Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

I didn’t like my performance tonight. It was the second of the day, the second time I told O. Henry stories to older adults. At 10 a.m., the stories sizzled. Even though I am emphatically not a morning person, I had those denizens of the local senior center in the proverbial palm of my hand. They laughed photoat the right places in “The Count and the Wedding Guest.” They understood (those who understood anything, admittedly) the twist at the end of “No Story.” They congratulated me afterward and told each other what a great time they had.

No such luck at 8:15 p.m. This was a more sophisticated crowd. But it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of sophistication when you’re listening to O. Henry’s gentle chiding about young love and deception in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City. Nevertheless, they clapped listlessly after each story. Their faces barely changed from comic moments to their more tragic cousins.

Now there are several possible reasons for the difference, and I’ve told myself all of them:

1) Post-prandial malaise (Translation: Too many calories with dinner.)
2) Audience fatigue (Most of them are closer to ninety than seventy.)
3) My fatigue (I do have a cold, and I worked all day.)
4) Lack of professionalism (Mine, not theirs.)

Lack of professionalism? Whatever do I mean? I get paid, don’t I? I teach the stuff, don’t I? I have hundreds of gigs under my belt, don’t I? So what’s the problem?

I submit that a professional, a true professional, doesn’t have up and down days. S/he simply gets the job done. What kind of eye surgeon does a great corneal transplant one day, but the next just gets up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning and ruins a patient’s eyesight? How long would a trial lawyer last if s/he just wasn’t in the best of moods during a murder case and dropped the ball? And don’t get me started about soloists in a symphony orchestra.

True, I don’t get paid anywhere near what those folks do. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the reason we pay people the big bucks is that we expect them to be in the 99th percentile when it comes to doing their job, and rare, we’re talking man-bites-dog rare, is the concert at which Streisand (or Sinatra, or Pavarotti) misses a note.

All I know is, when I am just okay, but nothing to write home about, I can’t blame the audience, or the weather, or my lingering cold, or what was served for dinner. If I am the one onstage, I am expected to weather most of—let’s say 99% of—the kinds of storms that drag down an amateur. I’m supposed to be consistent, a known quantity.

Sure, professional writers are always supposed to turn out good copy. But apart from deadline journalists, professional writers can write and rewrite and edit and take a little time for the downturn to ease. A performer doesn’t have the luxury.

So, I have to consider, what is the cure to this unevenness? Practice, for one thing. I don’t mean rehearsal of a particular night’s show. I mean more and more work, until telling a story, any story, is so natural and delightful, or at least so instinctive and intuitive, that screwing up is like screwing up breathing. But rehearsal is in there, too. (The funny thing is, the less-rehearsed show was so much better than the second one.) It’s said that we don’t own a story until we’ve told it 25 times. I’ve gone on stage, in front of paid audiences, having never told that night’s repertoire in my life. Scary? Not really. I love the challenge. The point is, does my audience?

Finally, though, I do have to ask my audience members next time I see them, or better yet, ask the person who books the shows, what they really thought. I will never forget the story the magnificent Liz Lerman told about doing a week-long residency in a pediatric unit. The little patient she wanted to impress the most with the troupe’s final performance fell asleep soon after it began. She was distraught, till a nurse told her he hadn’t slept in weeks; that performance calmed and nourished him like nothing else could. That is to say, we never know what’s really going on with our audiences, or how much we are pleasing them.

I submit that it doesn’t really matter what I think about my performance. Did I communicate and engage? I’ve got to ask the professionals. My audience.

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Writing About Telling

photoI am the special editor of an upcoming issue of Storytelling magazine, the publication of the National Storytelling Network, of which I am a lifetime member and former chair. The topic of the special editor’s portion of the issue is Publishing Storytelling. I have invited some of the finest teller-writers (writer-tellers?) in the U.S. to contribute their insights on blogging, self-publishing, writing storybooks for children, editing anthologies, etc. My own experience in publishing storytelling extends to having been guest editor of the magazine twice before; contributing to various other storytelling periodicals and anthologies; co-founding, co-editing and contributing to Storytelling, Self, Society, the peer-reviewed academic journal of storytelling studies, and editing and/or writing two books related to storytelling. Oh, and posting on this blog, of course.

