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IMG_0202.JPGOne story leads to another. The story that is told begs for one in response. This requested response (even if the teller isn’t aware of it) is a law of storytelling – a natural law – woven into the fabric of the universe. A story is not complete until another story is told in response. Jorge Luis Borges’s observation that a poem is not an argument but a suggestion holds true for story, too. A story is an invitation to remember, and once remembered, what is remembered is offered up also.

Storytelling is not about one story, but two (or three, or four) – it is about reciprocity – the story returned with another story from another voice.

Sometimes, as Lewis Hyde says in The Gift, the story, or the gift, goes around the corner. The teller may lose sight of it, but the process is started, and continues, until it comes back to the teller from another direction. After a play, we sit with friends and talk about what the play said, what it reminds us of, about something in our lives. The story told leads to another story that is heard.

The notion of reciprocity occurs to me as I listen to the noise of the news and the media, the onslaught of words and images we’re faced with daily when we turn on the radio, or the television, or look at the Facebook page or Twitter feed or newspaper. A million stories being thrown at us. And we end up feeling overwhelmed.

Why is that?

One reason for the sinking feeling we have, the sense of drowning in a digital and informational tsunami, is that none of the sources listen back. They’re all insistent that they have something important to say, or riveting, or compelling – news that you “need”, “must see tv”, things you “need to know”. This insistence, this begging for attention, is relentless and once given, the insistence that we KEEP listening is not based on the return of story, but the platform’s need to keep us hooked.

“We want to know what you think.”

Really? Has anyone at Facebook ever called you or written and said, “I’m so glad to hear you feel that way”, or “I’ve never thought about what you said”? What we know, and have accepted, is that the media platforms want you to respond because you’re providing content for them so that others will keep watching and listening. In our response to Facebook posts, or reviewing books on Amazon, or retweeting, we’re giving their platform more material. A great giant maw that must be fed.

Our friends, or acquaintances, or passers-by, or trolls respond. We post things, hoping someone will listen, but we have no guarantees, and the gratification we get – the likes, or emojis, or even one hundred and forty character responses, are temporary rushes of seratonin, or adrenaline, or something, that keep us plugged in, looking for more. Our phone bings and Pavlov’s dogs are satisfied, briefly.

Compare this search for meaning and rush of feeling and brain chemicals to a talk we have with someone in which a story or problem is shared, someone listens, and says, “Tell more more about that”, or “That reminds me of something that happened to me.” I argue (or, better, suggest) that those two experiences are significantly different – not just quantitatively, but qualitatively different. Engaged in a live interaction with another sentient being (ever had a conversation with a crow?), we are part of something bigger than ourselves – something that feeds us, and which we feed in return. Again, I call on us to trust our feelings in this – how do you feel after an hour sharing conversation with a friend. How do you feel after you spend an hour on Facebook, or reading Huffington Post?

I’m very aware of this need for reciprocity as a performing storyteller. The law of reciprocity is a blessing and a curse to a performer. While we have become used to performers being separate from audiences – they leave the stage, go the green room, put on their civilian clothes and walk free in the night – those who venture out into the lobby or street corner after a show experience something different. People stand in line – often to say they loved the show, but most often to tell a story – relate something that the storyteller brought to mind, or how the story or song has affected their lives. I can usually tell how good my show has been by how many people want to tell me a story afterwards.

That sharing, of course, can be exhausting. When storytellers give part of themselves, they feel exposed and vulnerable, and while some people have incredible stories to share, others are more like vultures picking over the bones, and talking to hear their own voices. People can say stupid things to us. Some people are so desperate to be heard, they have no sense of the boundary between people, they share too much, or put a burden on the performer that the performer has no responsibility to bear. I try to remember the subtext of those long boring stories: “I want someone to listen to me.”

We all want to be heard. And being heard is different from speaking. Or writing a post, or a tweet. Being heard happens in real-time, and has to do with reciprocity – a circle being completed.

