Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sandy's Seven Sagacious Storytelling Sayings

Download a pdf version here.

OK, I’m a sucker for alliteration. Nonetheless, when I led a series of storytelling sessions, six days in succession, each with a new set of students, I noticed myself saying the same things over and again. As it turned out, they numbered seven. So here they are, pearls of storytelling wisdom or otherwise, Sandy's Seven Sagacious Storytelling Sayings.

1. An audience of one.

One of my early storytelling performances was at a Tellabration organized by the Story Circle of the Capital District. We were eight tellers and about 350 people in a semi-circular theater that held about 400. A wonderful turnout. When my turn came I stood alone on the stage and slowly turned my gaze from left to right, trying to acknowledge and connect with the audience. I told Lucky Numbers, a story about my father, and how I had questions I would like to ask him, questions that I realized only after he had died.

After the performance, the tellers and many people from the audience gathered in a nearby restaurant for “beer and cookies” – and more stories. One man, whom I had never seen before, came up to me and shook my hand. “Thanks for that story,” he said with tears in his voice, “I needed to hear that.” That’s all he said, and then he disappeared back into the crowd. Since then, I try to remember that it’s not the audience who hears a story, but each individual person. One person, perhaps, will find something meaningful in my story. I have to tell my story to only that one person and it will be worthwhile. And if it is meaningful to that person, it is probably meaningful to others.

2. Tell the ending.

It is my dream to tell An Evening of Endings, a storytelling performance built around the last lines of my stories. In my dream, I offer the audience a list of endings and they get to choose which ending they would most like to hear. All I really want is to tell the ending of the story; that’s what counts most, it’s why I want to tell the story in the first place. But, for it to have any meaning, I need to tell them the beginning and the middle.

Put another way, it’s easy to rehearse your story, starting at the beginning each time, and pay a great deal of attention to the beginning and the middle, but then run out of rehearsal time before you get to the end. If, when you rehearse the next time, you start again at the beginning, you may never spend adequate time thinking through and rehearsing the end.

Put yet another way, when you develop a story, pay attention to the beginning, because that’s what attracts the listener’s attention, and pay attention to the middle, because that’s what carries the story and retains the listener’s attention. But most important, pay attention to the ending, because that’s what brings it all together – and generates the applause.

3. Use the Vulcan Mind Meld.

I have long admired the Vulcan Mind Meld as a perfect form of communication. (If you are not familiar with it, this is a method used in the science fiction world of Star Trek to join minds together – “My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts.”) Since it is a fictional ideal, we must use the next best things: images and words. As a storyteller, I might think my vehicle is words. But this is incorrect. In my head I have an image, and I want to get that image into your head. Words are the vehicle, but the image is their source and destination. By being aware of the images I have in my head, and how I zoom in or out and switch from one to the next, I can tell a better story and produce better images in the heads of my listeners.

4. Tell a story that the listener needs to hear, or one that you need to tell.

I attended a dinner at a professional conference and sat next to a person I had only recently met. Before long, steeped in conversation, she started telling me about her sister. It seems her sister struggled with severe social anxiety and was under the care of a doctor who managed her medications. After listening for some time, I told her the story of the Turkey Prince. I didn’t know if that story would be of any help but I thought it might. When she saw me the next day she came over to thank me for telling that story. It is a good day for storytellers when the stories they tell are useful for their listeners to hear.
Sometimes I tell a story because I need to tell it. It represents something meaningful and important to me and I feel good when I tell it. With apologies to Descartes, “I have shared my story, therefore I am.” When the story I need to tell and the story the listener needs to hear are the same story, it is a very good day.

5.There is always another side to the story.

Whenever I or one of my sisters would complain about what someone did, describe what happened in some incident, or comment on something we read in the newspaper, my father would say, “there is always another side to the story.” It helped us build perspective, to appreciate that no matter how confidently someone told their side of the story or how sure we were of our own understanding, there was always another way to look at it. For a storyteller, this is all so true. We can tell a story from the point of view of any of its characters or objects. And even if we don’t, it’s often useful to think about the story from different perspectives as a way to gain a fuller understanding of the story. But we don’t have to tell every side of a story, we need only tell one side – and let the listener wonder about the others.

