Monday, November 26, 2012

Storytelling everywhere...ReadBoston summer, 2012

Reading and engaging,  Bob Sheridan was into it! Photo: Bill Brett  The Boston Globe
"Savings Bank Life Insurance president Bob Sheridan had the audience transfixed at Labouré Center in South Boston, where he read the Eric Carle classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to about 200 children as part of a ReadBoston event." I was up next and I had a blast riding on the energy of 200 little souls who were lapping up every image and turn of phrase in the traditional tales we told, together.

About my job...

Some days and in certain circles, I get a lot of negative feed back about my "job".  True,  I am not making any money. I work many long hours. Um, check.  Sorry, it is true; I do think and talk about little else.  So, sometimes I feel pretty lowdown particularly days where I need to spend money to keep things afloat. Yet, when I was asked to make a pitch about our organization I found it easy to make some pretty bold statements about what we are doing.  Below is a video and some of the written thoughts I sent to the newly formed Board of Directors.

1. While most people acknowledge that storytelling is  a human universal,  in our work we regularly make storytelling universally available to all.  This year we will teach all the juniors in Newburyport, Watertown, Everett and ALL the seniors of Lynn Classical High School.  Not just the, honors or AP or theater students. 3,000 students so far and in 10 schools this year. We teach in mostly Title 1 schools and we have included ELL classes as well.
I teach literature to students who have many talents, but writing can be a major challenge to bilingual learners who are often immigrants or first generation Americans. To have Norah and the other storytellers come into our classroom ... was like unlocking a vault in my high schoolers. Every one of them, from the most boisterous to the shyest, took their moment in front of an audience to speak. For some, this was the first time they published themselves.” • Sondra Longo, AP Literature and Composition Journalism - Lawrence High School

2. We bring out the unique "voices" of students from truly diverse backgrounds...

Students like Maho (Lynn Classical High), known for being shy and stuttering, get up and present a vivid world of a war-torn 3rd world village that their classmates  never knew.  Students like Sandy (Boston Latin Academy), an award winning slam poet and practiced performer, get up and challenge themselves to take it a step further.  She told how watching her 4 year-old nephew die changed her life. Today, Sandy is at Simmons College and intends to become a pediatrician.

When students who live in a virtual “war zone” of poverty, violence and crime, heard Maho's (Lynn,MA) story about growing up in an actual war zone of Bosnia, their world and world view became much wider. When Sandy (Boston,MA) told her story of how a pleasant family birthday gathering devolved into the shooting of her 4 year-old nephew, students with more stable lives were able to connect a face and a voice to a story of human suffering that may have been every bit as exotic to them as Maho’s Bosnia. The students listen to each other with an intensity and respect that is beautiful to see. They are thirsty for this kind of connection and self-expression.

3. We are unique.  And have a proven track record. Our programs and organization, massmouth,inc.,  were created by storytellers and educators - steeped and versed in the timeless art form. Other storytelling organizations that are more famous and successful were started by writers, comics and theater people. This is not bad but it is not connected to the richer and noncommercial art form.  We all exploit the phenomenon of storytelling.  Meaning all story slams depend on the innate human ability to tell a story - with a little focus and direction.  We at massmouth go deeper. We explore and share the "art" of storytelling.

At the moment, massmouth,inc. is the only group that reaches a contemporary audience in clubs, cafés and even larger theater venues AND promotes traditional form of stories ( folk, fairy, myth, parable etc.)  AND  teaches, during school time, in the high school ELA curriculum. We run the only in-school, during instructional time, storytelling program and organize the only regional high school story slam in the country - if not the world.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Woolgathering 1.6 - Preparing Experiences for Story

-->Woolgathering 1.6 - Preparing Experiences for Story
by Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill

A storyteller is often said to be mining their experiences to create story. And the analogy works. Like gold, raw experience is not particularly useful or beautiful until cleaned, purified, heated and shaped. So with our memories. Unlike mining and preparing precious metal for use, the process of changing experience into story is not mechanical but selective. There is no "one-size-fits all" set of directions.

In the short form of story slams it is very obvious that EVERY WORD COUNTS. Actually, every word always counts in the best writing and storytelling. In beautiful examples of stories we see that  there is little waste.  But in the heat of the moment and in live performance, we can hear our selves get sloppy and throw in details or tangents that do not belong. What can help us with this?
Next to a good analogy I love a good tomato! And I find the "mining" metaphor leaves me high and dry just when I need  some back up to be able to get to work. So I will now marry my love of tomatoes to my love of analogies and take you into imagination's kitchen to find a way to select the right elements from your experiences to tell your story.

