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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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On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

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With Barbara Robinson in 2011

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

It’s been a rough week. We lost Robert Greygrass, a great Native teller, and Toshi Seeger.

And Barbara Robinson. It’s her I’m thinking about this morning. She was a writer of very distinct voice for children, and I feel lucky I got to know her and spend time with her.

Barbara is best known for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, which millions have either read or seen – especially as some elementary school play production.

Her writing was pithy and honest and real. And very funny. The first line in “Best Christmas Pageant” is really one of the great openings in any book –

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” 

That line would worry adults afraid of anarchy, but it has the ring of truth. And lets you know you’re in for a good story.

I think my favorite book of hers was “My Brother Louis Measures Worms.” It’s about a quirky but functional family, and its genius is in showing children trying to make sense of an adult world that doesn’t make much sense. When the parents are too busy to take him somewhere, Louis, the eight year old drives himself. Then keeps on doing it. Strange and inappropriate relatives come to visit. Reading about the Lawsons is like a visit to the house down the street that your parents weren’t sure you should visit. But you did.

When I had decided to to write books for kids, I was looking for my voice, and coming across Barbara’s books was a godsend. She wrote the way I wanted to write about things that seemed real and immediate. Like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl (okay – he’s a little more fantastical, but…), she didn’t speak down to children, and didn’t pull punches about how confusing life could be for kids, but still wrote with tremendous heart. Maybe her Ohio upbringing (born about 100 miles from where I was) made me feel some kinship. I’ve reread her books a number of times when I want to remind myself of how I want to write.

It could be argued by some, I suppose, that Barbara’s books are at least as much about kids as they are for them. There’s an irony and sophistication in her writing that is pretty subtle, and the stories take place in a setting that would be hard to find today – just as would Cleary’s Klickitat Street. In today’s world, the books might be viewed as nostalgic, but I know Barbara wasn’t interested in nostalgia. In Robinson’s world,  the kids roamed freely through the streets, and things seemed a little gentler, but her books deal honestly with the emotional lives of children. It’s what I try to do.

I met Barbara two years ago at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Nebraska. We had a blast together and her personality and view of the world were what I had always imagined. We traded some e-mails and letters afterwards and it made me feel like I was some part of a literary tradition reaching back to Twain.

I was glad to have known her, and very sorry I won’t see her again.

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Standing Outside Belwing Turkey Farm

I walked down to the bottom of the street
And across the road, ‘til I reached the fence
And stood there watching them, huddled
In the darkness of the night and the hutch

White bundles of breast, leg, gizzard, wing
Large footballs on stilts hunched to the cold
Unknowing and clueless to the fate awaiting
Them in the next forty eight hours

No more meaning given to this day than any other
No genetic memory, though properly earned
Over several hundred years of ritual feasting –
Each football the end of the genetic line

My son wants us to liberate them and I have
A picture of five hundred turkeys running across
Route 44, stopping on the yellow line, unsure
Just why they should cross the road

What would they do? Where would they go?
What other purpose do they have but the one
They were bred for, like another widget or bolt
Or jujubee made to be consumed by our gnawing hunger.

I am glad I have no purpose, or none discovered
No plan laid out for me by genetic splicing
No idea of where I should go, what I should do
Except that given to me by the gift of the day.

Don’t forget gang – enough is a feast.

Bill

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On Saturday, Debbie and I organized the second action for the Good Juju Team. Assembling over a hundred people at the Trinity Brew Pub in downtown Providence for a rehearsal, we rehearsed and then proceeded to the Providence Place Mall, where we handed out clown noses, shopped (well, some of us), and led a parade through three flights of stores.

Here we are at the brew pub (thanks to Josh Miller and staff):

It was a bit of a stretch for some of us – a little different from what we normally do. But people were game. We all walked over in small groups and reached the mall. At the appointed time, we put on our own noses and began to hand out the ones stuffed in our pockets. Here’s the beginning – the first sightings of clowns:

At the Apple Store

In the “esplanade”:

Suddenly, we seemed to be in the majority.

The shop owners particularly welcomed the change of scene.


By the end, everyone at least knew about the noses. It was amazing, and interesting to see people’s reactions to a clown nose being handed to them for free. It was, in a sense, a litmus test for how one approaches the world. Amazingly, and joyfully, most people were up to the task. A lot of people marched with us, even more at least put noses on, and many more put noses in their pockets to give to their children or grandchildren.

Or to wear when they got home.

Here’s the video of everything.