6. My story gets longer before it gets shorter.

I usually start with an idea – or some related ideas – of a story and then develop it. Whether I write it down in narrative or outline form, or keep it all in my head, it grows. It gets longer and wider and then, as I shape the story – deciding which details to omit, retain, add, and expand – the story starts to get shorter. I allow the story to get messy, knowing that before long it will settle down. I’m not smart enough to know how it will end up, so I have to wait to find out. And that’s OK.

7. Every story I tell is a story about me.

This is clearly the case when I am telling a story about myself, or a story about family or friends where I am a character in the story. But I am trying to say something broader. Every story I tell says something about me. The stories say something about me simply because I choose to tell them. They are meaningful to me – I am attracted to them in some way, and that says something about me. The way I tell it, what I emphasize, what I omit, what I change, what gestures and expressions I use, how I involve the listeners, all tells a story about me. If you have a story that isn’t about you – about what you find important, meaningful, humorous, intriguing – don’t try to make it fit; don’t fake it. Instead, tell a story that says something about you.

So ends Sandy's Seven Sagacious Storytelling Sayings. They are not sufficient! I’m eager to savor the succinct storytelling suggestions you supply.

Download a pdf version here

Friday, May 8, 2015

It’s Hard to Tell a Hug

My father was a storyteller. It was his everyday way of communicating. I discovered that I too am a storyteller. I have retold his stories and told my own stories about him. I told so many stories about my father—and then it dawned on me. I wasn’t telling any stories about my mother. I began to feel bad. Surely, she deserved to have stories told about her. I thought about it. Why wasn’t I telling any stories about my mother? I didn’t have any stories about my mother! My father was a storyteller, so it was easy to tell his stories, but my mother was not. And while it’s easy to tell a story, it’s hard to tell a hug.
~ ~ ~
When I was four years old my mother asked me for the very first time if I wanted to stay home alone. My three older sisters were at school; my father was at work; I was home with my mother, and when she had to run an errand, I had to go with her. That was just the way it was. But here, for the first time, she said, “I have to go shopping. Would you like to stay home or do you want to come with me?” I used to get a headache going shopping—what am I saying, I still get headaches going shopping—so I said, “I’ll stay home.”

As soon as she left, I wanted my mommy. I thought, Maybe she’ll come back for her keys. She was always forgetting her keys. So I put on my coat—she had bought me this dressy, full-length coat. And it was itchy wool that I hated. It was a black and white weave with a matching hat. I pulled that hat over my head and the earflaps over my ears and I tied that itchy wool string under my chin—I hated that hat more than the coat—and I stood there in the middle of the living room waiting for my mommy.

When finally she returned, she opened the door, saw me standing there in the middle of the living room with my hat and coat on, and instinctively, intuitively, she knew exactly what was going on. She quickly leaned down to put her packages on the floor, rushed over to me, picked me up in her arms and hugged me, and I was … relieved. And I cried and she cried and her whole body shook. She was not a slight woman and when she held you and her body shook, you really knew it. After some time I regained my composure, and my mother regained her composure, so she put me back down and we went about doing our little-boy-and-mommy things.
~ ~ ~
When I was twelve years old my Boy Scout troop was going to summer camp for the first time. We went camping once a month religiously all through the school year but we had never gone camping during the summer, much less for two whole weeks. When I heard this in the beginning of the year, I really didn’t believe it. I thought sure that, by the time the summer rolled around, for one reason or another this deal would have dissolved. To say that it was beyond my wildest dreams would suggest too high a degree of probability. It was just inconceivable, other­worldly, and I didn’t take it seriously until that day my parents drove me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal with my foot locker and my backpack and I joined my fellow scouts on the bus to the Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp in the Catskill Mountains. I didn’t think about home once until the weekend in the middle of our two-week stay, when the camp had “Parents Day.”