If cooking was like the process of creating a story then experiences would be ingredients. And like the best fresh ingredients, say tomatoes for example? We would want to pick them when they are ready OR have  special recipes ready that call for unripe fruit.  We will likely harvest the vegetable whole, with a piece of stem or a leaf tagging along.

Only you know what part of that juicy tomato is best for your story. And being honest or realistic does not mean you must include stems, leaves, skin or seeds in every story that contains tomato. Your job as a storyteller/artist is to select the best ingredients for your 'dish' from the harvest you have. But before you try to do that? Try this exercise...

1.6 Exercise: Put in the whole thing in...

This exercise is kind of like the hokey-pokey. "You put the whole thing in"  and You take the whole thing out".  I fear this analogy is NOT working well so I guess I am back to just tomatoes and storytelling.

1. Pick an experience you know really well and you would like to tell about it...
2. Either while writing, audio recording or telling  a listener, add in every single, ridiculous detail you can about one element in your story.  For example: tell every teeny, tiny detail of your setting or about one character or about what one sense is telling you. Tell your entire story using all those details.
3. Then, tell your story again, choosing just three details from the huge pile you have collected. Are they the best three? If not, try again. Let yourself go... if you were picking tomatoes it would be like bringing  leaves, stems, vines, rotten tomatoes and horn worms into your kitchen.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Storytelling: Woolgathering 1.5- Begin again

-->Woolgathering: 1. 5 Begin again

by Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill

Starting our story from a different perspective can help us see new aspects of our experience or a story's structure or it's deeper meaning. We want our story to get better and better with repeated telling. And usually a story will, if we listen to ourselves as we tell. And revise our work.  A fun way to accelerate the process of refining a story through retelling is to try some new beginnings.

Exercises 1.5: Begin Again

Beginnings: start again Try a new beginning for your story:
1.    Start with a sound, a sight, a smell or a taste that describes the place
2.    Start with a sound, a sight, a smell or a taste that describes a character
3.    Start with a sound, a sight, a smell or a taste that describes the time
4.    Start describing some action – major or minor – that shows setting
5.    Start a dialogue between 2 main characters.
6.    Write the inner monologue (thoughts) of a main character.
7.    Make —a statement … you might begin with a sentence that starts with—“Usually...” or “They say... “ All X are Y or so I thought but/and...” or “She always believed that...” you get the idea?
8.    Ask a question – rhetorical, of your self - of the audience -

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Storytelling: Woolgathering1.4 - Play With it!

Storytelling: Woolgathering 1.4 - Play With it!

When you listen to a storyteller, you are helping create the story while you listen. After you hear a story it is yours. To play with…to learn from…to imagine with. Here are a few ideas that I share with the students who listen and create stories with me at Read Boston.

Playing is a powerful way to learn. And it is now scientifically proven to be important to our health and well being. From the TEDx site "Dr. Stuart Brown came to research play through research on murderers -- unlikely as that seems -- after he found a stunning common thread in killers' stories: lack of play in childhood. Since then, he's interviewed thousands of people to catalog their relationships with play, noting a strong correlation between success and playful activity. His book  Play  describes the positive impact play can have on one's life." Dr. Brown says that play and story are closely related. "Three dimensional play lights up the cerebellum"

So when your are having fun with your own version of a story you heard, you are creating and bein as you mix up what you heard with your own rich imagination. 

Exercises: Woolgathering 1.4 - Play With it!

1. Imagine a new ending.
A story with a completely or even slightly new ending is, a different story. It is fun to think of different ways the same things could end or different things the same events could lead to. It is like yoga for the mind. It stretches your thinking and strengthens your problem solving ability.

2. Draw some pictures.
What’s is your picture of the main characters in the story ? Make masks of your favorite characters. Or each one can draw a favorite part of the story. Put these all together and arrange in order, from beginning to end. Add any parts that were missing. Show these as a story line or tape drawings together to make a kind of story “quilt .

3. Tell the story through action.
Instead of telling the story with words see if you can tell it with your gesture, your posture and your facial expressions. 

4. Pretend.
Pick a character from the story that interests you.  Then speak, act, walk and breathe like that character for the rest of the day.

5. Post your idea in the comments below:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What is a traditional story?

What is a traditional story?
by Norah Dooley and wiki 

The author telling traditional tales to children in South Boston through the literacy program, Read Boston, 2012

Since we announced our Folk and Fairy Tale Slams, all sorts of people I thought would know,  have been asking me, "Huh? What is a traditional story?" In the article below I have tortured and twisted a wikipedia article into illustrating a Miller Analogy Test type statement. My main intent was to explore and hopefully explain the difference between traditional storytelling and contemporary 1st person narrative in performance. Secondly, I hoped to save time by lifting lots of the material for my explanation. This process is sometimes called slapdash, and when less transparent, also known as plagiarism or "lack of artistic integrity" and will be covered in another post. Just as soon as I find an essay on that topic from which I may quote... But I digress. 