We learned a lot about doing these things. What struck me most of all about the day is that all the agents were willing to go a little out of their comfort zone (okay, some LIVE outside their comfort zone) – and when you take a step out of it, you discover that the world is a lot more available and open than you had considered before. After handing out noses, parading through the mall looking like an idiot, and playing “Three Blind Mice” on a kazoo for 15 minutes, a lot more things seem possible in the world. It is, at least, easier to look someone in the eye, smile, and say “Hello!”

Even without a red nose.

Hakim Bey, a sometimes dubious anarchist philosopher, introduced the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or TAZ’s – “a mobile or transient location free of economic and social interference by the State,” (let’s include corporations, too, shall we?) Really, from my perspective, a TAZ is just a little bit of time and place where an open community happens. It could happen anywhere – at a concert, on the street, in a classroom – “wherever two or more are gathered…”. When they happen, it’s a liberating feeling – and that’s what happened when we handed out 1000 clown noses.

More videos up soon.

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I’ve been spending a good amount of time in the car this fall, and listening to Ireland by Frank Delaney. It’s one of those big sprawling novels that gives you history (guess about what?) and makes you think. The overarching story is about a boy turning towards manhood who hears a traveling storyteller – the storyteller is the connecting tissue through the whole novel.

Midway through the novel, there’s a letter from the storyteller to the young man, explaining what he’s trying to do as a storyteller. Whatever else Delaney is doing, he gets oral narrative right. It’s a brilliant passage about storytelling, and in the middle of it he says (paraphrasing), “You should never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. But you should underestimate their knowledge.”

I think Delaney is right. I often backtrack in my stories, explaining things that I’m not sure everyone in the audience will understand. If a member of the audience does understand, then it’s a chance for them to nod and say “Yes, I know that!”. I see them nod. If they get it, it’s a chance for them to breathe and regroup in their listening which is absolutely essential for oral narrative. If it’s a bit of information they don’t know, then it signals to the audience that the storyteller is taking care of them because it’s absolutely essential that everyone present understands what is going on.

So, for instance, I tell a version of “Sody Salleratus”, a traditional Appalachian story. One of the recurring lines in this story that occurs in dozens of cultures is, “I ate me a bucket of beans and a barrel of lard, and now I’m gonna eat….”.

This story, to me, is the quintessential story for primary grades. But most kids don’t know what lard is. Did you? So when I say that – “bucket of lard” – I come to a screeching halt. I look at them. Right at them. “Do you know what lard is?” I ask. Some may say yes, but most shake their heads. What kid is close enough to a farm to know what “lard” is? Then I say, “It’s animal fat!”

“Eeeeeew!” the kids say.

“Right,” I say. Then launch back into the story. No judgment. Assumption of their intelligence. (Every kid has looked at some piece of animal fat they DO NOT WANT TO EAT – [except for children of you good vegetarians]). (Too many parentheses.) But they know what that means for someone who is eating animal fat. Not a healthy diet.

Anyway…

In that moment, I give them some information and acknowledge their ability to assimilate it. it is a great moment – really one of my favorite moments in that telling.

I have gone far astray from my points:

1) Ireland is a very interesting novel for storytellers.
2) Balancing knowledge (information) and narrative (forward movement) is what storytelling is all about.

Too arcane? Not for some of you. Take two and call me in the morning.

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Last week, the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities gave me their Lifetime Achievement Award. I was deeply honored to receive it, and it also really gave me pause – it wasn’t something I expected, and like many people, I have a healthily developed impostor syndrome which immediately made itself known to me. Receiving the award made me think about what I was doing and what the humanities are. Below is the short acceptance speech I gave.

There is an active discussion now about the place of the humanities in society. Stanley Fish wrote a blog piece for the NY Times just about that this past week – it touches on many parts of what I said.

Here’s my talk:

Thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for coming. I give my thanks to the Committee on the Humanities for this honor – to Mary Kim Arnold, to Shea’la, to SueEllen, to Mary Lee Partington and the members of the board.
And of course, my thanks, most of all to my wife and work partner, Debbie Block –my anchor and compass. What I present as an artist is really a shared vision of the way we would like the world to be – those of you who know me, know that it is just not me up here. Who knows what I would be doing without her – certainly not this.

I am still a little concerned about what to do after I get a lifetime achievement award. Now what? I didn’t know that I was finished, nor that I was even eligible. What I am left with is to continue my work and try and show I deserved it. When I look out on this room, I see many out there who are at least as or even more deserving of this recognition – many others have had a deep and lasting effect on the culture of Rhode Island.

