Thursday, November 19, 2015

Homo Narratus: Thinking About The World Through Story

Every now and then I run across something that makes me stop, think, and digest.  I have been doing that for some time now over a couple of books I read.

Story Proof


Story Smart

They were written by a man named Kendall Haven.

Kendall Haven

I've been chewing on these books since I bought them. They chronicle the process by which human beings create their reality through stories.

These books also talk about the best way to create effective stories.

He coins the term 'Homo Narratus', meaning the ape who narrates, or the storytelling ape. Our entire lives are based on the stories we internalize.

Here is a poem called The Storytelling Ape by someone calling him/herself Professor Ian

I've had a book in the back of my mind about storytelling process and craft. I've decided it is time to write it. I got these two books with the intent of adding some context to my thoughts before beginning that book, but those books so altered the way I think about story and brain function, that I still haven't written a word.

Sometimes synthesizing new material is a much slower process than I would like.

This morning, I really didn't think I had anything to say about stories or storytelling, but I saw an interesting article in which someone read something and when they responded to it, their take away was, in fact, the opposite of what the article actually said. Kendall Haven's books came to mind.

We often can only see the story that we expect to see and not the one that actually exists.

Today, our world is still reeling from the events in Paris.

We look at the horror and ask, "How could anyone do this?"

We do not often look at the perpetrators and try to understand what sort of story they must have ingrained inside of them to believe that murder on such a scale is a good idea.

Oh, we come up with a simplistic vision of what it must be, but the truth is we are a very complicated animal. The stories we build up inside are multilayered, and they are entwined with our own experiences, loves, hatreds, fears, hopes and dreams.

There is no easy way to explain why two people suffer the same indignities, depravations, and injustices and one becomes a lawyer and the other a mass murderer.

Despite all of that, there is no justification for the evil we do to each other. None. The people who attacked Paris did not simply wake up and decide to do this thing. Their life stories were twisted long before that moment.

I have always believed that the stories we tell show that we are the same in many ways.

I still believe that.

Now, however, I understand that the stories we believe are the very things that make us so different that sometimes we don't even know how to find language to bridge those gaps.

That doesn't mean we close our eyes, condemn what scares us, and put up walls.

It is past time to face the fact that if we do not try to bridge those gaps, nothing will ever get better.

Yours In Story

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How Do I Become A Storyteller? A Common Question

When I started this blog, I made several assumptions. I assumed people who found their way here would already be somewhat involved in the world of storytelling. What did not occur to me was that there would be people who were trying to figure out how to get into storytelling. 

Recently I was on a thread, and a person made the comment, "This is all well and good, but how do you get into storytelling?"

I get this question fairly often when I'm out traveling. People want to know how to become a professional storyteller. They aren't asking how to get to the next level, no, they want to know where to begin.

This is such a common question, it even has a Wikihow page.

Most people who decide to become a professional storyteller have encountered the art and been taken with it. They see a professional up there doing their thing and say to themselves, 'I could do that'. 

Here is one of the best rocking the stage. Go on with your bad self, Donald!

If you get a professional doing their thing, it looks easy. That is their power. Good storytellers seem to just bring the story to life. 

What you don't see is all the work that goes into making it roll off of the tongue. So, if you are just beginning, you don't start at the art point. You have to start at the beginning.

Wikihow offers five steps. I thought I would do the same!

1. Get some stories under your belt. 

You can either tell traditional stories or you can write your own, but you need to know some tales.  Where do you find them? Well, you can google folktales or folklore and take your pick. You'll have to write your own personal material if that is how you wish to go.

Under no circumstances should you tell anyone else's personal stories!!!

As you learn stories, you need to make sure that you are shaping them with your own personal tastes.
Try not to completely copy an existing storyteller. Find you own style.

2.  Next, you must engage in the craft of storytelling

Craft is how you put stories together, and how you present them. This is important, because it shapes what type of storyteller you are, and what types of stories you tell. You will spend a great deal of time in this stage before you ever get to the last step.

There are many ways to work on your craft.

a. Go to university and study storytelling.

I went to Northwestern University and studied under Rives Collins. Call your local community college and find out if they have a storytelling program. Go to festivals and conferences given by storytelling organizations and take workshops and classes. 

You most likely live in a state where there is a storytelling guild. You might live near one and not know. Go to a guild meeting and get to know your local storytellers. Listen, get feedback, and consider what people have to say. The link above is for the National Storytelling Network organization that has catalogued guilds for every state. Click on your state, find out where your guild is, and enquire if there is a group near you.

David Novak is a wonderful performer and teacher. Catch him if you can!

c. Read. 

I cannot stress enough that you should read about storytelling. Parkhurst Brothers, and August House publishers have a great number of books about storytelling.

d. Tell! 

You must find opportunities to tell your stories to the audiences you wish to serve. Whether adults or children, you must find willing guinea pigs. Find out if you can volunteer to tell in your local public library. Find open mic nights. Do what you have to do.

3. After you are confident that you've got some stories ready, you feel comfortable telling them, and you are ready to roll out your carpet and invite the paying public into your world. You have to tell them you are alive and offering a service.  That brings us to the most annoying part of this whole thing. You have to start the onerous part of the whole process.

There are lots of books about marketing. I did mention you should read, right?

4. The Business of Storytelling.  I haven't written much about this on this blog, but the thing that goes here is the business of storytelling. This is the part where you schedule, produce contracts, set prices, cold call, put together email lists, contact people, and make connections with others. I don't do this part of the business, but it is an essential part of making this job work.

While all of that is happening, you get to the last step in the process.