The statement I am working with is: traditional stories are to contemporary 1st person narrative stories as traditional folk songs are to singer-songwriter's songs. Imagine an acoustic performance of Arrow, by Cheryl Wheeler next to a performance by Simon And Garfunkel "Scarborough Fair"  or any other traditional ballad of Great Britain.  

The song Arrow is a beautiful contemporary love song, with melody and lyrics composed by Cheryl. Scarborough Fair is a song in the public domain; melody by Anonymous ( not the hackers but in the late 16th century sense via late Latin from Greek anōnumos ‘nameless’ ) and words by Anonymous. In the article below I have substituted "story" or storytelling for every citation of song or music. There are way more interesting things to know about folk tales but this will have to do as a start.
Odetta was a folk singer of the late 20th century revival. She left a career in opera & musical theater to sing folk songs.
From a historical perspective, traditional folk music storytelling had these characteristics:
  • It was transmitted through an oral tradition. Before the twentieth century, most people, especially ordinary farm workers and factory workers were illiterate. They acquired songs stories by listening and memorizing them. Primarily, this was not mediated by books, recorded or transmitted media. Contemporary yet traditional  Singers  storytellers  extend their repertoire using broadsheets, song story books or CDs, but these secondary enhancements are of the same character as the primary songs stories experienced in the flesh.
  • The music  Storytelling was often related to national culture. It was culturally particular; from a particular region or culture. In the context of an immigrant group, folk music storytelling acquires an extra dimension for social cohesion. It is particularly conspicuous in the United States, where immigrants and  oppressed minorities strive to emphasize their differences from the mainstream. They may learn songs stories  that originate in the countries their grandparents came from.
  • Stories They may commemorate historical and/or personal events. On certain days particular songs stories celebrate the yearly cycle. Weddings, birthdays and funerals may also be noted with  songs stories...Religions and  religious festivals traditions often have a folk music storytelling component especially a set of teaching stories. Choral music Stories at communal events bring children and non-professional storytellers to participate in a public arena, giving an emotional bonding that is unrelated to the aesthetic qualities of the music performance.
  • The songs stories have been performed, by custom, over a long period of time, usually several generations.
As a side-effect, the following characteristics are sometimes present:
  • There is no copyright on folk songs. stories. Hundreds of folk songs tales from the nineteenth century have known authors but have continued in oral tradition to the point where they are considered traditional for purposes of music publishing. This has become much less frequent since the 1940s. Today, almost every folk song tale that is recorded or written is credited with an arranger author.
  • Fusion of cultures: In the same way that people can have a mixed background, with parents originating in different continents, so too music storytelling can be a blend of influences. A particular rhythmic speech pattern, or a characteristic instrument, cultural detail or element is enough to give a traditional feel to music, stories even when they have been composed recently. The young are usually much less offended by the dilution or adaptation of songs stories this way. Equally a electric guitar digital element can be added to an old songs story creating a new genre for the art form of storytelling.
  • Traditional storytelling is non-commercial.
Please let me know in the comments below if this makes sense to anyone else but me? All the words in bold italic have been added by the blogger.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Storytelling:Think&Do 1. 3 Endings

Woolgathering: Wrap it Up!

by Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill

Storytelling:Woolgathering 1. 3  Endings !

A few years ago I wrote this description for our kick-butt storytelling workshops:

Storytelling is a performance art in its own right. In massmouth’s workshop you will experience how storytelling differs from theater, stand up comedy and twisting balloon animals. We will be mining your memories to craft a story with believable characters, a solid point of view and a clear beginning, middle and end.

It turns out that storytelling is actually more in common with making balloon animals than I had originally thought. When we inflate a balloon we create a shape with our hot air. The thin membrane of the balloon keeps the air in place and creates the shape.  But only if we tie the end. When we neglect to tie off the end? The air escapes, it makes a bad sound and the shape of the balloon is lost.

The worst kind of ending is where we just do not stop but repeat, wander aloud in thought and add in details that do not add value to the listener's experience. We come to stuttering halt and no one is as happy as the audience.

Exercise:  1.3  Endings ! 

Practice your ending, making silent eye contact then acknowledge audience then walk off...
However you usually end the story  try a few new endings by adding or substituting one of these:
1.    An action that clearly ends your story
2.    Some of the main character’s thoughts...
3.    How you felt, a wish or a hope;
4.    A statement on what has changed or is different;
5.    A memory that is strongest from the story;
6.    A decision you made.
7.    End with your generalization or revised version of it.
8.    AVOID “the moral of the story is” … or repeating the theme.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Storytelling:Woolgathering 1.2 Exaggerate!