Our campsite was set along the sloping ground of a wooded hillside. At the top of the hill was the dirt roadway; a footpath led down the hill through the woods until you came to a level area. Here was a clearing with a huge boulder, our campfire circle, and also the main cabin, where the scoutmaster stayed. Then another long slope until the campsite leveled off again. That’s where the lean-tos were, where all the boys stayed. We were down there, all the boys, expecting our parents to show up before long, and we were neatening things up, shaking the leaves out of our sleeping bags, trying to make it look like we were taking care of the place, when I heard this voice bellowing from the top of the hill.


And there was my mother, a large woman, impatient to see me, bounding down that hill. I strode up the hill to meet her and we met in that campfire area in the center of the camp. She put her arms around me and hugged me and—at this point I was tall enough to see eye-to-eye with her—I hugged her back. She sobbed and her whole body shook. And all I thought was, The whole camp is looking at us. But I wasn’t going to let anyone know I was embarrassed. I wasn’t going to push her away. I was … tolerant. I stood there hugging her until she regained her composure and then we went about doing our Boy-Scout-Camp-Parents-Day things.
~ ~ ~
I was seventeen when I went off to college, and I never did move back to my parents’ house, nor did I come home to visit all that often—but when I did, I would come through that front door and, right there in the foyer, my mother would be waiting for me and she would take me in her arms and she would hug me. I would bend down a little to put my head next to hers and she would sob, keeping herself from crying out loud and her whole body would shake and we would hug each other, and I was … understanding. And then after a time she would regain her composure and we would go about doing our young-adult-son-and-mother things.

That was the way it was. It was like a ritual every time. No, that’s not right, it’s not right to call it a ritual. There was nothing prescribed or predetermined. It was the real thing. It was genuine each and every time.
~ ~ ~
I was 29 the beginning of that summer when my wife and I were going to get married. The wedding was scheduled for Labor Day. It would be in our house, so we spent the whole summer getting things ready—painting, renovating, buying new furniture, ordering wedding invitations, finding a caterer.

It was an evening in July when I got a call from my sister, Selma.

She had just come from the doctor with my mother. My mother hadn’t been feeling well the past many months, maybe a year or more. She was tired. She had what she described as a “low-grade fever.” She would go to the doctor, the same doctor she’d been seeing for decades, and he would say, “Annette, you’re getting older, you’re in your late sixties. You just have to take it easy. Take some aspirin. Rest. That’s the way it is, Annette.”

On this particular visit, the old doctor was out of town so she saw one of the new doctors, a younger man. He examined her, looked through her files, noted her history of breast cancer, and immediately ordered some tests. My sister Selma had just come back from visiting the doctor where he gave her the report. My mother had colon cancer and it had advanced into her kidneys and liver and the prospects were not good.

I listened without responding, the phone pressed hard to my ear. Selma had many details to relay and, hearing my silence, just continued. She said, “I asked the doctor if she would be able to make it to my little brother’s wedding. My little brother, the youngest of the family, the baby, the only boy.”

The doctor asked, “When is the wedding?”

Selma told him, “September.”

He replied, “Early September, or late?”
~ ~ ~
My mother did make it to the wedding. She was in good spirits. The members of our two families gathered at our house and moved about from room to room to meet each other, talking and eating, while my mother greeted everyone as she sat there on our couch—our new, white, Haitian-cotton couch, the kind with that coarse cotton weave—in front of the windows in the living room. I can still see her sitting there, beaming at me.

After the wedding, just about every weekend, my wife and I made the three-hour trip from Albany to Maspeth, in the western end of Queens, to visit my parents, to see my mother, to help out, all the way until the next spring. She died on April fourth.
~ ~ ~
Two-and-a-half years later, we were about to have our first baby. We had firmly decided, if it was a girl, to name her Anna, after my mother Annette. But if it was a boy, we were unsure. We might name him Benjamin, after my uncle, or Paul, after my wife’s uncle, both of whom had recently died. We had not decided, even right up until my wife was in labor. In the maternity ward of the hospital one of the interns asked, “And if it’s a boy, what will you call him?”

