The physical element of storytelling, that which is connected to the body, differentiates storytelling from any other story based art-form or work. Our natural limitations bring us closer – where intimacy, truthfulness and kindness can thrive; the more amplification and magnification we add, the more we drift apart – clearing the way for corrections, masking and a need for ownership, a grip.
Every storyteller has tales of the physical in storytelling. I’m sharing two anecdotes I really like because they are both gentle and profound:
M is a storyteller I mentor for quite a while now. She chose to work with very young children who are under the risk of various kinds of abuse. She has the great gift of being able to feel and show love to the most hurting young people. This quality works the other way round too – she feels their pain – and she had to learn how to contain it so she can help them in her gentle ways through storytelling.
One day she called to tell me about what she named “a peculiar experience”. The facility she visited that week would not arrange the room where they were holding the storytelling session in a reasonable way. Furniture was cluttered to the wall, leaving very little space for her and the kids. “I managed to seat them but the space I had left for myself to move in was tiny. I felt trapped – the kids were too close and I couldn’t animate the way I usually do.”
Being very self-aware and listening closely to what was going on inside her, M realized that a couple of minutes down the road the feeling of being trapped will make her loose contact with the kids – she was about to go into a defense state. “And then I thought ‘they are your partners, look at them, what do their bodies show you they need? what can you receive from them to make this work?’ what I received was ‘we need the feeling of life, of movement, but not from your body, it’s too close’ so I moved everything I had by means of movement-intention into my voice, and the situation ‘clicked’. I could continue and so could they. In fact, it was a very magical session.”
The second event happened during a large festival. We were a troop of about fifteen tellers and we told stories in shifts through four days and nights, in a small, round tent. The noise around us was enormous since the festival hosted about 30,000 visitors. We sat in a circle, the audience sat around us in two circles, some of them receiving some of our backs. We were given an amplification system but after a very short while we found out that telling without it, elicited better attention from both tellers and listeners, so we left it aside.
At one point, one of the tellers joining the shift walked in with an impressive tall hat, and sat in the circle on his knees. The telling continued and after a couple of minutes I could see him take the hat off. After a few more he shifted from his knees and met the ground like everybody else in the tent – on his butt. Finally, he was at eye-level, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Only then could he join in and tell a story.
I think these anecdotes are important to share among storytellers. Often I receive hesitant questions from storytellers who go through these “peculiar” physical experiences and it takes them quite a while to decide they want to share the experience with someone – afraid they will be misunderstood or looked at with a bad eye. Nothing wrong, it’s part of what it means to be in storytelling.
It’s pretty odd that scientists are so surprised and puzzled by Göbekli Tepe. If you know anything about mythology, it makes perfect sense that this kind of advanced civilization existed. Must admit I envy storytellers who lived back then; think about the audiences they had and what those audiences pushed the tellers to perform!
David Bowen, I’m sure you’re doing a great job. You seem a serious, thoughtful professional. Nevertheless, your clients and your peers have been trespassing my and my peers’ domain for over three years now. You have the power of ‘hefty editorial budgets’, mega-brands, workforce and distribution. We don’t.
We never intended to, because storytelling has never been about owning the storytelling threefold equilibrium – listener, story, teller. Your work is about creativity – so is ours – the difference is in what the equilibrium is connected to. Yours is eventually – corporate communications. Can you guess what we are looking at as the main reason for perusing our art?
If you ever get to read this post, you might think “what does she want?” I want you to help stop using the word ‘storytelling’ as a synonym to content marketing, MarCom or just solid good corporate communications which seems to be what you are really involved in. Using ‘story’ is fine – although many current applications of this word are abusing its meaning, but using ‘storytelling’? definitely not.
There are several reasons for making such a request:
What you are doing isn’t storytelling, so why use the wrong word? storytelling isn’t a concept or a framework, it’s not that everything goes if you just find a way to reframe it. If it would be only about living in self-deception, I wouldn’t mind. The problem is that all that tech, the big names and resource power facilitating what you call storytelling, are placing many storytellers under the label “traditional” – and not in a respectful way. We are not in the same profession, we’re not your predecessors or competitors. By putting us into the same context, you’re suggesting something wrong which is doing us wrong.
You’re covering storytelling with noise storytellers can’t break through. We’re too small on the web. That means that some storytellers, dependant on the web for marketing their work, are losing business. Considering the miniature size of a storytelling dependant family income, you can guess what that means.
There are several more reasons I could list here, but I’ll jump to the most profound – you can go very wrong these days if you talk about storytelling.
“A site people can’t keep away from”
“We need to expand websites”
“Monitor Journey stories’ popularity like a hawk”
Partner these few quotations with ‘Why storytelling is the ultimate weapon’ (Jonathan Gottschall) and other opportunistic publications and what does it read like to you?
I’m sure you don’t like the re-frame of your quotations. I don’t like the consequences of the above messages – not for real storytellers and certainly not for the soul of humanity.
Some people reading this might think, “she’s telling him it works! why stop?!”
I’ll spell it out anyway – if you’re idea for a great future for your kids includes heavy consumption of technology based branded communications and thrills, where person-to-person storytelling exchanges will seem pale next to a talking robot and they will prefer to touch a screen instead of their kids – you are in the right direction, proceed. I’m not sure you can have kids with a Cola, but who knows? maybe I’m not innovative enough.
Mr. Bowen, please consider, you are in the position to help. From reading your words I reckon you know very well ‘storytelling’ can stay out of corporate communications, content marketing and all the rest, with no damage to the effectiveness of your work whatsoever.
