Monday, March 31, 2014

Mission Statement Impossible

I was just applying to be a roster artist for a particular city when I came to a box that asked for my Mission Statement.

I clicked over to my business plan, copied my mission statement, and pasted it in the little box. 

It occurred to me that in all the time I have been a storyteller nobody has ever asked me for my Mission Statement.

It also occurred to me that I actually have a Mission Statement.  

I have no idea if most storytellers have one or not.  I have one because a long, long time ago, back when I was a new storyteller, I took a workshop with some really, really famous storyteller, whose name escapes me at the moment, who told me that if I really wanted to focus my efforts in the business I should write a mission statement. 

Back in those days, I said ‘yes’ to just about anything really, really famous storytellers said because I was hoping that someday, if I worked really hard, and crossed all of my ‘t’s’ and dotted all of the ‘I’s’ I would become a really, really famous storyteller.   ('Famous' is a great deal to shoot for, especially if you're not even sure what it means to be a 'famous' storyteller.  Well, you live, you learn!)

It took me a really, really long time to realize that just because a really, really famous storyteller tells you to do something, it doesn’t mean it is some sort of magic bullet that will make you a really, really famous storyteller.

Why am I even brining this up? 

That really, really famous storyteller was right.  My Mission Statement has been an essential part of honing my repertoire, choosing stories, and figuring out what jobs I take and which ones I pass on to others.

So, because I try to pass on information that has actually helped me over the last twenty-six years, here is a short list of questions to ask yourself if you have ever thought about sitting down and composing a Mission Statement.

Why a Mission Statement?  It might help you answer these questions.

1.     How do you market yourself to potential clients?
2.     What do you want people to think about when they think about your work?
3.     How do you decide which stories to add to your repertoire?
4.     Why are you drawn to some stories, but not to others?
5.     Do you have a purpose for doing this beyond ‘just because it is fun?’

Why a Mission Statement?  It might help you clarify some stuff.

1.     Why are you a storyteller?
2.     What are you trying to accomplish as a storyteller?
3.     Why do you choose certain stories over others
4.     If you could describe yourself as a storyteller, what are the most important aspects of your work?
5.     Why are there stories that you love, but can’t figure out a place, or situation in which it feels right to tell them?
6.     Why are there stories that you really, really, hate and can’t figure out what it is about them that gets your goat?
7.     What kinds of stories speak to you?  Why?

I don’t remember all the questions the really, really famous storyteller asked me.  In fact, I didn’t write a Mission Statement that night.  I didn’t write it until almost three years later when I’d gone down a one way street into a blind alley, and realized I was sort of drifting around in my work.

Having a Mission Statement has made all the difference.  I know why I do what I do.  I know what sorts of things spark my work.  I know what I am seeking when I approach new material. 

DLW Storyteller Inc. strives to present performances, residencies, workshops and written materials that strengthen communication, uplift the human spirit, engage the imagination, promote literacy and uphold the values of Unitarian Universalism.

Though, sometimes, I have to admit, I still do stuff ‘just because its fun!’

Happy Telling!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Nice, Gay, Jewish, Inter-racial Couple With Adopted Children From The Middle East

19th Century sketch of Pictou Harbor, Nova Scotia

On March 23, 2014, my last full day in Canada, I woke up to snow.  Yes, about two inches of snow that fell last night.  Yippee!  I scraped off the car and went in search of breakfast.

Unfortunately, I am in Pictou, Nova Scotia.  It is a summer town.  Nothing is open here in the winter.  Breakfast included. 

I drove around until I saw a sign for Stone Soup.  I’d heard from a local that they do pretty good food there.  I stopped by, and thankfully, it was open. 
The eatery is smaller than this, but this is the promo pic they use!

The proprietor said, “If you’re looking for breakfast, you’re in the right spot.”

I sat down to a lovely pot of mint tea and an omelet.  In the corner, there were four people having a bash America session.  It was the first I’d heard anywhere in my time in Canada.

They were complaining about the police.  The matriarch at the table was holding forth about how violent, stupid and retaliatory American Police were.

They referenced the television show "Cops".  They spoke of the difference between the American Cops show and the Canadian Cops show.  Apparently, the Canadian show features a single mountie riding up on a horse to apologize to the Canadian perps about the need to arrest them.  It ends with a gentle recommendation that the perps not engage in behavior that would lead them to trouble in the future.  In America, apparently, seven police surround a homeless man and beat him senseless before cuffing him and dragging him to jail.  I have never seen Cops, but that sounds like an apt description of what I'd expect to see on it.

