storytelling

The Old Man in the Woods - a short story

The forest was unusually quiet this morning walking with my black dog, Moe. Just the sound of a slight wind in the trees, the cries of birds, and the patter of Moe’s paws on the forest floor running here and there sniffing, and rushing after small animals. Those squirrels always seem faster than Moe and get the better of her. Off in the distance we heard the church bells toll eight of the clock. We were a little later than normal when we set out. A mist was rising in places, from last night’s rain. Cool, the humidity began to bead on my glasses. I stepped over piles of leaf litter and cones washed throughout the path in piles. Looking at the streams, they seemed excited, dancing over the rocks.

Coming between a couple of large boulders supporting tall, waving trees whose roots gripped like fingers to the rock, we saw an old man. The smoke from his small pipe drifted lazily upward as he sat on a rock. I noticed his clothing was somewhat unusual. The path led us to the man; as we approached, Moe a little wary but tail wagging, he looked up and smiled.

After a friendly greeting we began to talk.

“My wife will be along soon,” he said. “She's a wonderful woman. She loves dogs. She'll like this one.” The man scratched Moe's ear as she got closer to gingerly sniff his trousers. “Is she a mutt?”

I told him what I believed was Moe’s varied ancestry. We discussed that the day was quite beautiful despite the mist, maybe because of it and how this was such a nice place to wander. I asked how he had met his wife.

“She saved me, she did.”

I asked him, how?

“From a dragon,” he said and took a puff on his pipe, the smoke once more gently rising towards the branches drooping above us.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I sat down on a fallen tree and listened.

“We lived in a small cottage in a small town where we told stories to small children. Sometimes when it rained in the summer, we would come here and we'd dance beneath the showering clouds and dripping trees. Too old for that now, I think.”

I smiled.

“We grew together,” he said. “Aged together, and joked about each other farting. Her’s were sweeter than mine, and she always let me know! We always held hands, except when we were cooking together, or reading. Sometimes we'd write poems to each other and hide them so we'd find them later. It was more than once when I hid mine too well and would have to unhide them.”

I couldn't help but laugh at this. I turned about to see between the branches. There was still no sign of the man’s wife.I wondered at what type of person she was. They were obviously happy together. Geese flew overhead, and I looked up. Their cries filled the air. Moe jumped about, then spotting a squirrel chased after it.

“Lively one, that dog of yours.”

“She is that. Her name's Moe.”

“What, for Maureen?”

“No, just Moe. M O E.”

“She likes the woods, eh?”

I nodded. “She does.” There was still no sign of his wife. “Moe loves most places I take her,” I told the man.

He looked over his shoulder, then turning back opened a pocket watch that appeared in his hand. Gazing at the watch face, he shrugged. The watch looked old but well kept, the kind I wouldn’t mind owning one day. He lifted his face and spoke. “We loved going to town market. It always seemed an adventure. The market sellers was always smiling at us. It was as if we were rich and they wanted us to spend all our money on them. But they knew we weren't. We had fun tasting the wares, though, especially if they had chocolates. It was rare they ‘ad chocolates, though. If the old bookseller was at the market, we would sit and read bits of books and stories to each other, buying our favourite to read at home together later.

“My favourite was when one of townspeople would visit and play the fiddle for us. I was getting on then.  We would slowly dance in each other's arms, eventually collapsing on the sofa and we'd fall asleep still wrapped in an embrace.” The man smiled and gazed off, as if remembering something from a long time ago.

“One o’ me friends said our kisses could light the skies, that fireflies glowed more brightly when me and the missus kissed, the crickets would chirp louder, and birds sing more sweetly! At least that's what he said.”

The old man looked about again. He sighed. “Seems she’s not coming today. Maybe tomorrow.” He sat gently tapping his pipe on the rock, watching the tobacco fall to the forest floor. Lifting a foot, he stamped the tobacco out in the damp earth. “Oh well. I hope I didn’t bore ya. I don’t get to meet too many folks who notice me out here in the woods. Folk are funny these days it seems. Won’t even look ya in the eye.”

