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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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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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I just finished performing at the Forest Storytelling Festival in Port Angeles, WA, and had a great time. The other tellers were all very good (Lyn Ford, Robert Greygrass, Will Hornyak, and Alison Cox) and we complemented each other very well and had a great time. And while I was busy, I got out before the festival started and took a nice hike up Hurricane Ridge where I only got a little wet. The Northwest, you know. Picture above – it was really raining when I took the picture.

The stories were good, but I am thinking a lot about what happened in the workshop I gave before the festival started. I did a 2 ½ hour workshop on personal stories (anathema to all the European tellers, and those who are sick of hearing people talk about themselves). I talked a lot about trying to place a personal story in the context of myth so it would have resonance. That’s all good, but I also talked a lot about imaging – seeing the story in the mind’s eye – which I have considered essential to good storytelling. It’s how I work, and how I teach. But that’s where I ran into trouble.

One of the workshop participants, who has been telling stories for a long time, told me that he doesn’t see stories – he doesn’t have pictures in his head. I have run into this before, and usually have found a way around it. I have ways of tricking people into admitting they have pictures in their heads when they tell stories. It’s how I operate, and I suspect how most tellers, or writers (and certainly filmmakers) operate. I usually can get them to admit that they do.

But this one wasn’t budging. No, he insisted, he didn’t see anything, he just told the story.

I was confronted with a problem. I didn’t get it. As a workshop leader, I am supposed to know everything. He was messing up my workshop. And he wasn’t going along with my tricks. I was trying to get on to the next point, but here I was, with an embarrassing moment.

So I said (essentially), “Wow, I don’t get this. I believe you but I don’t get this. You see, or do things differently from me, and I don’t get it, and I don’t know what to say.”

I was confronted with a way of being that I did not understand, and I gave up and admitted it. “Seeing” the story is essential to my work, and I considered it universal, but here was someone saying there was another way to do it.

Rather than tell him he was wrong, I just said, “Okay with me – I need to understand it.”

After the workshop, he thanked me for affirming that his way of doing things was valid – he said it was the first time a workshop leader had done so. All I had said was “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, but what do I know?” Who knows everything?  Another workshop participant, a psychologist, came up to me and said that there’s a number of ways to experience things – it could be visual, but it could also be auditory, or it could be affectively –  the emotions in the experience might give you the path towards finding the words. And afterwards, I thought about how smell or touch could do it, too. Diane Ackerman’s sensational (ha ha ha) book A Natural History of the Senses talks about this and suggests that smell is the strongest sense when it comes to dwelling in memory.  Could you tell a story about your grandmother baking bread without having any images in your head?Well, evidently, even though I don’t know how.

Over the weekend, I had several conversations with my non-visual storyteller. At one point, he said he tried to feel what was going on in the story, and operated from that perspective. I understood that. My stories often start with a feeling that I would like to elicit – one I’ve had and want to evoke. And then, a day later, he told me that he was working on a new story and that morning he had tried to picture it and for a few fleeting seconds, he could see it happening in a way he hadn’t before. It was a small breakthrough. I think if I had just told him he was wrong, he would not have done that.

It got me thinking about what a visual culture we are – we are addicted to images, often at the expense of the other senses, which might provide a deeper experience.

This process is all very interesting to me. I take away at least two things from the experience.

First – I’m a better teacher when I admit that I don’t know everything. Teachers spend so much time trying to have all the answers, it’s very difficult to admit when they don’t. But when they do (or in my case, are forced to), something else happens. We can go deeper into the experience of learning – it’s a wide open space with no easy answers, and kind of uncomfortable. But it’s also very liberating.

Second, I was forced to recognize that there are ways of being that I do not really understand. This is a very humbling experience, especially for someone who professes to be an expert. I am a moderately synaesthetic person – music has colors to me, words evoke feelings, visual things may evoke smells – but there is still a lot that I just don’t get. It’s a big world, and I only understand a little part of it. I should shut up and pay more attention.

I said to my non-seeing workshop participant that I suspected the more we could draw on all of our senses, the better off we would be in our work. He may, in the long run, gain from his attempts to “see” stories in a way he never has before. It will probably make him a better storyteller. And I should probably be more willing to admit that someone understands the world differently than I. It will make me a better workshop leader, and maybe more than that.

What drives your creativity?  Something else than image?

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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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