Saturday, August 30, 2014

Without A Net

Base Jumping...not my style
There are risky things in life.  Take for example base jumping.  I'm not going to do any base jumping...ever.  I'm what you call a straight up prude when it comes to the whole  'life and limb' thing.  One of the common refrains said of me as a young teen was that I was 'levelheaded'.

Needless to say, when I told my father I was going to be a professional storyteller, he was taken aback.

"What is a storyteller?"  He demanded, having just forked over a small fortune to Northwestern University.

When I started explaining what it was, he shook his head and held up his hand.  "Stop."  He sighed.  "Just call when you need money."

Three years later he flew through O'Hare International Airport and called my apartment.  He thought he'd surprise me and take me out to lunch.  He called the apartment for three hours without reaching me.  (For those who find this story confusing, I should point out that nobody had cell phones at that time.)

When I got home, my roommates told me to call my dad because he was freaking out.  When I reached him at his hotel in D.C, he asked, "Where were you all day?"
"I was working."
He was silent for a moment, and then said, "What do you do again?"

If you would like a pictorial representation of what storytelling looks like.  Tim Ereneta has put together a fabulous collection of images that show storytellers and storytelling.  Check it out.

When I first started going to middle and high schools, I would freak out the principals.  When I showed up at the school, they'd ask.  "Where is your stuff?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you have props or scenery or an instrument or something?"
"No.  I'm just going to stand in front of the mic for forty-five minutes and talk."
At that point they would smile, but behind their eyes, I could see them cursing the PTA with all of their might.
"The three little frogs jumped into the water with only their eyes sticking out."

After the show I would get the inevitable question, "How did you do that?"
I would look as innocent as possible and ask, "Do what?"
"I've never seen them sit that still for anything.  You had them in the palm of your hand!"
"I'm a storyteller."  I would explain.  "That's what storytellers do."

I have had the occasional audience who I have trouble reaching over the years, and I get to experience one of those moments of 'introspection and growth'.  Being on stage without a net can be scary, and sometimes I fall.  I pick myself up, I brush myself off, and I go back to anything else.

I strive to get better at my craft.  I remind myself that even great performers can have off days, but that doesn't mean you don't keep striving for great.  I have discovered that even when I think the show didn't go well I'm often the only one who noticed.  Storytelling is a very forgiving occupation.  I don't expect to get it right all of the time.  Nobody is perfect.  Well, except maybe Jay O'Callahan.  He's pretty awesome.

Jay O'Callahan

Despite how effective and engaging storytelling can be, there are still folks who find it risky to hire a storyteller.  I attended an arts showcase last thursday, and a pair of women who brought me into an elementary school last year stopped by my booth.

"I've just got to tell you."  One of them laughed.  "We never had so many teachers compliment us on a program before as we did when you visited.  They said that when you first came out and you didn't have any props or puppets or anything, they were nervous, but the second you started talking everything changed.  They loved it, and the kids are still talking about it.  We can't wait to have you back!"

There are many storytellers who could tell that story.

Here's a clip of me doing the stand in front of the mic routine.

Twelve years ago, my husband and I decided to switch roles.  He became a stay at home dad, and I went back out on the road to become the bread winner.  Both of our fathers went a bit wild around the eyes.  For starters, they are from a very patriarchal generation, and couldn't get their brains around me 'taking care' of my husband instead of the other way around.  Besides, they told us, this is risky.

Well, everything is risky if you look at it from the right perspective.

Aside from the logistics of traveling and raising children, I rarely regret the decision to rejoin the work force.  It has given my family not only stability, but flexibility.  We've got retirement funds, savings, college funds, a house, two cars, and two kids getting ready to go off to college.  Yes, I know, that sounds like a risky lifestyle, but we manage.

Last year I was driving my son to school.  We were talking about his future as he prepares to choose a career.

I said to him, "In this economy, you have to have a flexible type of job.  It needs to be one that can't be outsourced to another country for pennies on the dollar; it needs to be skilled enough so that your contribution is recognizable and desired.  If you find that you have been booted out of a company or corporate structure, you need to be able to hang out a shingle on the turn of a dime and become either a small business, or a consultant to your industry."

My then seventeen year old son gave me a dramatic sigh. "That's easy for you to say, mom."  He grumbled.  "You and dad are lucky.  You're a storyteller."

I love these storyteller clay figures!

Yes, I am lucky.  I'm a storyteller.  We do it with words.  We do it with imagination.  We do it without a net.

Happy Telling!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q: When Is A Storyteller Not A Storyteller? A: When It Is Any-Fricking-Thing Else!

(There is some profanity in this clip.  If such things offend you, don't listen to it)

Storytelling is not just a nebulous term used for a handful of activities from marketing to making films.  Storytelling is a real thing!  Guess What?  Not everyone is a storyteller!

Writers tell stories, but many of them are not all that engaging in a presentation forum.  You know why?  They are writers, not storytellers. 

