Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Oral storytelling in a technological age

A writer friend and I recently had a conversation about the importance of oral storytelling in the age of technology. It was a lively discussion and one I thought lent itself well to an #askthestoryteller column.

What follows is as much of a rant as an essay, with lots of different threads. I could have written an entire post out of just about any one (and probably will). I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below!

Humans are storytelling creatures. I start just about every class I teach with the comment that storytelling is arguably our oldest art form, that our brains quite literally evolved for storytelling.

We tell stories everyday, even if we also use technology to communicate every day. Whenever we interact face-to-face with another human being we are likely to tell a story. On a routine basis people say to me that storytelling is a dying art. I strenuously disagree; we still tell stories. We still need stories. Even if other media appear dominant, storytelling is as basic a part of being human as upright walking is. We're not going to stop telling stories any time soon.

There are numerous fMRI studies that demonstrate how active the brain is during storytelling as opposed to other methods of conveying information. The gist is that when we tell and listen to stories our brains are deeply engaged. In fact, the brain of the teller and the listener mirror one another; there is even some anticipatory effect in the listener's brain, so they are looking ahead in the story. Oral storytelling is as close to telepathy and precognition as anything we've scientifically observed. Because our brains are innately primed for heard story, storytelling evokes empathy and emotional resonance more immediately than any other way of conveying information. This means that we connect more to stories than to text messages, written language or videos. This alone reassures me that storytelling is going nowhere.

It's very easy to be distracted by technology. I am writing this essay on my computer, connected to the internet. My smart phone, which has more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon, sits beside me. I want to stop writing to check Facebook or my email. I feel the pull. Yet I know this essay has meaning, so I keep writing.

We as performing artists have a responsibility to our audiences to help them remember their basic storytelling and listening selves, that there is meaning in story. When we ask them to set aside their technology for a few minutes to pay attention to the story, we give them a chance to reconnect to this ancient and powerful part of their brains.

I expect it has been a struggle to communicate across generations for as long as people have been communicating. I'm certain way back in history there were a bunch of people complaining about papyrus, that it would distract young people from learning the old ways. I'm certain the told stories of the ancient Egyptians were different from their written counterparts, just as the written versions of my stories are different from the spoken. But one supports the other. And frankly, one gives my words more reach than I could ever experience if I only told them. We can use these new technologies to gain audience, to share ideas and to deepen our understanding of the art. We as performing artists must adapt and change with our times as we keep this ancient art alive. The two can co-exist if we are willing to do the work.

It is normal and natural for new technologies to seem disruptive. But because storytelling is wired into our brains I don't think it will be replaced by any technology any time soon. It is our responsibility as performers (and therefore as teachers; audiences need to be taught how to listen, remember?) to help our audiences connect to themselves. I'm sure everyone reading this has experienced the storytelling trance, when listeners are enraptured. Give audiences a chance to get there. Invite them to take the time and listen.

With thanks to Doug Lipman for helping me think this through.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 27, 2015

Anger and grief

If you have not yet experienced deep grief this post may be uncomfortable to read. It isn't about you. It is about everything and only one thing.

And let me stress, I still want to hear about you and your life. This post is about something I am dealing with. Please don't think you can't share joy or frustration with me.

*  *  *

There are many frustrating things about Kevin's death. Some are petty, like the household stuff I have to manage on my own; others are much deeper, like my abiding rage that he will never get to grow old, never get to play with grandkids, never get to hold me again.

The anger is pervasive. It touches almost everything. It is about loss and the confused future. It is about not knowing my place in the world anymore. It is about the fact that getting angry at cancer is at once the only thing I can do and the most useless.

Let me stress, I am not angry with Kevin. In no way did he want to get cancer and die. I sometimes feel frustrated that he didn't get diagnosed sooner and have more of a fighting chance, or over some of the choices he made once he was diagnosed, but I hold no anger towards him.

