Archive for the ‘Story’ Category

This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I’ve taken a break from the blog for the past month or so – hope you all didn’t leave me. We’ve had a great summer – proved by my lack of productivity. It’s good to be back.

I was talking with a good friend and he mentioned that his father was always sending him jokes over the Internet. I nodded – it’s a common practice today. “What’s weird,” he said, “is that it used to be that whenever I talked to my dad, he always had a joke to tell me. Now he never tells me any. He says he can’t remember them.”

I don’t think it’s just old age – I think it’s the nature of digital memory and the way we relate to each other. I remember a discussion I had with a young accountant on airplane. When I told him I was a storyteller he shook his head. “I can’t even remember a joke, ” he said. He, too, noted that he gets hundreds of jokes over the Internet, but can’t remember any of them.

And how many people don’t tell jokes because they say, “I just can’t tell a joke”?

This all got me thinking about the nature and function of jokes. Jokes are the grease in oral conversation, and seem to be a bit of a dying art form. They are, in fact, something you have to practice a little, and they are less common than they were a decade or two ago.

The problem with jokes on the Internet is the assumption that the joke’s main function is to make us laugh wherever we are, even when we’re alone staring at a screen.

That’s wrong, I think.

Jokes are, mainly, about relationships and the social setting. A joke read alone on a computer has little social function. It’s only in the company of people that they serve a purpose.

Telling jokes bear great relationship to the telling of stories. What are jokes for, anyway? Here’s three things:

First, jokes are a mid-point between a greeting and a conversation. Because they are structured, they are little set pieces in which the teller and listener get to play more formal roles – there’s less at stake, since nothing deep is being required. The conversation is going to go deeper, hopefully, but jokes serve as a way to spend time before the conversation goes to another level. They’re like talking about the weather and sports. We can say that they’re meaningless, but those placeholders have a function in conversation.

Second – jokes define the group we belong to (even if it’s as broad as the human race). Knowing the right joke to tell is critical – it shows a sensitivity to the setting and the people. We’ve all been in a place with a group of people where someone told the wrong joke. Oh boy, I’ve done it myself. My wife rolls her eyes. There’s a stony silence. Whoops. The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group. A joke says “You’re like me – you’ll think this is funny.” So men tell jokes they wouldn’t tell in groups with women, and vice versa. Teachers tell jokes about teaching and students, accountants tell jokes about accounting (if they can remember them). Republicans, Democrats. You get the idea. When you tell a joke to someone and it works, you’ve established a connection that says, “We have this kind of humor, we think this way.” In that way, it’s a deepening of a bond – more so than talking about the rain last night. And if you miscalculate, you drive a division between yourself and the listener. A joke is a little bit of a risk, too.

Third – jokes do make us laugh, but it’s not just laughter for laughter’s sake. Laughter drops our defenses and makes us more open to the people we’re with. Laughter and humor are important steps in a relationship, even if it’s with a person you meet on a plane or train, or standing in line. Jokes are a way of breaking down walls.

So when I hear my friend say that his father, a life-long joke teller just sends jokes and doesn’t tell them, I know something’s being lost.

And as for those who say they can’t tell a joke – well, some people have a better sense of timing and all, but mostly it just comes from doing it. A joke is rarely well told the first time – around the seventh or eighth try, it gets into shape. Saying you can’t tell a joke is a little like saying you can’t sing. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

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I gave a keynote this month at Sharing the Fire, the New England conference on storytelling sponsored by LANES about storytelling as a craft. In the talk, I outlined some areas of skill development and questions storytellers should ask themselves about their work. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. Below is the text of a hand-out that focuses on the questions. It’s an attempt to encourage the recognition of storytelling as a craft that aspires towards art.

Questions for Evaluating Storytelling Performance

Along with many others in the storytelling community, over the past several years I have been giving thought to what are hallmarks of good storytelling. While storytelling is in many ways still a folk art, and because of that, something that many kinds of people do, there’s a tendency to be lax in a discussion of what are measures of excellence. But if we are to encourage excellence in storytelling so that it is recognized as an art, we need to have a discussion about what we find in accomplished storytelling. This is not a question so much of what standards critics should use in evaluating performance (although they may do that), but a challenge to us as artists to search for some language to use in looking at our work.