She said, “Benjamin Paul.”

That was the first I heard it. He was a big boy, nine pounds, six ounces, Benjamin Paul.

He was born in December, so he was just five months old the following spring when Mother’s Day came around. Of course, for me, Mother’s Day was not the same, and never to be again. I wondered, after all, if Mother’s Day had been invented for the mother, or if it had been invented for the child.

This Mother’s Day was special, my wife’s first Mother’s Day and Ben’s too. My wife was enjoying the day—out of the house for a while—and I stayed home with Ben. We were in the living room, warmed by the sun streaming in the front windows, sitting on that white Haitian-cotton couch. Well, Baby Ben was pretty good at spitting up and I suppose that white couch had by that point acquired a somewhat mottled appearance.

He started to cry, so I picked him up and put him on my shoulder, with a diaper there to absorb the spit-up that I knew would be forthcoming. I held him there and patted his little back. He was quieting down and I was thinking. Here’s this little baby who’s completely dependent on me. He can’t take care of himself. Why, he can’t even lift up his own head! Yet I love him.

He fell asleep, his hefty little body a relaxed weight slumped over mine, his head heavy on my drool-soaked shoulder, while I tried to come up with an idea for what he should give his mother on this special day. But my thoughts returned to this person-to-be. He’s incapable of linguistic expression, completely helpless, taking everything and giving nothing. And yet I love him completely, without reservation, without qualification; complete, unadulterated, unmitigated, unalterable love. I love him more than the sun loves to shine.

And in that moment, I realized how my mother felt about me. For the first time I knew what that hug meant. I cried out loud, “I didn’t understand! I didn’t understand, Mom! I’m sorry.”

So Benjamin, in his wisdom, prepared a Mother’s Day card. On the front cover it said, “My First Mother’s Day,” and inside:
For the times when I am waking but you are still asleep
And the times when I am cranky with my diapers in a heap
For all these times I won’t recall, I’m just a baby boy
Life is simple, so direct, and because of you it’s joy.
I love you Mommy, in my baby-boy way, and still, when I will grow
I’ll love you Mommy yet someday in ways I don’t yet know.
And it was signed:
To Mother on Mother’s Day
Love, Benjamin, age five months
~ ~ ~
Ben now lives in Brooklyn and is a computer specialist for an insurance company. Sam, his younger brother, works as a paramedic in Amsterdam, New York, while he completes his bachelor’s degree. Their little sister, Anna—named after my mother Annette and born April fourth, the same date my mother died—graduated from college and will begin her fellowship this fall at an environmental education institute. I don’t see these children very often, but when I do, you can be sure I give each of them a hug. I wish there was some way I could just tell you what that hug really means. But it’s like I said at the start. It’s easy to tell a story, but it’s hard to tell a hug.

As published in Stories We Tell: Tales from the Story Circle of the Capital District, This Too Shall Pass Press, Albany, New York, 2014.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Getting to the Essence of Storytelling

(Click for larger image)
Getting to the Essence of Storytelling was the title of a 45-minute workshop I facilitated at a meeting of the Story Circle of the Capital District. The topic was precipitated by our recently established Speakers Bureau, the purpose of which is to provide brief, educational presentations about storytelling at the meetings of professional, business, and civic organizations.

I wrote three prompts on a flip chart, posted on the wall:
  • Getting to the essence of storytelling
  • How to explain what storytelling is and how it is valuable in various settings
  • What content is essential to include in a 30-minute presentation on storytelling
I asked our storytellers to think individually about these prompts and then offer their ideas, one at a time, to the group. As each idea was offered, I asked that person to write it down on a large Post-It Note and stick it up on the wall. After about 15 or 20 minutes we had an impressive collection of ideas. We reviewed and clarified them, answering any questions about what they meant.
Each idea on a large Post-It Note, stuck on the wall.
(Click for larger image)

Next, everyone came up to the wall and reorganized the Post-It Notes, moving similar and related ideas near each other. Lastly, we conducted a "sticky-dot poll." Each person got a strip of six sticky dots and was asked to place them on the ideas they felt were most important. Afterwards, I did some additional editing and reorganizing of my own, resulting in the following map of ideas:

Idea Map: Getting to the Essence of Storytelling
(Click for larger image)
The Getting to the Essence of Storytelling Idea Map is available in PDF format here and is also appended below in outline form.