Yet I am angry. 
I am outraged that genetics and bad luck stole him from this world so soon. 
I am aghast that the world continues to turn without him. The sun rose and set with his smile in my world.

How can this be?

It's especially confusing because I am not typically an angry person. Cut me off in traffic and I remind myself that you may be rushing somewhere vital. Yell at me and I imagine water rolling off a duck's back. Anger general isn't a useful emotion for me. But I am angry now.

I get angry at people complaining about relatively minor issues; they have lived long enough to have arthritis or hearing loss or the other things that Kevin never had a chance to face. I take a deep breath and listen with as much compassion as I can, reminding myself that they don't realize how lucky they are that they get to suffer these ills. I bite my tongue and reach for the sympathy I know is inside of me. But I have to reach.

Their pain over various afflictions is no less real than my grief. I need to remember that. And I would never want them to stop expressing their experiences to me, I would never want to be that frail a friend. but I am angry that Kevin is not in this world and cannot experiences the many irritations of being alive.

I get angry when I hear about wonderful things happening that he will never experience. I may feel genuine delight for my friends who have good things happening to them - new work, loves, grandchildren, what have you -  but there is that lurking mist that shades my joy, as I think that Kevin will not have that. I will not have that with him. I bite my tongue and share their joy. It's the only thing to do because any piece of joy in this world should be nurtured and my sorrow isn't useful in this moment. I do not want to become the person who diminishes others joy. But I have to remind myself to reach for the joy.

I am angry.

There are many components to grief that don't get talked about often, I've written about this often enough. Anger is one of them. There is no guidebook telling me how to cope with this simmering rage. There is no toolkit I can use or pill I can take when I castigate myself over and over with If only I had done something sooner. If only I had.... Those voices can only be stilled by time and tears. That anger is the hardest to cope with because there is no balancing sympathy, no mitigating joy. I am angry that the love of my life has died. That doesn't seem unreasonable.

I know, some of you want to tell me that anger is part of the five stages of grief. It isn't that simple. I experience every one of those five stages every day. The anger is fiercesome and futile and unavoidable.

So. Forgive me if I pause a moment before I say something loving and kind. Please understand when it takes me a moment to compose myself before I share your joy. Give me some latitude if I seem short-tempered. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with what I cannot change.

I am angry.

(48 weeks. Oh god.)

Dirge Without Music
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ask the storyteller: But how do I get better? Practice!

Welcome to #askthestoryteller, the mostly-weekly column where I answer your questions about storytelling art, craft and philosophy. I'm sorry I missed last week's column; personal stuff intervened.

This week I'd like to share some thoughts about how to get better as a storyteller. It's very easy, in that first flush of excitement, to forget that storytelling is like any other art and craft. Novice storytellers often ask me what comes next after their first classes end or they discover that sometimes not everyone loves everything they do. Native talent will take you only so far. You need to work on it. You need to practice.

What follows is a revised repost from my storytelling ABC. Here is A-E, F-J, K-P, and Q-Z.

And I'm looking for more questions to answer so please contact me!

*     *     *

You know how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? Practice.

It's easy, in the first flush of falling in love with storytelling and the audience, to forget that we need to apply as much time and practice to our art as any other artist does. Because so much of we do is about connecting with the audience, many novice tellers think we don't need to work, craft and practice before we get up on stage. But we do. Experienced tellers know this already; what follows are some tips you might find useful and I'd love to know what works for you.

The best storytellers I know are diligent about practice. They work on their craft like they're building houses, starting from the foundation up, paying attention to each and every corner and window. It's work. It takes practice.