In an effort to foster this discussion I’ve come up with a list of questions, or queries, a storyteller might ask of him/herself. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather a way of seeing. Not all the questions I offer here are useful in every situation, but I’ve tried to think about what I see in a good storyteller, and what I miss when I see a storyteller not succeeding.

For me, reading the list of questions makes me aware of my shortcomings and failures. But that’s okay. I think the important thing is to become conscious of what we’re doing and look carefully at our work. Nobody does all these things I’ve identified. Good storytellers may be so good in one area that we forgive their transgressions in other areas, or those areas simply become less important. But when something isn’t working, and we know it, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why it’s not working. These questions are a place to start.

Narrative form
Is the structure of the piece strong? does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?

Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page?

Voice and physical instrument
Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?

Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout?

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships?

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces?

Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say?

©2009 by Bill Harley

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Here’s a story about the holiday season. I wish I could say it was about generosity, but it’s really about greed and gluttony. Best wishes to everyone.

When I was growing up, the holiday season always had a special kind of excitement – there were so many people around, no one could watch everything I was doing.

It’s a weird thing for a kid –the more adults, the less they notice. One adult – police state, ten adults – joyous anarchy.

This meant it was possible to tease my younger brother more, or annoy my older brother more. There I was right in the middle, where I could annoy everyone, and since the grownups were so busy, they didn’t notice me!

And there were parties. Everyone in our neighborhood had parties. We would tromp over to their houses and the grownups would stand in the living room and the kitchen and talk and talk and talk, and as long as no one bled to death, the kids could do anything they wanted.

But we were ignored by and large, and it was very rarely we heard any adult say what they said during the rest of the year –

“What do you think you’re doing?”

There is no good answer to that question.

The only sane response is, “I don’t know.”

The best part of all that confusion and commotion was that there was a lot of food around and no one to tell you not to eat it.

My mom made cookies. There were tins and tins of cookies of all kinds. No one knew who ate them.

I did.

There was all kind of cheese and crackers at our house and other people’s houses.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

My grandmother made her famous yeast rolls. They tasted so good with butter on them! She made hundreds of them.

No one knew who ate them all.

I did.

The Christmas I was eight, everyone was coming to our house. All the living grandparents (three). Distant cousins. Strangers off the street. Even my brothers were invited, since they lived in the house. So many people were coming, I would be sleeping in a sleeping bag on my parent’s bedroom floor. My mother spent all week preparing the Christmas Eve dinner, telling us not to eat anything in the house.

Our neighbors, the Sogards, invited us to an afternoon party on Christmas Eve. My mom said we would go around 4 o’clock and visit for a short time, while the ham was in the oven, then come back and have our dinner. We had to put on corduroy pants that made weird noises and dress shoes and tuck in our shirts. (“Tuck in your shirt! Tuck in your shirt!”, they said, like it was the only thing that was keeping civilization from completely falling apart.) All the food was in our kitchen, ready to go. My mom had appetizers covered with plastic wrap. I snuck some crackers and cheese and my mom came in and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

I was eating, that’s what I was doing. Who knew if I’d ever eat again?

At the Sogards, it was almost all grownups, except for their worthless grandchilren – all younger than five years old. You couldn’t even use them as toys – what was their purpose?

Mrs. Sogard started bringing out the food. There were crackers; there was some sausage that was hard to cut; there was a huge block of cheddar cheese – when I cut a piece that must have weighed half a pound, my dad saw me and said “What do you think you’re doing?”

More and more people came. The whole neighborhood arrived, it seemed, and Mrs. Sogard kept putting out food. Soon there was an impossible amount of food – too much to be monitored.

And way too many people for parents to pay attention to me.

And then Mrs. Sogard brought out a very interesting appetizer. They looked promising – tiny little hot dogs, wrapped up in little bits of freshly baked bread that looked like my grandmothers fresh rolls.

“What are those?” I asked.

“They’re pigs in a blanket,” she said. “Would you like to try one?”

“Sure,” I said.

What an exotic food! And they were the perfect size! Why wasn’t all food this size, so you could hold five of them in your hand?

She took a little paper plate and put one on it and gave it to me with a napkin.

“Try one and see if you like it,” she said.

Like it?