Storytelling: Woolgather & Exercise

by Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill
(Yeah, I just was not "feeling" the Think&Do title.  And Theory and Practice is too dry, just not me. So I have new title. Woolgathering; it is what I do best! Exercise; it is what I need most.)

Storytelling: Woolgather & Exercise 1.2  Exaggerate!

Those who listen to my bombast know me as the Empress of Hyperbole. I play fast and loose with size, quantity and quality in my storytelling.  I try not to do so when I write but in the heat of speaking moments, 'once'  may become become 4xs  and big becomes giant and salt should be liberally applied. Really no point in checking my facts if I am telling a story - I shade, stretch and distort with the best of them. I know I am employing hyperbole "exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.  And people, g_d help 'em, do listen so I know it works.  Here is wool and wisdom gathered on the subject of exaggeration.

  In his post FOUR rules I practice in storytelling: Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor + Blogger says

Creative Whack Pack
“I cannot tell you how many people have asked me, "Was that story you told yesterday actually true?" I guess it was so outrageous that it was pretty hard to believe. The answer is: Yes. It's true. And I thought it would provide a good opportunity for me to talk a little about storytelling as illustration in any kind of public speaking - whether it's a sermon or a lecture or a speech…

1) Exaggeration is ok. Most of the time, I look for ways to insert an absurdity. Strategically placed, these accomplish 2 things: 1- they make the story fun and funny, 2- absurdities tell the listener, "that part is an embellishment." In this particular story, I said something like, "I was so mad, I pumped iron like the old Arnold..." Well, that's clearly not true. But it's also clearly an embellishment. It's so absurd that it cannot possibly be true.

Where Pastor Hughes is very careful about his exaggeration, I think that in a short story like a 5 minute slam story it is sometimes necessary to distort story elements to get your meaning across. Is this alright? I say, yes. Is it truthful?  Well, no. But is it dishonest - to you intend to deceive and make people think particular details are true for some ego gratifying purpose? I think this is crucial. Since storytelling is an art - not journalism, we need to have room to create.  Exaggeration as a brainstorming tool can lead amazing results. 

Exercise:  1.2  Exaggerate!

1. In any story you want to tell try adding an exaggerated detail at the beginning and end of your story. Tell your whole story with and without the detail (to a live listener or record it) Ask for specific feed back. Does the new detail distract from your intended meaning or heighten it? Does it add some panache to your performance or does it call too much attention to itself?

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Storytelling: Woolgathering 1.1 - Listen first

Storytelling: Woolgathering 

by Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill

Think&Do 1.1 Listen first

Storytelling is as common as rain and often almost as invisible. It is not like reading or film or theater or song yet all these art forms require story and can  tell stories. For our study, storytelling is a live performance of a narrative by one or more performers who work without scripts, illusions, costume, makeup or props. There is no “fourth wall”. The storyteller and the listeners create images and emotions, together. The audience is a active participant and without the audience – the story is not alive. The adoption of radio, television, and video almost eclipsed storytelling BUT people yearn for more personal contact, and realizing that television and other media cannot take the place of a storyteller sharing a story in person.

Listening to our friends experiences as they create stories, informally or otherwise is a gift to them and to you as a listener. A great blog post on Active Listening here says we retain about 25% -50% of what we hear. Listening is about awareness and feeds our wells.

Exercise: Think&Do 1.1  Active listening  

1. Listen to a story - live is best but recorded is fine - just listen however you can. Remember (in silence) how you pictured an image or several images. Verbally share images with one or more listening partners. You may also wish to write about the image after telling.

2. Listen in the dark or with your eyes closed. Make up images an story to make sense of the sounds.Verbally share the sounds and images with one or more listening partners. You may also wish to write about the image after telling.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Meeting a Storyteller and Mentor

It is nice to know that Peggy Melanson and I both remember the moment when the light bulb went on for me the same way. I can still feel the excitement as I was listening to Peggy tell me the stories of the books she wanted to publish and I realized what a master storyteller she was.  Her first  public story performance knocked the socks off many people. She is one of my favorite storytellers. It is hard to pick favorites but a story about a crystal bowl from her  Buddha on The Bus©  collection is a tale that stuck with me and one of the first stories I heard.  Here she is a guest blogger.  I really hope  she comes out east and we get to hear her soon.  - Norah Dooley

Meeting a Storyteller and Mentor   

by Peggy Melanson

   I’ve discovered that quite a few people visualize “Storytelling” as a child sitting on a parent’s lap while Mom or Dad read stories from children’s books.  For a long time, I was one of these people.