“You didn’t bother me at all. It’s nice to meet you. A pleasure. I should get on though. Work and all that.” I turned and called for Moe, who came bounding towards me and leaped up on the rock the old man and been sitting on. The old man had vanished. I stared at Moe.

It was then I realized that the man had only talked in the past tense. I looked at where the burned tobacco had fallen, and sniffed the air, but could see no sign of it nor smell the tobacco. It occurred to me that he had never told me his name, nor how his wife had rescued him from the dragon.

© Simon Brooks, 27th September, 2018

Unintentional Magic

Originally posted July 12, 2018

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 a storytellers PoV

Originally posted June 18, 2018

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

Under the Oaken Bough - the new book

April 29, 2018

It has been in the works for a couple of years, with the writing, getting feedback and rewriting, editing with Jennifer Carson and Laura Spauling and re-writing, working with Rob Brookes on the illustrations, and with Parkhurst Brothers, the publishers! (And re-writing a bit more!) But it is out. And I am thrilled. Thanks Ted for approaching me and asking me to do this.

As I say in the author Q&A, I wrote this book because I feel people do not value, or necessarily enjoy folk and fairy tales the way I do. I wanted to try to change that, by putting together a collection of tales that was fun, and that got people interested in these ancient tales from different cultures.

There are many books out there for young people, teachers, and librarians which contain 'the usual suspects' like Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella et al. I wanted to write a book which contains some old favourites (for comfort) and some stories that are harder to find for the layperson. I wanted the stories to be fun to read either to yourself or better still out loud! I wanted to have sources for readers, whether that a Tips on Telling section (check!), or a list of further reading (check!), or a list of words that some readers might find challenging along with their definitions (check)! And as I mentioned above it has an author Q&A.

There are seventeen folk and fairy tales, which, as Odds Bodkin says, are (I hope): "[w]itty, funny and full of tenderness..." Odds also says: "Brooks’ slightly irreverent, post-modern versions of world tales are marked by his ability to bring his characters to life..." Thank you Odds! All of these tales are stories I tell. Some more than others. Some stories to me are special stories that I take out only so often, and there are others which I love to tell more often. Some are like fine chocolates to be spoiled with, others are like soda or coffee - we need it now!

Yes, I have included Goldilocks in the collection, but I think the title says it all: "The True Story of the Brat Goldilocks." I want people who read this book to understand you don't have to tell a story as it is written on the page, but you can add yourself to the story, you can use your own voice and words to tell a story. With each tale, I have often included the Aarne-Thompson tale type so you can find variations, as well as notes where I first heard or found the story, or what it means to me. I want these insights to encourage the reader to dive into libraries and go to storytelling events to discover more stories and see how they can be told, and maybe find new stories to share with others, using your own unique style and voice.

Trying to write the stories as I tell them was a challenge. Telling a story with a live audience, using their energy as feedback and inspiration is very different to writing something legible! If I transcribed stories I have recorded live, either from my CDs or a live performance, the tales would have not mUnder the Oaken Boughade too much sense, or would have been hard to read. There are things I do in performance which tell the story - body movement, facial expressions, sound effects - which do not translate well to the page. But I think I have thrown my energy into the book, and added the style I tell to the pages, if not the exact words you might have heard. If you read the book and have one or more of my CDs, you might want to do a side by side comparison of stories such as Anansi Gathers Stories, or The Dragon and the Monkey's Heart, or One Wish - all tales on my first two CDs which are in the book. (If you have one of my bootleg CDs there are a few more tales you can compare! - Shh.) You will see what I mean by what works in the telling and what works in the writing.

The book contains seventeen illustrations done by the remarkable Rob Brookes. The book is worth the money for these alone! Rob created a holding page for each of the stories and illustrated the cover. His work is a blessing and wonderful compliment to the book. To be honest, I am not sure I would have published the book without his artwork and design suggestions. Rob is really a partner in this. Thanks Rob.

So if you like telling stories, if you are a librarian or school teacher, if you are a parent, grandparent or young person who kind of sort of wants to read more folk and fairy tales, or you want to try telling them yourself, this might just be the book for you. And you don't have to believe me! Check out what the godfather of storytelling, the fairy godmother of storytelling and a colleague and friend of mine who is a storyteller and story researcher have said about Under the Oaken Bough.