I loved it.

It was the perfect food – freshly baked bread and hot dogs. It had all the important food groups in it.

I circled around and had another one.

My older brother discovered them.

“Pigs in a blanket!” he said. “I love pigs in a blanket.”

Not as much as I did. And I believed whoever loved them more should get more.

My brother took one.

I took two.

“Hey,” he said. “Stop eating all of them. Don’t be a pig.”

I kept circling the table, like a Piper Cub practicing take offs and landings. I watched the grownups. Every time they took a pig in a blanket I worried there would not be enough for me. Desire is nine-tenths of ownership, and they all belonged to me. Every time I thought no one was looking I took a couple more. Once I took four in each hand. No one noticed.

Finally, there was just one on the plate. I was standing close to it, wondering what I should do, when Mrs. Sogard came up. “Oh my,” she said, “those are very popular. Would you like the last one?”

Well, since she asked, I took it – only being polite.

“I’ll have to go get some more,” she said.

More? More?

I loved Christmas.

She took the plate and disappeared into the kitchen and came back with another plate, filled with dozens of pigs in a blanket.

Who knows how many pigs in a blanket I ate? Too many to count.

On my last attack of the plate, I took five in one hand. My brother saw me. “Stop eating all of those pigs in a blanket! You’ll spoil your dinner.”

He didn’t care about me spoiling my dinner – it was just something adults said, so he was saying it to me. He cared about the pigs in a blanket.

My mother heard us arguing. She came up and I tried to hide them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said

“Well, you can’t put them back. Just don’t take any more.”

There were no more to take. It was the first time in my whole life I was allowed to eat everything I wanted to eat. I was thankful there were no more, in fact.

Then we went home for our big dinner.

They put food on my plate. I stared at it. Who cared about food? It seemed the most uninteresting thing in the world. I was totally dazed.

“Don’t you like my rolls?” my grandmother asked.

I nibbled on one. Something about them didn’t taste good anymore. Same with the ham and the mashed potatoes and the chocolate cake and all the cookies my mom had been protecting for weeks. All ruined, somehow.

We hung up our stockings. I rolled out the sleeping bag in my parent’s room and climbed in. My brain was excited, but my stomach was not. It woke me up in the middle of the night.

“Get up,” it said. “I want to give some of these back.”

“You can’t,” I said, “they’re yours now. I gave them to you and you have to keep them.”

“I don’t want them.”

“You have to keep them,” I said.

“No, I don’t,” my stomach insisted.

I didn’t even make it to my parent’s bathroom.

My stomach gave back dozens of them – many of them it had barely even looked at. The crime was obvious and impressive. There they were-dozens of pigs in a blanket on my parent’s bedroom carpet.

My mom was up with me all night, while I was dragging myself on my knees back and forth from my sleeping bag to the bathroom.

“What did you think you were doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said between explosions. My stomach gave back things I had given it months before.

It was a Christmas I have never forgotten. My mother remembered it, too.

Leave it to my brother to make the final comment on Christmas morning.

I could barely open my presents. I sat on the couch with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, my stomach still turning somersaults. I wouldn’t eat for a week.

“What’ wrong with Bill?” one of my grandmothers asked.

“Look,” he said. “It’s a pig in a blanket.”

It wasn’t funny then.

But it’s funny now.

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In storytelling workshops with teachers, I regularly ask them to tell a story about a teacher that had an influence on them. This leads to a discussion about what makes a good teacher, and opens up the door for them to talk about their work in a narrative way. It also emphasizes a notion I mentioned in an earlier blog – the “structure” of teaching is not a political one, but rather an unbroken line through centuries of teachers who influenced people who then became teachers themselves.

What comes out of those teacher stories in the exercise is always interesting. It is usually a story about some kindness offered, or some revealing act on the part of the teacher – something that shows them as a person.

I was doing this exercise last month for a school district in California. When we got back together I asked, “How many of your memories with those teachers had to do with the curriculum?” I looked around. No one spoke, no one raised their hand.

Finally, one of the older teachers said, “It never has anything to do with the curriculum.”

Everyone in the room nodded.