Getting this award – totally unexpected, and really a joy – has led me to think about boundaries and borders. People who study systems know that it is at the edges – the borders and boundaries – that the most interesting things occur. A border or boundary is where there is the greatest expression of life. Who would know more about borders and boundaries than Rhode Islanders? The whole state is a border. In giving me this award, the Committee has shown a willingness to extend borders and boundaries in at least three ways.

First – most obviously, to me at least – in giving the award to someone from Massachusetts, they have reached beyond the border of the state. Thirty years ago, Debbie and I moved to the Providence area, and didn’t pay attention to political districts. We still don’t – my car can drive itself to Providence and does so almost every day. And as many of you know, the history of Seekonk, where I live, is a little murky – were we part of Rhode Island once? Was East Providence part of Seekonk? We ourselves are not quite sure where we live. I offer my appreciation for your seeing beyond that political border.

Second – you have crossed the border and reached into the arts. I call myself an artist, although that is a name someone else gives – Martha Graham noted that it’s not our job to worry about whether we’re creating art, it’s our job to do our craft as well as we can and let someone else decide. I have never been able to distinguish my art from my vision of the way I think the world might be if we were to listen and act with greater intention and care. Much of my work is about the great question of how do free individuals live in community with each other. What underlies all of my work is the search for what we hold in common. As an artist, and a student of the humanities, it’s my job to try and make my audience look at the world in a different way. I am quite glad to use whatever tools I have to do that; story works for me, and so does song , but I see no real, solid boundary between the arts and the humanities. Apparently, the Committee is willing to cross that border, too.

Third- the Committee has willingly crossed the border from the adult world to reach into the world of childhood, where I have most firmly placed my work. I was early on influenced by Gandhi and King, and have had it in mind to give my voice to the voiceless. Children and their caretakers are my constituents. Many of you here know that people who choose to work with children often have their work devalued by those who think adult work is more important and of more substance. I, too am often challenged by the choice I have made, and can, in weaker moments, devalue it myself. By giving me this award, all of you here recognize that what happens to a child determines what happens to the world. I thank you for that.

Being given this award has caused me to think a lot about the humanities. It brings me to near speechlessness – (near!)– that the humanities today seem endangered – even elements in higher education perceive the humanities as having a dwindling importance .
It’s not surprising this has happened, I guess – especially as I look at the debate in education. In the movement to measure learning through more and more testing I see a parallel discussion – the tendency to value technical knowledge and “hard” facts over a kind of knowledge more difficult, in fact, sometimes impossible, to quantify.

But for all their “squishiness”, their inability to provide hard data, the humanities – arts and letters, the history of our time here on earth, the strivings and failings of humans – is the proper locus for the study of questions that are increasingly crucial to our life on this planet. They are questions that are hard, perhaps impossible, to answer definitively. As a storyteller, I understand that we are, in the end, contextual beings, creatures of time – our acts, our thoughts, our dreams, bear no meaning without what came before, and what they imply for the world that will follow – this is what we, as humans, as storytellers, do – we live in a context, and make sense of the world through our narrative, the telling of our stories. It is the job of the humanities to listen to these stories and to ask the questions that, as Rilke said, “have no answers”.
Questions like:
“What is the value of a human life?”
“What does it mean to live in community?”
“What is beautiful and elegant and why?”
“What is required of us?”
“What is, what should be, what might be, our relationship with the rest of life on this planet?
And of course, in the end, there is the question of how we should live our lives, and what does it mean to live a good life.
These are questions that must be asked every day. This is our calling – this is our charge – this is what those of us who live in the world of the humanities, should strive to do.
We are better when we ask these questions, and when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we know and who we are to make the circle bigger.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Phillip and Phyllis Morrison in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillip Morrison was a Nobel Prize Physicist, at the center of the development of the atomic bomb. He gave the countdown at Los Alamos – an act, he told me, he had spent the rest of his life trying to make up for. He was completely delightful, quite clearly upon my first meeting with him a genius – a man of unending curiosity, who took delight in the workings of the world. At one point in the time we spent with each other, I proposed that the very nature of our understanding of time was changing and we were changing with it, as we divided it further and further, as things seemingly went faster and faster. I thought, in fact a scientist would understand and agree with me. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Our measure of time will always have to do with seconds. A second is how we measure our lives, because a second is one beat of the human heart. That’s the prism through which we look at the world. Always.”
Time in the end, will always be human for us. And the study of it will be our work – the study of the beating of the human heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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