Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Of Mice and Elephants

Many of my peers in the storytelling revival years of 1979-99 will remember the growth of storytelling publishing, evolving from self-published books and audio - first vinyl records, then cassettes - garnering the interests of larger media companies. At one point Disney, in the Eisner years, flirted with Jonesborough as a model for theme-park development, inspiring part of the Disney Institute model. Before that, though, came Rabbit Ears Audio, a "storytelling" audio and book publishing venture that featured big name celebrities reading books for the benefit of our nation's children. The celebrities were crashing our party. Never mind if they could tell a story well, they were screen personalities who could do a decent dramatic read-aloud and command the attention of millions. We rebel storytellers, always a marginalized bunch, stood on the sidelines and felt our thunder stolen.
Or maybe it was just me.
At some point along my path I realized that I had a choice of two business models: the elephant or the mouse. The elephant is the big corporation, big publishing, the media machine, the industry. What it wants, it gets. When it does something, it does so in a very big way. The elephant consumes great swaths of resources and dominates the attention of any audience it seeks to command, and devours whole forests of the economy. The mouse, on the other hand, is the little guy, scampering about between the elephant's feet, trying not to be squished. Mice are not elephants. Mice cannot conquer and control the kinds of territory an elephant can.
But elephants are traditionally afraid of mice. Why? Elephants are slow to move and slow to change. They need large quantities of energy to survive. Mice are quick and fit easily into small spaces. Mice can survive on very meager resources. Mice can do things in small ways that elephants are incapable of.
So when I had an idea for a project, I had to ask myself: is this an elephant thing or a mouse thing? Yes, it would be great to create a nation-wide program for connecting schools and young children with living, breathing storytellers. Yes, it would be a valuable resource to publish a cross-indexed library of storyteller recordings (call it the U.S.A., the United Storytelling Artists) and establish listening centers in every classroom and public library. Yes it would. But... those are elephant dreams.
With the growing interest of big media, I thought naively that if I could become a published recording storyteller and author, I could extend my reach, enlarge my impact, and create a new artistic ecosystem for storytelling. So when I was invited to contribute my recorded work to a publishing house for national distribution, I thought I was on the way to the big dream.
But I discovered that the royalty I received was much less than my self-published efforts, despite the broader distribution. (I still get royalty checks in the absurd amounts of 35-50¢.) I discovered that I became a sales representative for my publisher and was expected to promote the entire catalogue. I discovered that my self-published media, sold at live performances, offered a better cost/benefit ratio. My small (mouse) runs of recordings, while costing more to produce in small batches, were more profitable. I was a mouse.
So I used the elephant/mouse metric to help me decide which dream was worth attempting. I chose to be a mouse, so that I could also be a father, and a husband, a human being, and an artist. I decided that I could get by on enough rather than a lot. I was a gig artist. And gigs were real, present, and cost-effective. I could earn what I needed to earn because the overhead was low, the entanglements were few and the rewards were human and immediate.
Then along came the internet and, with it, the internet "platform." Self-publishing was a media revolution. Publishing was so easy, everyone could do it. The field was overrun with mice. Meanwhile, the elephants took control of the territory. The elephants owned the platforms and learned that they could turn a profit by running mice across their stages for the mere remuneration of "exposure." So the fields of media were feeding elephants more than mice.
But that was okay, because we mice could still be present in ways that elephants cannot. Yes, a producer can create a high-production-value product featuring a Hollywood celebrity, a household name, but they still cannot be present. No amount of virtual reality, online streaming, youtubing, insta-gramming, snap-chatting, could take the place of the truly present person.
So I committed to the idea of being present. I sit on the floor with the preschoolers; I stand in the room with the creative team; I look in the eyes of my audience.  I practice the art of being there.
Then the pandemic delivered that last real platform to the elephants. And now we are scampering across the big platforms, offering our little art from our little lives and in little voices screaming, like Jojo, 'we are here! We are here!'
Now the storyteller mice must yield to the celebrity readers: the Imagination Library, the @Save With Stories, and so on.
In the first days of isolation and loss due to the pandemic, I posted stories and I volunteered my art online to the artist rosters in various school districts and to all the schools I have worked with in the past year. The silence is deafening. This mouse art does not compete with the online net-o-sphere, the media-land of celebrity, brand, and business.
So this mouse is changing. Don't know how, don't know when, but the cheese has moved and the mouse must follow.
Here's a thought from Agnes Demille:
"Science has got us doing cartwheels in space. We have reached the moon. Can we reach the face across the kitchen table? Over the back fence? Across the railroad tracks? Have we ever thought to explore the universe in the seat beside us? Or the constellations locked inside our own skulls? We are in orbit all right. Alone, like no astronaut ever was. Calling out all our lives. 'This is my name! This is my name! Who are you? Speak!'


  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Your insights help shape my deliberations as I ponder my own path through the world of Storytelling.

  2. What a beautiful and important voice to where we are now, where you are now and what are our potentials now? Where and what skills to we bring forward, asks this full moon. Bring it out, open it up, explore, create, design the new world rising!! Thank you!

  3. I wish you success and good fortune. Thanks for this piece. It doesn’t change my circumstances, but it does help me make sense of what I’m seeing happen within my community of peers.

  4. David, This piece you wrote brings into foreground the dilemma you are facing (and you speak for others). Your gifts of expression show through well. As for mouse dreams, I'm drawn to encouraging a period of Deep Dreaming. We don't know what will surface, but I feel it strongly, brother. BTW, This platform has my email as gmail, but I prefer royreyn@bellsouth.net for now. BTW, We now live in KY near the annual Cave Run Storytelling Fall Festival. Your friend, Roy

  5. David, such insight! It is possible to be an elephant that is wise and compassionate. I wonder if there is a way for the mice to join forces to create a joint platform that spans the globe through the internet. It isn’t the same as f2f, but it can lead to it.

  6. David - I have always admired your ability to share the spoken word with such depth and emotion, but I also see that in this piece of writing. You describe so well what many storytellers throughout history and the world have felt, or feel. But never forget, the spoken word through the mouth of the storyteller has a history of being the most important venue for history itself. Keep using your creativity as you do so well; all storytellers will somehow come out of this as the ones recording this pandemic for history.

  7. Excellent read, David. I have the luxury of a day job (faculty, IU School of Medicine) which income-wise has been unaffected by this pandemic, so with my storytelling I am going to sit it out until we can "practice the art of being there." My heart breaks for all you full-time performers whose livelihood has been snatched away by a packet of RNA measured in Angstroms, and I mourn the immeasurable loss to all of us now deprived of that most basic human need - to gather in story and song. But we WILL gather again! Stay strong, safe & healthy. - David Matlack