Sunday, April 24, 2011

Maximizing Our Minds

Tahir Shah writes with great feeling of the role of storytelling in our lives. Here is an excerpt from his book In Arabian Nights (Bantam, 2008.) I highly recommend it and him and of course his illustrious father, Idries! For more from Tahir, visit his blog:

"By their nature, most tribal and nomadic societies have had no writing system. And they are blessed as a result. They depend on each other for entertainment, for stimulation. Huddled around the campfire, the storytellers pass on the collective wisdom of the tribe. Their oral tradition is perfected and sleek, like stones in a river, rounded by time. The information has an extra dimension because it enters the body through the ears and not through the eyes. Listen, stare into the flames, and imagination unfolds.

I have seen storytellers casting their magic in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon, and in teahouses in Turkey, in India and .Afghanistan. I have found them, too, in Papua New Guinea and in Patagonia, in Kenya's Rift Valley, in Namibia and Kazakhstan. Their effect is always the same. They walk a tightrope, no wider than a hairsbreadth, suspended between fact and fantasy, singing to the most primitive part of our minds. We cannot help but let them in. With words they can enchant us, teach us, pass on knowledge and wisdom, as they had done to Marwan.

Stories are a communal currency of humanity. They follow the same patterns irrespective of where they are found. And, inexplicably, the same stories appear in cultures continents apart. How is it that similar tales can be found in Iceland and in pre-Columbian America? How come Cinderella is considered European, but is also a part of the folklore of the American Algonquins?

My father used to tell me that stories offer the listener a chance to escape but, more importantly, he said, they provide people with a chance at maximizing their minds. Suspend ordinary constraints, allow the imagination to be freed, and we are charged with the capability of heightened thought.

Learn to use your eyes as if they are your ears, he said, and you become connected with the ancient heritage of man, a dream world for the waking mind. "

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011

This is an exciting time to be involved in Storytelling and Education. As I see it, our Cultural Mythology and Personal Narratives are in a state of rapid transformation. In a way, we are moving from a sky-centered story to an earth-centered story. We are truly "coming down to earth." Still, we are moving against some strong anti-earth stories rooted in our American Dream (aka Myth). For example, here is a cover story from USA Today on December 10, 1997:
We are presented with a choice: adopt the Kyoto Accords and save the Earth or reject them and save American jobs. This is a classically self-involved American Story. Unhappily, at that time, we chose door number 2: jobs. Today, I think that has begun to change. Paradoxically, the motion back to earth from sky may have been sparked by our first effort to leave the planet entirely: the moon landing. For when our astronauts reached the moon, they sent us our first look at the earth (and ourselves) from space. That image still ripples through our consciousness and seeds the rewriting of our stories.
Several years ago I had the privilege to share the stage with Martha Holloway for a joint lecture/storytelling at the University of San Diego titled "The View From Space: stories of the earth in its entirety." Give a listen:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Turn Off The Tube?

My son's school just participated in "turn-off-the-tube-week" and I had the privilege of telling stories for the school's family night program. I shared the following from E.B. White. In his column for Harper's Weekly in 1938, E. B. White made this observation about the coming technology called television:

"Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound "effects" are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images - distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar than their originals."

Welcome to the internet, Victor!

The best parts of books never survive film adaptation. Here is a prescient vision of today from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame):

"A book is so soon made, it costs so little, and it can travel so far! Why wonder that the whole of human thought should flow down this slope? This is not to say that architecture will not now and again have a fine monument, an isolated masterpiece. From time to time, in the reign of printing, we may well still get a column made, I suppose, by a whole army, from the fusing of cannons, as, under the reign of architecture, they had Iliads and Romanceros, Mahabharatas and Nibelungen, made by a whole people from an accumulation and fusion of rhapsodies. The great accident of an architect of genius might occur in the twentieth century just like that of Dante in the thirteenth. But architecture will no longer be the social, the collective, the dominant art. The great poem, the great edifice, the creation of mankind will no longer be built, it will be printed.