I’ve heard this response before and it makes my point in the workshop that it’s the culture of a classroom or a school that really encourages learning to take place. A kindness given to a student, or a story told, gives them courage to take a chance on learning something, knowing they’ll be supported. It may even encourage them to become a teacher. (Aaagh! Not that!) Without that culture, the best curriculum in the world is going to have problems. Some kids will learn under almost any conditions, but many others, especially ones at risk, are never going to get anywhere without those moments of kindness.

I have in my mind a thought about this. “Love is in between.” It’s not the part you notice, or the time curriculum developers think about. But kindness or openness really acts like mortar in a brick building. You have all these bricks you’re using to construct the building, but something needs to hold them together. We don’t notice the mortar, we notice the bricks. But it’s the mortar, the binding agent, in between the bricks that helps the bricks do their job.

Okay enough metaphor. You get my point, I hope. The kindness, the stories, and the building of community seem like small things, and they certainly are in a formal evaluation of what was learned.

But no mortar, no building.

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Brother Blue - holy fool

When I was a sophomore in college in 1974, my roommate came back to the room one night and said, “You won’t believe this guy I saw. He told stories. For over an hour! He’s all dressed in blue. He was like a jazz musician. You would have loved him. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He was right. I would have loved him, and I did, eventually. And he was right – I never had seen anything like it. Four years later I was living in Cambridge when I saw Brother Blue for the first time, doing his street gig at Harvard Square. I knew it had to be the same person my friend described. Who else could it have been?

Blue (Hugh Morgan Hill) died last week after a very long, wonderful, and unique life. For those unfamiliar with Blue, you can find out more about him here - http://www.brotherblue.com.

My friend and mentor Benny Reehl told me when I started performing “Don’t be the best, be the only”. Blue was the living example of that advice – to say he was a storyteller is a feeble stab at putting someone in a box when there are no boxes, no words, that quite fit who he was. I kind of pride myself for living a slightly abnormal life – but compared to Blue, I’m just a little Establishment drone. With Ruth there to make sure he didn’t float away, he lived the bravest of lives, saying again and again what he thought was most important.

That is not to say it was always what people wanted to hear, or that it always made sense to everyone around him (me included). Blue, to me, was the embodiment of the holy fool – a mantle he joyfully accepted. Fools are not always welcome and sometimes inappropriate. THAT’S THEIR JOB!. They can make people nervous. Presenters and festival promoters approached him with some trepidation. As someone who has worn the presenter hat, I remember worrying about what Blue was going to do. I learned to relax and stop worrying about what others felt, and instead paid attention to how I felt – his work was a Rorschach test for how you viewed the world, and people regularly failed to adjust. Just because he was supposed to be on stage at two pm didn’t mean he would be. You hired Blue to be present, not to have him do what you wanted. Sometimes he went on and on. Sometimes he spoke for only a minute. Sometimes he added to what another performer was doing. Uninvited. To be in Blue’s presence was a reminder that the world is full of possibilities, many of which had not yet occurred to you.

In the end, Blue’s message was about love, and that is an awkward and problematical message for this troubled world. As far as that goes, we can remember Blue as a performer, but it may be as a listener, an audience, that he reached people the deepest and most movingly. Blue always sat in the front row . You knew he was there. Everyone in the audience knew he was there. He nodded. He sighed. He shook his head in agreement. When you were bombing, he was there to go down with you, denying your failure and finding the good. And inevitably, after the performance, he would stand and offer his heartfelt appreciation for what the performer had done.

I think, in a way, Blue had a reverse charisma – some performers and public figures make everybody feel that they have a special relationship with the performer – each audience member knows that celebrity in a special way. That is a rare thing – I think of Springsteen having that effect, and I think Obama had that effect during last year’s campaign. “I know him in a way no one else does.”

Blue’s act of knowing was different from that. I was never exactly sure who Blue was, but I had the feeling (and I think others did too) that Blue looked at me, listened to me, and knew who I really was – so much so that it was hard at times to talk to him – I was almost embarrassed by the good he saw in me.

How many people can you say that about?

Blue was crazy. Good crazy. Something I want to be when I grow up. We’ll miss him, and need to make sure there’s room for the good crazy in this world that so sorely needs it.

