Monday, January 28, 2019

Telling Possibility

Telling stories is a practice in exploring possibilities. Each new story is a new scenario, a new series of choices, of causes and effects.

I had been telling old stories, and in the process discovering new ones, for several years before I became a true storyteller. The heart of storytelling did not bloom in me until just the right combination of life experiences came together. Working with educators and students to explore aesthetic literacy, my awareness grew concerning my techniques, my intentions, my skills and how I employ them. Public venues where I had a returning audience gave me incentive to invent, teaching me how to converse in my art. But the most impacting, passionate experience that affected my becoming a true storyteller came with the birth of my son, Jack.

Here came the ancient bond between father and son, between past and future. As I entered the world of caring for my child and partnering with his mother, a new sense of story began to grow. No longer was the telling of stories an instructional behavior, an entertainment, or a creative whimsy. Now it was an act of love. I learned that sharing stories with my son was a kind of caress, an exchange of emotional and intellectual energies, a mutual exploration of the possibilities of self, other, and world. My stories were prompted by my wonder as to who this child might become and how he might relate to the open and surprising world before him. Who might Jack be? Our son was named for his grandfathers on either side: John, for my father; Cabell, for his mother's father, and "Jack" for himself. We knew that in his name would be inheritance and individuality, a past and a future. 

In my own childhood, my father did not invent or tell stories. Rather, my mother was the bedtime story keeper, reading me down the yellow brick road or through the hundred acre woods. This isn't to suggest that I thought any less of my father; it was just not the culture of our household. Yet, as I traveled telling stories, I discovered that in many families, mothers were the story readers, while fathers were the story inventors. This is not a hard and fast rule, and certainly my observations were not conducted in a statistically valid manner. Still, the habit of fathers to invent and mothers to read seems consonant with traditional gender roles related to oral culture. Men top each other with confabulations about the hunt, the deal, and the fish that got away. It is a kind of verbal display behavior. So the father inventing stories is fluffing his verbal plumage while instilling in his child an acuity for wit with words. The mother, likewise, is the keeper of cultural norms and mores, which are more effectively passed on through traditional stories, which in the modern world are carried in literature. It is significant that the literary tales my mother read to me were often the result of a father's confabulation for his son: Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in The Willows for his son, Alastair; A.A. Milne wrote for his Christopher Robin and so on. The House at Pooh Corner, like its kindred, was from the golden age of children's literature, carrying the same loving spirit between father and son that I was to discover.

As a storyteller, I knew well that "Jack" is a fellow of legend. He is variously "Jack-the-Giant-Killer," "Jack-the-Fool," "Jack-the-Trickster," and "Jack-the-Hero." As my Jack came to the age for bedtime stories, I drew on the folkloric "Jack-who-seeks-his-Fortune." I took a few ideas from the old stories to get me started. From there, I followed my heart. I sensed that the Jack of my tales was an open and eager traveler, naive of the world but willing to discover, with an innate wit for handling problems. Oftentimes, the protagonists in stories are expected to be flawed and to push through ordeals that teach and challenge them. To some extent this was the case in our Jack Tales. But this Jack is another kind of hero; the kind that always enchanted me as a child and inspired my dreams: the good-hearted wanderer. The hero that most impressed me as a child was the young Dorothy Gale of Frank L. Baum's OZ adventures. I loved the sense that there is a world of strange and magical people to be found along a winding yellow brick road. The hero of that world might be thrown into trouble, but rarely did she cause it. She made friends easily and together they faced their situation with cleverness and sagacity. The world-wandering hero did not start with Dorothy, of course. Frank Baum was well versed in the classics, and their influence runs throughout his work.

I, too, took inspiration from the classics. The other formative fiction of my childhood was Padraic Colum's Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles (1922.) This one I read to myself, without the aide of bedtime readers. Reading along with Jason, I discovered that I could pace myself to suit myself. In school, teachers worried because I was a slow reader. In truth, I was a relishing reader. I wanted to savor and enjoy every story, taking the time between chapters to daydream about the world of the tale. Such slow reading put me in the low reading group at school, but served to marinate me in the stories I read. I traveled step-by-step, inch-by-inch, with my wandering heroes.

