unintentional magic

There is much talk about what we do in the work of ‘healing’ as storytellers. I think we can help people. But unless we are also trained therapists or psychologists, not simply storytellers, we need to be very careful in the realm of things like "stories for addiction" or "stories for veterans."  If we are not trained or qualified, and are not a vet or addict (for example), really we have no idea what could be the 'right' story. In fact we might even think a story that would be ‘good for a veteran event’ turns out to be triggering instead. We need to remind ourselves that we are storytellers, entertainers. We need to know why we are telling a story and if we have the right to tell it. The motives need to be authentic. This is an art and craft.

I do believe in gut instinct and if a story cries out to be told (not from ego, but from that place within - the story as the petulant child – me, me, me), or the story you planned on telling does not seem right anymore, then to listen to that voice, that inner (or outer) guide.

Although stories can help (unless we are trained, as I said) we are not therapists. We are entertainers, as I see it. The fact that our craft can lighten the load, can help people see through an issue they might be having is secondary. I love being told, as I am sure everyone who tells tales does, that a teacher has never seen this or that child laugh before. And at the same time that is really saddening. It makes my day when someone comes up after a performance and says: "that story really helped me...” But it was not me, it was the story, and when this happens, it was not because I had a plan, other than – I think this would be a great story today. No other motive, just a great story to tell.

I know we suggest tales to one another. It's what we do. As a colleague said, we should be doing due diligence and asking if there are any 'off topics' which could be triggering, and leaving those stories at home. I believe we should not be finding which are the right tales to tell. If we do our due diligence, make sure we leave out stories which could trigger and tell stories we love, then maybe we will heal someone along the way. And that is what is wonderful about what we do: we can create unintentional magic.

Public Speaking - from the storytellers PoV

Public Speaking in Seven Steps (well, maybe eight) – Seen from a storytellers perspective

Public speaking is just like storytelling. When I talk about storytelling, I mean the traditional kind – telling the ancient stories, word of mouth. Not filmmakers, not playwrights, not poets or novelists, not script writers or directors, but oral storytellers. Storytellers, raconteurs, a maître conte, cuentista, conteur or griot will all stand before an audience and without a script, piece of paper, or screen of some kind, will tell stories. View public speaking as a skill you probably not only have, but one you can hone. And public speaking should not be seen as an exercise in humiliation. It is an opportunity to show off your best work or skills, and you know it better than anyone else – or else, why would you be asked to do this?

1.    With any presentation, tell a story in the most direct way. This does not mean read bullet points. It means leaving out what’s boring or irrelevant, but retaining what is essential to the story, builds a necessary picture, or is entertaining. Make sure the sequence of what you are talking about is understandable!

2.    People want to be entertained. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a new product, tips on selling, discussing a project, presenting your homework, sharing how people have been healed, or how to act. Entertain. I am not talking about writing a comedy skit. Simply inject a bit of humor. It will add a human touch. Find things to include in a presentation that is personal, and relevant - something that the audience can identify with. If it is a product, then make fun of something that happens to older versions or problems it or similar products have had in the past. If you are talking about acting, make fun of gaffs you have made, or reactions from audience members. Your audience should know about these sorts of things, and can usually identify with them. This creates empathy and a rapport with the audience.

3.    Practice. Make notes, read them out loud, and listen to how it sounds. If you can record yourself, do so. Listen to how you sound. Are you getting your point across? Are you going to confuse the audience? What can you do (add, remove) to your presentation which will make it clearer, more concise and understandable? Is it all relevant to what you want to achieve?

4.    Practice more. Get rid of your notes. Once you have read through your notes or script a few times, you will know what to say. Practice in front of someone who knows nothing about what you are about to present. Ask them if there were parts which were unclear or confusing. Fix that. Unless you are an actor or have total recall, you will not remember every word, every line. So create bullet points of your presentation and work from those. Then lose the written word all together. I believe if you miss something out it will not be hugely important. And if it is, it will come back to you. Add it to your presentation as soon as you can.