And in future, should architecture accidentally revive, it will no longer be master. It will be subject to the law of literature, which once received the law from it. The respective positions of the two arts will be reversed. It is a fact that during the age of architecture - admittedly rare - poems resembled the monuments. In India, Vyasa is intricate, strange and impenetrable, like a pagoda. In the Egyptian East, poetry, like the buildings, has a grandeur and tranquillity of line; in ancient Greece, beauty, serenity and calm; in Christian Europe, the majesty of Catholicism, the naïvety of the people, the rich and luxuriant vegetation of an age of renewal. The Bible resembles the Pyramids, the Iliad the Parthenon, Homer Phidias. Dante in the thirteenth century was the last Romanesque church, Shakespeare in the sixteenth the last Gothic cathedral. Thus, to sum up what we have said so far in a necessarily incomplete and truncated form, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing, the bible of stone and the bible of paper. When we study these two bibles, so fully opened through the centuries, it is permissible surely to feel nostalgia for the visible majesty of what was written in granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated as colonnades, pylons and obelisks, those mountains, as it were, which covered the world and the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strasbourg. We must re- read the past from these marble pages. We must constantly admire and turn the pages of the book written by architecture; but we must not gainsay the grandeur of the edifice which printing has erected in its turn.

This edifice is colossal. Some maker of statistics or other has calculated that if all the volumes which have issued from the presses since Gutenberg were placed one on top of the other they would occupy the distance from the earth to the moon; but that is not the kind of grandeur we mean. Yet, when we try to compose in our minds a total picture of the sum of the products of the printing-press up till our own day, does the whole not appear to us as a vast construction, with the entire world as its base, at which mankind has been working without respite and whose monstrous head is lost in the profound mists of the future? It is the ant-hill of the intellect. It is the hive to which all the golden bees of the imagination come with their honey. It is an edifice of a thousand stories. Here and there, on staircases, one can see the mouths of the murky tunnels of science, which intersect in its bowels. On its surface, everywhere, the luxuriance of art, with its arabesques, its rose-windows and its tracery. Here, each individual work, however isolated or capricious it may appear, has its own place and protuberance. Its harmony comes from whole. From the cathedral of Shakespeare to the mosque of Byron, innumerable bell-turrets jostle indiscriminately on this metropolis of the universal mind. At its base, a number of the ancient titles of mankind have been rewritten, which architecture had not recorded. On the left of the entrance has been affixed the old white marble bas-relief of Homer, on the right the polyglot bible rears its seven heads. Further on stands the bristling hydra of the Romancero, with other hybrid forms, the Vedas and the Nibelungen. For the rest, this prodigious edifice remains perpetually unfinished. The printing-press, that giant machine, tirelessly pumping the whole intellectual sap of society, is constantly spewing out fresh materials for its erection. The entire human race is on the scaffolding. Each mind is a mason. The humblest can stop up a hole or lay a stone. Restif de la Bretonne, contributes his hod-load of plaster. Every day a new course is added. And aside from the original offerings of individual writers, there are collective contingents. The eighteenth century gives the Encyclop├ędie, the Revolution the Moniteur. This indeed is a construction which grows and mounts in spirals without end; here is a confusion of tongues, ceaseless activity, indefatigable labour, fierce rivalry between all of mankind, the intellect’s promised refuge against a second deluge, against submersion by the barbarians. This is the human race’s second Tower of Babel."

Color Town

Here's a story from the first Synergy Story Slam here in Asheville. The series has been selling out and I am delighted to have been there for opening night! The theme was "changes" and it was MLK Day, so....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

News from Iowa

What’s the story?: Storyteller enhances learning for Linn-Mar students

ROBINS — David Novak was telling a story most of the students in the Westfield Elementary School library Wednesday, April 13, 2011, had heard before: Jack and the Beanstalk.

It just usually doesn’t involve a long loop of yellow string.