There are many ways you can practice your craft. I do all of these.
  • Write an outline. Remove all the excess and tell only from the sparse notes.
  • Find a trusted friend and tell your story to them. Ask them to tell you the things they love the most about the story.
  • Tell your story to a tree or the ocean. You might hear things you didn't notice before.
  • Hold a small house concert. Invite people who will be happy to hear a practice run. Wine might help.
  • Video yourself telling. Then watch, so you can see what body language worked and what didn't. Again, wine might help.
  • Hire a story coach or director. They have experience and an eye that might be quite useful.
  • Go to an open mic and tell part of the piece there. Nothing like having a live audience to help you along.
  • If you make a mistake or a story falls flat, that's okay. In fact, it's cause for celebration. You have tried something new and will learn from the experience.
You story may very well change as you practice. It should change as your understanding of it changes. Let it. These changes might be great new facets you never before explored. And don't be afraid to let parts fall by the wayside. It doesn't mean they're bad, just that they might belong somewhere else.

Remember that each telling experience is a chance to practice. Because storytelling is such a flexible art, your story will change with each telling, but practice means you know the rhythms of the story. You know the hard places. You know how audiences tend to react and you're prepared when they react in new ways.

And besides, practice is really just a chance to tell your story again. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your storytelling practice. And isn't it grand that we can always learn more about our art and craft!

I'd love to know what practice techniques work for you.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cognitive dissonance 2: Healing, reality and the sudden breath

As I blog my way through this first year of grief I find myself returning over and over to the same themes. I hope that isn't boring for you, but it is interesting to me how, even now, there are continuous threads woven into this experience. Perhaps that's a poor metaphor because one of the strongest is cognitive dissonance which shouldn't be described as any kind of continuous thread. I've written about it before here. And here. And now I need to write about it again because it is so strong and my experience of it continues to change.

When I wrote about cognitive dissonance before I talked about how the glimmers of ease I was beginning to experience felt like betrayal; a betrayal of the love Kevin and I shared, a betrayal of how torn I felt and feel. Now it feels as though the whole world is a state of cognitive dissonance.

I am certainly more functional than I was. I am working again, I am thinking about the future in small ways, I get up out of bed every damn day. I've smiled. I've even laughed some. I've had conversations where the first words out of my mouth were not My husband died recently from pancreatic cancer.

A part of me knows all of this is good. The ancient wise ones inside of me (we all have those parts that are wise and loving; this is one of the ways I refer to mine) smile gently and nudge me forward. But this encouragement does not stop the pain or the love that I carry with me every minute.

I dreamt last night I was waiting for Kevin to be rolled out of the operating room. I was so anxious and scared yet a part of me knew he was going to come out and still be breathing, that this anxiety was a gift compared to what was coming. I woke confused and then remembered. I would welcome that anxiety compared to this emptiness.

A while later I woke from another dream in which I was attending a storytelling conference. I was happy, or at least glad to be there. Even as I knew Kevin wasn't going to turn the corner and hug me. I woke and wept.

These dreams capture the dissonance I am so aware of.

There are moments that happen every day when I have an experience and know it is something Kevin would love. Would have loved. And when I make that grammatical shift I gasp. The sudden rush of breath reminding me that the love of my life, the best man I have known, is no longer among the living. How can the world be without him? I don't know. And yet it is.

The reality of it stops me in my tracks. The sudden breath reminds of my presence, here, in this moment. That's all I can do; accept that state of dissonance, breath, and take another step forward, bringing the past with me.

(47 weeks. A year ago you were breathing. You were home. Your skin against mine.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 13, 2015

Some thoughts on love, on the power of words and on community

Oh, there is so much spinning in my head this week, so much I want to tell you. I don't want this post to be unreadably long, so I'm trying to find coherence amongst several time-sensitive ideas. Please be patient.

Last weekend I attended an event called Camp Widow, sponsored by the Soaring Spirits Foundation. This gathering of widowed people is inclusive of anyone who has lost their love - male or female or other, married or not, straight, LGBT, etc. I had no idea what to expect. Frankly, I was scared but felt in my gut that going would be a good thing.