5.    Embrace your case of nerves. It means you are truly alive, that you are at your most alive! The feelings you get, butterflies (or alligators), pounding heart, shaking, this is your body telling you you are ready. It is that feeling warriors get before battle. You might not be going into battle, but your body is quite possibly feeling the same thing. You have practiced, rehearsed, trained (or at least prepared yourself properly) for this moment.

6.    Speak slowly when you present. Really slowly. Tortoise slow. If you think you are speaking too slowly, you are most likely speaking at an intelligible speed. If you think you are speaking at a ‘normal’ speed, you are probably speaking way too fast for the audience. If you find yourself galloping, stop. Your breathing will clue you into this. Stop. Take a deep breath. Smile and look around but think of what you are talking about – stay focused. Then continue. Believe me - there are times when I get into what I am talking about, I get excited and start to speak too quickly. So I stop. I take a deep breath. I might say: “Let me repeat that.” Or “As I was saying.” If someone happened to miss what I had said, I am providing it again.

7.    If you do miss something out, as mentioned above, you will not be the first to do so. Every public speaker has missed a bit, or forgotten part of their presentation at some point. If someone says they have never done this, don’t believe them. Add the missing part when you can. Don’t say something like: “Oh, I forgot this bit!” Simiply add the missing part. If you have practiced enough, you will know what to say to create a segue which will sound okay, if not great. And most people will not notice. I missed a huge section of a story out once, and when I realized this, I thought quickly (still telling the story) about where the best place to add it would be. No one realized. And I am not the only person to have done this.

There are things to avoid.

Don’t read bullet points. If you are using slides don’t read them, but add to what is already on the screen. Make it interesting, raise a relevant point, inject a bit of humor, or that human touch. This will mean keeping what is written on the screen to a minimum. The audience don’t want to see you can read off a slide you wrote. They want your knowledge and/or experience. If you can use images instead of words on the slide all the better. The words you speak and the image should complement each other and build on what is being talked about. The two together should be stronger, not the same.

Don’t just present you work, show your work, talk about it. If you are showing off artwork, or photos of things you have done, don’t tell people about the image, they can see it. Explain the image, yes, but talk about it, add to it. How did you get there, create the image, why? What had the impact for you as an artist? What inspired it? In this day and age most people can find your work on-line and they do not want a repeat, but they want an insight into the work and you. It is similar with sales. Talk about the product or stats, show images of it. Make it a human experience – connect the product to how people will benefit from it, what it can do that no others can. If it’s your homework, show the class and teacher you learned from the project, or research. Inject humor into it – “Did the Greek gods REALLY do that? And no one complained? (Sounds like some school teachers!)” Maybe leave out the bit about the teachers.

Don’t brag. Don’t pretend you know it all. No one does. We should always be learning. Share your failings. Show you are human, and that mistakes are what make us stronger. If someone in the audience is new to what you do, it can be helpful for them to know even the experts failed when they first began, and still make mistakes – hopefully fewer. Your listeners will have more empathy with you, you become a real person, and therefore are more relatable. This is another place where you can make people be more comfortable by laughing at yourself. Maybe it’s that self-deprecating Englishman in me!

8.    My last piece of advice is this: Have fun. Enjoy what you are doing. The nerves will leave soon after you start, and you will be in the moment. If you are having fun, those with you will be having fun. If you love what you are talking about, this will come across and people will feel that.

© Simon Brooks, 2018

Changing Lives

I have read two somewhat heavy books and a fun one so far this year. I began the year with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I love the story, the writing, the book. I immediately followed this with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. What a book that is.  And then I dove into Jennifer Carson's Tangled Magick, her sequel to the wonderful Hapenny Magick.

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Red!

Artwork used by permission - https://peerro.deviantart.com/ (C) Peerro 2017

A retelling, and exercise in not starting a story at the beginning!