“Where can I see your work, your art?”
This question, innocently asked by an interested person while standing together in G’s atelier, sent me into introspect:
I have nothing to show him.
There is no place I could take him.
There is no permanent display or collection he can experience as my body of work.
I can show him wonders in his imagination.
I can take him around this world and through other world in minutes.
I can tell him any kind of story he might desire, and stories he can’t imagine exist.
But I knew that’s not what he was asking for. He wanted a place to visit and experience for himself without someone in the middle.
“Storytellers don’t have an atelier. In this world, it seems a problem and considering some facets of making it as an artist – it is. But think about it this way – it takes three to storytelling. May I?”
That got him curious enough and smiling. He pulled a chair and there was storytelling.
A month ago we kicked-off another long storytelling course. One of the participants introduced himself as, “I work in marketing and I came to learn how I can use storytelling in marketing”. I smiled.
Four lessons later I ask the guy, “so, can you see how you can use storytelling?” He replied, “I realize storytelling uses me. It doesn’t work the other way round.”
That’s marketing Eureka and a great lesson for marketers who listen.
This long post describes some new realizations I’ve reached lately about the transition from oral to written. If you’re a storyteller, I think it’s worth your while reading. Here’s the story…
Call for adventure
So I get this phone call asking me to arrive to a meeting. They wanted me to lead a storytelling peers group that will “look into the sources of our culture, and transform the ancient literary treasure into an inspiration for current creations”. Judaism, that is. For some reason unknown besides an inner wish to connect to my community, I agreed.
The woman I met was fascinating as was the information about the project she leads. She was fascinating mainly because she spoke fluent “Jewish” although she is secular, and she spoke naturally, painlessly, with no evident identity crisis or inner argument what-so-ever. The magnitude of activities around Judaism and Jewish-Israeli culture under her devoted supervision is impressive, even before considering most residents of that area in Israel are totally, religiously – secular. Again, I agreed.
On my way home, it hit me. “Me?! Judaism?! leading a peers group?!” I grew up far away from religious life, I have my self-earned-by-curiosity knowledge, but this called for much more. So I kicked into my automatic response, reserved for these situations: “I need to learn everything there is to know”, I thought. Sure… it took me two hours to realize others have devoted lifetimes to get close to understand tiny particles of Judaism. I had to ditch my ambition, perform a little farewell-to-that-crazy-aspiration ceremony and find a different way to approach the matter. After all, they didn’t call me for something I don’t know. But what was it that I did?
After two days of reading from the Talmud, from the Bible, reading different scholars and God knows what else, I found the entrance. In very short, and if you’re Jewish please forgive me for the huge leaps and generalizations I’m going to make so I can move to the point of this post:
Jews are often referred to as the “people of the book”. Truth is, we are the people of many books. The knowledge accumulated in Judaism is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. There is so much of it and it is so highly regarded that you could think all we should do, is sit and learn all day. Many of us actually do exactly that.
The learning though, isn’t only about accumulating knowledge. It’s mainly about trying to understand things, figure out. Reaching understanding isn’t the final destination either. From what it seems, there is no final destination; it’s a never ending path of improvement, healing, repairing, transforming. There is also a lot of love involved. I think the “Coolest” definition for the spirit of the Jewish people I’ve ever read, is by our president Shimon Peres:
“The greatest contribution of the Jewish people in history, is dissatisfaction.”
We are a polemic clan. It keeps the mind sharp way more than books. We argue about everything, we argue with God too, and I’m not referring necessarily to debate – we argue. This argumentative nature makes us a very oral people. Orality is considered powerful in Judaism, starting with:
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Gen 1:3
Parallel to the written scriptures, books and law (Halakha) there is an oral Torah. Although a lot of it was written down through the ages, it’s actually fluid, living material. Part of it is what’s called “Agada” meaning – legend.
Halakha and Agada (law and legend) are supposed to be combined in learning, but through the years, the focus shifted in favor of Halakha. Quite similar to focus shifting in favor of law and science over art. One of the reasons has to do with methodology – the methodology for studying Halakha is pretty clear (although we can always argue about that too), but for teaching Agada – there is no clear methodology – unless you are a storyteller curious about figuring out a storytelling methodology… I found my way into the possibility of leading the peers group!
Looking at the world from an oral point of view
From that moment, everything about my new Jewish adventure is treated from a storytelling point of view. It helps knock down barriers, connect dots that seemed disconnected for a long time, and brings new ideas into old discussions (arguments really).
Two weeks ago I participated in a Hevruta (partnership in learning) looking at a tiny segment from the Talmud, dealing with language:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.
Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 21b
Say what?! leaving out the human characters in the story, here’s an explanation:
Originally, the Torah was given to Israel (the people) in Hebrew characters and language.
Later, when the people returned from the first Babylonian exile it was given to them (again), in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language (which was Lingua Franca, the bridging language of that time. Like English in today’s world).
Finally, they (the leaders) selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language (a new combination), leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the Samaritans (Cutheans, those from Cuthea). Hebrew characters are The libuna’ah script.
This was where I got really curious. I wanted to know what that script looks like and I was wondering about the alternate use of “characters” and “script”. Here is the script used by the Samaritans until today (libuna’ah) -
The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw these signs was – Runes. I have a set of them at home. People like buying runes just like we like buying Tarot cards, but you can’t do much with them if you don’t know the meanings behind each symbol or card, and how to combine those meanings for various purposes and requests.