Someone I met somewhere (was it you?) told me there are two kinds of listening: listening to respond and listening to understand. In listening to respond, we get an idea from what someone is saying and can’t wait to say our piece. When we’ve found what our little piece of information or wisdom, or need is, we no longer are listening – we’re waiting, trying to figure out how to not be rude, but get on with our story. But we all know the other kind of listening, listening to understand, is the kind of listening that calms the speaker, that makes him or her feel that someone has heard them and that their presence in the world matters.

I am not the most patient of people. I am subconsciously finishing every sentence that someone starts, wishing they would get to the point. And sometimes, when I’m tired, or preoccupied, I don’t even care about the point. But those times when I do listen after a performance – really listen – I know I’m easing the world’s soul, giving the speaker a gift, and also, deepening the connection I have with my own story, the story I told that set off this return. With the story given back to me, my own story now has more resonance, is more referential to the rest of the world, its roots dug in deeper to the sense of what it is to be human and alive. Further, the story I hear may end up becoming part of my story when I tell it again – if not in words, at least in feeling, in a sense that my work has a meaning beyond any I could give. Honestly, storytellers moan about this with each other – how they have to listen to someone talk ad nauseum about their uncle who had a foot operation because of his gout.

We should know better.

We should know that with our story told, only half of the work is done. I have come to realize that the story told in response is a necessary and essential part of the story experience. A story is not a single thing, an exhalation: it is a cycle – a breathing in and out – and the cycle, the whole story, the full expression, is not complete until a story is told in return. Story is what makes us human, and the notion of reciprocity, the story returned, is as much a part of it as exhaling is followed by inhaling. Breath is in and out, and so is story.

What I now know is that my job in telling a story is to help the listeners be reminded of their own. My job is to touch something in a person’s life so that there is a resonance. Story is about resonance – a re-sounding of a note – within someone else’s life. It’s about being connected to other living beings and taking the time to listen to that connection.

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When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

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I’m back from almost a month in New Zealand – first performing and then wandering around with Debbie. We had a great time.

When we reached Wellington, we had a nice dinner with a bunch of interesting people, organized by storyteller Judith Jones and her husband Tony. Among the great people we met that night was Anna Bailey, a puppeteer.

The next morning, at the farmer’s market on the Wellington waterfront, we sat on a bench and watched Anna give one of her shows, standing in front of an electrical junction box to shield her small stage from the gusts of wind swirling around the harbor. Children, mostly under seven or eight, sat on the pavement in front of her, with adults in a wider circle. Shoppers walked through her performance area, seemingly oblivious to the drama being acted out before them of a fisherman who catches a mermaid, then goes on a dance through the sea with her. The piece was about ten minutes long – no words, with recorded music providing backdrop. The piece, as many marionette shows are, was very lyrical and dream-like. There was a distinct narrative line, but it was up to the audience’s imagination to define that line – with no language, it was not explicit but implicit. At one point, she did roam the audience with her puppet, interacting with individual audience members, but mostly, Anna’s focus was inward, trusting the audience to come into her world, and not feeling compelled to go out and capture them, . She let the work speak for itself. Those of us who have done street performing know that there’s a choice you make about how you draw an audience to your performance – Anna, as seems to fit her personality, doesn’t seek an audience, she lets it come to her. I would say there were about fifteen of us who stayed through the whole piece. She had a little hat at the edge of the velvet blanket that served as the definition of the stage –  people dropped coins in. I’d guess she made about $30 for her work.

anna bailey puppeteer

Watching the show, looking at the venue, and thinking about the economics of the whole thing, got me thinking about the vagaries of being an artist. Anna’s work (String Bean Puppets) is not a get-rich-quick scheme. She is not very commercial – and my sense is that at this point in her work, she’s not interested in being commercial.  Her work is small, not in the sense of importance, but in the scale that it works on – how many people it will reach, how much she earns, and how well known she would become doing it.