Novak, a professional storyteller from Asheville, N.C., held his hands apart forming a web of yellow lines between them in the shape of a long beanstalk as he spoke of Jack and his trip into the clouds. He then looped the string around his ears and let it fall slack against his chest forming an outline of a long beard.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” he bellowed as his audience of first-and second-grade students broke into laughter.

Novak is visiting all the elementary schools in the Linn-Mar school district this week as part of the school’s Stories Alive program, paid for by the Linn-Mar School Foundation and Hills Bank. He frequently travels around the country to tell stories in schools and his work as a storyteller and educator has garnered him national acclaim,

Jack and the Beanstalk is just one story where Novak uses strings as visual aids while he acts out the story, a performance he recently captured in his book “String Figure Jack.” He also uses the shoelaces in his sneakers to tell stories that will help kids remember how to tie their shoes.

Novak said his entry into the field came as a result of not being able to pick just one theatrical role for his career.

“I found that storytelling brought together all my different interests into one package. Now, I’m my own writer, director, performer and designer and I am the author of my works,” he said.

Equally important as the creative aspect for Novak is the opportunity to educate using the arts. Novak believes that the actual verbal telling of stories is an important part of any child’s upbringing.

“Stories have historically given growing children the ability to perceive pattern and shape in the world and events around them,” he said.

The school feels the same way as Linn-Mar’s Stories Alive program is now in its 20th year, according to foundation president Shelley Woods.

Whether they realized that they were learning patterns or not, the students received Novak’s act with enthusiasm. Jake Nickel, 7, said the Jack and the Beanstalk part was his favorite, and that he had only previously heard the story on a computer.

Hannah Graland, 7, preferred a story Novak told about a sinking ship where he folded a newspaper into a cutout of a life preserver.

“He did a really good job, it was very funny,” Graland said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Origins of Writing

I always enjoyed watching the ibis in Florida poking about in the mud flats. It makes perfect sense to me that the Egyptians chose the ibis for the god, Thoth, who invented writing. Ibis mark mud flats in a way very similar to the earliest examples of writing we have: cunieform. That suggests to me that reading as a behavior for attending to the world around precedes the concept of writing as a behavior for recording narrative. For example, a hunter "reads" signs such as animal tracks. We "read" the sky for a sense of the weather, and so on. That the Egyptian god, Thoth, Ibis-headed, invents writing may come from close observation of ibis and the marks left behind after the ibis passes through.

Sumerian cunieform writing results from pressing wedges of reeds into soft clay.


I love this animated talk by Jeremy Rifkin on empathy. This directly relates to the experience of hearing someone tell you a story. The mirror neurons fire in the listener and create the virtual experience. All engenders empathy.

Storytelling & Virtual Reality

I have long maintained that "Storytelling is the Original Virtual Reality." Now science supports my statement. Listen UP! NPR "Reading Creates 'Simulations' In Minds"
"A study provides new insights about what's going on in your head when you crack open a good book."

Story Light

I like the expression "storytropic" Dan Yashinsky uses in his book "Suddenly They Heard Footsteps." He writes a number of times about firesides and firelight, and asks "what do we an age when the story fire is almost extinguished..?"
In his introduction to the Pantheon collection of Grimms Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes: "The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages. And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation. Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumination. Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened."
The prolongation of light has pushed back the shadows of the hearth where, once upon a time, stories were told. Furthermore, the prolongation of light has weakened the "rhythm that gave them meaning." That rhythm, simply stated, is the time for light, the time for dark, the time for work and the time to tell stories.
I thought it fitting that in one of the recent James Bond movies, the villain was a man who could not sleep and who wanted to shower the world (via a satellite orbiting the planet) with sunlight 24/7! Shakespeare's famous villain, Macbeth, commits his first crime and hears a voice "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!"


Sitting in my little cabin at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, I enjoyed the dramatic thuderstorms of the past week. As I read through a collecton of American poets, I came across this piece by Conrad Aiken. I think it exemplifies the idea we've been discussing about using a specific image to conjure a mood and larger pictures:

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.