Lying in bed at night alongside my young Jack, I let the old stories inform me as I conjured new ones. The first of these was the old story of Soldier Jack, in which Jack offers mysterious strangers his food and is rewarded with magic gifts: the looky glass and the whickety-whack sack. In our story, I think of the mysterious stranger as the old Jack, offering this new one a bit of story magic.
On down the road we went together, father, son, and Story Jack, never knowing where our wandering would lead, but ready for discovery. 

The manner of our bedtime storytelling was always more folksy than literate. By that, I mean that the stories had a kind of simple alacrity that characterizes the spoken tale. Occasionally, we might indulge in a descriptive passage or two, but rarely did we enter the realm of novelist, exploring the interior landscape, or myriad points of view. Though, at times, I could not resist the opportunity to philosophize. So it was with the Jack stories. They have the voice of the folk teller, because they were the stories that gave the folk teller his voice.  

These were always bedtime stories. As such they were designed to set the stage for sleep. But in that sleep, what dreams may come? I wanted to create a world for wandering in, with curious challenges, but not too many demons. The time of sleeping and dreaming is often a time of facing trouble and anxiety. It is not uncommon for bedtime storytellers to terrify their listeners. I think of James Whitcomb Riley's Little Orphant Annie: 'the gobble-uns'll git you ef you don't watch out!' 

I know we cannot predetermine our dreams, but we can feed the dream-bound mind with a kind of story nutrient of images, ideas, and feelings. That nutrient of story, I hoped, would help my son's soul grow strong and resilient. So I rounded every story with sleep. Each beginning, "Jack woke up..." and each ending, "Jack fell off to sleep..." The device allowed me a brief recap at the beginning of the tale as Jack would awaken and recall the previous day's adventure, and a review of the current story at the finish as he would relax into sleep mulling over the day's experience. What happened after that was entirely the province of my son's inner life.

On occasion, my son would fall off to sleep while I would be too involved with the convolutions of the unraveling tale to notice, requiring me to synopsize events the following night. Sometimes, Jack would ask me to retell a tale I no longer remembered, which would require him to guide me through the reconstruction of the lost episode. The stories took on a life of their own, insisting to be told, like the magic cooking pot that freely produces food at the command 'cook, pot, cook!' I found myself "cooking" stories throughout the day. This became a kind of mindfulness wherein I remained connected to my Jack by dwelling in the possibility of Story Jack’s next adventure. 

A few years ago, my Jack, now an adult, came to me with a proposal. He asked if I would collaborate on a play about a father telling stories to his son, based on the stories I created for him. He gave me the greatest gift I could ask for as a father when he told me those stories had a profound influence upon him as a child, helping him happily imagine his future, giving him a storied self as a guide. 

I gladly accepted his invitation and entered the new possibilities of our collaboration. For telling stories is an exercise in actively imagining possibilities. When we tell stories together, we find what is possible together.

Jack and I wrote many scenes, never sure where the writing would lead us. Like the Jack of the stories, we wandered openly. We hoped we might create a serial for the stage, or broadcast in some other medium, allowing us the chance for a living work if art: an ongoing theatre piece in which new stories were constantly added, as old stories entered into rotating repertory. That is still my dream. Eventually, however, we decided that the only way we would get our stories to the stage was with a self-contained, single script. The result was Journeying Jack. In 2015 Asheville Creative Arts gave the play a workshop staging as part of their Incubator series. Then in 2016 the play received the Aurand Harris Memorial Playwrighting Award from New England Theatre Conference. To date, the play has not had a full staging. It remains my vision to see the serial treatment find a home on stage.
So we remain on the road of possibilities.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Waiting For Recess