It was dark, damp and hot. The air was filled with rancidity. The old woman felt around the slime covered walls which gave and moved to her touch. She felt a jolt and was bounced around and for a short while was not sure which way was up and which was down. Then all was still. Sitting up she felt the walls press against her. She heard gentle rumblings, was jolted again and felt it become slightly and slowly more damp. There was an acidic smell to the new dampness, not unlike wine. At least it was warm. Silence and stillness and what seemed like eternal darkness ruled for a while. Then the old lady could hear murmurings, mumbles, but could not really make anything out. The woman was glad to try to hear what the noise was; it was a distraction from the claustrophobia she was beginning to feel.

It was dark, damp and hot. The air was filled with rancidity. The old woman felt around the slime covered walls which gave and moved to her touch. She felt a jolt and was bounced around and for a short while was not sure which way was up and which was down. Then all was still. Sitting up she felt the walls press against her. She heard gentle rumblings, was jolted again and felt it become slightly and slowly more damp. There was an acidic smell to the new dampness, not unlike wine. At least it was warm. Silence and stillness and what seemed like eternal darkness ruled for a while. Then the old lady could hear murmurings, mumbles, but could not really make anything out. The woman was glad to try to hear what the noise was; it was a distraction from the claustrophobia she was beginning to feel. Then another sudden jolt, a roar, and she was bounced and jostled around and felt something land and press against her. There was barely room to move before; now she was crushed almost beyond endurance against the stinking, slimy wall. The old woman did not move and then muttered to herself: “It’s dark in here, but at least I am still alive.”

“Who’s there?” said a tiny voice.

“Is that you, Little Red?”

“Grandma! Did the wolf eat you too?”

“Well, I suppose he did, my little one.”

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The Gilgamesh Project

The Gilgamesh Project began for me last year. I have been wanting to tell one of the great Epics for many years, but wasn't ready. I had been working on Beowulf, but it wasn't speaking to me. Ironic, as it is one of my favourite stories. I have over seven different translations, retellings!

My son had been studying mythology at high school. It bothered me that so much was omitted in some of the stories. Characters were missing. What I thought were essential plot schemes were absent, and to me, it seemed wrong. I understand these books cannot contain the full stories. One book with all these myths and legends would be too big to lift, but still. When my daughter began to study Ancient Civilization I decided to learn Gilgamesh, to tell at her school. I saw one version they were learning from and saw huge parts missing again. I read other parts added - not in any version I have seen and read! I wanted to create a telling of the story which stayed faithful to the original. I dove in and found a story I connected with and fell in love with.

Learning a story like this means, for me, immersing myself in it. I re-read the two books I had, one a translation by John Gardner and John Maier, the other being N. K. Sandars. Sandars does not work from the original cuneiform, but from German, French and English translations he had available. I then found Stephen Mitchell's wonderful poetic retelling, which captured a magical part of the story I had not felt, up to that point. I then invested in Andrew George's 1999 translation. Since these books have been produced, another tablet was discovered in 2015. I read about that, and what it contained. I then set to work.

Several months later I had a working story which stayed close to the translations I was working from. I did not use the children's retellings, but stuck with the full versions. I wanted to present the story authentically to middle school aged people and their teachers. I felt I had to make a few small changes. The last thing I wanted to do was have agitated parents calling me up, or schools getting upset. The part where Ishtar's priestess Shamhat "couples with Enkidu" for seven days straight became 'the priestess and Enkidu stayed together and danced for seven days.' In other versions written for young people, this is missed out all together. I feel that Shamhat tames Enkidu, so that Enkidu can tame Gilgamesh. We need to know this event happens. These are the sort of changes I have made. I used semantics to disguise what was happening in places. The story retains its gore, but this is not any worse than the six o'clock news or what is seen on people's devices and apps like SnapChat.