Of course, a 45-minute workshop is hardly sufficient to tackle such an large topic. Nonetheless, it was a good start and  we produced some interesting and useful results. And what's missing from the above account is all of the wonderful interaction and enlightening discussion.

To the story!

Getting to the Essence of Storytelling
  1. Generative
    1. Emotional experience
    2. Generate new ideas & feeling in the listener's heart
    3. Expand consciousness
    4. Truth vs. truth
    5. Generative/ triggers memories
  2. Teach & Entertain
    1. Need for intellectual reflection
    2. Stories are to inform
    3. Teach/ learn/ moral
    4. Lessons in stories
  3. Organization/ Structure
    1. Opening, middle, closing
    2. Tease, tell, told
      1. Tell them what you're going to tell them
      2. Tell them
      3. Tell them what you told them
    3. Engage, focus, review
    4. Story vs. other narrative/ spoken word forms
  4. Connection & Community
    1. Preserving culture
    2. Cultural exchange
    3. Human touch
  5. Values
    1. Is it positive? uplifting?
    2. Does it help society?
    3. What is its purpose?
    4. What is the value to the audience
    5. Personal perspectives
  6. Ingredients
    1. Character development
    2. Attention:
      1. Getters
      2. Keepers
      3. Remembers
    3. Setting
    4. Precious or critical moments
  7. Other
    1. Anyone can tell a story and get better at it
    2. How women are depicted in story
    3. Words into meaning
    4. Hero's journey
    5. Ethics of story
    6. When (not) to tell a story
    7. Oral tradition
    8. Instruct (explain) with a story; story as example
      1. Tell a story; give an example

Monday, February 16, 2015

Here are my sentences for The Great American Sentence Contest, but the contest allows only five entries. Which ones would you choose?
I held the envelopes in my hand and scanned one after the next, moving the envelope on top to the bottom of the stack, looking for anything that might require immediate attention, when my eyes fixed upon a business envelope, addressed like all the others to “Samuel Schuman,” my father, but with the return address from the New York State Lottery. (from Lucky Numbers)
My father was a storyteller, so it was easy to tell his stories, but my mother was not, and while it’s easy to tell a story, it’s hard to tell a hug.  (from It's Hard to Tell a Hug)
I pulled that hat over my head and the earflaps over my ears and I tied that itchy wool string under my chin—I hated that hat more than the coat—and I stood there in the middle of the living room waiting for my mommy.  (from It's Hard to Tell a Hug)
We were down there, all the boys, expecting our parents to show up before long, and we were neatening things up, shaking the leaves out of our sleeping bags, trying to make it look like we were taking care of the place, when I heard this voice bellowing from the top of the hill.  (from It's Hard to Tell a Hug)
I picked up the trumpet that Sam had taken out and, noticing how Sam and Anna’s eyes followed it, placed it carefully back in its well-worn, purple velvet-lined case, closed the hinged top, snapped in the clasps, and pushed it back under Sam’s bed. (from Sam's Saxophone)
You'd have to be crazy to go swimming on that day, the weather was so bad, but we didn’t want to miss the one day of the week that we had to swim, so we went out onto the beach and swam way out to the raft, which was not so difficult for my older brother, but more than a bit of a swim for me.  (from The Swim)
As I lost sight of him in the distance—the wind blowing harder, the waves bigger and choppier, the streaks of lightning and cracks of thunder more terrible—finally I jumped in and began to swim.  (from The Swim)
There, among the dirty old screws, washers, and nuts, was a small, plastic magnifying glass—the round, magnifying end the size of a nickel, with a plastic handle that ended with a little hole so you could put it on a key ring—and I was transported to a day, probably 45 years earlier, when I was four or maybe five or six years old. (from The Prize Inside)