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Sometime in the early Nineties, I started to write a book about a kid and a bicycle. At the beginning, I had only a vague idea of what the story was, and an even vaguer idea of how to write a book. I got rid of the parents in the early chapters (first rule in children’s literature – get rid of the parents so the children can become the lead actors in their own lives). The mother died in a horrible accident involving an umbrella, a can opener, and an English muffin; the father disappeared in a hot air balloon. I inserted some mean people (Aunt Inga, who makes our hero sleep in the basement of her home). Following my mentors’ leads (Dickens and Dahl) I gave people compound names that reflected their personalities (Dickens had Thomas Gradgrind, I had Anthony Gritbun).

The book had promise. I sent it out and it got rejected. People said they did like it but not enough to publish it. (Hmm, maybe just being nice…) I rewrote it again. And again. I let it sit, neglected, for three or four years. I picked it up again and had friends read it and be as brutal as they could in their comments. I threw out characters, created new ones, rewrote the biographies and back stories of major characters. A couple of publishers nibbled.

Then, success, of a sort. Tim Wadham at the Maricopa County Library in Phoenix decided to publish it as a serial novel online. Simultaneously, Peachtree Publishers took it on.

The editors at Peachtree challenged every weak link in the plot. I had to rewrite again and again. Another year of rewrites. We changed the title from “Flyboy” to “The Amazing Flight of Darius Frobisher.”

Darius came out in 2006 – over ten years after I wrote the first draft. Fame and fortune? Not quite. Relief and a sense of accomplishment. Yes, those things.

It’s had a pretty good life. At shows, I regularly run into kids who say, “This is the best book I ever read.” Children are given to hyperbole, but hey, it works for me. A number of teachers have told me it’s their favorite read-aloud book to their classes.

This fall, two new milestones – it’s out in paperback, and it’s printed in Japanese. I got the Japanese edition in the mail the other day. It is drop dead beautiful. Who knew my name could be written in kanji? The text is beautiful, it’s a wonderful size, and it has a ribbon book marker in the spine. I wonder what “Anthony Gritbun” and “Colonel Crapper” sound like in Japanese.

Darius in Japanese!

Darius in Japanese!

And as far as a paperback edition, one of my joys is seeing a kid scrape together enough dollar bills and quarters to buy a book on their own. Paperbacks make it more possible.

I am not an incredibly patient person. I write something and I want it to be in a book or on a recording the next day. And I’m not as brilliant as I’d wish. It takes me a long time to figure things out. I guess if I were smarter, and more diligent, things would happen faster and I wouldn’t have to be patient. But my experience with art (and life) is that things take a very long time to come to fruition, they sometimes ,can’t be hurried and they usually don’t look like what you thought they were going to look like when you started.

But Darius is alive and kicking. One of the questions I get regularly from teachers and parents and children about the book is, “What happened to Darius? Where is his father? When is the next book coming out?” I’ve put all those things off. But after all these years, Darius is reappearing regularly in my thoughts, and I think I know what happens to him.

I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long”. I take that to mean it lasts, but it takes a long time to make it. You just hope that the art you’re making gets a chance to live.

Oh, and by the way, I’d love it if you’d read the book. You don’t have to get the Japanese edition.

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SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

When I do workshop with teachers on stories and storytelling, I talk about how we perceive the infrastructure of education and teaching. What some would have us believe is that the structure of education and learning is: a state board of education, then a town board of ed, then a superintendent, then a bunch of principals, and then finally, the teachers. Teachers are dependent on the people above them for their work and their direction.

That’s true politically and economically, but when I take a long term view of learning and education, that’s not how I see it.

Instead, I see the teachers working. And I see the teachers who made them want to be teachers, and the teachers before them that made them want to be teachers. That structure, or lineage, goes back tens of thousands of years in an unbroken chain. And it stretches ahead to the people who will be touched by good teaching and want to teach. This is a very impressive structure. Long after whatever system we operate here to facilitate learning is gone, this other, more vertical, structure will continue – even if we end up in some kind of Blade Runner post-apocalyptic B movie script. Some teacher in rags with a few books or hard drives, or whatever is in their head, will teach a younger person because someone taught the teacher when she was young.

That’s true for any kind of teaching – reading teachers, guitar teachers, dance instructors, of after-school chess coaches. I find this thought comforting when I get frustrated with the current structures we have.