But really, most art is small. A good number of artists will, consciously or unconsciously, make sure it stays that way for them, either through eschewing commercial success, or happily shooting themselves in the foot if it gets near. (Believe me, I know…)And while some art deserves a bigger stage than it has, there is a lot of art that is about intimacy and the people in front of you at that moment Even the ones wandering by with a bag of leeks. Anna’s puppets are not large, and if the audience were more than a hundred people, something would be lost. Keeping it small is one way to insure a connection. Using a Jumbotron so that the people in the back of the stadium could see the mermaid dance would make it a vicarious experience.  I suppose that television has the paradoxical opportunity to make it intimate – it’s just one person watching something shot in close-up. But the live performance is at the heart of it, and that, it seems to me, is destined to remain small.

So why do artists do it? The short answer is because they have to. They can’t help themselves. It gives their lives meaning. This causes havoc when you depend on it for your daily bread. As Lewis Hyde points out in his great book, The Gift, artists have a hard time living in a commodity culture in which you have to determine your worth and drive a bargain. Most artists first want to do their work, and will do it even if they aren’t getting paid well.

I’m thinking these things as both of my sons, Noah and Dylan, are trying to find where music fits in their lives, and have an ambivalence about the role of the market place in their art. Well, I still wrestle with that, too. I’ve often thought that some things I do for love, and some for money, and I’m just trying to get them to be a little bit closer to each other.

But like I said, a lot of really good art is small, and it helps to know that and still see its value; it’s still worth doing.

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bach_portraitOver the past several months I have been playing piano almost every day. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is Bach’s A minor two part invention. I am a pretty sloppy piano player – more comfortable with blues progressions and playing “close-enough” to what should be happening. But Bach doesn’t really put up with that  – it’s precise and intricate and demands a steady tempo and attention to detail. Not my forte. As a result, to get it right, I’ve had to continually slow myself down and play some passages over and over again. Every passage really. I still haven’t played the whole piece through once perfectly – I probably never will.

All this piano practicing has gotten me thinking about the practice – or rehearsal – of stories. Rehearsing stories by one’s self is very, very difficult. When I do practice a story without an audience, my mind tends to wander and I’ll find myself standing there, staring into space, thinking about something, anything else.  A story really needs an audience – it won’t grow or make sense, or have meaning, until it has one.

But I need to practice a story, somehow, before I offer it up to an audience.

Musicians can find enjoyment in playing with no one else in the room – I’m not exactly sure why this difference is there. But I find myself interested in the notion that I could play the Bach piece over ten times and enjoy myself, while practicing a story by myself, over and over again, is just plain hard.

One thing that strikes me is that in both cases – the playing of an instrument and the telling of a story – we’re striving for an innate body knowledge. We have to practice enough for our mind to get out of the way. When the body knows what it’s supposed to do (and I mean even the mouth muscles), then we can open ourselves up to a better expression of the material we’re offering. We literally watch ourselves perform and guide the performance.

I think practicing a story requires more mental discipline than practicing an instrument and one mark of being an accomplished teller is that dedication in the early stages of developing a story. In particular, I’m interested in the notion that there are passages in a story, like in the Bach piece, that require repeating over and over again to get them right. In particular, we practice to clarify the order of things and the language used to express and describe.  Story is about ordering – giving form – and our first job is to get order right – the order of events, the order of speaking in a dialogue, the order in the way the narrator or character lists things. That order is essential and requires practice. Language is crucial through the whole story, but in particular there are some points in a story when we need to get the language just right – a well considered phrase or choice of particular noun or verb or adjective will make a clearer picture in the listener’s mind.

