Thursday, June 13, 2013


In this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come— Or for night to fall.” -- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Are you sure of yourself? Ever think I've got this under control, just before blundering badly? In stories, the moment everyone is sure, things go wrong. Curiously, blunders can be blessings. Blundering brought me to storytelling. Thinking I knew what I was doing, I was blind-sided by storytelling. It's a common storyteller's story, a type of “naive epiphany.” It goes like this: “I didn't know I was a storyteller until I did.”

Storytelling is a wayfinding art. Today, we cling to certainty and eschew “hypotheticals.” But storytellers deal in hypotheticals. What do I mean? Hypothetically, we try to find our way by standing, however momentarily, upon narrative suppositions, a.k.a. Stories.

Storytellers are often concerned with analyzing folktales. That is important. But, also, folktales are useful for analyzing experience. Early in my career I got by with stories sure to entertain. Given my training in performance, I could “hit the mark” fairly often. After awhile, I asked: “What do I have to say to these folks here today and why?” Then I set about answering my question one story at a time. Sometimes I blundered badly. But sometimes I found new insights, connections, community, and love. Really, love. How? I'm uncertain. It has something to do with finding my way out and then in. Out of the narrow anomalies of daily life and in to the ocean of story that evolved daily life. What does that mean? It's a forest-for-trees kind of thing. News stories need new stories. Stories of the moment. But daily stories are expressions of a larger Eco-system just as trees are expressions of forest. (I've jumped from oceans to forests, stay with me.) Like tree-huggers we cling to our news stories. That kind of makes sense, you can hug a tree more easily than you can embrace a forest. This is what I think I see in the fixation on “true” personal stories (all “narrative suppositions” IMHO.) Me too. Swinging from moment-to-moment, tree-to-tree, it is easy to think my troubles are mine alone, you wouldn't understand. But down under the trees, we find the vast biome of forest, and earth. And beneath our isolating, first-person troubles, there are collective stories. When I lost my house in the mortgage collapse, I looked down and saw Parsifal. I did not find answers. In fact Parsifal showed that things were about to get much worse before getting better. But “better” was a distinct possibility. When three women escaped that Cincinnati basement, The Giant with No Heart in his Body rumbled beneath me, telling how, needing a surrogate heart, he held a princess in thrall.

So what? This is our function as storytellers. Navigating uncertainty. Telling is our action, and telling means finding out. That's the name of the game and it starts with not knowing. When a speaker addresses me with answers, I have two options: take it or leave it. But when a speaker approaches me with questions, I become involved. We involve our community by posing questions and finding out stories underneath them. The answers, if any, come later. The uncertainty is what calls us. But I don't know...what do you think?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Tangram Effect

"Who are we, who is each of us if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?  Each life is an encyclopedia, ... and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable." –––– Italo Calvino 

Lately, I have become obsessed with tangram puzzles. I think that the challenge to make endless configurations with a limited number of shapes is good training for coping with the uncertainty of the times. The more I work with them, the more clearly I see the inner patterns of various shapes, and the possible ways the smaller shapes fit into the bigger picture. That gives me a powerful metaphor for handling experience: finding the “fit.”

Originally developed in China, a Tangram is a square composed of seven shapes called tans.
The seven pieces can be rearranged to form thousands of shapes. They have long been used in storytelling and I am using the pieces on an overhead projector for some of my preschool stories.
I’ve been playing tangram games with my 4 yr old, Jordan. (There are a number of free tangram apps for the iPhone and iPad. But I also like having the pieces in hand and shifting them across a table-top into various forms.) I notice that he is noticing patterns more frequently now. It may be a simple developmental step - the sort of thing you expect at his age - but it may be the tangram effect. Anyway, the other day, we were playing ball in the backyard, when he announces “One plus one plus one plus one is four.” I agreed, and showed him my four fingers as example. But he pointed behind me to a row of 4 tall pine trees standing in the distance. “See?” He says. “One plus one plus one plus one.” 
This morning, in the kitchen, (we are often in the kitchen circa 7am) he starts counting the rectangles inset in the kitchen cabinets: "One, two, three....” all the way to 12. We spent some time working with the pattern: how many rows? How many in each row? etc.. The tangram effect.
I find the tangram effect in the combinatorics of storytelling. Certain arrangements of short stores can form larger story shapes, entire programs. The same stories can be re-assembled with different elements emphasized for various intentions. Telling stories is a puzzling business. We tease out meanings and possibilities, finding the fit for the story.
Recently, as I was lying in bed, I felt a mild oceanic sense of being a small piece fit into the cosmic shape of the Universe. (An echo of Bucky Fuller here.) It was somewhat thrilling, but also empowering and reassuring. I felt as if the “I” that was thinking was in a much greater position than the mere “I” that was lying in bed. I felt I could incorporate everyone and everything else into my sense of Self. It is an exercise I intend to repeat until, as with  tangrams, I can sense the fit all around me.