The crowning statement was from her husband, who announced, “Everybody in America has a record.  That’s how they disenfranchise them and keep them from voting.”

I piped up.  “I don’t have a record, and I’m an American.”

The gentlemen turned to me and said, “You just wait.  You haven’t got one yet.  You just wait.”

This precipitated a long conversation where we talked about the pay for play incarceration system in the United States.   We all agreed that locking people up should not be a money making venture.  That’s a system begging for fraud and abuse.

I found out they’d lived in Missouri before moving to Canada, and they’d had problems in a rural town.  They had been activists for peace, social justice, an oversight board for the police force, voting rights and a number of other causes.  Some of the residents of that small town would call them and tell them they appreciated what they were doing and approved, but in public they would defame them and call them out for being troublemakers. 

The local police force did not appreciate the idea of implementing an oversight board and spent lots of time hounding them, arresting their sons for flimsy reasons, and sending police to their home on suspicion that they were selling drugs, until the family left their property and moved to Canada.  All of this took place a decade ago, but they still smolder over it at breakfast…and probably at other times as well.

We talked about isolationism and small towns.  We spoke of the need for exposure to new ideas and culture.

That’s when they asked what I was doing there.  I told them I was going to be at the deCosteCenter.  They knew who I was then.

Spring?  Well, yes, technically it is spring.  Imagine this place covered in snow.

“You’re Donna Washington!  You’re the storyteller!”  They were excited to talk to me about the show.  None of them were planning to see it, of course, but they wanted to talk about it.

The matriarch was looking at me.  Finally, she said, “You’ve been to Columbia, Mo haven’t you?”

I vaguely remember doing a festival there years, and years ago.

She said, “Yes, it was you.  I saw you.  I sat right there in the front on one of those hay bales with my middle son.  I came up and spoke with you at the end of the session.  I remember.”

By the time I left to return to my hotel room, they were no longer bashing America.  They were talking about the odd way the world works, small towns, culture, and how each of us has to stand by the choices we make for good or ill.

They were also thinking about finding a nice Jewish, inter-racial, gay or lesbian couple with children adopted from the Middle East to buy their farm in rural Missouri. 

The world is really small.  Stories make it smaller.  That’s a good thing.  What a fitting way to spend my last full day in Canada.    

Happy Telling!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

In the Back of the Closet Behind Shoes I No Longer Wear

I am in the process of filling out one of those applications that requires you to pull information together that is not stored in one place on your computer.  It means that I am opening things I have not looked at in years.  This is a very bad thing for a writer to do.

Here is a piece I wrote back in 2009 just because.  It made me tear up a bit.  I have no idea what I thought I might do with it.  So, posting it here.  It has nothing to do with anything other than…well, I wrote it!

Love Bug and part of Flash.  Our current overlords.

I was not a cat person growing up.  There was something about them I never really liked.  They didn’t come when you called, they didn’t play with you or do tricks or any of the other things that decent, reasonable pets were supposed to do.  My entire childhood we always had dogs.  I got my first dog that was all my own when I was in sixth grade.  He was a poodle with black and white hair.  I named him pepper.  One day, in high school I bought what turned to be one of my favorite books , it was called ‘101 Uses For a Dead Cat’.  In all my born days I never thought I would ever like cats.

The last year I spent at Northwestern University, I had two roommates and a couple of girls who crashed at our place every now and then.  One afternoon, one of my roommates informed me that, Sharon, a girl we knew from the theatre department, needed a place to stay for a couple of weeks.  They asked if I minded if she crashed with us.  I didn’t mind, she was only one in a long line of people who’d spent time with us.  What my roommates failed to tell me was that Sharon had three cats.

I dragged in from class one afternoon and opened the door to a very unpleasant smell, the likes of which I had never experienced.  My first thought was that someone had put something nasty in the garbage and not thrown it out.  Imagine my great joy to enter the living room and find an enormous, yellow cat box with a cover sitting in the corner behind the table.   Sharon was busily scooping the cat box.  She apologized about the smell and promised she’d keep on top of the litter.  I didn’t know what to say.  I went to my room, closed the door and prayed fervently that none of the horrid, furry beasts was anywhere nearby.

I don’t recall what any of the cat names were, and I only remember one of them.  It was yellow and white and without question the friendliest animal I’d ever encountered.  It wanted to sit on me, followed me lovingly around the house, and mewed at the bathroom door when I was taking a shower.  I don’t know why it took a liking to me, but it did.