Was The libuna’ah script the Jewish version for runes? not exactly. It’s a script, so are runes, but runes are also symbols that can be treated separately or in various combinations that don’t make up a word. The text did give me a hint though – originally the Torah was given in Hebrew characters – not necessarily script.
So I collected some small stones and made myself a set of JRunes to play with. I studied the meanings of each symbol until I got fluent in “reading” combinations. The more I played with it, the more I realized this was about orality – there are no set texts in reading symbols. The reading is done on the spot upon request. You ask something and you get a direction for finding the answer, you understand more about the dynamics around your request.
Pulling it all together
There is a word in Hebrew which appears in several known stories as written on a piece of parchment. Sometimes it falls from the sky interpreted by many as an answer given by God. In other cases, a great Rabbi wrote the word and used the parchment for some powerful deed – like in the story “The Golem of Prague”.
It means “truth” and is considered the word of God. But, what if it isn’t a word? what if it’s a combination of characters which in JRunish would look like this
If you lived way back then, when those characters where the only symbols used and from your point of view there was nothing else, would your experience about the parchment be the same as with the symbols? I don’t think so.
Something happened in Jewish culture between the first and second temple periods. From being a people of prophecy, nature, poetry, war and love, we’ve transitioned into being a people of wisdom. Claiming we’ve lost all those vivid expressions of life would be far from the truth, but we did lose some in favor of systematic knowledge, sophistication and law. It helped us excel in the mind but it also created a split from nature, myth, the physical, the deep feminine.
So it seems that knowing how to work with Agada, can help heal that split. The word Agada has another version – Hagada. Meaning – storytelling. The common belief among storytellers that storytelling can help heal the world one person or one story at a time, isn’t that far from the truth – אמת – which is the word of God.
Come on oral wizards, go balance out science and law before they manage to dry-out the world completely
The other day I gave three consecutive workshops about stories in digital media, to kids in 7th grade. The organizers’ assumption was that ‘digital’ will attract them as ‘cool’. Knowing that once you expose people to new tools their attention wanders to the particulars and features, I decided to do three things:
- Story experiences – show them various mediums people refer to as digital forms of story – and see what they think and feel about them.
- Teach them how to formulate a story that will have a good chance to get someone interested – from scratch
- Give them a URL to a web-board where I’ve accumulated for them the workshop material, together with many references to digital tools, platforms and other things they need to know – for them to try out for themselves.
The board was good for their teachers too, which if decided they would like to use the ideas furthermore, could get everything they needed in one place.
We did a story together, they got the ideas about prompting and crafting, realized that working with others on a story can help keep it in context (you don’t need supersonic multiplying ‘others’ in every story to keep people interested…), they wrote down some stuff for themselves (I have no idea what it was but they looked very serious about it), and scanned the QR code to get to the web-board. Cool.
The reason for writing this post arrived from the first part – their reactions and ideas about the story experiences. Bringing together all those young people’s words, here is what adults should start realizing, and stop lying to themselves about – especially media and marketing “professionals”.
Spoiler: I cheat at the end of this post.
Wow, this is really interesting. It’s here, happening now, with us. There is a story in it, and it’s told in a way which is interesting to everyone present, we feel involved in making the story although you’re the only one talking, there is an interaction going on between you, us, the story, our minds and hearts, your expressions, voice, images in the story, our reactions, imaginations – it feels everything is connected and curiosity doesn’t stop for a moment.
One of the groups was combined from Hebrew speaking students and Arabic speaking students. I invited one of the Arabic teachers fluent in Hebrew to tell with me, and translate to Arabic as we go. This made everything they said about the reciprocal nature of storytelling even stronger: at any given moment, half of the people in the room couldn’t understand what was being said – but they were interested, and helped us carry the event.
Storyteller on video
The storyteller on video is ok yet much less interesting. She told a nice story, you could see she was doing here best but we were not part of it – she was telling other people, not us. Because she can’t see us or anyone else who might bump into this video, she can’t make sure we are involved. Some people will like it – mainly if they like the story, most won’t.
They suggested storytellers keep away from video because it’s the wrong medium for us. I asked them if telling directly to the camera would be a different experience for the viewer. They came up with the notion it might feel more engaging because when someone looks at you, you feel more obliged to look back; but that didn’t, in their eyes, change the fact the telling couldn’t adapt to each viewer in the feeling it created and that they were not part of the real-time creation. This point I find to be tremendously important in the context of interactive and customization – it’s not giving me the tools to participate or customize – it’s showing me the other side notices my existence and has the capacity to get me involved and adapt to me at the same time.
Reading from a scanned book on video
Listening to someone reading a text you can see but not touch, is pretty frustrating; for some she might be reading too fast, for others too slow. The illustrations block imagination – what if we wanted to see something else? Not seeing the person reading is also very weird. When someone sits next to you and reads, you sense their presence, you can watch their face.
It’s also childish. If she was sitting in front of us she wouldn’t talk like that, but being only a recorded voice she can’t know much about us, can she? And, why video? you expect something to move, but nothing did.
People expect things from the different mediums. Disregarding the medium and using it only for reach and distribution, results in a video like this – which isn’t the only one out there…
Photographs with music
This is like wedding videos made of stills. Great music by the way, no story if you’re asking. On the contrary – no story is needed, that’s not what this kind of presentation is for. It’s more for eliciting memories and anecdotes about someone you know or somewhere you’ve been. If there was a story in it, it was most probably intrusive to memory, a single version of many possible reflections.
When I told them some people claim this kind of presentation to be “visual storytelling” they looked at me as if I fell from the ceiling and bumped my head really hard. After I pressed for a more articulate response they came up with – storytelling elicits visuals, visuals don’t elicit storytelling – they elicit story fragments and ideas.
