Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Part 1: Telling The Hard Story: What Is It?



Part 1: Telling The Hard Story: What Is It?


The Hard Story: (n) Any story that touches on subjects or themes that are considered socially sensitive, politically divisive, religiously difficult, or fraught with discomfort.

I decided to blog about my experience with a story that I have been workshopping for about two years. My plan was to describe it and then make some comments and post, but as I got into the writing I realized that to really work it, I would need to either write a ridiculously long blog post, or do it in parts.

I don't know how many parts I will end up with at the end. Maybe only three...if I'm lucky.








I am spending the week in beautiful Little Switzerland, NC at the Wildacres Retreat.

I am enjoying a week of relaxation, enjoyment, writing, reflecting, and working with some wonderful storytellers on various pieces. It is lovely to spend a week wallowing in story with other people who live with this art form.

Last night I shared one of the pieces I have been working over the course of the last couple of years. It is called Election Night, and it is about some of the situations in which I found myself after President Obama was elected in our "post racial" world.

It starts with an experience in the week leading up to the election through four very difficult situations in which I found myself over the course of those eight years.

I deal with the following subjects:

A Break From Life At Wildacres
Domestic Terrorism: I was in a community where someone was burning crosses on the lawns of black residents in a small town right before election day.

Racism masquerading as "allowable political speech" - After the second election I was in a community where people were "lynching" chairs in the trees after Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair at Mitt Romney's convention pretending President Obama was sitting in it.

Absent Minded Racism: I was in a number of situations where someone made a truly heinous comment without realizing they'd just made a derogatory statement about black people in general...of course they didn't mean Me....

Stereotyping: I had to confront my own bias after spending a week with a family after being told that the husband of my host was a Tea Party Patriot.

Othering: What is it to feel like to feel like you don't belong ?
Writing in beautiful surroundings

Structural Racism: When the narratives we have about racism prevent us from seeing it


Mostly, however, the story is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as Americans.


Last night I shared an abridged version of this story with my retreat group. It sparked a great deal of discussion. One of the participants said that my willingness to tell the story was "brave".

I had no way to respond to that last night. I've been cogitating about it all morning.

I didn't vocalize it, but I disagreed with her. People tell stories about things that happen to them all of the time. That's the whole point of personal narrative. Why is my telling this brave?

Perhaps I am brave because there will be blowback from telling this tale and facing it will take bravery.

No, probably not.

I've been talking about race in America all of my life...not by choice. If you are a person of color, you have no choice because people are always starting conversations with -

"Can I ask you a personal question?"

There is no telling where that question is heading, but my response to it is, "Sure, you can always ask."

Wildacres Retreat
The truth, however, is that I have tended to shy away from these types of stories since I make a living working in schools, and I am not looking to have people consider me a "political" storyteller.

I am also not someone who does a great deal of personal telling.

Perhaps I'm brave to put my foot into this hornet's nest?

We'll have to see.



As I sat down to try to explain why I am working on this story and what I hope to accomplish by telling it I realized I needed more space to discuss this.

So, over the next few weeks I will be going into my motivation, my hopes, and why I am sharing this tale.

Some things I want to say up front...

I am not a crusader. I am not advocating everybody in the world tell The Hard Story.
I am not suggesting you use an audience for therapy or sympathy.
I am not suggesting that every hard story is palatable for every audience.

Every Now And Then You Need Some Mountain





I will however, discuss Election Night, the structure of the tale, why I made the decisions I made in presenting it, how I chose the language, and what I am hoping to achieve.

This is going to be an interesting ride.


Happy Cogitating!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Adjusting In Mid-sentence: Telling To The Audience You Have Not The One You Wish You Had!


Hotel Florence
I spent most of the week in beautiful Florence, SC.

I enjoy this gig. Eight sets in four days.

I stay at the beautiful Hotel Florence.

Paula Childer's amazing staff drives me all over the area so I won't have to get lost.

The libraries are all unique in their own ways, and the kids and adults are fun.



Some sets I might have eight kids and a handful of adults, and some sets I might have over one hundred.