Thirty years ago last week, a man opened fire on the playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.
Two months later, I made my first festival appearance at The Mariposa Storytelling Festival.
The news cycled had finished with the Cleveland story. People were saying that it was over and now it was time to move on.
As a storyteller, I could not accept that dismissal. The story was not over. Sadly, the story is not over.
I created a story in response and shared it in Mariposa.
Here it is from thirty years ago:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

From Dream to Woke

Certainty is the bane of possibility. If we can admit that we do not know how deeply injustice informs our world-view, we may become unsure enough to allow for a new world-view to wake. On this MLK weekend, I take heart from signs of waking all around us. As we learn about those that have been left out from our official history, as we uncover injustice in the halls of power, as we reveal the racist implicatures embedded in our language and habits, we begin to unravel the dominant narrative making possible a new story. That is appropriate for the season. It is winter in America: the old stories are decomposing, allowing for the possibility of spring.

Here is a story re-posted from 8 years ago:

Color Town
I shared this story on opening night of the 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....

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


So, while tucking Jordan (10) into bed one night recently, he complained that the tag on his pajamas was irritating. I made the comparison to Andersen's story of The Princess and The Pea. As I hoped, Jordan asked me to tell him that story. I began, but was cut short quite abruptly by my wife, who demeaned the story and did not wish to hear it. I gave Jordan a quick synopsis to explain my literary allusion and then, at his request, launched into another story: The Fisherman and His Wife.

The next morning, my wife explained that she detested the story of The Princess and The Pea because it objectifies women. Fair enough. But after revisiting the original, to be certain I recalled it correctly, I find a curious situation: the story itself defines a princess as someone with sensitivity; the objection to the story demonstrates sensitivity. Hmmmm.

Look at it this way. The Princess and The Pea is a kind of Cinderella variant (arguably another objectifying fairy tale) in which the "true" princess is concealed by outward appearances. Cinderella is an impoverished, ash-stained, serving girl; the Pea Princess arrives in a storm, bedraggled and mud-stained, and very much presenting as "lower class" so that the Queen Mother instigates her test: placing a pea beneath 20 mattresses.

Andersen claimed to have heard this story as a child, the likely variant coming from Sweden. He clearly takes poetic license in his version and is believed to have identified with the princess in his story. [Andersen felt that he was never fairly recognized by the upper social classes.]

So, yes, in a way, the story objectifies the woman inasmuch as it suggests that a true princess is frail and dainty enough to be discomforted by a tiny annoyance, undetectable by any ordinary person. Yet it could be argued that a "true" princess (or prince for that matter) is very sensitive and therefore capable of compassion, understanding, and ...?

Sensitivity can be both a desired and an undesired trait. My allusion to the story in the moment of my child's complaint could be a criticism suggesting 'you're just too sensitive, like a pampered little prince.' However, it could suggest 'you are a sensitive boy, and that makes you a real prince.'

Of course now I have to consider our conflicted relationship with royalty. The popularity of Cinderella, for example, suggests that everyone feels like unrecognized royalty. There is an innate sense that we are worthy, lurking beneath a sense that we are devalued by the world around us. But if the sense of being royal is contingent on a hierarchy wherein others are considered less than royal, we have a problem.

I rather like Buckminster Fuller's insistence that we make the world work without disadvantaging anyone:

“Make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

This can be hard to swallow if you take a Robin Hood solution to inequality and insist that we take from rich to advantage the poor. Fuller is asking that we do not disadvantage anyone, royalty included. Because, of course, we are all royalty and worthy of a place in society, a place at the table, a roof over our heads, and a mattress free of discomfort. Which, according to Bucky, is entirely achievable today, with the proper, comprehensive anticipatory design thinking.

Yet, if we are to achieve such a world in which these things are made manifest, we will need those currently enjoying the positions of princes and princesses to possess real sensitivity.

Here follows a good discussion with Diane Trautman
She writes: 
"I didn’t recall the story, so I went back to read it.