I was reminded of all this when Michele, our office manager and computer maven, sent me a link to a collection of photos on Slate called “Thanks Teach!” that shows teachers over the last fifty years working in a variety of settings. What comes through is the incredible humanity of the situation (as opposed to the fellow in my last post, “I Meet My Enemy”). My favorite is the teacher in Korea with the poster paint. So much for organization.

Happy teaching. When you get depressed, think about the kid in your class who is the next one in line to carry the torch.

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A little while ago I was doing school visits in a city in California – four or five schools in a week. It’s part of the itinerant traveling whatever-I-am that I never know what to expect when I show up at a school or library or theater.

That week I got it all.

One of the schools had kids’ drawings of my books, stories and songs hanging from the rafters and plastered on the walls. That’s enough to give anyone an overhealthy sense of themselves. Because they’d been listening and reading, I had something to offer – shows, workshop, even a stop in the teacher’s lounge for some high-end coffee.
What’s not to like?

Then I got to the last school of the week. It was just a reminder that I’m not the center of the universe. And that some people don’t get what I do. To them, I am just a distraction in an otherwise very well-ordered and planned educational project.

It was a large elementary school in a well-off part of town. When I got there, I found that despite the advance work, nothing was arranged as I had asked. One microphone on the cafeteria stage ( I need two, one for my guitar). The lunch tables were set up, which meant some kids were in the far corners of the cafeteria, seemingly miles from me, with kindergartner’s legs dangling down – an uncomfortable position for forty five minutes. I like them up close on the floor. The shows were scheduled by the office to mix fifth graders with kindergartners and pre-schoolers. That arrangement doesn’t recognize the difference in language, social, and cognitive skills. (Note: The difference between a four year old and a ten year old is greater that the difference between a twenty-five year old an a forty year old) I can do it, but I don’t like to. After twenty-five years, I know what works.

And I knew I was about to meet a principal that just didn’t care if I was there or not.

I hate to present someone so stereotypical, but I guess stereotypes are based on something. It’s enough to give m the hives, but there he was. Good looking, early forties, suit and tie; he had the smell of a future superintendent about him. I asked for things to be rearranged according to the information I’d sent in advance.

“This is the way I like to do things,” he informed me. “It works better. The schedule doesn’t allow the changes you suggested.”

Oh, I thought. This school is different from the other two thousand I’ve been in.

The shows were flat – the kids were far away. The teachers graded papers. The principal watched at one of the tables for ten minutes, and didn’t seem all that impressed. I didn’t feel impressive – this was in marked contrast to how I’d been feeling all week. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I thought. And the unspoken answer was, “Well, no, and we don’t care!”

Oh well.

Believe me, I tried. It’s my job to entertain people, and I try to do that. If someone doesn’t smile a little in my performance, either their life is in crisis, or I’ve failed, or both.

Finished with the shows, I only wanted to escape, but I didn’t have a ride, so I was there until the last bus left. Boy, the school day is pretty long, and I’m not five years old. And then the principal, who I had studiously avoided, gave me a ride back to my favorite Hampton Inn.

On the way back, my curiosity got the better of me and I started asking him questions about the school. I mean – I spend so much time in schools, I’m actually interested in them. And I found myself sitting in a car with someone who I guessed looked at me like I was inconsequential. I was interested.

So I asked about the continuing move towards standards and testing.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. ‘I like to know where everyone is, and the testing helps us get an angle on that.”

I let this pass. I was gathering information. And by the way, I know testing has a place. But I suspected my understanding of its function was different from his.

So I pushed a little deeper. “Given we all want kids to learn a certain body of knowledge and particular processes,” I asked, “do you think there should be a wide range of methods used, according to the teacher’s approach and the kid’s needs?”

“No,” he said, “I think we’re better off if everyone is using the same approach. I don’t like people experimenting.” He paused, then went on. “I want to know what my teachers are doing. Oh, I know…some of the older teachers grumble about this, but we’re all better off being on the same page. We ought to use the same methods throughout the school, throughout the district. The school is for instruction. Between a puppet show and a language lesson, we should have another language lesson.”

I looked at him as he drove.

Holy cow, I thought. This is my enemy!

He didn’t really look like my enemy – he didn’t have three heads or anything. But he was – or I was his nightmare.