I am an unabashed bibliophile, but books are not storytellers.  They are books.  Lovely, intriguing, they make me happy, I own hundreds of them, but that doesn’t make them storytellers.

Marketers tell stories to sell products.  Are they storytellers?  No, they are marketing.   They are using stories to empty your pocket.   Image crafting is what they are doing.

Movie directors are definitely telling stories.  Are they storytellers?  No, they are making movies.  They film hundreds of different scenes in no particular order and then splice them together so that they have continuity.  They are creating visual art.  I love movies, but that does not make them storytellers.

I have lots of video footage online.  I am telling stories in many of those videos, and kids love them.   They share those videos with their friends.  They come up to me and quote parts of those videos.  They record themselves telling my stories, and occasionally they do those stories in storytelling competitions.  Hooray!  I’m glad they are watching me tell those stories, but when they are watching those videos, storytelling is not happening.  Why?  There is a live audience with no live teller.

In fact, here is a video of a young lady who won first prize in a storytelling competition doing me doing Red, Red Lips.  She is actually engaged in storytelling, but unless you were there live when she was doing it, you are watching a piece of story.  There is a difference.

What is storytelling?  Well, click here to see how it is defined by the National Storytelling Network.

This is what I say about it...

Storytelling has to do with the live presentation of a tale in front of an audience.  The storyteller and the audience are both changed by the experience, and they create communal space between them.  In order for true storytelling to be happening, it is necessary for both the audience and the storyteller to be in the same space at the same time so that the elements of the space all combine to create a piece of art in that moment.  Because of this, the story can change, grow, and adapt itself to new places, cultures and ideas through the oral tradition.  

Few things make me as blindingly furious as people who stick the term ‘storytelling’ in front of what they do for no particular reason other than marketing.

It happened for the first time in my career about twenty years ago.  There were a handful of storytellers working the schools in the Chicago area, and we were working steadily.  Then, one year I showed up at Center East and there were fifteen or twenty newly minted ‘storytellers’.  They were juggling ‘storytellers’, dance ‘storytellers’, mime ‘storytellers’, magician ‘storytellers’, and the list continued.

Almost five years later, everyone started dropping ‘storyteller’ from the name.  You know why?  People stopped hiring storytellers!  You know why?  Because they’d seen lots of not storytelling claiming to be storytelling, and they discovered that students didn’t sit well for it and it wasn’t engaging.

Schools began to say to me, “We don’t hire storytellers because we’ve had storytellers in the past and it has not been a good experience.”

I’ve also gotten, “I’ve seen storytelling.  What you’re doing isn’t storytelling.”

"No, you don't actually count as a storyteller.  You are more than a storyteller."  (Nonsense!  That's exactly what I am!)

“Storytellers can’t really hold an audience.”

“Storytelling is boring.”

Well, I do not have the leisure to drop ‘storytelling’ from my name, because I am actually a storyteller! (Insert scream of absolute frustration right here.)

In the last two years, Common Core has swept America.  Storytelling can be a very valuable tool in meeting many of the Common Core goals.  Guess what’s happening?

Saturday I was at the United Arts Showcase in Raleigh, NC and I noticed that the word ‘storyteller’ started sprouting up on everyone’s title.  We are all professional storytellers again.

So, in my never to be humble, often out of bounds, nobody asked for it anyway opinion, who is a storyteller? 

Unapologetic Juggler Alfonso Guerra  This is how to own your artform!

Storytellers are storytellers.  People who are actually working that art form, trying to understand it, get beneath it, and uphold the thousands of years of storytelling tradition that supports it.

Tell stories.  I’m all for telling stories.  Tell them in video, dance, music, as you juggle, and any other way you want to, but please, just own your own art form, and leave storytelling out of it!

If you are not a storyteller...YOU ARE NOT A STORYTELLER!

Rant Out!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Janice Del Negro: The Power Of Story Casts a Spell On Young Adolescents

Janice Del Negro

The phrase the “power of story,” is ubiquitous in the storytelling world. We talk about it all the time, no matter what kind of storytelling we do or what sorts of listeners we engage. We are not all talking about the same thing, of course; defining the power of story is a deeply individual endeavor. Reading articles and books, historical and contemporary, on storytelling in the United States one encounters power of storytelling references often, most frequently referring to the nearly indefinable power story has to hold listeners in a nearly trance-like state with narrative. 

Alice Kane

I remember having this experience in a half-empty tent, listening to Alice Kane tell Irish fairy tales. She wore a pale blue suit, and stood, one hand on a podium to steady herself, and with her voice and the power of her narrative transformed the world for her listeners, taking them out of literal time and space and transporting them to a moonlit field where an outcast watched fairies dance in a silver ring. 

Fairy Ring
Having this experience as a teller is always something of a shock; intellectually I know the power of story is a real thing, but I am often surprised when it actually works, although experience indicates I should not be. A few years ago I began working with students at two local high schools. The first year I gave a (very) brief history of the folk and fairy tale that focused on the changes made to tales to make them suitable for children- the elimination of sexual activities of any kind, the violence left, if not intact, at least strongly present. 
Little Red Riding Hood Was Not A Very Tame Tale.

