Thursday, August 3, 2017

Part 3: Crafting Intention Into the Hard Story: No Pity Parties Allowed!

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

Part 2: Picking The Hard Story: Why are you telling it?

Part 3: Crafting Intentions Into the Hard Story: No Pity Parties Allowed! 

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 don't tend to tell hard stories for a number of reasons. The biggest one is this: 

I don't want the audience to walk out of the set worried about me, depressed, or full of unfocused despair or anger. 

I think of the storyteller as a tour guide. I'm going to take you through something, and at the end of it, I am going to deliver you back at the station in one piece. On the journey we are going to see lots of things, and you might be changed by the experience, but when you leave this tour, you aren't going to walk out the door and want to punch the first person you see.

The stories I like to tell aren't just for the sake of telling a story. I like to choose tales that have an actual point. So, before I even begin....I like to to know what the point of the tale might be.

For starters: The point of the tale and what the story is about might not actually be the same thing at first blush.

Question: What is Election Night about?

Answer: Episodes of racism that made me feel othered in my own country.

Question: What Is The Point of Election Night?

Answer: Each of us has the power to either "other" or "unother" people. Are you aware or brave enough to stand with someone when they need it?

This is what I want from the audience:

I want people to leave that set with the desire to unother somebody. I want them to want to find somebody to unother. I want them to be seeking an othered person just so they can unother them.

I want people to go back through their lives and say, "I unothered this person. I stood up for the kid at lunch. I made a positive difference in this person's life. I have a friend nobody else will talk to and nobody knows how I do it. I AM AN UNOTHERER!"

I also want people to think..."Good Lord...have I othered someone? Have I been on the giving end? How do I feel about that?"

I also want people to say, "I have been there. I've let someone "other" me. I fought it. I ached about it. I cried about it. I've moved on, but it still burns. I am not alone. I'm still being othered, but I don't have to treat others the same way. I'm going to survive this."

I want people to think, "You know, now that I think of it, I've been othered! I never thought about it like that. It was an eye opening experience. Cool."

And I want people to talk about their own experiences with others or me after the set is over and the story is told.

I don't want this:

I am so sorry that this happened to you in particular, and now I feel like I need to protect you but nothing you've said extrapolates out into anyone else in the world.

I wish I had been there to protect you from all of these terrible things because clearly this is a problem you have

I feel so sorry for you and I am so sad that only you have dealt with these horrible things

I bet you just hate white people because of all of the terrible things they've done to you

I bet you think white people hate you because of the things you talk about in this story

I bet you hate conservatives because of what happened

I really hate white people and you have given me leave to do so

You do know that all white people aren't like that, right?

You must be so scared all of the time based on the way you talk about these events.

I realize I might get this:

Clearly you spend too much time focused on race so all of the things you are talking about exist in your own mind since racism isn't really a problem any more

This story is all about politics so I am not required to consider what you had to say because you are clearly a lefty

 You are too sensitive and a snowflake and you should just get over it

Nobody is responsible for your feelings but yourself and if you were scared, worried, or whatever, you need to take personal responsibility for your weakness

There is no such word as "Othered" anyway, and I didn't pay good money to come here to be accused of racism or called a racist!

Why don't you focus on all of the good stuff white people do? Why do you have to tell some story that makes white people out to be bad guys?

I cannot control what the audience will walk away with after the tale, but I can craft as many of my intentions into the tale as possible when I am putting it together.

What are the techniques I can use?


Building humor into the hard story gives the audience a chance to release the pressure. Election Night is full of really uncomfortable situations, and I don't pull punches or let the pressure release very often, but I do have moments when I say something that is genuinely funny and allows the audience to laugh with me as opposed to uncomfortable tense laughter. Laughing allows the audience to take that deep cleansing breath and lower the level of their fear even as my fear is still real. It gives them the chance to know that I am all right.