A Zen story in digital format
This is much more interesting than all the other digital examples. Especially because although the visuals somewhat disturb the imagination, they allow for some self-generated imagery too. That’s interesting although it would be better to have less images and transitions. Still, not everybody will like it because it’s not done on the spot face-to-face. The storyteller might have chosen something else to tell us if he was present here. He might have told differently which would be better and more engaging.
A personal story in digital format
This was interesting since none of the kids could clearly understand what the person was saying. I did have a prepared translation for them waiting in a text file but I showed them the video as-is to see what will happen. They all grabbed it was a personal life story and that there was sadness present. Some kids could sense that alongside the sadness, there was also a sense of acceptance. Quite a few of them realized the sofas represent phases in that person’s life, or relationships. The most striking realization to my opinion was the fact they all recognized it was an entire life story, not something short or anecdotal. I wanted to know how they figured that out and the reply was, “you can hear it in his voice”.
At the end of this part I told them, that while teaching them about stories in digital media I was also conducting a little experiment: I’ve added a story experience at the beginning, that wasn’t digital. See, I warned you I would cheat. I told them there are people who claim everything I showed them is storytelling, together with social-media, user generated content on the web, marketing material, brand stories, UX, gaming, applications that ‘tell’ stories or enable you to assemble and share etc.
I wanted to know what they think.
They all nodded their heads sideways. In each group I had kids saying, “nope, nothing of all this besides the first experience is storytelling”, or asking, “don’t they get the differences? why on earth are they claiming that?!”
Great questions. Really, why are you claiming that?
It has happened that I’ve participated more than once in an event outside Israel, where people introduced me as, “please welcome Limor, she’s from Israel and she’s going to tell us Jewish stories”. My immediate inner reaction was, “hell not” which I didn’t speak out loud of course, but went on telling the stories I intended to tell. From my point of view, if I was invited to tell, it was because of my skill, not any part of my perceived background. I don’t like organizers telling me what I should tell before I’ve seen my partners in telling – those today labeled ‘audience’.
As time passed and my travels extended, I did notice an inner wish sprouting, though. A wish to tell something unique to my identity, to invite people through my stories to visit lands unknown to them, maybe visited and forgotten, maybe of surprising wonder, or interest, or just another fragment of our humanity I get to meet more often than others because of where I come from and who I am.
Now I know, that wish had to do with connecting back to community, first of all – for my own sake. After years of being an outstanding storyteller, master of platform, skill, all wit and wisdom expressed through great eloquence, charm and charisma, I got to the point I realized the admiration and repute I was winning for all the above, got me pretty disconnected from others and myself.
I became a stage person, a ‘professional storyteller’, a skill for hire. Technically that means I’m elevated from my partners in telling so we can see each other when the audience gets too large. It also means I’m a portable skilled device that can perform anywhere if invited. I’m sure that to many, this seems great – but not to all. Internally, for a storyteller, that’s collateral damage to the damage of inner disconnect; the ‘belly of the whale’ in a storyteller’s hero’s journey. It’s most probably the point when a storyteller might start raising a hand to find help somewhere outside of her fantasy ‘professional’ position, wondering about her own background and community, seemingly known to her at that point, not necessarily truthfully visited or trusted to remember me as a sibling or daughter of any specific tribe, heritage or culture – after I’ve forgotten for so many years.
Thereof starts the road of trials
For me it started by trying to figure out the stories of my parents, then their families. I remember I was even somewhat embarrassed to pose questions directly; eventually I found the way. Then it was looking back at my resistance, that “hell not” that popped up every time someone said I was going to tell Jewish stories, and figured the issue was, “but I’m an Israeli, not exactly the same as Jewish, you know?!” Not that Jewish is wrong, but Israeli is more precise. So I found what Israeli stories might be and that helped me connect to communities far away from my home.
Yet those stories are fit for there, not for here. Here people don’t need me to tell them what Israeli is like – they live it. Here they appreciate me as the teller of Arthurian Legends, Canterbury Tales, folktales from around the world and all kinds of other amazing stories, some of them composed by myself. People appreciate what I tell, the way I tell and connect to an audience; you could say that when it comes to storytelling, I’ve met the goddess.
Meeting the goddess is amazing. Staying with the goddess, living in storytelling nirvana for the rest of my storytelling life is superbly tempting. There is though a minute price-tag attached to it, nothing too grand but still obligatory: you have to hand in your voice. That will promise you can stay with the goddess – forever.
I almost did.
But in storytelling land, ‘I’ is not the smallest atom constructing the world; it’s ‘us’ and ‘us’ didn’t give up on my role as part of a community. ‘Us’ arrived by mail and phone to remind me about my sacred duty to the society I’m part of, a duty granted to me because I have the skill and devotion – lost in favor of the devotion to sustain my position as ‘professional storyteller’, a northern star far above and away from my true communal center.
To be continued and hopefully, not alone.
Like trying to explain to others what storytelling really is through a blog…
Bottom line: I’m starting to realize those are the wrong questions. The real ones are “who is a storyteller?” or “what is a storyteller?” or “what is storytelling?”
In today’s world, when the professional Modus Vivendi has become, “I say who and what I am, and who are you to say I’m not”, it’s pretty obvious people get confused with their professional identity.
Now, I’m not going to try and solve the nonexistent “we are all storytellers” issue around people in marketing, gaming, leadership, science, continue the list as far as you want. First, they don’t introduce themselves as storytellers, although they claim to ‘do’ storytelling. It doesn’t say ‘storyteller’ on their business cards and even more – if you ask someone else about what those people do they will say, “ah, she’s into marketing”. So they know who they are, everybody else does, good for them, matter solved.
