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.


  1. I am and have always been a “relishing reader.” Whether reading fiction or non-fiction, my mind identifies connections in my own life and readings. Then, in a flash, I can be off on a tangent.

    Whether telling a fictional story or describing your own observations, I truly appreciate your style in writings and oral storytelling. Always delightful and frequently challenging.

    I’m curious about your conjecture that men are most often oral storytellers, while women relate stories through written form. Do you find that this is true in all cultures? Or is it principally found in current western culture?

    Maybe women have been distracted from playfulness due to the demands of work and parenting. Maybe men have been prevented from soulful connection with their children as a result of societal norms of ‘manly’ responsibilities.

    You have an incredible sensitivity to the inner lives of your children, more so than many men in our society — or, at least those in our generation. My husband is similarly inclined to tenderness and whimsy with our sons. It is a gift, and an especially important one from their fathers.

    The play you wrote with Jack is beautiful and its message of resilience is so important. I hope that it finds a worthy venue for production and I’ll continue to look for that opportunity.

    1. My conjecture is that fathers tend to invent, whereas mothers tend to recite. Non-scientific, but informed by some interesting anthropology observing the dominance of male speakers in oral traditional cultures and the skill of 'good talking' as means to diffuse male aggression. A modern example might be a rap battle. Studies of women in conversation suggest an emphasis on social and emotional connection. Men tend to learn conversational display behaviors, a means of posturing and establishing rank. Notice the way a group of boys convene, with each taking his turn at a joke, an insult, or an attention-getting behavior. Girls, on the other hand tend to resist and often discourage "showmanship." [For good reads on this, look at “Why We Don't Talk To Each Other Anymore: The Devoicing of Society” by John L. Locke, 1998. and "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" by Deborah Tannen,1990]
      So it is my guess that men inventing stories may be a habit of traditional (okay, 'hetero-normative') social roles.
      Just a guess, of course. But I think there is something here worth considering. Especially for women emerging on the public political stage historically dominated by men. I suspect that we will see verbal style conflicts as the balance shifts. At some point we may reach a critical mass (more women than men) that brings about a different kind of public discourse. It is interesting to notice how Nancy Pelosi handles the verbal fencing match with Trump.