The reason I present this mini-resume is that I feel that I have something to add on the subject of the fraught relationship between writing and telling, or literacy and orality. On the one hand, the written word allows us to easily traverse vast ideological, physical and temporal distances. While tackling enormous complexity, we can be precise in a way that orality does not encourage. It is this propensity for precision, in fact, that led to the development of writing in the first place. Writing, and its younger, but infinitely more powerful, brother printing, allowed our business-mined ancestors to record and thus recall not only the bravery of the hunters, but also the exact number of buffalo hides traded for bags of corn.

Now, here’s the other side of the equation: In oral societies, listeners are able to look in the eye the person who is sharing information, narrative, opinions, history, etc. That speaker must stand by (often literally) her words. It is a lot harder to repudiate the Holocaust (for instance), impugn a political enemy’s motives, dismiss divergent opinions and generally behave with malice when a speaker has to share the same space with one’s listeners. (Note: It’s not impossible. It’s just harder.) Especially since one’s listeners can quickly become one’s interlocutors, that is, listener and speaker can switch roles. Add to that the fact that orality promotes memory and intellectual flexibility, and you’ve got a pretty important medium in its own right.

So what does this tell us about storytelling writers? On one hand, storytellers, teachers and librarians commonly pitch telling to children as a way to promote literacy. After all, stories contain words, right? It is not a huge leap to figure that a child who can tell and listen to story will have a smoother transition to writing and reading one. Moreover, for many storytellers, publications are an important income stream. People hear stories they like on the festival or theater stage, and they buy a book to bring home the experience. Never mind that reading the same story heard on stage is a significantly different experience. It’s still the same story, and it can still be a great experience.

My goal, with this magazine issue as well as with a workshop I did several years ago at the NSN national conference, is to help storytellers of all stripes, professional or not, feel more comfortable practicing what we preach. Too many of our finest, most articulate and talented storytellers see their confidence and opportunity for growth fly out the window when it comes to sitting down and putting stories and insights to paper. I’m not sure why. Maybe some of us embraced the oral tradition due to dyslexia or some unnamed disability. Maybe we simply prefer the ephemerality of our primary medium. Or maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of those gatekeepers, judges and others who may reject us, or may have rejected us in the past.

The irony is that the vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., would prefer putting themselves out there in anonymous print rather than in in-your-face public. (That isn’t to say they are dying to do either, of course.) We fear what we do not know. But it also helps us grow.

The Democratic Folk Art of Storytelling

quiltYesterday I had the opportunity to work with a dear friend and professional storyteller. (Note: If she lets me use her name, I will do so with pleasure.*) She wanted a bit of assistance on a story she is developing. Ever since I entered the world of professional telling, I have seen this woman’s name and heard her praises. She is one of the most effervescent, kind, generous, talented people I know. Not surprisingly, she gets a lot of work, primarily telling folktales in schools, libraries and family festivals.

This storyteller, whom I will call Madam X, is also a Chautauqua teller, meaning that she takes on the persona of a historical figure to tell stories from that character’s life. Chautauqua tellers dress the part, know everything there is to know about the figure they are portraying, and even answer questions after the show in that persona. The reason I say this is to explain that Madam X has a range that extends past folktales.

So what was she doing “picking my brain” (her term, which always sounded a little painful to me, so I wore a hat) over Mexican food yesterday? Here is where it gets interesting.

(1) Madam X has done many, many favors for me; as I said, she is generous. When she needs help, I am there, if I possibly can be. Still, this begs the question. Why was she calling upon me?

(2) I have a Ph.D., have worked as a writer and editor for 25 years, and teach storytelling studies on the university level. But so what? This gives me a certain imprimatur and a tiny bit of prestige, I admit, but mostly on paper. There are storytellers and writers who are far more advanced than I am who never finished college.

(3) I do a lot of personal storytelling, teach how to do it, and am a very comfortable, lifelong writer.

And #3 is really the point. The beauty of a folk art is that those who do it well learn from experience. Degrees, status, a fancy pedigree of schools and teachers is meaningless. I’m not saying they don’t help a teller learn the craft. I’m saying they are just facts and pieces of paper if you don’t do the work. You do the work over and over, develop your own style, and it either hits or misses. In other words, you succeed or fail with audiences on merit alone. (This doesn’t have anything to do with the marketplace, of course, which depends on all sorts of other variables, like luck, contacts, even appearance.)