The real problem is within the storytelling domain – us, storytellers. Because of the great desire to be inclusive (which for some reason is interpreted as kindness although to me it feels like running away from responsibility), many of us reflect “anything goes”. Well, almost. Still, as humans, we need a clear identity and differentiators so we can know who and where we are, where we want to go, and if we are proceeding in that direction. That’s perfectly normal, and as long as those differentiators arise naturally from the core of the art and what it means to be a storyteller, we’ll be ok.
‘Professional’ isn’t an organic storytelling positioning differentiator. Neither is ‘Master’, although it sounds more holistic and therefore as-if closer to storytelling. But do these titles actually mean something substantial?
Let’s look at ‘professional’ and leave storytelling aside. Let’s go for ‘professional musician’.
Professional musicians are people who:
- Can perform on any requested level, any part of the musical narrative they were trained in and preferably beyond.
- Who’s main agenda, the thing they are busy with most of their productive hours, is music.
- Who expect to receive compensation for their musical ability and practice, since it is what society gains from their choice of occupation, and its own need for what these people can provide.
- Who can conduct their matters in what is considered at least basic to professionalism – arriving on time and prepared for your part, participating to the best of your ability, taking part in all discussions about performance practices and interpretation (musicianship), respecting the rules of the ensemble you are part of.
- Who take care of their continuous professional development, so they don’t turn stale and gain more flexibility and possibilities.
If I’ve forgot something you’re invited to add to this list, but basically – that’s it. Going back to my question – does ‘professional’ mean something substantial? in music it sure does. Only the first point “can perform on any requested level, any part of the musical narrative they were trained in and preferably beyond” means about ten years of methodological training in playing an instrument, voice, practicing solfege, theory, basic composition, playing with various ensembles, attending concerts, attending camps and intensives, singing in a choir and if you’re really into it, even way more than that.
Quite obviously, this is not a description of your neighbor’s 18 years old son playing electric guitar or the trumpet in their garage; even he knows that.
So why is it so difficult to define “professional storyteller?” I’m leaving the pondering to you. I’ll just add that once upon a time, thousands of years ago, storytellers were storytellers. They were never bothered with the “professional” part because if they didn’t reach a certain degree of ability they wouldn’t see themselves as “storyteller” and neither would society; maybe a disciple or a teller to be. In that framework, the word ‘master’ suddenly does mean something substantial, doesn’t it?
The future of Storytelling
When people can’t figure out the present of something,
they go into preaching it’s bright future.
Then they get to the part about being present.
In memory of the #storytelling feed on twitter, buried alive under loads of marketers’ crap.
Warsaw Ghetto, August 2, 1942
“We have no information about the fate of those who were expelled… Nothing we hear is based on exact information.”
From Chaim Aharon Kaplan’s diary
I copied this quote with the reference, from a wall in The Holocaust History Museum at ‘Yad Vashem’ – a place all humans need to visit before they die. It grabbed my attention because of its relevancy to current events in Syria, and the way the world reacts to those events; a way that makes the promise and oath “never again” sound like a hollow declaration.
But why should I care? I’m Israeli, Israel and Syria are enemy states. Israelis were killed fighting Syrians and those who returned from Syrian captivity can tell you horrible stories about the cruel ways of the regime. Why should I care? because I find it impossible not to, and I’m not the only Israeli who feels that way.
What is even more frustrating is the stupid hypocritical global political entanglement that forces Israel to stay foot – which is far from our nature. There is help for the few who are lucky enough to get it. There are quite a few Facebook pages around the idea ‘Israelis for Syrians’ that try to extend the reach of stories coming out of Syria, organize demonstrations in front of embassies, break the silence we know too well – kills. There are Israelis who go as far as sneaking into Syria in order to provide help, risking their lives while breaking the Israeli law. So what if at the same time we see them as enemies? there is no contradiction in that. I wish there was more we could do.
Walking through the museum, it’s difficult not to notice visitors’ reactions: besides the difficulty to take in the horror and scale, and the surprise in suddenly feeling something delicate, that place tosses into one’s mind an endless list of questions and those questions don’t go away. They echo in your brain again and again, rolling from one side to the other in a desperate search for answers that will not necessarily appear.
Then I found myself following a group of Israeli teens. They listened to their guide very closely, while she presented possible answers to some of the most daunting questions, like for example “why did ‘ordinary people’ take part? why didn’t they stop the murdering?”. They led a vibrant discussions, debating the various theories, suggesting more possibilities, dissecting their thoughts in an attempt to understand, at least something.
That reminded me of a question someone asked me years ago at a conference in the US: “How, although surrounded by enemies that seek to destroy you, can you educate your children to believe in peace?” Looking at that group of teens and what they were doing, I was looking at the answer to his question: you place them into the narratives of humanity, the brightest, the darkest and everything in between, you guide them a little, elicit the more difficult-to-speak-up questions and let them figure it out through their own curiosity – to understand, at least something.
My personal experience in this visit to ‘Yad Vashem’ was a realization about that list of questions lurking unanswered – growing. Here are a few thoughts for you to ponder upon:
See the quote at the top about the lack of exact information – it was written by a Jew in Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. But now, 61 years later, with all the atrocities happening in Syria, who claims they don’t have enough exact information and uses this claim as an excuse for doing close to nothing?