I have been wrestling with a story  for a long time now (a year and a half) that requires that kind attention to detail. Getting the sequence of the story has been particularly troublesome to me, because it’s assembled from a number of different experiences, and also involves a long passage in which I’m having an internal monologue. Although internal monologues tend to be jumpy and apparently non-linear, in the case of the told story, the sequence is very important. In the middle of the piece, I have an argument with myself – actually there are four different parts of myself – and I have to get all those parts just right. And at the climax of the story I’m bringing all the disparate elements that I’ve brought into the story together, and they have to be introduced in just the right way. This requires practice.  And it’s hard to do. Which is why I’m still working on it. When I’m not practicing Bach. Which is easier.

Like many storytellers, I regularly use performance as rehearsal. If the story’s bones are strong and I’m relaxed enough, I can get through the story in front of an audience and will find a lot out. I prefer to do that (I’m lazy). But I also know that I get to my best storytelling when I’ve worked on particular places to make sure the order, language and delivery is just right.

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I spent this past weekend at the Festival of Lights in Midland, Texas with a lot of storytelling friends and enjoyed hearing all their stories. On Saturday night, I heard Donald Davis honor the creator of the festival, Patty  Smith, by  telling  an old story of his about his typing teacher in high school. In the story, the ancient teacher insisted that nothing could stop the timed typing test given every Friday. Her insistence leads to some pretty hilarious consequences.

Afterwards I was talking with other tellers about how Donald structured the story, and suggested that the  story worked because it asked a question at the beginning of the story that had to be answered (Would anything stop the test?). My pal Willy Claflin suggested that Donald’s story was a good example of the scientific method – when confronted with a problem the protagonist  suggests a solution and then tests his theory. What happens if we do this? As soon as the audience hears the question, we know where the story is headed, though not the outcome.

A good story asks a question and then answers it. It needs to ask the question early on – after the stage is set and the main character’s world is established. And the question that is asked is the result of a problem that presents itself. And really, the  asking of questions may be the reason stories exist in the first place – they explain to people what happens when they take certain courses of actions – they’re about being predictive. Just like Einstein imagining traveling at the speed of light. The scientific method. What happens if you do this? Our ability to imagine what might happen is what makes us storytelling animals – we put events in a context to make sense of them.

I don’t think it’s necessary that the question always be directly stated, as it was in Donald’s story. (“We got to thinking, could anything stop the timed test?”) If you make it clear that the hero of the story really wants something, then the unstated question is “Will she get what she wants?” and “How is she going to get it?” Which is enough to hook the audience so they want to know the most important question in narrative – “What happens next?”

While some narrative artists can get away from this simple structure because of other skills they have, it’s dangerous to do so. How many times have you read a book, or gone to a movie or a play and after a while get this confused feeling that makes you ask, “Where is this going?” If that feeling lasts too long, the audience checks out. If the artist hasn’t asked that questions of herself, it can lead to a really flabby, confusing story. Not every narrative artist is so direct – some folks are more elliptical in their presentation. But by and large, I think storytellers are better off practicing the scientific method.

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Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech

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Last month I was out at a dinner with a presenter. The Russian rock group Pussy Riot came up in conversation. You probably know this is the group of young women who went into a church and recorded a video of their song protesting the Putin government’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. You also probably know that they got sentenced to two years in jail for the escapade. You also probably know that there was an international firestorm of support for them, and that many people across the Western world had a hard time saying the words “Pussy Riot” – especially news anchormen.

I said to her, “What a great thing to write a song about – their name is so great!”

The presenter, who runs a great family series, looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare sing a song about Pussy Riot at my concert.”

I understood, but I got an idea. It got me thinking about words – what you can and can’t say. Corruption is okay, but the name of a rock group presents problems.  So I wrote this song, which I probably could sing anywhere (except in Russia). Since they’re a punk band, I plugged in the electric guitar and pushed the distort pedal. It needs a caffeinated drummer. And if ANYONE wants to make a video of it, capturing pictures from the internet of the band and the ensuing madness, let me know.

Here’s the song –

If you like the song, you can download it here: billharley.bandcamp.com/track/puddy-wiot

Here’s to Puddy Wiot. Cwazy guwls.

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