            Until I met Norah Dooley -

Peggy Melanson
     While sitting in the waiting room of a new primary physician’s office, I noticed several large posters on the wall.  One particular poster caught my eye. It was a pastel watercolor painting of a lovely neighborhood with the title, “EverybodyBakes Bread, by Norah Dooley.  It was one of many children’s stories that the author had written. Looking closely at the poster, I noticed that she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

     Since I lived in Somerville, the next town to Cambridge, I thought to look her up. At the time, I had no idea how brazen that idea was.

     When I arrived home, I called information and was surprised to find that Norah was listed.  Assuming that she would have a secretary, I planned to leave a message. I was very surprised when she answered the phone personally.

      I told her about noticing the poster and asked if she might advise me on how to get my brother’s Christmas Wishing Apple story published. I did not know that the process was very difficult.

     Many well-meaning non-writers say things like, “That’s a wonderful story, and you should get it published! Or, you should send that to Reader’s Digest.”  They have no idea what it entails.  Most people think all you have to do is call a publisher and they’ll rush to your door.

    I was astounded when she invited me to meet her for coffee at a local Cambridge coffee house.  We sat and talked for two hours.  It was wonderful to be with someone who understood my stories.

Love to mentor but really I just "connected" Peggy and she did the rest -NAD
 Suddenly Norah sat back in her chair and looked at me with a very serious expression and said, “My god, you are a storyteller.”  Visions of children on laps danced in my mind. “I responded, “What do you mean?”  Instead of explaining, she asked me what I was doing the following Tuesday evening. And, suggested we go to Foozles Book Store in Porter Square Cambridge to see Master Storyteller, Brother Blue. I was dubious about attending a children’s storytelling event. I was in for a very big surprise.

          When we arrived, I was astounded to see about twenty grownups and no kids in the bookstore. We got there early so that she could show me the process.  Brother Blue’s wife, Ruth Hill was in charge of the timing for people telling stories.  People wishing to tell a story, placed their name on a piece of paper that was placed in a basket. Names were randomly chosen and each teller had five minutes to tell any kind of story.  A featured teller was allowed thirty minutes at the end of the group performances.  When tellers reached about four minutes, Ruth would nod her head at the speakers to remind them they had only one minute left.  At five minutes, Ruth rang a ceramic bell to end the performance.  Later, I realized that those rules would be substantial in the timing of my stories, told and written.

                                                My First “Told” story

 I cannot find the exact words to describe that first experience.  “Stunned, mesmerized and enchanted to be in the presence of this wonderful couple.” Later I discovered that the group was (and still is) called, The League for New England Storytelling” L.A.N.E.S. I’m still a member today

        For some reason, I felt absolutely comfortable standing up to tell the true story, “Teenage Buddha.” As I will mention later, Brother Blue and Ruth made me feel that my story was the most important in the world.  The people that attended congratulated me.  And, Norah, kept saying, “I told you that you are a storyteller. “Now, do you know what I mean?”  It took a while for it to sink in.

         Soon after that evening, Foozles bookstore closed and “Storytelling Night” would be held for many years every Tuesday evening at Sherrill Hall Library at Harvard University.  I attended every event and it was wonderful getting to know other people with like minds. And, Norah still helps me with advise

        In early 2000, Robert Smyth, Publisher of Yellow Moon Press sent out a call for stories about Brother Blue and Ruth.  I was honored to have my story, “Seeds of the Universe,” chosen and it was published as, “Brother Blue-Golden Comet in 2001.

My first “Fantasy style” Story follows:

                                                Seeds of The Universe

   While driving alone, just before the rain, down a dark and winding road in Arlington, Massachusetts, a falling star caught my attention. Shooting across the heavens, it seemed to come straight at me.  A little bit frightened and filled with awe, I drove faster to get out of its path.  When I turned to look back, I saw a jagged burst of lightning pierce the night sky.  The brilliant flash of light streaked low and over the tall trees behind me. It was then, that I remembered who Brother Blue was and how we were connected.

         Pulling my car over to the side of the road, I wrote this story on odd bits of paper found in the car, while the rain pummeled the roof and the thunder and lightning crashed around me.

         It was a millennium ago while slumbering in my ancient soul that a golden comet streaking through the heavens awakened me. The splendid brilliance raced through earth’s atmosphere, weaving and dancing amidst a stand of trees.  As if searching, it moved and then suddenly struck a colossal tree, setting it ablaze. Glowing and split in half, though still attached at the roots, the tree thundered to the ground. Sparks from one half of the burning wood flew like fireflies, imbedding themselves within the tall timber of the surrounding forest.  Deep, deep, deep they burrowed, to slumber within the wood, waiting to be awakened when the time was right. Thus Brother Blue was born to seed the world with stories.