Back then, just like now, regimes, governments, administrations – had information. One of the most devastating exhibits in the museum, something I’ve seen before numerous times and every time it makes me want to blow something up out of rage, is this photograph and others like it. Enlarge it and you’ll see it’s labeled accurately. They knew exactly what was going on, and they did nothing about it.
You could think it was because those under the “prisoner” label were Jews. Such a ‘noble’ though, but let me remind you – Syrians are not Jewish. So what’s going on?
Then you have the UK, which in September 2007 gave its residents this ‘gift’:
“Government advisers are to call for the annual UK Holocaust memorial day to be ended because it is too exclusive and can be offensive to minorities other than Jews.”
Kids in the UK no longer need to understand, not even something. Neither does the British Parliament. That’s a sure path to teach a nation there is no need to believe in peace. It’s the fast-track to neglecting ‘the other’, as if they are some distant, irrelevant problem of their own.
Those who were murdered left something behind them; an object they were carrying in their pocket or hid somewhere, a note they gave to someone, a work of art they left behind. All those bits and pieces are researched to find the story and life they were connected to, for us to know and remember. Yet the most profound part of the monumental undertaking called ‘Yad Vashem’ – ‘Shem’ meaning ‘Name’ in Hebrew – has to do with the act of collecting what turns human dust particles – real and metaphoric – into names; names of people who once lived. If there is a name, there are other people connected to that name – family, friends, partners, children, someone they met, someone who saw them once, who can tell about them, who can stand witness to their existence.
Some of the exhibits are almost impossible to look at, many stories are unimaginable on any scale. You can never guess what will grab you or make you just stand there, emotionless. But eventually, as you proceed through the museum, time and stories to reach the Hall of Names, the stronger sense is of life. Why? because we’re looking.
Looking the other way is not going to help the people in Syria. The children who live there now, if they manage to stay alive, will be those who’ll rebuild Syria in the future. If you want them to believe in peace – don’t turn around and walk away. Get interested in their story.
The above claim isn’t only about the loads of misleading information, irrelevant and damaging applications the web is stuffed with; my deeper claim is that you can learn about storytelling on the net, but you can’t learn storytelling. The medium, together with the devices we use to facilitate it, aren’t fit for the purpose.
The internet disrupts our sense of time
Past, present and future mix in weird ways; on facebook the dead can suddenly appear among the living; we are told the only time is now – an endless present, an overwhelming thought that brings along fear driven behaviors; we lose sense of time and find it difficult to plan ahead or even think in timeframes longer than seconds or minutes.
One of the deepest sources for the healing effect storytelling can elicit, has to do with the order of time; time which is the right time, order which is the right order – right for humans, for our exchanges and calls of nature. Healing requires time and patience, hope and compassion for the time it takes to get somewhere; the ability to consider the time needed for all present and for the fact we have other things to do too.
The internet creates un-humane expectations
There are storytelling performances with 2,000 people in the audience. That’s already a number that shifts proper storytelling performance towards ‘show like’ and ‘theatrical’. You can’t tell any story for its true worth in such numbers. The internet promises ‘virality’ and huge numbers in ‘reach’, thus creating expectations we already know work against the true nature of a storytelling event.
Why should we be one in a crowd of thousands and more, if we can be one in a crowd of dozens – at a time we are hungry for human attention more than any other time in history?
Personal devices pull us apart
Smart phones have large screens and for the fear of damage, people sacrifice an arm and a hand to hold onto them most of the time; the larger they get the more hands are lost – for two hands thumb-typing. We walk around with private televisions, each watching our own program; we can’t even share the experience, for the ‘freedom of endless choices’ makes it almost impossible to be watching the same material; something we could later on share thoughts and talk about. That’s gone.
Storytelling brings us close together so we can hear properly and see the visual clues handled to us by the storyteller – the clues that will help us imagine the story in our minds. We listen to the same story and after it’s over we have common ground – to share our thoughts and feelings about, to recollect later on.
Immediate availability of information weakens our mind
We don’t need to remember anything anymore, and why should we if we live in lasting present? if we don’t need to plan for the future or learn past lessons, we don’t need to work our brain too much either. We don’t need to imagine or have a horizon to look at, if our visual fields are blocked. They aren’t only physically blocked with a device – our imaginations are being stuffed and bombarded with endless messages not trusting us to think about anything else besides what the creators of those messages want us to have on our minds. We phase out too often, our minds unable to take the pressure, we feel poisoned – which many of us dare not say.
‘What happened next?’ can be dying. More kids are driven by a hidden force to shout out “I know that story!” the minute you utter, “once upon a time there was a king…” they just have to prove they have the info handy.
The internet ruins the development of our natural sense for timing
Then they tell you timing is everything – but the robots will tell you what that time might be. If you want to know more – pay. That’s ridiculous. In the land of storytelling the clock should never rule our sense of time – time is set by people, the seasons, our body, light and darkness, the presence and absence of others, our emotions – not a machine.
The internet allows for multi-channel appeal because we use many channels; so now you have multi-channel marketing and transmedia storytelling, content marketing done terribly wrong and promoted messages. Storytellers speak from one head and we speak one story at a time so you have the time – to imagine, to take to heart, or not, to make sense, to understand and learn. Not so the Hydra which feeds on the constant work of dozens and hundreds of content creators, aiming to orchestrate their work and launch it into the mass like old cannonballs shot from a precision launcher – inaccurate and damaging weapons under mass production; tearing through the delicate designs of human attention, careless.
The platforms ‘utilize’ relationships
Or to be more precise – exploit them. That’s not what friends and followers are for. People were never supposed to be a product owned by someone. Correct me if I’m wrong – slavery is illegal.