Summer Rules Apply:

1. Whoever Shows Up Get's Stories.
2. As Long As The Audience Outnumbers Me It's A Show.

Today, Thursday, I had my favorite two sets.

Teen ghost stories. I choose three tales from my spooky arsenal, I get kids from ages eleven to seventeen, and I creep them out.

Well, my noon show started out promising. I got five teens and one young tween. Right before I started, a woman came in with two appropriately aged kids and a three-year-old.

Already I am having the "mom" issue. I don't like telling really scary stories to little kids. There isn't any reason to put creepy unpleasant images into their little heads.

So, I began with Boogin in the Gray Graveyard, which is a Bogle story. My tale is a variant of Lucy Dove by Janice Del Negro.


In the midst of this tale, five more people appear and settle into their seats. They seem to mostly be old enough, so, no problem, but I have one older teen who is acting oddly. She won't look at me and stares out the window. Most likely she is someone who is easily scared and has decided she is just going to cope.

Whenever I scare her, she laughs and hits the girl sitting next to her. Oh, well.

My daughter does body art. This is one of hers.







Second story is the Skeleton Woman. I just realized that I learned this story from Janice the first couple of years I was telling!

The tale is about a woman who eats all the flesh off of her own bones.

Goes all right, but the girl keeps giggling.








Then, just as I am about to start my third story, Mr. Fox - which is essentially about a very charming folkloric serial killer - into the room come fifteen children aged four to nine.

I tell Mr. Fox, but it is the most watered down version of the tale I can manage. Then, because the story has gone so fast, I have time to tell Red, Red lips.

Sigh.

When I encounter sets that don't go as planned for a variety of reasons, I try to step back and assess what happened as clinically as possible. I am my worst critic, and I am always sure it was a horrible set, nobody enjoyed it, and it was a complete failure. Whether true or not that is how it feels.

The questions I use to assess the situation:

1. Did the audience enjoy the set?

The audience says they enjoyed it, jumped, laughed, and had some fun.

One of the kids who was there the whole time, said, "that last story got me."
It was Red, Red, Lips.  I had to laugh.

One of them said, "The first story got me." That was the Lucy Dove tale.

So, I accomplished the first most important task. I facilitated kids having a great time at the library. I also shared some memorable images, interested them in storytelling, and motivated at least one of them to go and check out 398.2 in the library.

2. Did the librarians enjoy it?

Yes, according to them they did enjoy it. They jumped and laughed and had a good time with everyone else. They were thrilled I adjusted on the fly and I was flexible.

3. Did I enjoy it?

Today was a day when storytelling was work, and I ended up doing all of that crafting on my feet thing and rearranging, editing, and modifying that so many performers have to do when things change rapidly. So, reading an inappropriately aged audience and telling them tales as they entered was the job. I think I did it, but it was not as polished and clean as I like sets to be, so I was disappointed in myself.

4. Did I fulfill the contract?

Well, I was supposed to tell ghost stories for teens. Since I didn't have an audience of teens, I didn't feel like I could do that. They did get ghost type stories, so...kinda?

Despite my feeling as if I didn't have a stellar set from my own standards, I fulfilled the contract to the best of my ability, and the librarians thanked me for taking the age of the kids into account as I told the tales.

Three hours later, I had another set at another library.

Twenty-six teenagers.

I went full drippy, gory, with jumps and horrible sound effects just because. Lost two after the first story who decided it was too much. The rest stayed to the bloody end. They were creeped out, screamed a little, exclaimed, "Oh God!" "Oh No!" "Don't look!" hid their faces in their hands, plugged their ears, and one kid hid in his shirt about half the time. They shuddered, jumped, laughed, cringed, shivered, and stared in horror for forty-five minutes.








They loved it.

I feel much better.





Happy Telling




Thursday, June 22, 2017

Summer Writing - Stick with it!







My good friend Jackie Ogburn is waiting for her first book to hit the shelves. Look for The Unicorn In The Barn, it will be coming your way in a couple of weeks.

Lots of writing all around me.

Doing my own writing.

Are you thinking of writing?