Because I, of course, am the puppet show he would rather not have – foisted upon his fiefdom by a school district or PTO mom.. I’m a frill. In his mind, I have nothing to do with language development or test scores. My approach, global in nature (and by that I mean all encompassing, holistic, and not delineated into separate tasks), is that if people develop a love of language – of words, and story, and naming things in the world – they will want to develop the skills to help them interact with the world and understand themselves.

That is, by the way, the approach that has been used by the human race for most of its existence.

The use of story and music in a learning environment is about the structure of language and the world (something he wants to teach, I believe) AND the content of the story and song, and the feelings that arrive in their expression. I assume this principal would acknowledge that those things are nice, but they are not what we’re here for.

Kill the puppet. Teach the lesson. I hate puppicide.

No wonder I’ve come to view my work as a guerilla attack on some schools. I hope they tell my stories in class, and in the lunchroom when no one is watching. I hope someone sings my songs walking down the hall. I want to write a song good enough that even my nemesis finds himself singing it . I want to tell a story that makes him think about something that happened in his own life – or even better, in the lives of the people he touches.

I want to be outside the curriculum and inside his life.

This will be my final revenge.

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Is that a true story?

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Those words were written by Salman Rushdie, spoken by the character Haroun in Rushdie’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun is a boy frustrated with, disappointed by, and angry at his storyteller father after Haroun’s mother walks out on them. Rushdie’s book is, to my mind, one of the best book on storytelling out there – insightful, wide ranging, and a good story to boot. Rushdie wrote the book for his twelve year old son after the Ayatollah put a fatwa on him for his book The Satanic Verses.

What’s the use of stories – any kind of stories?

It’s a legitimate question. As soon as someone says “Once upon a time” the teller is removing the story from the present, setting it apart from today as something that has its own internal logic, separated from our world and whatever is happening right now. In that sense, it’s not true – it’s not in the real world. How can it be relevant?

From another perspective, no story is true, whether presented as history or fiction. They’re not true, or “accurate” about reality, because something is always left out of a story – even something presented as history. Story in the end, is not about “truth” as the objective observation of what happens in the world, it’s about the assigning of meaning. And assigning meaning through story – the assembling of events into a causal narrative – is what humans do. We put things in and leave things out so the story makes sense. We do this when we explain why it’s not my fault all the plums were eaten or how we came to the work we do, or why Bank of America is on the ropes (or not). I could come up with a half dozen different stories for each situation, choosing events and putting them in a causal relationship.

Meaning can only be assigned afterward, when an event is put into context – it’s what we do with the right side of our brains – we’re creatures of time, and we take the events that happened to us and string them together to explain why things are they way they are, and how they might be in the future. And in doing so, we leave things out. If it doesn’t fit in with the story, it’s not mentioned. When I explain why the plums were eaten, I may tell you that my friend ate the last one, but will neglect to mention I ate the other five before he got here.

Whether a story is an accounting of events in the world (history) or imagined (fiction), its function in our lives is to give us a way to look at the world. A story gives us a chance to hold the world up for a moment and look at it, a framework for making sense of things, a way to see the world in a new light. If a story names something about the world and the human condition, and has some resonance in our lives, then it’s useful.

But while stories help us understand the world, they can get us into trouble, too. When a country is preparing for war, the first thing it does is come up with a story that demonizes the enemy. Governments ignore their failings, or the legitimate interest of other peoples, and instead focus on the events that prove the other side is despicable. I make up stories about why someone’s a jerk, ignoring the good things they do. We buy into the story, and ignore what’s really happening . When story becomes too divorced from reality, and lacks resonance, there’s going to be trouble.

A good storyteller knows he’s lying, acknowledges it, and that’s why we trust him. “It’s just a story” cuts both ways – it discounts the story, but also frees us to think about the world. Story has a weird relationship with reality: close to it, but not too close – true, but not too true – not so true that we can’t use it as a tool, a way of understanding. Like the Zen masters say, don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Stories are fingers, not moons.

In the end, I suspect it’s the fact that “it’s just a story” that gives the story the power it has. Better that they’re not true. Once we let go of whether a story is “true”, we can use it to look at our own lives and world. Stories let us take a step back and consider our lives. We could all use a little more of that.

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