I was able to present my retelling of Gilgamesh to the entire 6th grade at my local middle school. About 175 students and all their teachers (Mathematics, English, Science etc. as well as Social Studies) attended. It was well received. In fact some of the boys wanted more gore! Of course.

Over the summer I worked on the book form with the idea of making it available for teachers, using my telling, and the books I have, as resources. This telling is, I hope, engaging to the younger reader and accessible to the youth of today. It is not inappropriate and remains authentic to the original cuneiform tale. At the back of the book there is a bibliography, a character list, a vocabulary word list/lexicon, and some activities for readers, which Social Studies and English teachers might enjoy using.

There will also be an audio available of the book. This is script read, and not a live storytelling, which I normally do, from the book. I am hoping all this will be out, released and in the big, wide world by the end of September 2017 at the latest.

Watch this space!

Peace,
Simon

21st August, 2017

I think Shamash will go into hiding today for a brief time!

Artwork by Aidan Brooks

Stories are alive

Last night I was telling stories at Camp Exclamation Point (CAMP!) where I go every year to share stories. The kids here face more challenges in their lives than most. For the last five years, I think it is, Odds Bodkin has joined me, and this year we had a special visit from Karen Pillsworth. Karen was standing in for Angela Klingler, who has been coming on and off for as long as I have been going (13 years).

For a change I told stories to the youngest Pods, and Odds told tales to the oldest group. I have been telling to the older kids since the beginning of offering storytelling to CAMP!. Because the younger kids only get about 30 minutes, I was able to hoof it up the hill (in a golf cart), join Odds to catch his last story and share two tales myself.

I told a story I had been working on, one I wanted to share with the CAMP! folks for the first time - The Golden Ball. They wanted another tale from me, and one young man asked me to tell the Scottish story known as The Lonely Boatman, or The Fairy Bride, depending on your source! It could be a couple of years since I have told the story. When the young man asked me, my first reaction was - no! It's been too long, I have not practiced it, I'll botch it up. But the story and characters floated to my mind and wanted to be told.

The story of The Fairy Bride, is not a silly story, it is not a story which makes us look at ourselves and laugh. It is a love story about the fey, the fair people - fairy folk. It's about losing something precious. And getting it back. It's on my third CD ('A Tangle of Tales') and is a beautiful tale. It was one of my Gran's favourite stories.

Stories, I truly believe, live within us. I have likened them before to children - sometimes errant children, who hide away when you have practiced and planned on telling them, or they can jump up and down and demand to be told.  The Fairy Bride is a gentle story, sad in places, thoughtful in others, and when I was asked to tell it, the tale stepped quietly to the front, ready to be told. It was alive, and it breathed as I spoke the words. The telling was different, easy, relaxed - I caught the elusive dragon. When the story ended there was that pause you sometimes get as folks take it all in, then a sigh, then applause. This was a large group of young people from 12 years up, not a group I would have pegged this story on, especially when they wanted ghost stories. This was not a ghost story in any manner or form. And they loved it.

Another story I tell on the same CD is called The Story Untold, Song Unsung. I end it, where and whenever you hear it, with words I came up with for this story: "If you know a song - sing it. For they wrap us up and keep us warm when we need to be held. If you know a story, tell it. For stories are like boots and like to travel." And I'll end this blog the same way.

If you know a story - tell it. Stories are like boots and love to travel.

Simon

17th August, 2017

Favourite Epic!

I am not sure if I can say I have ONE favourite epic anymore. I have read too many and enjoy them all. The one I have the most connection with is Beowulf, probably because I have known it the longest. And have read many different translations. But another story I have immersed myself in this year is Gilgamesh. It's been 'bugging' me for a while.  I immersed myself in the epic, reading what there was on-line, re-reading the two versions I had by Gardner & Maier, and N.K Sandars, and buying and studying two more versions - a very thorough translation of both Sumerian and and Akkadian cuneiform by Andrew George, and Stephen Mitchell's poetic version of the epic. Mitchell did not translate, but used a number of translations available to him.