Familiar Context

I try to make sure that there is enough context around each event so that the audience doesn't have this idea that my entire life is one long series of horrible events or that I am nervous every single time I talk to someone. The context allows the audience to walk in with me, understand what happened,  and strap in for the event. For example: 

I was staying with a couple in Arizona and the first words out of the husband's mouth when he sees me are not, "Hello" or "welcome to our home" but "I'm a Tea Party Patriot and I bet I know who you voted for in the last election". There was no doubt in my mind this was going to be a really long week.

After I introduce this event, I add that we've all been in those situations where we've walked into something and we knew we were politely stuck and there was nothing to do but get through it. 

Relating this event back to the audience's own experiences means they know exactly how I feel because they have been there and done that. It helps them keep their own feelings about their situation in their bodies as I relate mine. We are sharing a common feeling, they are not trying to imagine how I felt because they know.

Historical Social Cues

Since racism has a long standing place in our culture and societal structure, it is easy to put my various encounters into the background of our history. In the midst of an event I can break out of the main through line of the story and reference how African Americans used Brer Rabbit stories "in company" or when they were with "others" when I talk about this event that happened when a wealthy white man standing with his peers and me happened to say, "Well, if I come back again I hope I come back as a minority because that's clearly the way to go these days."

His peers were shocked because they realized he didn't even notice he'd said this in front of a minority. It was only after I responded that he figured out that he had used an "inside the group" comment out loud in what could reasonably be called "public". Open mouth, insert foot, wiggle toes.

So, what does that structure look like in practice?

- Introduce Event or Episode
-Familiar Context
-Historical Context
-Tension rising

Transitions - 

Move on to the next event

I've been doing this so long, I don't really think about the structure of how these things are set, but this is how I do it.

Sometimes the transitions are funny, and sometimes they are dark or serious. Depending on the event, how the historical context is inserted and when we need familiar context might vary, but all of that is front loaded so that the event can unfold in a way that is cohesive.

In workshop mode, I try to find the places where the story doesn't work, or creates the disempowering kinds of tensions I don't want.

The biggest thing I try to avoid is the pity party.

So, I'll be telling Election Night out and about over the next couple of years.

Can't wait to see how it goes!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Part 2: Picking The Hard Story: Why are you telling it?

Part 1: Telling The Hard Story: What Is It?
Part 2: Picking The Hard Story: Why are you telling it?
Part 3: Crafting Intentions Into the Hard Story: No Pity Parties Allowed!

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.

The first question that I always have to answer when I am choosing a story is the "Why?". 

Why am I drawn to this story?
Why should anyone bother to listen to it?
Why should I tell it?

If you actually have a guiding philosophy about why you tell stories, this is not a difficult list to tackle. Quite some time ago I sat down with my husband and I crafted a mission statement for DLW Storyteller inc, my company, that closely mirrors my personal mission statement as a performer. These are the guidelines I use when deciding on whether or not I am going to tell a story.

DLW Storyteller Inc. strives to present performances, residencies, workshops and written materials that strengthen communication, uplift the human spirit, engage the imagination, promote literacy and uphold the values of Unitarian Universalism.

That's a pretty simple list, but it does help. Any story that I have in my repertoire has to uphold those principles.

1. Why am I drawn to this story?

The night Obama was elected the first time was a pretty strange night for me. In the cold light of day some months beyond the feelings of abject fear that gripped me because of my circumstances, I was able to laugh at my foolishness. I was struck by how the whole event affected me. I have been in some situations where I didn't really feel safe, or I was disappointed in someone for behaving badly, but I had never been in a place where I was actually afraid someone might hurt me.

In retrospect, I'm sure I couldn't really have been in that much danger, but it certainly felt like that at the time. As the years of Obama in the White House progressed, I became more and more aware of a sort of casual lack of what I always think of as courtesy or civility with certain groups of people. Somehow, having a black man in the White House made it okay to say miserable, passive aggressive, or even demeaning things to black folks you just met. I found that pretty astonishing. Striking out at me verbally as a substitute for striking out at black folks in general seemed rather odd to me, but there were folks who did it. Then, there was the whole, "we have a black president so anything I say can't really be racist" thing that I encountered. 