Here is a poem that was shared with me by a wonderful teller and recently retired teacher, Greg Weiss.


If you lose your pen
and all you find is a broken pencil on the floor
and the pencil has no sharpener
and the sharpener is in the store
and your pocket has no money

and if you look again
and all you find is a black Bic
and the Bic you need is green

and if it appears beneath the mattress of your couch
but the couch is dirty and you suddenly want to clean
beneath the pillows
but you have no vacuum and the vacuum is in the store
and your pocket has no money

it is not your pen you are looking for

it is your tongue and those who speak with it
your grandmothers and doves and ebony spiders
hovering the corners of your throat

it is your tongue
and if you cannot find your tongue
do not go looking for the cat
you know you will not find her
she is in the neighbor’s kitchen eating Friskies
she is in the neighbor’s yard getting love

if you cannot find your tongue do not look for it
for you are so busy looking it cannot find you
the doves are getting dizzy and your grandmothers annoyed
be still and let them find you
they will come when they are ready

and when they are
it will not matter if your pockets are empty
if you write with a green Bic or a black Bic
or the blood of your finger
you will write
you will write

Ruth Forman



Happy Writing - 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Wizard In The Parking Lot - Through the Eyes of a Storyteller



I saw a wizard in the parking lot.
- He wore a baseball cap, button down blue shirt, brown shorts, ankle socks, and old sneakers, but the white hair flying out below the cap, the beard, and the little pot belly gave him away. I'll bet his underpants are covered with stars and half moons.












I saw a Griot in the grocery store.
- Her hair was as white as the clouds and her bearing was regal and intimidating. She was reading the ingredients on the back of a box of packaged potatoes. She was wearing jeans and a cute pink top, but she couldn't fool me. The intricately carved staff in her basket was all the proof I need.










I saw a pirate at the gym.
-He was in a tank top and tight shorts, but I know a pirate when I see one. Everyone does.










A Viking warrior works at the local copy shop.
- He's tall and blonde with a thick braid that goes all the way down his back past his butt. He has huge hands, wears glasses and always wears pastels, but even though he stands there making copies of glossy reports, I know he's got a sword tucked into a corner somewhere.











Fairies flit out of sight in my garden. Gnomes rustle the leaves. Witches, both good and compromised live in my neighborhood, and the kings and queens of far off places pass me in the streets.

























Dragons walk the forests, nymphs play by the streams, and creatures beyond the imagining abound as I look around the world.





To me, this is what it means to be a storyteller.
To me, this is what it means to be a writer.
To me, this is what it means to be filled with wonder.










This is what it is like inside my head.

Happy Living!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Build A Better World: Summer Reading Time

June has finally arrived and in the world of a working storyteller that often means summer reading.

Alas, it doesn't mean I'm going to finally be able to finish the stack of books on my desk waiting for a read. It means I will spend the summer performing in libraries all over the country.

Summer Reading has changed quite a bit in the thirty years I've been participating in it.



In the olden days, there were lots of different themes for summer reading, and you'd have to keep track of them from county to county or sometimes from library to library.

These days, there is one central Summer Reading program theme, and many systems all over the country use it.


The idea behind Summer Reading is simple.

1. Bring your kids to the library and sign up for this free program.
2. Spend the week reading with or to your children. If they are old enough, they read to themselves, you or their siblings, grandparents, or cousins.
3. Keep a record of the reading
4. Once a week there is a program or activity. You return your reading logs to the library, enjoy a free show or activity, and win prizes for your reading.

The benefits?

-Kids spend the entire summer reading.
-Kids spend time with their families.
-Kids read to their siblings.
-Kids spend time communicating with people of different ages and discussing literature.
-Kids spend time at the library getting to know it and love it
-Families are exposed to art, crafts, performers, science, and much more at the library

There are also Teen Summer Reading Programs and Adult Summer Reading Programs.

The librarians who put these programs together for teens are known to come up with some wild and whacky stuff.

There is everything from Zombie Daze to body art parties, and the books they read are pretty amazing.