Storytellers need to earn trust every time we approach people – again and again. Sitting in a distance of an arm reach we know we can’t exploit no relationships – we are part of the exchange – what goes around comes around.
To hell with linear story forms
Stories are supposed to be linear, so we can understand cause and effect. In a world aiming at non-linear story forms (which don’t really exist but that’s another story), we lose the ability to understand what influences an outcome, we become irresponsible, demanding without caring for what it takes, we are impatient to anything but our immediate desire; society breaks apart as does civility.
The stories we choose to listen to we should care for
But not so on the internet. The desperate battle for attention and eyeballs-time makes all those Hydras bombard us at once. Being numb in front of yet another ad or post -I wouldn’t mind; yet many of us are numb in front of content describing mass-murder, governments turning against their people, the sufferings of those hit by nature turning unnatural because of greed and carelessness, kids shooting other kids with us not doing much about it – the list of terrible things happening is long, yet we do so little because we are overwhelmed to the degree we can’t take it, thus discard the information.
Storytellers tell one story at a time and only one to several in one sitting. If you attend a session you couldn’t possibly be attending another, thus the stories told become the center of your attention and you care.
If you want to learn storytelling, close the device, leave it at home, go meet people, listen to their stories and when you feel the time is right – tell yours. Do it as much as possible and you’re on the right and only path to learn storytelling.
Buzzword – a combination of ‘verbing’ a noun to make it look elegant, fresh and dynamic and an attempt to re-brand and hence own, something that has been out there for ages.
As discussed on this blog before, storytelling is a noun, a verb, and an adjective; what is called a gerund or a gerundive complementizer (see link for explanations). Storytelling was formed in the oral cultures and cultivated to the level of high-art, way before a written word appeared somewhere.
So it wasn’t that first there was story and then came the telling. It’s not a combination of two words – it’s one! you can’t re-verb it, you can’t re-brand it, and any attempt to add something to it just dilutes its original power. Now I also understand why all these attempts seem to me like fractions of the real thing. The people doing it don’t get it, and what they do isn’t even close.
Through the past year I’ve seen so many references to the “democratization” of the arts by aid of technology and social media, that eventually I had to set my mind to look into these declarations.
Paraphrasing on the definition of Democracy on Wikipedia:
Via technology and social media, the governing structures of the arts have moved to a form in which all eligible participants have an equal say in the decisions that affect the artistic expressions in their lives. Technology and social media allow them to participate equally – either directly or through elected representatives – in the proposal, development, and creation of artistic formats and content. This encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of artistic self-expression.
How do you define ‘eligible participants’ in relation to using technology and social media in the arts? part of the definition will have to be – have electricity. Well, 20% of the world’s population doesn’t. Another part will have to be – own some sort of a personal computing device and have internet access. Track data about the digital divide and you’ll realize the number of ‘eligible participants’ narrows down. Not so democratic… anyway, I won’t be too tough on definitions.
I know what people mean because I read it everywhere. Taking an example from storytelling, people declare that finally the authority has been taken from the hands of literary dictators and put into the hands of everyone to express themselves. With the aid of a mobile app you can now ‘create’ a story in minutes and share it with the world; in a couple of months you can turn into a ravishing transmaedia storytelling artist and work your way into lucrative productions; you can pay for a technology that will multiply your ‘storytelling’ power enabling your content to pierce the sky of the internet. Cool.
But all the above have nothing to do with storytelling or with any other art. It’s just taking a piece, a feature, a symptom and calling it the entire thing. It’s taking the idea of disruptive innovation and twisting it completely.
According to Prof. Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation “transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated that only a few people with a lot of money and a lot of skill had access to it, a disruptive innovation makes it so much more affordable and accessible that a much larger population have access to it.”
Well, seems to me that historically, the arts were much more accessible before priorities changed in favor of science and technology. Governments need to return into the systems all the budgets that enabled education in the arts with the tools, skills, core definitions and processes of the arts.
How is that for disruptive innovation?
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the company,
I am honored and grateful for your presence,
for in your absence, my art does not exists.”
In memory of Mimi (Bat Ami) Barthélèmy (May 3, 1939 – April 27, 2013). I’ve heard these opening lines from her and they sunk into my consciousness forever, as an important lesson about what it means being a storyteller. These words are not only welcoming as an opening, even more so if you add to them the million dollar smile Mimi had; they are practically the truth.
I’ll remember her as one of the wiser, sharper and forgiving humans I’ve ever met.
During October 2012, G started working on David’s Lament. Several texts down the road, the lament became a signature work; that’s when teller and text meet an audience in a way recognizable as evolving down a unique road. They bring something new into the world; It’s like being able to conduct Beethoven’s 5th knowing you have something different to offer the players. Even if you’re not allowed to change a single note; or a single word for our matter.
The reactions to his telling of David’s Lament during the annual Memorial Day ceremony, were situated between gratitude from people deeply moved by the lament – suddenly realizing what the text is about, to overwhelming anger for changing “the way it should be”. That’s something interesting to think about, “the way it should be”. The lament appears in the bible. There are no exact performance instructions; it’s the cantor’s decision to take on the spot, adjusting to context. Still, when a form of presentation is so deeply rooted into people’s consciousness, they cling to the known and sanctify it (PPP anyone?). It’s such a deep behavior, I wouldn’t overlook it.