My gut was right, though it was a challenging experience. Owning the word "widow" is a terrible and powerful thing. I've written about the word before, twice in fact, but this weekend was the first time I called myself a widow out loud. I am Kevin's widow. A blasphemy. The first time I spoke it I began sobbing in a stranger's arms. And yet it was so good to be with others who had their own version of this loss, their own pains as great and common and private. Every conversation had a shortcut, none of us needed to explain, "I'm sorry, I'm a little weepy today, my husband died recently." It was completely unnecessary. There was no apology for tears, for confusion, for any of the things that come with loss.

I found community. We all had something huge in common, so we all began from a place of kindness and mutual care. It was powerful. It was, in many ways, the way I wish the world was all the time though I would never wish this loss in anyone. I am glad I went. I am glad to know that I am not alone, no matter how alone I may feel. That my experience of loss is merely another part of being human.

Throughout the whole weekend I found myself thinking about love. We all were there because we still loved someone who was not in this world. I found I loved everyone I met there from the instant we said hello. It was so easy. There was no reason not to love them. I try to live this way in the day-to-day but often fail. In this context there was no question that love was present.

Which brings me to Valentine's Day, tomorrow. For 15 years Kevin and I didn't make a big deal out of it. We'd give each other cards, maybe go out to dinner or not. We had no doubt of our love for one another so there was no reason to turn one day a year into the day for a declaration of love. The love was present.

Last year he started chemo on Valentine's Day. Last year I held his hand as chemicals dripped into his body that we hoped might slow the cancer. He gave me a card that he barely had the strength to sign, but it is signed and it sits on my mantel. Tomorrow I will read it again. The love was so present in that hospital room that it turned into hope.

This year I walk through stores and avoid the aisles decked out in red. This year I have not purchased any cards for him. I will write him a love letter as I do every day. I am so glad Valentine's Day wasn't a big deal for us because it's hard enough as it is. But the love is still present. It lives in my heart and my skin and my words.

I am terribly sad, but I keep reminding myself of this: Our love story still is a thing of wonder. Our love story is so much more than his illness and death. It is laughter and problem-solving and sex and sleep and frustration and work and joy and washing dishes together and all of the mundane details that make up a life. Our life. Our love story did not end with his death because I love him still. I believe that somewhere he is still loving me and his kids. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed; so it is with love. It is present.

We promised to love each other until death do us part, and we have. Tomorrow I will no doubt cry. I will find reason to laugh and smile and remember him, remember us, with great tenderness. I will feel my heart, broken and beating, but still here. I will call myself his widow with pride and great love because I have earned this. I loved and love and will love.

Happy Valentine's Day. You are in my heart.

(46 weeks. Time is inexorable but the love wins.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Why do I do it?

Oh, I love this question! 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? Thank you #askthestoryteller for asking.

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.

This is already too long. 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 Creative Commons License

Monday, February 9, 2015

The world through my eyes: Abandoned

There is a perceived romance to urban decay, to the abandoned, to that which is being reclaimed by wildness. The forgotten and left behind is one of the places where possibility begins to grow.

All images (c) 2015 Laura Packer

Light breaks through

Blue

Power

Home, reflected

Iron

The light breaks through

This way up

Cojoined

This way down

Art maker


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 6, 2015

Meteorology

Meteorology
(c) 2015 Laura Packer

Who could have predicted this season?
No computer model nor NOAA scientist sounded the sirens
telling us of the storm cells in your body.
Had I an early warning system,
radar that showed me the fatal confluence
of the incoming front,
I would have built a tornado-proof box
from bone. 
Sinew. 
Wire.
I would have sheltered you until
the gale passed.
I would have wrestled the wind itself
until the eye of the hurricane swerved and you were not drowned.

I could do nothing.

The storm ravaged you.

No weather report warned us.
There was no duck and cover
only corrosion and pain.

I am still here, walking
through the wreckage. 
I hold waterlogged photos
and torn notes,
the remains of our life after
the tempest swept through and tore you
Away.

