Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Fine Art of Lying

Liar.  It’s a dictionary definition of storyteller. And it’s one of the unkindest things we can call another person. 

I think it was the great French novelist Francoise Sagan who wrote that when someone lies to us, we should consider it a gift, because that person spent the time and effort to create something rather than just fall back on the boring, ready-made truth. Somehow I have never known anyone else who sees it that way. 

Competitions in which storytellers perform tall tales are commonly known as Liar’s Contests. The name always makes me wonder if storytellers make particularly good liars. Certainly we have the imagination for it. We can see all kind of different causes for the same effect. Lipstick on collar? Oh, that was the woman flung against me in the elevator. Short on cash? I saw a homeless mother and child at the Interstate exit, and I couldn’t drive by. And yet. To my mind, there is a certain ethos among storytellers, a certain commitment to doing the right thing. Hey, I’m not suggesting we never falter on our paths. But I believe the reason most of us got into such a low-status, low-paying profession is that we know that storytelling can do much good in the world. Just as there are dishonest teachers and social workers, there are certainly going to be untrustworthy storytellers. I just think the percentage might be a little less.  

The fact that lying and storytelling are considered synonyms speaks volumes about society’s perception of storytellers. In ancient days, the storyteller was the sacred functionary of his/her community, prized for knowledge of the history, genealogy and folklore of a culture. But since the primacy of the written, and then printed word, and the accompanying rise of science and decline of faith, all that has changed. Science became synonymous with truth, and stories with untruth. 

A more accurate understanding of this division is that science is associated with verifiable, documentable truth. The dog either did or did not eat my homework. The politician either did or did not vote a bill into law. But storytelling deals more in the realm of universal truth. So maybe Jason never met Medusa; in fact, Medusa never existed. But what does it mean to experience terror? To face a challenge and emerge victorious through one’s own bravery, wits and strength? To fall in love? These are the kinds of truths the storyteller shares best. Did the stories really happen? No. Are they true? Yes.

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How to Create a Personal Story

Folklorists call them personal memorates. They are the stories we tell about ourselves, our heroic exploits out in the world or our relationship stories within the family or circle of friends and colleagues. We tell stories all the time—many of us dozens of times a day. Yet most of those people who frequently tell stories don’t necessarily consider themselves storytellers. That’s just the way they communicate most comfortably.

How does a natural storyteller tell a story? It’s the difference between saying, “I bought a car today. It’s a 1999 Mustang” and “I was out for a ride this morning—the sky was crystal blue, the birds were singing, there was the scent of jasmine in the air—and suddenly I found myself on Federal Highway. I don’t know how I got there; I wasn’t planning on driving through Automotive Alley, but there I was, surrounded by car dealerships. And then, out of the blue….” The first example is the transmission of information. The second helps us experience the same journey that the storyteller experienced.

When I work with students to discover their own stories, some of them say, “But nothing ever happens to me!” It is my job to open their eyes to how wrong they are about that. An infinite number of things happen to them every day. They  just don’t always notice them. Or, they see them only as disparate facts: “I bought a car today.” And where’s the story in that?

The answer is, the story is in the context. If you bought a car because your old one, which you’ve babied for 200,000 miles, suddenly broke down on the highway, there’s the seed of a story. If you were trying to get that old car to last until 250,000 miles, but your biggest client said something that made you realize how embarrassed you were to drive the car, there’s the seed of a story. If your first car was a Mustang, and you decided at age 55 that it was time to get another, it’s story time. 

It’s not always so easy at first to connect the dots to contextualize an event. But once you get the hang of it, you can see connections with events that occurred weeks or even years earlier. Connecting dots is only the first step, however. The next is to throw onto the page—or into your brain, if you’re not writing this down—all the images and facts you can think of surrounding these events. What time of year was it? What did you smell, hear, taste, see, feel? Help your listener imagine your world.

Next, take a look at your list of facts, dialogue, feelings, etc. And ask yourself, what is this story really about? Is it about a second chance at youth? Is it about realizing that public image is more important than private sentimentality? Whatever your answer, go back and figure out what of your list of details is necessary and what is not to make that meaning clear. Where does the story actually start and end, now that you know what it’s really about? What dialogue or scenes are important, and what can be run through in summary?

If all of this sounds fairly complicated, think of it this way: Most of us already do it, albeit unconsciously, all the time. The trick is to be able to do it consciously, on command. And I promise, the more you think like a storyteller, the more you will realize that things that are story-worthy happen to you all the time.

How Conflict Enhances the Stories of Our Lives

In my experience, conflict hurts. Some people thrive on it, but not me. Much of my life has been spent actively avoiding conflict by either kowtowing to those more powerful than I or just leaving them alone. 