I have spent many, many years getting degrees. Madam X, a college graduate, by the way, has spent many, many years as a professional teller. So on the one hand, she is a more experienced performer than I. On the other, she is not as experienced in developing personal memorate, that is, creating our own stories. So while in folktales, she is the “professional,” when it comes to personal storytelling, I suppose I am, at least more so than she.

I would not say status does not matter in professional storytelling. Again, it’s the marketplace thing. The veterans of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, are, by and large, the elite of our industry, and even among that group there is a hierarchy of the most popular performers. But it is primarily a status based on one thing only: How well do you do what you set out to do? I say “primarily,” because once again, it is a matter of the marketplace. There are sensationally talented people who for one reason are another are not Festival regulars.

On my radio segment, The Public Storyteller (91.3 FM, or wlrn.org Sundays at 4 p.m., or thepublicstoryteller.org), I invite non-professionals to share stories of their lives in South Florida. And lo and behold, some—not all, of course—but some of those stories are as entertaining and engaging as anything I’ve heard on a festival stage. That’s what I love about this art form. Remember the “Dueling Banjos” scene in the movie Deliverance?  Some people can pick up a banjo and make it sing like a bird, without ever having taken a lesson. It’s an expression of hard work coupled with their hearts and, for lack of a better word,  souls. It’s the same with storytelling. I’m not suggesting that anyone who feels like it can bring a 2,000-person audience to tears, as I’ve seen many times at the Festival. But anyone, anyone, anyone (have I said that enough?) can tell his or her own story well, given half a chance. Anyone cannot, if my own experience is any judge, play Mozart.

I have no doubt that Madam X will shine at personal storytelling. Meanwhile, I am thrilled to be able to help in any way I can.

*I just got permission to name Madam X. She is Carrie Sue Ayvar.

OMG Social Media Promote a Storytelling Mind

photoThis may come as a shock, but I’m going to go on record here and now as saying that social media are NOT destroying the fabric of culture (Grammar alert: Media is a plural noun.) Twitter is not forcing us to take in the world in ever smaller sound bites. Texts are not preventing us from engaging with the here-and-now, and Facebook is not turning us into moronic belly-button gazers.

At least they don’t have to. Because every time we communicate to another person about what we are doing, thinking, eating or (it happens) excreting, we are paying attention. We are stopping to notice what is going on in the real world in order to report upon it in the virtual world. And paying attention, or mindfulness, as I noted in my last post, is what promotes the storytelling mind.

So is communication. There are media that cause us to sit in the dark and watch a feedback loop of other people’s dreams and talents, but social media are not like watching DVDs or streaming video. They exhort us, they demand that we participate. That we engage with another person. True, we are not doing so face-to-face, but the advent of telegraph and telephone already did away with that a long time ago. They force us to frame a message and anticipate a response from an (albeit faceless) other person or persons. In fact, we use our imagination to conjure up the person with whomwe are engaged.

Now let’s be clear: I don’t personally like  any of these media except texting, which, frankly, makes life worth living, in real time. But my argument is like my take on bottled water. Sure bottled water is the bane of the environment. All those awful plastic bottles that blot the landscape would not exist if we just carried around our own canteens wherever we went. Before there was bottled water, there was bottled soda, yet everybody is on about bottled water. Frankly, I’d rather see a child drinking 10 16-ounce bottles of water than drinking a Coke. Bottled water exists because people are trying to drink less liquid sugar, which has got to be a good thing, right? The lesser of two evils. So why go on about bottled water?

That little bottled water rant came up because I think social media get the same rap. Yes they are ubiquitous in classrooms, movie theaters and supper tables, where they don’t belong. Yes, it is preferable in many ways to look someone in the face, interpret her body language, decode the texture of his voice. But we are not face-to-face with our friends and colleagues and acquaintances, and the lack of social media is not going to put us any closer to those people with whom we wish to communicate. Quite the opposite.

What social media do is cause us to focus and articulate those aspects of our lives and thoughts (however trivial they may at times be) that we would likely otherwise have left unexamined. And as Socrates said about social media, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Neither is a life without texting.