I had more overt racism thrown my way in the last eight years than I had in the first forty. It was kind of astonishing. The thing about it, however, was that most of it wasn't soul wounding so much as it was funny to me and a bit unbelievable. It made me realize something.

The wound of racism that poisons so many people isn't gone, it just went inside...and not that deep. There are people who are hurting people, and they feel like nobody is doing anything about it. 

Racism hasn't gone anywhere. It has just gotten really passive aggressive.

The things that people said or did were so ridiculous, I decided I wanted to put some of them together and share them with audiences. 

I'm not the only person who has experienced these things, and the people doing them aren't in isolation. Storytelling for me is a wonderful mirror where you can see not only yourself, but others. 

Then there was the piece my daughter did last summer called "White For A Black Girl" about things that are said to young black women who are excellent and brilliant. They are pretty much the same things that were said to me that I had to learn to live with. We haven't gotten very far in terms of the stereotypes kids have about color. 

Ultimately this story screams to me about "Othering".

Other - (adj. or pronoun) used to refer to a person or thing that is different or distinct from one already mentioned or known about.

Othered - (verb) view or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.

Othering - (verb) Actively or aggressively excluding, treating, or defining as different or alien a person or group of persons from oneself  

Racism is a form of "othering" but the effects or results will be recognizable to anyone who wasn't part of the in-crowd in school, or who was part of that crowd and either actively or passively othered someone else. So, universal understanding by an audience.


2.Why Should Anyone Bother To Listen To It?

This story is about how we speak to, treat, and speak of other people. Everyone has had to deal with this. What if the person you said something negative about was standing right behind you? How would you feel? Now, imagine someone had something negative to say about you, but said it right in front of you without realizing they were saying something about you despite the fact that it was really obvious they were talking about you?

Perhaps it will make some folks think about how they talk to or about others.

So, more universal ability to relate to people.


3. Why should I tell it?

This one is the easiest. 

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say things like, "We need to have a national discussion about how we deal with race in this country!"

"We need to talk about how we deal with race in this state!"

"We need to talk about how we deal with race in this city!"

"We need to talk about how we deal with race in this community!"

"We need to talk about how they deal with race in this text book!"

Everyone keeps saying this, but I notice that this phrase seems to be the extent of what they mean. We get an article, and then everyone breathes a sigh of relief that it is over, and we just keep on doing what we've always done. 

Someone else is shot for scaring police because they are black
Someone else is puled over for driving while black.
Some else is roughed up for "looking like a criminal" just because they are walking down the street
Apparently you can even be rousted out for reading while black.

Well, as an African American, it seems to me this conversation should be a bit more extensive.

I am a storyteller. One of the things I do is introduce ideas through stories that help generate discussion. Nothing is stopping me from starting this conversation except for my not doing it.

This story should definitely make people talk.


So, now I know that I do want to tell this story despite the possibility that it will most likely spark anger, outrage, confusion, sadness, joy, hope, sorrow, disgust, empathy, thought, disbelief, and who knows what all else in the audience watching it.

I know why I want to tell it.

I think folks would be willing to hear it, and it will strike chords with them.

She's only 17. Maybe her daughter won't be told she's "white for a black girl"

Next, I need to figure out how to craft it so it does what I want...and doesn't cause unintended consequences.

I want my the way isn't she grow up in a country that is further beyond this nonsense of being in the thrall of the melanin content of people's skin than it is today. That won't happen unless we really start addressing this. I can't change the world, but I can start a conversation.

Part 3 Next Week:  Crafting Intentions Into The Hard Stories

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

Part 2: Picking the Hard Story: Why Are You Telling It? 

Part 3: Crafting Intentions into the Hard Story: No Pity Parties Allowed!

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.


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!