As a storyteller, however, I know that when conflict works, that is, when it is handled and resolved appropriately, it is a true win-win for everyone involved. That’s because, as those who study conflict tell us, the resolution of conflict leads to transformation and growth. And that has everything to do with storytelling. What is a story, at least in the Western tradition? Beginning, middle, end. Or in other words, characters and setting, conflict, resolution of conflict. In a good story, the conflict is just disturbing enough, and the resolution is just comforting and fulfilling enough, that we leave feeling satisfied that a job was well done. That all is right with the world.

We learn these things even from the lightest comic strip or horror movie. It feels good to have waded through a swamp of trouble and gotten to the other side. In fact, it usually feels better to have grappled with a problem and solved it than not to have done it at all. That’s because we are, by and large, active creatures with minds that crave some sort of adventure, challenge or mystery. Think of it as the good feeling that comes from scratching an itch, or taking a tall, cool drink on a hot day.

Many of the problems associated with conflict crop up when we seek to avoid it altogether. It’s the opposite of that sign in the dentist’s office: Ignore your teeth and they will go away. In case of conflict, avoid it and it could explode. 

Years ago, I worked as a waitress in a family restaurant. Another employee was constantly picking on me and others, and I disliked him for it. But the job was temporary, and I decided not to make trouble. I just tried to steer clear of him as much as possible. But one day, he did or said something fairly innocuous that just happened to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And I let him have it. All the hurt and anger that had been welling up inside me for months spewed out. He looked so shocked—almost as much as I was! He changed his behavior toward me after that, which was a good thing. But why did I have to wait until the dam burst to speak my mind? I could have controlled my emotions and words and felt better sooner had I dealt with the problem when it was smaller.

More important than the explosion, however, is the fact that if we hold onto conflict until we can’t control our behavior, we usually end up mishandling the situation. Then the next time we’re faced with a conflict, we stick our heads even further into the sand. And the same thing happens, except just a little bit worse.

I try to keep sight of the image of the irritation in the oyster that causes the pearl. Conflict is inevitable between any two people. If we could only celebrate it, and welcome it, our stories would be so much easier.

Many storytellers work with conflict situations. Noa Baum and Susan O’Halloran are two who come immediately to mind. Sometimes we tell a folktale to a group, because an ageless fictional story can help people address issues from a metaphorical distance. Then that story can serve as a jumping-off point for the sharing of people’s own stories. 

Whatever the method used, the message is clear: As long as we keep talking, we can move forward. Stop using words, and the violence speaks for us.

Fear and Imagination

I know it’s late for Election Day, not to mention Halloween. But these two holidays have got me thinking about fear, and that topic is appropriate any time of the year, isn’t it?

We’ve certainly got a decent array of things to be afraid of these days. Climate change, the collapse of the financial industry, the collapse of our personal finances, terrorism, cancer, and what about those pesky human clones and GMOs no one seems to be talking about anymore?

A wise man (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his first Inaugural Address) said well over half a century ago, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I’ve been thinking a lot about those words this time of year, as I listen to the terror in people’s voices and campaign speeches.

Speaking of terror, were you surprised that I didn’t put terrorism first on my list of things to fear? It’s not that I don’t want to think about terrorism, It’s that I can’t. I can’t wrap my mind around such an all-encompassing, impossible-for-me-to-adequately-protect-myself-against threat.

And that’s my point. We all know that imagination, the stock-in-trade of a storyteller–and communication scholar Walter Fisher said we are all storytellers by virtue of our common humanity–can be both a tremendous hindrance and an invaluable benefit. (That’s true of most things in life, of course. I’m thinking specifically right now of chocolate, but you know what I mean.) When we have strong imaginations, professional storytellers like to say, we can imagine all sorts of alternatives in our lives, whether it’s a vision for our own future or for that of our planet. Most of us would agree that’s generally a good thing, unless the imaginer (imaginator?) is, say, a certain missing person known as Osama. And Osama is the point, because I am suggesting here that imagination, like storytelling, can also be used for ill.

I don’t only mean imagining worldwide domination. I mean, when our imaginations take over, we lose contact with reality. But wait a minute–isn’t dull old reality the very thing that’s holding us back, according to storytellers?

Fear is future-oriented–we fear what we believe might, or can, or will happen. That is, we fear what we imagine for the future. But our prophesies must be based on valid evidence, particularly if we are going to act on them. Each of us needs to determine for ourselves exactly what constitutes valid evidence, of course. But imagination doesn’t necessarily enter into that particular equation.

It pains me to say it, but once again, moderation wins out. A generous helping of imagination, a dollop of evidence, and maybe, just maybe, we can begin to behave reasonably and responsibly.

Imagine that!