         Spiraling shafts of light from the other half of the felled tree sprang up and raced to spin protectively and embrace the trees that the sparks had entered.

         It was then that Ruth was released to preserve and shield Blue’s brilliant seeds. Born together out of the unity of the universe and brought to earth from the light of life, Brother Blue and Ruth prepared the world for their children - stories!

         Many years passed before fire was discovered and wood was used as its fuel.  As people came to sit around the fires, Blue’s sparkling stories awoke from within the pieces of burning timber. They began to snap and touch the cave dwellers who sat for warmth.  Slowly at first, with hesitancy and care, the act of sharing stories gave birth to other sparks that entered other people and stories spread throughout the centuries.

         My primordial soul came to life again, one day when a storyteller, Norah Dooley walked me into a cave of books where Ruth and Blue’s children lived.

         I saw my ancient Father and Mother and my brothers and sisters in all the pages made from the wood of those spark filled trees.

        Many people were there, drawn to Brother Blue’s light and Ruth’s glowing kindness because fireflies of memory danced in their minds.

         Blue stood before them, dressed in a rainbow of butterflies, arms raised, eyes cast towards the heavens, perhaps seeing his own comet’s light and pronouncing wonders.  When he took my hand and proclaimed that my first told story was perfect and wonderful...I believed him.  When I saw the smile and flash of agreement in Ruth’s eyes, I felt the rolling of the old thunder.

         On that day, the world hesitated in it’s turning to allow my ancient soul to be awakened once more by the power of Brother Blue’s ageless, universal spirit. My own spark was set free to fly around the campfires of the world, telling, telling, and telling. And I’m home again!
SIDEBAR:” Teaching and inspiring others" won Peggy Melanson the opportunity to be a Torchbearer for the 2002 Olympics. She was also awarded "Cool Woman of America" by American Movie Classics Television Network and selected, “Ms Congeniality” by the Golden Girls Pageant. Peggy is a writer and storyteller, Mixed media and Zentangle She also is a” One Woman Comedy show” presenter. As a freelance writer she has written columns for several New England magazines and newspapers. Peggy is presently working on "Dancing on the Roof,” a Memoir.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NEW Feature- Storytelling: Think&Do 1.0

Storytelling: Think&Do
by  Norah Dooley
Theory and Practice for Storytelling as a 21st Century Skill

I intend to make my reflections on the art of storytelling and an exercise a weekly feature here.  And I welcome comments and lively discussion. Please join in!

Think&Do 1.0  "Time+tragedy=comedy. Or does it?

I  loved this bromide since I first heard it from Laura Love, a singer-songwriter in her introduction to Voices, a beautiful song about her mother's mental illness. Time+tragedy = comedy. Is this more cliché than true? Or is comedy the surest indicator that we are on the other side of tragedy? I just finished a workshop for a nonprofit group that wants to work with victims of domestic violence. This workshop naturally raised the issue that often comes up at our story slams. Can I tell a sad story?  Can I tell my sad story? Yes! Does my story need to be funny? No. Do you need to have distance from your pain? Yes.  And, have  you gained something from the experience that you choose to share that makes it worth listening to? Oh, yes. 

In many situations it is wonderful and healing to work through our stories together but as an art or as paid entertainment it is a huge no-no. In fact anywhere your listener has not agreed to the role of a caring and patient listener, this kind of storytelling is discouraged.

In a story slam situation I ask the storyteller ‘Do you bring something to the audience or are you asking them for something?’  People get paid big bucks to listen to you ramble – they are trained therapists. But an audience expects a work of art and should never be asked to try to make sense out of your life.  That is your job. As human beings we make sense of our experience through story. An artist/storyteller does this work BEFORE they take the stage. Often, with each telling our own understanding and insight into our experience deepens. This is the beauty of any true art for…the practitioner gains as well as the recipient.

Writer Judith Barrington acknowledges this experience in the quote below. Judith teaches memoir writing and her Lifesaving: A Memoir, is an award wining book. In it she reflects on the accidental death of both her parents when she was 19 years old and how as a young woman she dealt with sudden loss and coming of age. When asked how she worked through difficult emotions on the page Judith Barrington said:

“ I didn’t work through the emotions on the page; I worked through them before I started to write the book. It took years for me to be ready. I don’t believe that writing in any genre is a substitute for therapy (or deep thought or journaling or however you deal with life’s blows)—even though you may get new insights into your experience in the process of writing the memoir.”

For her readers and for Judith the resulting work of art was worth the wait.