In G’s case, it was a calculated risk, an informed decision we went through together, looking at all possible outcomes. Remember G’s way of performing the lament didn’t arrive as a total surprise out of his ‘artistic’ mind. It was thoroughly researched and practiced in front of many people from his community. Some of them heard it more than once along five months of work and search. All their remarks, input and contributions influenced the work one way or another.
Storytelling is an ‘us’ art. G doesn’t own the way he tells David’s Lament. He is just the person who can bring the ‘us’ of the lament alive in front of others.
During all this time, another work evolved in the background – a sculpture. I saw it developing, contributed along its evolution, so did many others. It evolved between G’s inner thoughts and experiences, the lament and what he knew and saw in it, what others echoed when meeting the work in progress. It evolved through conversation, it’s an ‘us’ sculpture.
If you are an Israeli looking at it, you might feel it looks very much as something that represents part of our narrative as a people – just like David’s Lament. Not something easy to explain to a non-Israeli. This sculpture is the outcome of a deep process ignited by storytelling. It doesn’t tell a story (statues can’t speak), it elicits stories in the observers. If they are from the same narrative the sculpture is, their stories touch each other and enhances their sense of ‘us’.
The same thing exactly happens with evolving story-driven time-sculptures we create during storytelling events. Only in storytelling they don’t stand in the open to be discussed. They are personal imagination dwellers we can only ‘sense’ – touch each other. Never knowing for sure, always intrigued by the mystery.
Every year on Passover eve we share a Seder meal and tell the Haggadah. Somewhere along the night, arrives that moment when the door is opened for Elijah the prophet. The reason for that you can find in many other places – right now I’m looking at something way more important – will he drink from the wine or not? I mean, will he drink from OUR wine, in OUR home?
Like many other children – that question kept me busy for years. The adults would say, “look! see? the wine in the cup is moving!” when we grew up a little, we figured it was moving because one of the adults was gently rocking the table.
One Passover eve, after my mother opened the door for Elijah and returned to the table just to meet our cynical “yes, who’s turn is it to rock the table this time?” something different happened. The cup, made of glass from rim to bottom, became empty. The wine wasn’t moving in little waves, it actually disappeared – slowly but surely. Our astonishment was worth a photograph, I’m sure. We sat there, staring at the glass, dead silent.
It took us another Passover eve to figure out my father went through the trouble of finding someone that will drill through the glass’s leg, so he can insert a transparent tube kept hooked to the table, released silently into a small bucket at the right moment
These efforts make for the most memorable family moments and stories. It happened about 35 years ago and I’m still telling the story…
Wishing you Chag Sameach and great joy with family and friends!
To the great clan of dream weavers, yarn spinners, wordsmiths, spell binders, time voyagers, truth seekers often named liars – today is the day we forgive our fellow ignorant; cultural bridge builders and walkers, secret whisperers, tradition carriers, makers and breakers; who mantle truth with story, in joy and in sadness, to sooth body, mind, heart and spirit in great wisdom and kindness; today is our day – like any other day, we just decided this one is special for the sake of others to recognize; to all masters of the spoken word – today we tell about Fortune and Fate. Listen now all the rest and beware what you wish for…
This year I’ve decided to do a private reading and telling of the tale The Seven Beggars told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav – which will take me approximately all night to tell. Just to give you a sense of it:
I will tell you how people were happy once.
Once there was a king. This king had an only son, to whom he wished to give the kingdom while he, the king, was still alive (most unusual, don’t you think?). Well’ on the appointed day, he held a great feast. When the king makes a feast there is always great rejoicing and all the more so on such a great occasion. Every one of the royal ministers and the nobles was there, and the common folk too shared in the day’s gladness (I wouldn’t miss it for my life), because it is a great deed when a king abdicates in favor of his son. Everything was prepared to make the feast a joyous event, with musicians and jesters were there to entertain the guests (in case you were wondering how I got invited).
At the height of the festivities, the king said to his son, “I can foresee that a time will come when you will step down from the throne. When this happens, take care not to fall into sadness, be joyful. When you are joyful, I too shall be happy. I would be happy even were you to be sad, for it would show that you were unworthy of being king, and I would be pleased that you no longer ruled the land. But if you are joyful, I shall be very happy indeed.”
Can’t wait for tonight but I will.
Happy World Storytelling Day 2013 to all my fellow storytellers wherever you might be.
And Shalom to President Obama. In the realm of story, nothing is a coincidence, just either fortune or fate and most probably both; to life.
At the end of the storytelling session I asked the young people sitting in front of me, all 11-12 years old, whether someone wishes to say something or ask a question. “Yes,” said one girl, ”I would like to say that your facial expressions, your voice and gestures, give hints that help visualize the story in my imagination. From there, I can continue alone. Meaning, anything beyond that is redundant.”
Found this on The Story Telling Company’s answering machine:
“Shalom! I have insomnia and I need you urgently; urgently, urgently, urgently, so please return a call!”
When it comes to insomnia, kids know the good medicine. Now I need to find something that will save me from dying of cute
Commenting on what’s important in a tale, Peter Fruhmann mentioned ‘Invisible Cities‘ by Italo Calvino, creating the opportunity to re-write an old post I’ve deleted from this blog long ago. It’s an exercise aiming at answering the question: can any story happen to anyone, anywhere?
Find the book, read through, and then pick one city. Ask the people you are working with to create a character that lives in that city – its characterizations and character, its true self. After they do it – and it will take about 30 min. ask the characters questions so the participants get a sense of the way their character speaks and responds. Then, make them meet around a situation or create one in the city you started with.
How do place, space, view, influence people? The way they move? The way they speak? The way they create connections? Can any story happen anywhere? Try it.