Yes, women are always being measured by their appearance, so that is objectification. But beyond the story’s moral implication that we shouldn’t assess others by appearance, I see the princess as someone who is sensitive as a result of conditioning. Having been raised in luxury, the smallest deviation is discernible and annoying. Her response identifies her as a member of the privileged class and so worthy of acceptance by her “people.” Someone of lower status may not notice the hard spot and she would be less inclined to complain about it to someone with whom she wished to ingratiate herself.

The princess may, or may not be a kind and compassionate person. I couldn’t tell from the story. It would be nice to think that her sensitivity extends to others.

I think that people are searching for that sense of worthiness, because we are disconnected from their true selves. Thus, we have celebrity worship, the desire to accumulate money and the trappings of it, and the willingness to be led by the wealthy in the hopes of rising to their level.

All of that makes it more difficult for people to focus on cooperative efforts that will improve the lives of everyone. When you believe that life is a zero sum game, you base your survival on your ability to outwit anyone you consider to be a rival. Combine that with wounded egos and pathological behaviors and you have dictators and greedy “royalty” in many spheres of endeavor. How to convince the majority of people and leaders that their ultimate success and survival depends on the betterment of all peoples is a huge challenge.

I guess that leads back to a comment I read about Buckminster Fuller on in a piece by Leila Acaroglu: “Bucky also said, that if you want to change a system, don’t fight the existing forces, design a version that makes the old one obsolete. For me this translates, as designing new normals.”

Maybe creating a new narrative is the best approach for this new year.

Getting back to your response to Jordan, I have no doubt that he is a true reflection of his sensitive, kind and caring parents. However, like many of us, he is more highly responsive to touch or sound or other sensations. Good for him that he is aware enough of his needs to acknowledge that at his age."
My repliy:
"Excellent points, thank you!
I agree that Andersen's princess does seem to be of the privileged class and more concerned with self-comfort than with sensitivity to others.
Your quote from Bucky is one of my favorites. His point that we must create a new version so compelling that the old one is simply abandoned is well demonstrated by current media determinism: invent a smart phone and the world changes its way of doing things overnight. Bucky was a firm believer in the power of technology to lead change. Language and story are cognitive technologies. The storyteller can take a cue from Bucky and discover new narratives that make the old ones obsolete.
Which brings me back to our little princess and her pea. I see the possibility that the 'true' princess reveals herself by virtue of her sensitivity to others, noticing another person's discomfort. I will give that some more consideration.
As for creating a new normal, I think we are already in the midst of conflicting new normals vying for ascendance. Normalizing tolerance and truthfulness v. normalizing intolerance and mendacity. I am encouraged, however, that efforts to rethink self-governance such as in the Occupy Movement, efforts to expose injustice and exploitation as we see in #MeToo and judicial reform, and so on, suggest that America may ultimately gain the sensitivity to stop piling up the soft mattresses and deal with the niggling pea!"
"I believe in the power of technology, but what concerns me is the human capacity to foresee and prevent the misuse of it. As you say, technology has allowed us to share vast amounts of knowledge and engage people in social movements that are changing society at an unprecedented rate. And we can be thankful that green technologies are leading us toward greater sustainability. The downside is that tech industries will abuse their workers and use their products against us if we lack foresight and effective political leaders.

Thus, we need an educated populace to elect and empower leaders who will enact appropriate constraints. And those leaders need vision and the ability to sell that vision. The teachers and storytellers, provide the counterbalance to Fuller’s enduring faith in technology. In addition to creating an informed electorate, they might become leaders themselves or train politicians to develop compelling narratives. (Hmmm. New terrain for storytellers as consultants?)

True, we are in a struggle to establish a new normal. Had we not experienced the unmasking of intolerance, misogyny, hatred, greed and exploitation in 2016, we might have continued to accept the unacceptable niggling pea—especially if it was a greater bother to someone other than us. So cheers to the discomfort that compels us to take action!"
Thank you Diane!