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Professional Development

We have a couple of electricians working on our stove, putting new wiring in, banging and crashing.
I am exhausted.

A few weeks ago I was working all weekend at a conference with the delightful Doug Lipman on sound for the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference of Northeastern Storytelling.
I have set up bands before, in my youth. I have set up sound in rooms for small presentations and story performances, but never done sound for a conference.
First of all, I have to say I was approached to do this as a volunteer, as was Doug. We were pooling equipment to create a soundscape for the presenters and audiences to ensure a great conference. I think we did that. It was a lot of fun.  I present a workshop called 'Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud', so I had better know what I do!

Then last weekend I went to the Northlands Confabulation. I am just recovering!

So often in the arts, people ask one to work for free. It rarely, if ever, is asked of a contractor, or lawyer, but artists get asked all the time to work gratis. I think some of it is that people assume you never went to college. Or that you don't have bills! But all professional artists have bills and on-going expenses. When my computer breaks down, I don't hand it over to my IT person - I don't have one! Well, it's me and I can only do a certain amount. When I need a new publicity campaign, I don't wander the hall to the PR department. Wait! That's me again and I pay for the paper, ink and mailing costs for all that stuff. And training and on-going professional development has to be organized and booked by me.

I just spent this past weekend (29th and 30th of April, 2017) at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I was presenting a workshop on microphones, PA systems and how to use and set them up to get the best sound for someone that presents stories. There are a few technophobes in my profession, although I love tech stuff, especially sound. Although I got a stipend to be at the conference and deliver my workshop (Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud), I had to get myself there, pay for the hotel, and registration fee. The advantage is that the stipend off-set some of the costs of driving the 2,096 miles there and back and I got to attend other workshops.

After watching some storytellers perform on Friday night I made my mind up whose workshops I wanted to attend, where I wasn't sure before. I went to Ingird Nixon''s workshop on 'Story Evolution By Way of Creative Selection.' The title alone had intrigued me but when I saw her perform, I knew I would learn from her.

Some of the things we did, were reminders of what I used to do and worked well. We get into habits, get out of others, so reminders are very important, and prevent our work getting stale. She introduced me to some techniques I had not tried which sparked some great ideas for stories I am working on right now. It was very well timed.

Another presenter I had to see was Susan O'Halloran, presenting 'Storytelling and the Culturally Relevant Classroom.' I recently saw Susan presenting at Sharing the Fire, the North Eastern Storytelling Conference where I was doing sound with Doug Lipman. There is a lot of misunderstanding about culture and how it effects what we do. My wife told about a training her workplace had on culture in the workplace. This was my own version! Susan does a fabulous job.

On Sunday I went to Antonio Rocha's workshop - 'A Conversation with Antonio.' It is always interesting to see how other storytellers work, and find out what makes them tick. Antonio is a remarkable storyteller who uses mime in his work. I do too, but not to the extent that Antonio does. He is a trained mime, and to watch him tell stories is like watching a human being being poured into different the invisible containers of his characters. What he does is pure magic and to learn from him is a gift.

When you think about asking an artist to work for free, please see the value in what they do as their art, and realize they are also their own IT department, PR company, booking agent, trainer, and office manager and pay them for what they do, just as you would an electrician, real estate agent, or doctor. After all, you don't see too many artists with multiple homes, a few cars and a boat, wearing Prada, or Rolex watches.

Halloween

Boo! Halloween is one of my personal favourite times of year. I love the spooky tales, horrible horror stories, ghoulish tales, ghost stories, yarns about witches, black cats and dogs with red eyes. Stories that make us shiver, cringe, hide behind the couch, are not just kids' fare. Often these stories were written and/or told for adults. There are a good number of great stories for kids, but there is a bigger number of tales for older kids and adults.