5. Working the Art

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather rinse repeat! This cycle of gathering material, crafting it, working the material, engaging with new audiences, marketing to new places, and working the art is not a fait is a cycle.

So, there you have it. Some really basic steps to becoming a professional storyteller.
Is this a really simplified list? Yes. Will it be quick and easy? No, probably not, but it is a roadmap to becoming a professional.

I leave you with some of my favorite tellers.

Peter Cook! I do love this man!

Good Luck! We'll look for you out there! 

Monday, November 9, 2015

When Time Stops: Stories Are Forever

This fall marked my 28th year as a professional storyteller.

Every now and then I question whether or not I'm living up to the expectations I had for myself when I was 21.

The first time this happened was over a decade ago. I was in a library somewhere in the south, and this young woman came up to me with a toddler. She was beaming.

"I saw you when I was a little girl! When I saw your name I thought, 'no way, it can't be the same person! She can't still be doing this!' but here you are!" She sat down with her two year old and just grinned at me for forty-five minutes.

It was the first time I questioned whether or not I'd made a reasonable choice with my life.

When I was younger, I was a competitor. I played competitive sports. I was competitive with my GPA. I auditioned for theatre, competed in the National Forensics League, fought for scholarships, and worked hard to achieve the things I felt were important.

Then, I became a storyteller.

The only person I compete with now is myself. I spend lots of time trying to make sure that I am challenging myself. I work to learn new material, attend workshops, write, and explore the art form I've chosen to practice. Every now and then, however, I hear that well meaning, excited young woman's voice...'She can't still be doing this!'

I have no corporate ladder to climb. I have no outside person giving me a raise. How am I supposed to keep score? Is there something else I should be doing?

When I read the corporate ladder line to my husband he was amused.
"You are the CEO of your own company. What more do you want?"
I tried to tell him that wasn't the point, but he wouldn't stop laughing at me.

This last week was particularly 'Everything Old Is New Again' because I was in Evanston, Il where my adult life started.


I revisited schools I'd performed in on many occasions in the past. I was greeted by excited administrators and teachers at every venue. I encountered children who'd never seen me before, kids who'd seen me a couple of years earlier, and some who'd seen me as long as five or six years earlier and still remembered me.

The shows were easy as the audience had already been won over by the staff's enthusiasm long before I ever put a foot in the building. It is the kind of storytelling I love. You get to play with an audience who wants nothing more than to go wherever you want to take them.

Fun. Lovely. Exciting. Perfect.

I have a great list on my wall called 'My Adopted 10 Rules Of Thumb'. The tenth one is: 'If you hit the bull's eye every single time, the target is too near'

Doesn't this mean that it is time to do something else? Something meaningful? I tend to struggle with this idea until something happens to remind me why I'm a storyteller and why storytelling matters.

I had gigs in Greenwood, SC a couple of weeks ago. I actually ended up on a radio program called Meet Me At The Diner With Anne Eller.  If you are interested, the link is below.

Listen to the interview here!

Anyway, I was in a high school my last day in SC. I had three shows, and I was told there would be between 90 and 100 high schoolers in each set. The first show was just after eight am. After it was over, I had a twenty minute break. When the next group started coming in, I discovered that about twenty of them had just been in my first set. I pointed this out to them, and they said they had so much fun they decided to come again. I asked how they'd managed that, and they said the teachers just let them.

The second set was fun. We had a good time.  They filed out repeating phrases and laughing. Twenty minutes later, the third group came in. Over half of them had returned. I pointed out that this meant that some kids didn't get any stories that day. The repeat listeners were not the least bit guilty that they'd prevented others from hearing stories. I discovered that about twenty of them had spent all morning with me.

My sponsor said that she'd been bringing storytellers to that school for years, and she'd never seen that happen before. I was the recipient of kids getting fed up with only getting an hour of stories. Cool. I suspect that this will become a tradition here. Senior Story Day or some such thing.

When I was in Evanston at Field Middle school, I told a personal narrative. After it was over, the kids filed out laughing and waving at me. Several came over to talk to me as they often do, and we joked around a bit before I sent them off to class. Then, the Advanced Math teacher walked up to me and shook my hand.

"I have to tell you something." He said to me.
"All right." I smiled at him.
"You told me that story when I was in fifth grade. I didn't remember it until I heard Milton's name. Then I was like, Oh my...I remember this! It was really cool. I loved it the second time, and I got so much more out of it as an adult. Thank you."

We chatted for a bit more, and then he left.

The principal was geeking out about the whole incident. She couldn't stop grinning, and she told every single teacher we passed about it.

When you are a competitive weenie, you can forget that the storytelling isn't really about you. It is about the stories. Your job is to offer them, live in them, love them, and share them. Do that well, and time doesn't matter. Do that well, and you can do it forever.

Rule number 2 of my Adopted Rules Of Thumb is: 'It is impossible to see the entire picture when you are inside of the frame'.

Last night my daughter and I were talking about imagination, and I told her about something that happens when I tell Sody Saluradus. The little girl character closes her eyes and sways side to side when she's on her way to the store.

When I close my eyes at that point, I can see the road she is traveling, the trees, the morning sun shining through the branches, and the birds.

When I open my eyes I'm standing in front of three hundred children. No matter how many times it happens I'm always a bit startled, and disoriented.

When I start thinking about all of the amazing things I've experienced and seen in the last 28 years of my career, I turn to rule number 9 on my chart. 'Don't Get Too Serious'

The truth is, I'm only just beginning to scratch the surface of what it means to be a storyteller. It would be a shame for me to give it up before I get any good at it!

Happy Telling!