This year, the summer reading theme is Build A Better World

I choose out about ten stories that I think will work well for the theme of the year, and I give myself a loose idea about how I want to combine the stories to make a unified set.

I never quite know how I'm going to put them together until I get in front of an audience. That, of course, is where the rubber meets the road and I discover if I can really do what I see in my head.

Stories that I didn't plan to tell occur to me because of the responses I get from the patrons. Ideas for things to discuss that never crossed my mind come up because of the questions I get.

The set is shaped and altered, and somewhere in the midst of the summer, the program is truly set...which means that it will be time for a library to throw something at me for which the set is completely inappropriate, and I will begin anew with different stories.

This week I started learning how to Build A Better World.

So far, the kids have suggested -

1. Recycle
2. Don't hit your sister
A Fellow with a hammer!
3. Don't be mean
4. Plant trees
5. Don't litter
6. Get a hammer
7. Be polite
8. Don't lie
9. Don't bully people
10. Respect your parents
11. Learn
12. Work hard at school

I don't usually ask the grown ups about building a better world. I ask them what they dreamt they would do when they were kids. Lots of them won't answer the question, but a few have offered up their dreams.

1. I wanted to be a mom
2. I wanted to be a teacher
3. I wanted to be a fashion designer
4. I wanted to be a librarian (This from the librarian)

Most of the adults I've encountered so far don't answer. They look perplexed as if they can't imagine I really want an answer, don't remember what they dreamt, or just refuse to say it out loud. I hope their kids ask them about it later.

There are so many things I forget about summer reading until I start doing it.

- The peripheral children in the library who are too "old" for storytelling are enjoying it as much as the kids who are sitting in front of me.

- The adults in the library often make a point of telling me that even though they are adults, they enjoyed the stories...as if I wasn't also telling to them.

- The librarians who have not ever seen me or who have never gambled on a "storyteller" before are shocked that the kids will actually sit still if you don't have puppets, instruments, dry ice, or animals.

- There are communities who do not have live performance opportunities, and if they don't see them in the summer at their libraries, they might never see anything like this at all.


Arts, math, science, reading, family time, libraries, community, computers, and dreaming are all part of building that better world for the thousands of children and families I will share stories with this summer.

I love summer reading.

I hope you are out there somewhere sharing it with someone.

Happy Building A Better World!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It's All Good: The "I'm Supposed To Be Doing What"? Moment




Most of the time, my performance life runs like a well oiled machine. The David is contacted by an organization, they tell him what they want, he lets them know if such a thing is possible and what it costs. If there is something unusual, or if I need to craft a special workshop, residency, or performance, then I collaborate with the client, but I don't discuss any of the practical arrangements. The David and the client agree on a date, a time, and a price. I'm not involved in that part of the process.




My part only becomes real after The David hands me my schedule. This arrangement makes sure that I don't step on The David's toes, and he doesn't step on mine.

99.9% of the time this works very well. There are, however, those times when the system breaks down a bit.

That .1% always takes me by surprise.

Over the years, these incidents have consistently fallen into several categories.

1. I'm supposed to be where?

2. I'm supposed to be performing for whom?

3. I'm supposed to be doing what?

The first thing I do when I realize I am facing one of these situations is to say a single phrase to myself out loud, or to the organizers if we are making the discovery together.

"It's all good."

Panic is always an option, but it is not helpful.

So, if you find yourself in any of these situations...here are some go to options other than panic.

1.   "I'm supposed to be where?"

Every now and then I pull up to a venue and I have no idea where I am. I'm supposed to be doing X at whatever time, and the thing in front of me doesn't help me understand what that means. Usually this is some kind of street fair or event where people are milling around and buying things at booths.

I always get why you have musicians and roving players at this sort of thing...but storytellers? The whole point of a story is to settle in, tune out the distractions around you, and go on a trip through the imagination. A little stage in the midst of chaos doesn't seem like a great venue to me. I am not a fan of street fairs, and I try to avoid doing them.

Most storytellers have a story about being in a booth next to something odd. My most annoying one was telling between a petting zoo, and a guy using a chainsaw to make wooden sculptures.