Some people believe that spirit guides come to them to show them the way to their true selves.  The eagle can bring you strength or wisdom, the wolf shows you the way to loyalty and strength, the mouse is industrious and quick.  I never went in search of a spirit guide, but my last few months in college, one came looking for me.  That yellow and white animal made me find a place in my heart for cats.

About a week after Sharon was staying with us, my roommate, Fay, and I began discussing maybe getting a kitten at some point.  I thought it might be nice to have a cute little animal after we graduated from college.  Sharon was listening as we talked about it.  The next day, I came in from working at Kinkos and Sharon was grinning from ear to ear.
“Guess what I did?”  She asked.
“I got you a kitten!”

That she had.  Hiding under my bed, in the back of the apartment, was a little black and white kitten.

Sharon explained her actions thus.  “I was down by the lake fill and this woman had a box full of them.  She asked if I knew anyone who wanted a kitten and I remember that you and Fay said you were planning to get one, and I got one for you.  Surprise!”

I had just gotten used to the idea of liking cats and now I was going to be responsible for taking care of one.  I didn’t really know anything all about cats.  When Fay came home from work, she informed me that she didn’t know anything about cats either. 

There was a vet that was just around the corner.  We didn’t have a pet carrier so we took the little thing to the vet in our hands.  Of course it needed shots, not to mention a litter box, nail clippers, toys and I don’t even remember what else.  That month, we spent the rent on the cat. 

We moved during that month and had to forfeit our security deposit. 

We named the cat Pookie after the Irish demon called a Pookah.  Pookie was a demon.  He loved to climb up this tapestry we had by the front door.  He’d hear the key in the lock and he’d jump down on our heads.  He loved to play hide and seek.  If you counted, he’d run out of the kitchen and hide and wait for you to find him.  If you ran out of the kitchen while counting, he’d wait and then go in search of you.  If he didn’t find you he’d cry and cry until you came out from where you were hiding.  He loved climbing up the clothes in the closet and hiding amongst my sweaters on the top shelf.  But his favorite thing to do was lay in wait for my roommate, Kerry, who would get up in the morning and head down the hall for breakfast. If she was wearing stockings, Pookie would jump out, scare her and then snag her stockings with his claws and run away. 

Eventually, to save the tapestries, our clothes and to prevent Kerry from having to buy a nylon factory, we had Pookie’s claws removed.  Yes, I know, but back in the day that’s what vets used to recommend.

Pookie became even more challenging. Now, we couldn’t hear him at all when he moved and he took special delight in scaring the be jeebers out of all of us.  

One of the things that I found most interesting about Pookie is that he hated men. He didn’t like any of the dates I brought home.  He would jump out at them, slap them across the head or the knees and arch his back at them and hiss.  He delighted in making them jumpy.  I started using him as a barometer.  If he gave a guy a hard time, I wouldn’t go out on a second date.

When Fay, Kerry and I were planning to get separate apartments, I asked to keep Pookie.  Fay had moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets, so she didn’t argue.  I was now the proud owner of a calculating cat.

When I was 24, I met a young man who was related to my new roommate, Denise.  Our first date lasted 14 hours, and during that very long time I learned that he wasn’t much of a cat person, and was slightly allergic to them.  I decided not to tell him about Pookie.

On that first date, I invited David back to my place for cookies.  He came into the apartment and sat on the couch in the living room.  I went into the kitchen.  After a few minutes, I heard a concerned voice.

“Donna.  There’s a cat staring at me from the hall.  Is he okay?”

“That’s just pookie.”  I told him.  “He’s not very social with guys, don’t take your eyes off him.”

A few minutes later I heard loud purring.  I looked around the corner and Pookie was sitting in David’s lap acting like he had swallowed a motor.  David had a look on his face that was amazing to see, he had been hopelessly transfixed.  I knew that look.  It was the look of someone who has found their spirit guide.  The two of them sat there, reveling in each other’s lives.  From that moment, Pookie threw me over for David.

In 2007, Pookie succombed to stomach cancer.  I remember sitting in the family room with our children about two months after Pookie left us.  David and I were still looking for him.  Both of my children loved Pookie as well and they began telling stories about him.  He was quite a fellow.  David and I laughed about the silly things that cat had done and all the joy he’d brought to our lives.  Then, after we’d lapsed into silence, I said to my children,  “Did I ever tell you guys that Pookie is the reason I married your dad?”
They both laughed at that and asked me how that was possible and I told them.

“You see, I was not a cat person when I was growing up….

Happy Remembering!