Shrek's Rumpelstiltskin
I told ghost tales and folktales, including radical retellings of traditional tales such as “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The following year I was asked to concentrate on “something to do with writing.” This time I talked about fairy tales and popular media, told more radically retold fairy tales, and did exercises with students on retelling and rewriting the traditional tales they knew. 
Once Upon A Time's Rumpelstiltskin

Here is what I learned about high school students: they are smart. They are aware. They know a lot more than they let on. They are exuberant (although a little wary) when given opportunities to be creative. 
When they are interested, there is no stopping them. They are as comfortable with sheets of paper and markers as they are with other forms of more elaborate technology. They are capable of committing to narrative storytelling in a way that is almost uncanny. The stories to which they commit must match the emotional intensity of adolescents juiced on their own energies. The controlled emotions of supernatural or gory tales have immediate impact; the lush, romantic fairy tale is surprisingly effective. Retellings of the familiar Disney Default folk and fairy tales - either earlier, more adult versions or radical re-imaginings- hold these listeners with a combination of familiarity and altered perspectives. Given the opportunity to reconstruct a familiar tale, young adults engage with a will that reveals an understanding of the complex spectrum of human emotion. Their demand for transparency keeps the storytelling honest, and helps create the circle in which narrative energy is personified in the dynamic connection between teller and listeners.  

Janice M. Del Negro, 7/2014
Janice Del Negro is a published author of children's books. Published credits of Janice Del Negro include Passion and Poison: Tales of Shape-shifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women, Willa And The Wind (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)), and Lucy Dove.
She is also a professor at Dominican University.
BA, Hunter College
MLS, State University of New York at Geneseo
PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Academic Areas of Interest: 
Youth services & programs in public libraries; literature and other young adult & children's materials; storytelling; evolution & evaluation of folk & fairy tales; reviewing & criticism; programming for youth; images of the feminine in folktales

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Character Autobiographies - By Eileen Heyes

Eileen Heyes

A friend and former Los Angeles Times reporter recently asked me for tips on starting a novel. His first step, I advised, should be to write autobiographies for his major characters. Not short profiles or sketchy notes in the third person (which my friend had already done), but autobiographies. Start with “My name is….” Mentally become the character, and then just let it rip.

To my surprise, this concept came as complete news to my journalist friend. But he gave it a try and quickly found it to be a “very interesting and liberating experience.” Suddenly, what had been fuzzy notions started sharpening into rich, emotion-packed scenes.

Here’s how he describes the discoveries he made through his initial stream-of-consciousness character autobiographies:

“I’d had vague ideas about some sort of confrontation involving my protagonist and the friend who later disappears. Well, now it’s a fairly well-shaped episode involving a group of young guys set in the basement of an abandoned, broken down farmhouse in the gone-to-seed orange grove that was behind my house until I was about 11 years old.

 Abandoned basement by PVignau

“My protagonist’s dead mother, meanwhile, explained how she, as a school board member, inspired the ‘watch list’ for suspected perverts and sexual deviants, which becomes a key element of the story. Out of nowhere, she also told me a funny story about her encounter with John Wayne and how he came on to her. She’s a very attractive, strong-willed and somewhat vain woman. (One of her practices is to flirt with school personnel she suspects are ‘deviants,’ and if they seem unaffected, they come under suspicion.) She is a minor political figure with dreams of more, until things go horribly wrong.”

The autobiography is how you pack each character’s baggage –the baggage that the character will lug around and not let go of for an instant throughout your story. What belongs in a character autobiography?

From Emotional Baggage Story - Susan P. Cooper 

·      Start with the basics: Name, age, family situation, relationships within the family, other aspects of the character’s environment that the character does not control.
·      Think about choices the character makes: Work, clothing, home decorations, neatness/clutter, the face he shows to others and the secrets he keeps.
·      Consider the character’s likes, dislikes, attitudes and experiences: Music, food, sports or hobbies; faith, and its place in her family; economic situation, and the character’s feelings about that; best/worst things that have ever happened to her.
·      Most important: What does the character want?

Cookies.  Who doesn't want cookies?  

 These are just guidelines. Once you get started, let the character tell you what needs to be included. Writing a character’s backstory in first person makes a huge difference. You’ll get a feel for each character’s voice and how he expresses himself, an intimate sense of her fears and priorities. Those deep feelings and longings are what must drive the story. Rich, complex, consistent characters with full lives will draw readers in and keep them reading.

Eileen Heyes teaching at Millbrook Elementary School as an artist educator

Journalist and author Eileen Heyes lives in Raleigh, NC, with her marvelous husband, one of her two brilliant and interesting sons, and a goofy boxer who is not brilliant, but makes up for it with sweetness.

Happy Writing!