It's All Good - 

I cheerfully tell as best I can, and then make a note to be certain that if ever invited to return, The David knows to say "NO".

If asked, I provide feedback that is honest.

2. I'm supposed to be performing for whom?


Li'l Rabbit's Kwanzaa
This is a problem that happens when I arrive at a venue and a completely different group of people from the group I thought I was addressing is present. At times the age groups are poorly combined such that I have a kindergarten, a second grade and an eighth grade filing into the room together, or the group has some kind of challenge that would require me to alter my program, but nobody thought to mention it to me before I arrived.

Bitter Blue
Some people think, "Oh, it is storytelling, it doesn't matter who is in the audience."

To those people I ask a simple question..."Would you read the same books to a kindergarten class that you would to an eighth grade?

Would you use lots of hand gestures to indicate things without bothering to vocalize if you were talking to someone who couldn't see you?

Would you use lots of descriptive language and very little in the way of physical gesture with someone who couldn't hear you?

I can adjust to lots of things if I know it is necessary.

It's All Good -

I try to have a quick conversation with the administrator to explain how I am going to deal with the situation. It usually doesn't occur to them that they've presented me with a problem until I point out what seems kind of obvious to me.

I always try to be nice about it because they aren't thinking about this the way I have to. They are often more concerned about an "arts exposure" and trying to book a show around lunch periods and specials.

There is also the reality that lots of people who perform in schools or venues do the same show no matter who is in the audience. Some folks are pretty shocked that the presentations I offer are very different. the answer to this for me is to explain the differences. They should have gotten the educational material I sent, but people don't always read it and some of them think despite the descriptions, it doesn't play out on stage.

The goal for me is to continue to communicate so that if we work together again, we will have a better outcome. This has actually been a very good choice as I have gone back to schools after a first exposure and everyone...including me...was happy with the experience.

I have discovered that after one of these crazy sets, the administrator will often come up to me and say, "I think they all enjoyed it." I always agree, but when I work in schools that is not the be all and end all of why I do what I do.


3. I'm supposed to be doing what?

This is by far the absolute worst problem. I arrive at a venue only to discover they are expecting something specific and I am not prepared for it. This is usually a problem on my end.

Either I have agreed to something, but it was six months ago, I don't remember, or I am under the impression "that particular show" is happening on a different day. It also might be that The David has
agreed to something reasonable, but in the day to day workings of our lives, he just didn't remember to tell me, or, and this is much more likely, he told me and I didn't remember.


It's All Good

The good thing about this situation is that I have been a storyteller for thirty years. I can usually pull something out of the hat and make it work. I am always honest about what I can and cannot do, and I try to make sure the client knows what they are about to get.

Some of this is easy to deal with because I offer very specific kinds of sets. Sometimes I get thrown off because I make assumptions about the show.

In February, I assume people want me there because it is African American history month..which means that even groups that don't normally book a performance need a black one all of a sudden. So, if I go into a school in February, and they have asked for stories from China, I'm going to be taken aback unless I get fair warning!

So, as always, I ask questions. I always try to make sure I know what is expected of me before we begin.


In short, the way I deal with any of these snafus is to keep lines of communication open. I ask questions, I listen, and I adjust. That is the best way to move forward. Humans are going to human all of the time.

Mistakes, confusion, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and absolute missing the point are all part of working with others.


No matter how it starts, I know that in the end that little phrase will be true. It's all good.

Happy Confusion!





Thursday, May 25, 2017

Slogging Through!

I know I have been neglecting this space. Life is in the way of writing.

My daughter is graduating from High School on Saturday.

Fourteen people are descending on our home.

Parties, ceremonies, gatherings, cooking, cleaning, and all of that.

Deep breath before she goes off to UNC to study physics.

I am looking forward to life settling down.

Until then, I have neither the time nor the brain space to blog.

I will keep slogging through.

See You Soon!













6th grade



















4th Grade














Where on earth did the time go?


Here she is with her big brother. Somehow, this is how I remember them if I am not careful!

Happy Living!