In the aftermath, no green, wet smell of possible regrowth.
I struggle to survive

the widow’s storm season.

(I am at Camp Widow this weekend. I'm wrestling with how to process all of this, being around so many people who know without any question what I am going through. It is liberating and terrifying, relieving and infinitely sad. I will write about it another time. Be well.)

(If you want to read a stunning, thoughtful piece on love and loss, read this piece by Elizabeth Alexander. She says pretty much everything I would like to say.)

(45 weeks. 
I am composed of lightening, driving rain, the occasional beam of unbearable light, shimmering beauty through the dark clouds. I love you.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ask the Storyteller: Five things to do when you can't go outside

This edition of #askthestoryteller is an edited repost from winter, 2011. I am often asked how novice tellers can improve their storytelling practice. I'm not talking about performance, but all of the hard work leading up to it.

Here are five suggestions to improve your practice when it's just too cold and miserable to go outside. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere warm, these are still good ideas!

I'm looking for more Ask the Storyteller questions. What do you want to know?

The following was originally published in a slightly different form in 2011.

We're deep in the heart of winter  in the Northern hemisphere. These short, cold days and long dark nights lead me to nesting behavior. I just don't want to go outside when it's 10F with 2 feet of snow on the ground. I know, I'm a wimp, but this offers me a chance to hunker down and do some of the hard behind-the-scenes storytelling work.

Here are five suggestions for deepening your storytelling practice that don't include performing for an audience.
  1. Learn something new, part 1. How about adding a traditional tale to your repertoire? If nothing else, reading some of the old stories will remind of you that people haven't changed very much in the last 10,000 years. The same things still matter to us, it's just at a more frantic pace. You might learn something about yourself or find a piece you'd like to tell or alter.
    There are many great online resources full of traditional stories.
  2. Learn something new, part 2. The internet has many wonderful other resources available for you to explore.
    • Explore the resources at your local library. Most public libraries have their catalogs available online and offer electronic resources. Many will allow you to hold a book that you can pick up later, when it's warmer. Try a catalog search for storytelling with children, for example. Or some other topic that interests you. See what you can find!
    • Learn about a new kind of storytelling. Check out the site for an organization that does something you'd like to tell about. Do you care about marine life? Go to the Cousteau Society and see how they tell their story. How would you tell that same story? What about digital storytelling? Or stand-up comedy?
    • Read an article by someone you admire. Many storytellers maintain blogs or archives of their advice. Go to their websites and poke around. 
  3. Listen to some stories, watch some storytellers in action. What about trying a youtube search for storytelling? Maybe your favorite festival has videos online from previous years?
  4. Hone your craft. There's no time like the present to work on your own skills as a storyteller and business owner.
    • How about telling a story in your living room, recording it and then going over the recording? What was great? What could be eliminated or fleshed out?
    • Work on a new idea. Jot down some notes, call a friend and aks them to brainstorm with you.
    • When was the last time you updated your webpage, resume, myspace, facebook or linkedin pages?
    • Send a few emails to organizations where you'd like to tell.
    • Update your basic press release.
  5. Tell someone a story. Do you live with room-mates, family, friends? Do you have a telephone? You can always reach out and tell someone a story. Maybe even more importantly, you can listen to their story. Ask them to tell you a story. You might be amazed at what happens.
    These cold, dark days are a gift. We have the chance to pull into our shells and do some housekeeping, catch up with ourselves. Savor the time.

    (c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Monday, February 2, 2015

    The world through my eyes: Doors and windows

    I love the possibilities offered by doors and windows. What's in there? Who is in there? What happens if it opens? Why is it there? What constitutes a door or window anyway?

    As always, all images are copyright Laura Packer, 2015.

    DYNATRON! That's all.

    Flowerpot

    Have a seat.

    This way up.
    This way down.

    Code





    Railway crossing

    Keep out

    Blue
    (or my biggest fan)




    (c)2015 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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