Exercise: Think&Do 1.0  The 5 Whys  

State what your story is about in one or two sentences. Ask yourself or have a friend ask you why (are you telling me this?) The WHYS should come in rapid succession – speak your thoughts. You will answer with the 1st thing that comes into to your head, 5 times.  You may also try this as a writing exercise. Once you have done this a few times, it will be easier to know if you are ready to tell your story.

Adapted from from The Five Whys Technique by Olivier Serrat “ three key elements to effective use of the Five Whys technique: (i) accurate and complete statements of problems,5 (ii) complete honesty in answering the questions, (iii) the determination to get to the bottom of problems and resolve them. The technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda for the Toyota Industries Corporation.”

Great  50 minute live set of Laura Love Band here:

Thanks to  Annette’s Paper Trail blog at for the Judith Barrington material

Friday, August 10, 2012

"a person who could use... a little help"

Thanks to Paula for this graphic
As we approach our 4th birthday at and start our third year as a nonprofit I can't help but wonder. Just sometimes, I wonder but my family wonders about this often - am I actually a person who "could use... a little help"  because, as the article below states pretty clearly "... starting a business is, on its face, a little nuts." Will  massmouth,inc. be the place where storytelling meets entrepreneurship and get "rediscovered" by the dominant culture? Or is this a group delusion and I am a main perp?  In October of 2010, my family asked me to see a therapist for my condition. It was fine, nice even to have someone who had no "dog in the fight" to talk to every 10 days or so. I could express my doubts and joys without worrying about how it would make my therapist feel. But I have to be circumspect about enthusiasms and frustrations with my family. Many of my blood relations think I am as soft as a sneaker full of...mashed bananas.  I think I am not deluded - but what deluded person doesn't? Yet I have evidence  that we are creating the connections and a space where storytellers can make a living while practicing our art form.  But the "crazy" label  does not get put away that easily. This is why I read with great pleasure what the NY Times had to say about the phenomenon of the crazed entrepreneur.  I like to revisit  this article at various low points in my non remunerative journey...

Just Manic Enough: Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs

"...this thought exercise hints at a truth: a thin line separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help. Academics and hiring consultants say that many successful entrepreneurs have qualities and quirks that, if poured into their psyches in greater ratios, would qualify as full-on mental illness.

Which is not to suggest that entrepreneurs ...are crazy. It would be more accurate to describe them as just crazy enough.

“It’s about degrees,” says John D. Gartner, a psychologist and author of “The Hypomanic Edge.” “If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you are God’s gift to technology investing.”

The attributes that make great entrepreneurs, the experts say, are common in certain manias, though in milder forms and harnessed in ways that are hugely productive. Instead of recklessness, the entrepreneur loves risk. Instead of delusions, the entrepreneur imagines a product that sounds so compelling that it inspires people to bet their careers, or a lot of money, on something that doesn’t exist and may never sell.

"...people will tell you that what you’re doing can’t be done, and if it could be done, someone would have done it already."

So venture capitalists spend a lot of time plumbing the psyches of the people in whom they might invest. It’s not so much about separating the loonies from the slightly manic. It’s more about determining which hypomanics are too arrogant and obnoxious — traits common to the type — and which have some humanity and interpersonal skills, always helpful for recruiting talent and raising money.

"...because starting a business is, on its face, a little nuts."

Some V.C.’s have personality tests to help them weed out the former. Others emphasize their toleration of mild forms of mania, if only because starting a business is, on its face, a little nuts.

“You need to suspend disbelief to start a company, because so many people will tell you that what you’re doing can’t be done, and if it could be done, someone would have done it already,” says Paul Maeder, a general partner at Highland Capital. “There are six billion human beings on this planet, we’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years, we’re a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution — and nobody has done what you want to do? It’s kind of crazy.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"I never met an idea I didn't like."

" I never met an idea (a man) I didn't like."

Will Rogers ( above left ) said it  and Mae West ( right) said lots of things, but not " I never met a man I didn't like."
"I never met a man I didn't like." Will Rogers actually said it but I hear it in Mae West's voice when I reflect on my shameless, wanton behavior with ideas. In my mind I have confused and then recombined Will Rogers, Mr. Nice Guy, humorist and political commentator and the grandmother of "A Bad Reputation Is a Good Thing," Mae West. Although, like Mae West, I love to talk in double entendres, in actual fact my sexual exploits would put me in the same class with a femme fatale of the Mother Theresa caliber.  Many say I share her fashion sense as well. Unlike Mother T, I am not celibate but monogamous. Thirty-five years with the same guy. Really? Like an albatross, or a wolf I have mated for life.  Apparently, an albatross will always return to the same place and the same partner.  Some pairs bond for a lifetime, cemented through the use of goofy but affectionate ritual dances. Hah, my guy and I even do the dance! But still, where's the drama in that ?

