Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sweet is the Silence

I just spent a few lovely winter days with the students at Moorestown Friends School. MFS is a Quaker school and, as such, appreciates the beauty of silence. The 200+ yr old Meeting House is a deep well of silence, and according to their custom, each of my programs began with a moment of silence. The gentle strength of the silence that follows the scurrying and noise of a full room is enchanting.

I am reminded what Jean Louis Barrault wrote in his autobiography, Memories For Tomorrow, that "the greatest moments of drama happen in silence."

In storytelling, silence is dynamic. The creation and quality of a silence is determined by the qualities of the sounds that precede it. A large sounds yields a large silence. 

Additionally, silence finds its corollary in stillness. 

Stillness is to silence what movement is to sound. They are the dual forces that sculpt experience. A partial silence might occur if I stop talking but keep walking. Likewise a partial sound exists if I stop walking but keep talking. Mix them and match them to conjure silences. Raise the volume, increase the action, then abruptly stop sound and action. What follows? Resounding silence.

Enter the silence like diving into the depths of a clear pool.
Drift there a moment.
Feel the surrounding universe.

Sillence is where we fully enter the feelings of a moment. No matter how emotional my story may be, if I am still talking, the brain is still working. The  words are demanding thought and intellect. If I want you to feel fully a moment in my story, I must stop talking altogether.

I must stop moving as well, so that the seeing eye is not distracted.

Then we dive out of the head and into the heart.

I often judge the quality of the storytelling experience by the quality of the silences we achieve together. I listen for those moments when, out of the action, out of the words, we achieve still and silent communion.

Thank you Moorestown students for sharing that communion with me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Spherical Storytelling

Imagine a sphere, a bubble. Imagine you are inside this bubble, arms and legs extended in a 4-point star. The bubble is clear and you are free moving on all axis lines: forward and back, left and right, and so on. Your turning form defines the sphere you inhabit. You can look out from your bubble in every direction.

Now imagine your bubble is in a story. Let's select a story from Western Culture that many people know: Hansel and Gretel. Imagine you are in the humble home of our main characters. You turn about in your bubble to survey the scene:

A gaunt man slumps in his seat at a rough hewn table. He  stares at his hands. His hands are hard and cracked. His palm shines with a fallen tear.

Turrn again and see a woman standing across the room, looking out a cracked window onto a frozen woodland. Her face is drawn, her eyes are fierce with fear. She thinks, as does he, "how did it come to this?"

Turn again and see a far wall. A boy lies next to his little sister on a narrow palette. Her feet are beside his head, her head at his feet. He looks at her sleeping calmly. He surveys her clear brow, long lashes, red cheeks. He is afraid. Something is wrong. Trouble is coming.

From your position in the center of the scene, you can experience the surrounding landscape of the story: the dim house, the chill wind rattling outside, the smoke-tinged air. You can look as well into the hearts and the minds of the characters; into the wide world stretching out in every direction from your pivot point; into the past events and histories of those now gathered for the scene. You are the omniscient narrator.

To tell the story from here, you must move your bubble along a line; listing details, sequencing events, and composing images. Your bubble begins moving along a story line. Story lines move across the topography of the story world, like water flowing from the mountains to the sea. But what creates that topography?

Let's sink our bubble deeper into the world of the story, to the story's core. We are not in any scene. Instead, we are beneath the scene, beneath all possible scenes. From the story's core we can look out in any direction along radial lines that will lead to the emergence of scenes and the opening of pathways. As we look out from our bubble, we see considerations of story development. What are the motive forces pushing the story to the surface? Along one line we see the complex layers of jealousy, greed, and fear urging a mother to wickedness. Along another line we see the forces of apathy and indolence reducing a father to desperation. Along another line we see naive childhood selfishness awakening to disillusionment. The story's core is the realm of emotions, intentions, issues, urgings, fears, hopes, and longings that manifest the surface details of the story. Along the line of the wicked mother, we compose a scene of entrapment and control, a weak father and helpless children. Along the line of fecklessness, we watch a man fail to stand for his family and slide into immorality. Along the line of naive thoughtlessness, we find a scene of entitled children, taking what they want, unaware of others. Each of these lines reach the surface and inform the topography across which you delineate your story. They inform the mood, the season, the color, the sensation, the depiction of character and the character of the action. 

A story is more than its text. A storyteller goes deep into the story's core, finds a line of development and from it describes the world and lines of the telling experience that yield a text, a "textile," a sinuous thread which is this particular iteration of the story.

At the core of the story world we are at the juncture of all stories. We stand where many lines converge. That deep place is, paradoxically, here and now in the moment before telling, before weaving the text. We face the place we have entered: the room, the people, the season, the  circumstance, and from them find lines-of-relationship that inform the path we will follow as we emerge into the story world and find the story line.

Like a spherical railway roundhouse, the storytelling place, the place where teller and listener meet, is at the intersection of possibilities. Look out and see who is there, what is happening, and why you are gathered, then enlarge your bubble to embrace them all and begin the journey.