These tales come from all over the world. After a recent listserv request for stories of this kind, I put together a list of tales I tell. Below is this list. Some can be told to younger ears, and some need to be shared with mature minds! The stories are listed starting with the less fearsome tales at the beginning of each section, with the chillier tales coming last. There is some overlap with the end of the 'Tales With a Little More Terror' and the beginning of the 'Terrifying Tales' sections.


Spooky Tales for Younger People
The Man Who Was Afraid of Nothing - Japan
Zara's Magic Kettle - Russian
The Big Toe (although in the last couple of years I have stopped telling this tale as it is told frequently at camps in the summer and has lost it's JUMP impact!
Black Bubble Bubble Gum, a story first told by Francis Caffrey although close to John Steinbeck's short The Affair at 7, Rue de M-
Kolbold on Board - A Scandinavian pirate ghost tale
Bony Fingers and Wet Lips - Europe/America
The Gunniwolf - An English variant of Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood - Germany/France
From Aloft - English/American
Baba Yaga - Russian
Baba Yaga's Black Geese - Russian
The Miser and the Apple Sauce -  A tale originally told by the wonderful Papa Joe
The Unwelcome Guest or The Tailor in the Graveyard - England - One takes place in a house, the other in a - you guessed it - graveyard!
The Viper - England/America - told as a true, personal tale, making it just a little more scary!
The Hedley Kow - England
Wicked John and the Devil - Wales and Ireland, America - this is a tale told by many people

Tales With a Little More Terror (can be told to slightly older kids, or much older kids when ramped up!)
The Benders - a true story from the American Mid-West 1873
Cell 17 - a true story of the Carbon County Jail, Mauch-Jim Thorpe, PA
The Unstoppable Coffin - a joke story, told as a true, personal tale
The Other Mother - England
The Hunchback - A story from 1,001 Nights where a hunch is killed by choking, being pushed down stairs, and a couple of beatings
The Piper's Revenge - a tale of horror from Scotland
The Severed Head - Africa
Taily-po - American
Vasilisa the Beautiful, the story of Vasilisa and her doll - Russia
Wiley and the Hairyman - American
Hand of Glory - England
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - Middle East. One of my favourites where Ali's brother is cut into four pieces and stitched back together for a descent funeral, and the thieves are killed with boiling oil, and their leader stabbed by Ali's maid servant
 

Terrifying Tales for Teens and Grown-Ups
WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw (retelling)
RL Stevenson's The Body Snatcher (retelling)
Edgar Alan Poe's The Black Cat (retelling)
Mr. Fox - England
Mary Cullhaine - Ireland
Weyland Smith - England/Scandinavia - a man from the ancient Norse tales who kills a king's two sons and has sex with the king's daughter in revenge for maiming him and imprisoning him on an island. He flies off to find, once more, his wife - a Valkyrie
The Rosewood Casket - America
Golden Hair - an original telling of two folk tales from Eastern Europe which I have blended together. A dead count steals a woman and her true love comes to rescue her, of course!
 

Great Stories for Dark Evenings by the Fire
These are tales which can be fit into the last of the two categories but are more for older kids and adults than young kids.
Margret of the Three Gifts - Scotland
Tam Lin - Scotland
The Roma Cheating Death - a Russian Gypsy tale
Hansel and Gretel - Germany

I hope you enjoy finding these tales and telling them yourself. And of course, if you want me to tell any of these tales to you, let me know! I do all sorts of programs including a split event where there are two sets - the first set shorter (30 minutes) and for younger kids and the second set longer (45 minutes) for older kids and adults. For more information about my Fright Night Program, shoot me an email:
Simon at Diamondscree Dot com
or visit here http://www.diamondscree.com/programs

Moving House!

There are many things that the old folk and faerie tales, or as I like to think of them, the ancient stories can teach us, even help us with today. Mostly inspiration. You can take a story at face value if you only want entertainment. By looking deeply at the stories we can learn a lot, and even see ourselves staring back at us.

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