When it comes to ideas? Oh sister, get out of my way.  Mae West, move over!  Even when I was very young and very single I never played with men-folk the way I absolutely slut around with ideas.  I am easy.  Just cannot get enough of 'em.  I love 'em and leave 'em.  I am totally promiscuous with ideas.  As Mae West would say, "I feel like a million! But not all at once." 

Ideas come and go. Like buses, there is another idea every 5 minutes. But like buses, especially in Boston, the next bus or idea usually is not one you should get on and often is not the one you were waiting for...When I see any new idea I go weak at the knees.  I can be quite naughty.  Not one to wait to be asked, oh no. Hussying right up to an idea I say,  “Look at you! Mmmmm, mmm.  Such a big, strong, handsome idea! Let me sit in your metaphorical lap and run my fingers through your hair. Now, you whisper into my little ear and tell me what you are going to do to me. Did you say sleepless nights? O, you devil! Loss of money? Tarnished reputation? Relationships shot to hell?  - Wait, you are not any run of the mill idea, are you? I think *pant* you might just be *pant* a *pant* a lost cause!  Take me.  Now!"

Is playing with ideas always a bad thing? A very short google search on "playing with ideas" yielded this top website  American Journal of Play  which among other things, "includes material that... illuminates the important role of play in learning and human development throughout the life cycle..."   In a Dec 2011 article,  Playing with Ideas, The Affective Dynamics of Creative Play, by Pat Power,  I found loads of information to explain and put a more healthy spin my licentious behavior with ideas. Power says that "Playfulness is the essence of adaptability..." So, that is a good thing, no? He also notes that playfulness evolved in mammals because it works and has many benefits. I also liked this part a lot:

When adults are in a playful mood, they internalize the high jinks kids enjoy.
Adults play with the boundaries of their own thoughts and perceptions and withthose of others—dynamically exploring possible worlds in fantasies or creative writing; mixing and blending conceptual spaces through satirical imitation or playfuldesign; stretching and breaking established schemas by engaging with art or beingabsurd; and bouncing round otherwise solid and well-defended psychic structuresusing self-deprecating humor or teasing others.
Yeah, we do a lot of "dynamically exploring possible worlds in fantasies or creative writing; mixing and blending conceptual spaces through satirical imitation or playful design" at the massmouth office. By this definition, we play a lot while we work at massmouth,inc.! And our play seems to be, er, um... working?  Power also offers a few somber nuances to the discussion.  For example, here is one that resonated:

It is easy to idealize playfulness because it seems on first analysis to have
overwhelmingly positive attributes. But playfulness is environmentally situatedwith contextual constraints, and even young mammals with a strong propensityto play need to learn these limitations quickly if they are to survive. Anyone whohas experienced inapt playful antics knows how annoying, disruptive, or evenpotentially lethal they can be. Playfulness is not always creative, and in play, as instories, “destruction is a way of causing maximum impact for minimum effort.”
And this:
But it is worth remembering that creativity produces useful ideas and artifacts;
play creates possibilities.
But none of these small reality checks could harsh my mellow.  After reading the positive conclusions of Power's article,  I say it strong and say it loud,  "I am an idea slut and I am proud!"

...This human neoteny enables us to extend a level of playfulness into later years and is likely to help stimulate neurogenesis in healthy adults and similarly forestalls mental decline in cases of dementia. However, cultural influences can sometimes
be constraining, and the often pervasive effect of the rhetoric of play as frivolity,which is an essentially puritanical attitude toward playfulness in adults, can havereal repercussions for adult play, creativity, and quality of life. And why shouldwe cease being playful when 'the joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies inlearning to start something we cannot finish.'
From Journal of Play by Pat Power
I am buoyed by this reading.  As Geoffry Chaucer said, "A man may say full sooth [the truth] in game and play." And, as Shakespeare said in  King Lear, "Jesters do oft prove prophets."  It seems that ultimately, the way to truth, health and happiness is through play.  I do recommend the whole article which is available for free as a PDF.

Pat Power is Senior Lecturer of Digital Media and Design at London Metropolitan University.  A specialist in 3-D animation, he has worked widely in both industry and academia, including a position as Academic Manager for Multimedia and Animation at the Digital Academy. His interdisciplinary research encompasses animation, emotion, play, narrative, and the synthesis of science and the arts. In articles published in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, he has examined expressive style in 3-D computer graphic narrative and the creative nature of character conception. Power also serves as an External Examiner at Oxford Brookes University.