In search of a storytelling ‘grid’ | part VI | Witness (listener)

By Limor Shiponi

Before starting to deconstruct parts of the dynamic storytelling act and mapping story-work traits with the help of story practitioners, there is one more issue I believe we need to look at on the meta-level and that is the part of the witness – more often related to as listener and audience. It is important to remember the storyteller is a witness too. Yes, we can experience ourselves from outside while being fully engaged in the telling (but we need at least one witness besides ourselves for that…).

Why do I call this part ‘witness’? Because it’s not only about listening and not only about listening to the plot; the witness is there to validate the existence of a story which happens only inside them. If they are not there, we wouldn’t know.

The five witnessing spaces (I’m not sure about the word spaces yet)

#1 I witness the events of the story

#2 I witness the ways the events of the story influence me

#3 I witness what is happening around me – the room, the people, the time, events happening in the background

#4 I witness the ways in which what is happening around is influencing me

#5 I witness my inner self, my existence

The accumulation of weak measurements – experience based knowledge

I didn’t find the old box I once had with cogwheels and pencils to draw spirals. Did you have one of those? What captivated me about that activity was the way certain lines became closer. If I continued to rotate the cogwheel with the pencil over the finalized spiral again and again, those parts became so dense the entire spiral became sealed; you couldn’t tell the lines from each other anymore.

I did this with an iPhone app called ‘Roto Doodle’. Look at how the ‘experienced’ doodle is more present than the ‘beginner’.

That’s the way I see the accumulation of practical knowledge in storytelling both for tellers and listeners (messengers and witnesses). This knowledge cannot be fully acquired through learning about it – you need the mental, emotional and somatic experience.

Some time ago I saw a program about experienced firefighters being able to predict a sudden shift in a fire event, calling their people to move out before catastrophe strikes. The interviewer asked the firefighter “how did you know this was going to happen?” the firefighter witnessed the existence of accumulated experience that creates practical wisdom – if you’ve seen certain ‘symptoms’ connected to certain outcomes enough times you’re not guessing anymore really. You already know what will most likely happen although it might not. On the other hand – you couldn’t know about it getting the explanation from a firefighter – you would have to actually be there again and again.

So as it seems, everybody is very busy when storytelling takes place. Reading notions about storytelling being a ‘passive’ platform I find them rather ridiculous. BTW, the story-text is busy too – changing.

11 thoughts on “In search of a storytelling ‘grid’ | part VI | Witness (listener)”

  1. Somewhere in the Witness process.

    “I (actively or unconsciously or both) witness the agendas and experiences that I bring to this moment.”

    No storytelling experience is created in a vacuum of that singular experience.


  2. OK — I really like your image & experience of the cogwheel. I agree that the knowledge about storytelling cannot be fully acquired through learning about it – you need the mental, emotional and somatic experience.

    Regarding the witness — I do see it as a 3rd element — that of the storyteller, listener, and then the witness. This brings it out of a 2-dimensional dialectic to a 3-dimensional experience. Witnessing doesn’t always happen, though — a lot depends on the party’s ability to be reflective in the moment I think.

    1. The witness here is what people refer to as listener and in a storytelling event the listener whether in the ‘audience’ or the teller herself HAS to witness. It just won’t work if they don’t. Their witnessing is the only thing that validates the existence of a story. The story-text happens on the outside but without the witness our art does not exist and therefore story cannot take place. If I’m not mistaken you are referring to ‘witness’ in the sense of ‘standing witness’ that implies some form of ‘taking stand’ or being open to play that role?

      1. >The story-text happens on the outside but without the witness our art does not exist and therefore story cannot take place.>

        Absolutely – that’s it, back to reciprocity and co-creation.

        Beginning to get interested (he said, shooting off on another track) why something that seems so obvious, so fundamental to storytellers can be so opaque to others…yes, it’s about texts and the financially convenient things you can do with them (as you’ve said elsewhere), but I’m wondering if there isn’t something more fundamental going on? Something to do with intentions, and how many directions you’re looking in at once?

        1. Well, I too am curious why things that look so fundamental to storytellers seem to turn into “revelations” with others…. and they run around with those shiny objects trying to sell them to people who have them anyway, which actually purchase them… there is something we are not getting here Allan 🙂

          1. Apart from the due credit, you mean ? 🙂

            Joking apart, there is something real here, I think – not sure how relevent it is to the present discussion – thinking back to when I started seriously working as an oral performer, I remember that for a time there was a revalatory/mystical element to how I thought about it.

            Being English and thus somewhat reserved I struggled with this for a while, and didn’t really talk about it at much at the time with my colleagues – it was something of an ‘elephant in the room’ though, and I think we all had a sense that it was there, even as we chose to (largely) ignore it.

            What I’m getting at here is that perhaps it’s a common stage on one’s journey of exploration across the landscape of story…

            Or perhaps it’s just cynical swine of all stripes leaping on something real that they can package and profit from for their own benefit…

            More probably a bit of both, I suspect 🙂

  3. More candidates for witnessing spaces:

    – I witness the ways in which stories connect to other stories
    – I witness the ways in which some stories must be told and some must NOT be told
    – I witness the “story of the story” – how it changes over time, how it moves through society
    – I witness the ways in which the storytelling influences behaviour (of those who heard it and told it) afterward
    – I witness the way in which the story changes AS it is being told through signals that pass between teller and audience and back and forth
    – I witness the ways in the story reveals contradictions and conflicts in the self-descriptions (identities) of tellers and listeners

    I could EASILY come up with a hundred of these, which is not surprising as most of my work is in this area 🙂

    1. This is great and it’s great because it describes parts of your ‘doings’ in relation to a reference point (witness). While reading I could hear the voices of two children sitting in a sandbox and discussing the ways they create mud pies. It’s REAL.

      The second thing that came up was the notion that some of the ‘doings’ mentioned here are augmentations of storytelling traits and some are about the meta-experience. So I’m starting to think this:

      In order to perform what story practitioners call storytelling applications, they augment certain traits that exist in the storytelling domain that best serve the work they wish to execute in other practices.

      In order to perform what storytellers call storytelling, they need to balance all the traits that exist in the storytelling domain.

      In order to perform what storytellers call storytelling applications, they augment certain traits that exist in the storytelling domain that best serve the work they wish to execute in storytelling.

      Does that make sense?

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