family; nothing was sacred and everything could be revealed.

It took awhile, but eventually I did begin to tell personal stories, tales that involve my friends and family. I struggled with what to reveal and what to conceal. I still do.

Personal storytelling is everywhere now, it's the dominant form of performance storytelling. Programs like The Moth have helped bring thousands of people to this art form. I think personal telling is so powerful (at least in part) because it reminds us that we are not alone. None of us is entirely unique in the universe and when we hear someone tell a story about an experience that echoes our own, no matter how strange or traumatic, we connect.

As a performing storyteller I must have personal stories in my repertoire, but it's important to me that I respect the people who appear in them. I don't want to insult or betray my friends and family if I tell stories about them that are less than complimentary, yet those are the stories I sometimes need to tell.

I manage this by asking them when I can, by shaving off serial numbers (changing names and other identifying details) or, every once in awhile if the story is important enough, forging ahead with it but being careful about where I tell it. I know I am more sensitive to this than many. In general I have found people are delighted when I tell stories about them.

Kevin once gave his mother a stack of stories he'd written about her. She read them for a long time, staying in one place, each page slowly moving from the unread stack to the read. He was nervous; buried in there was a story about an old family secret in which she took revenge on an unfaithful suitor. He waited. And waited. After awhile it was clear she had passed that story. He was about to ask her what she thought when he noticed her shoulders were shaking. She looked up and tears were streaming down her face. She was laughing so hard she could make no noise and her eyes were watering.

When she finally caught her breath she reached out to him and choked out, "It's all true! It's all true!"

I think this may be the secret to telling stories about our friends and family.
Tell the truth.
Maybe wait a little while until the rawness has healed.
Remember that we storytellers are speakers of the truth.
We build connection.
We drive away shadows.
One story at a time, we heal the world.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Telling Life: E is for extroverts and introverts

The A-Z Blog Challenge continues. 
Monday - something light to start the week. A bit of self-care, creativity challenge or the like.
Tuesday - telling notes for a specific story or kind of story. Tips and tricks to help you think about what you're telling and how.
Wednesday - my usual #tellinglife post, looking at some of the more personal aspects of storytelling and its role in my life.
Thursday - a dip into some of the issues facing contemporary storytelling or a dive into some of the more unusual applications of storytelling.
Friday - my usual personal post about life following the death of my husband
Saturday - the storytelling coach offers a tip you can use right now. An example of the kinds of tools I encourage my students to use.

I know, you won't believe me when I tell you this, but I am pretty introverted. That is sometimes a challenge in the #tellinglife, but I'm not alone. I know quite a few storytellers who, when they're offstage and not interacting with their listeners, are introverts. This isn't surprising, when you think about; storytelling (like any art) required quite a bit of internal work. Introverts tend to be energized by time alone, while extroverts tends to be energized by time with others. Storytellers need to be able to work well alone while we do all of the behind-the-scenes crafting and practice. The onstage time represents only a small percentage of a storytellers working life.

Both extroversion and introversion have their advantages; it's helpful to know where you fall so you can manage your energy reserves more effectively. I know this because it took me years to realize I was an introvert and respond appropriately. I used to wonder why I was so tired after social events, why I didn't particularly enjoy most parties and crowded places, why I had to work so hard at small talk. It was baffling. I'm a storyteller, surely I thrive on attention and others?!

Nope.

I saw Susan Cain's fantastic TED talk and found myself crying. Everything fell into place. While I do thrive on performance, I am exhausted by big social interactions. I need a lot of time to recharge. Understanding my own tendency toward introversion made an enormous difference in my life and in my performance. Now that I know I need quiet time, that I am better at 1:1 conversation, that I need to work at small talk, I can make better choice. I can choose to be lively at a party or networking event, but I know there will be a cost. I can be social and outgoing, but I am an introvert. I love the quiet alone time I need to work on a new story or piece of writing. I thrive on intimate conversations. I have a much better sense of how to care for myself as a performer, artist and human being. I also have a much better sense of how to spend time with my extroverted friends and how to ask for what I need.

Likewise, if you are an extrovert and you know it, you can make choices about how you take care of yourself. You can find the kinds of social situations that feed you best and you can make choices about how you interact with those who have less social ease than you.

A little self-knowledge goes a long way. Both extroverts and introverts have important and powerful skills. Once we know what nurtures us best we can take better care of ourselves and those around us.

Are you an extrovert or introvert? How does that impact your #tellinglife?

(c)2016 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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