"A delicious collection: a tempting mix of old favorites and rare gems, all shared in Simon Brooks' engaging style.
Parents, teachers and tellers will all want this for their libraries. It is made more useful by his informative notes that include folktale index motifs as well as sources and variants. His insightful Tips for Telling is an added bonus."
- Elizabeth Ellis, International Storyteller and Author

"Simon Brooks invites us to relax and rest ‘under the oaken bough’ and the time is well spent.  Whether it is his clever adaptation of an Aesop tale, the humorous fractured fairy tale of a trespassing Goldilocks or a visit with our favorite trickster Anansi, Simon’s beautiful words and imagery will transport you.
In addition to the glorious, fresh variations of familiar and unique tales, these stories are well researched. Simon offers insights on different variations of specific tales, including the Aarne-Thompson classifications, along with his personal insights. Storytellers, educators, and librarians will definitely appreciate the detailed research he shares.  
Simon also offers us an extra gift with a gentle hand, specific guidelines perfected from his years of storytelling on how to find your unique voice before you step onto the stage. That section alone is worth its weight in leprechaun gold! I guarantee your imagination will be happily satiated when you rise from your time Under the Oaken Bough."
-Karen Chace, Storyteller/Author)

"Simon Brooks’ collection of folk and fairy tales is a must-have for parents to read to kids, while trying not to smile too much.  Witty, funny and full of tenderness, Brooks’ slightly irreverent, post-modern versions of world tales are marked by his ability to bring his characters to life, both with breezy but still vivid descriptions of animals and people, gifted dialog for all of them, and a lovely warmth for his material. An overly talkative turtle, a Goldilocks who is quite the brat, a quick-thinking fox facing a vain and hungry bear––the characters go on and on but never resemble one another. Brooks even adds a how-to about oral storytelling itself, filled with insights for both beginners and seasoned performers. With evocative illustrations by Rob Brookes, Under the Oaken Bough is a gem."
- Odds Bodkin, Storyteller/Author

RED! a retelling (PG-13 for fantasy violence)

Originally posted October 10, 2017

Red! A retelling, starting the story in the middle, by Simon Brooks, © 2017

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.”

“I’m sorry Granny, it’s all my fault.” The small voice began to tremble, so Granny pulled her grandchild in close and hugged her.

“Don’t be silly. How can it be your fault?”

“Well. Me and Mama, we made some bread for you ‘cause you were poorly and I was supposed to bring it to you with the wine. And I was s’posed to come straight here, but I never did,” said the girl. “It’s so hot, I can barely breathe.”

Granny spoke softly. “There, there.”

There was a sudden movement and they heard the sound of liquid rushing towards them. It poured over them both. Red cried out and Granny held the girl tighter. There was that acidic smell again. In another place it might have smelled good. Maybe. Granny said, “Well, what happened?” She tried to clear the warm liquid from Red’s face.

“Mama told me to come straight here, but I didn’t,” said Red.

“Well, what happened?” Granny asked again.

The girl sniffed and said, “I met a wolf on the path, Granny.”

Granny’s voice was patient and soft. “What happened, Red?”

“He asked if he could walk with me as it was such a nice day and I said ‘yes’. He was big, but really thin, Granny.”

“There, there. What happened?” There was more noise and some moving, then nothing.

“He asked where I was going and I told him. That I was coming to your house ‘cause you was poorly and I had bread me and Mama made and some wine for you. The wolf, the wolf, he said maybe I should pick some flowers, too. That if you was poorly, flowers would make you happy and feel better.”

“Yes, they would, my dear. Yes they would. So you strayed off the path?”

“I did Granny. I strayed off the path, and then he was gone. And I came straight here.”

Granny was quiet for a while. “That wolf, the old sinner. I bet he thought he’d come here and make a meal of us both.” She sniffed the air and her clothes. “And wash us down with the wine, of course.” She sighed and thought. “I’m sure there’s a way out of this, if I could think of it,” she said.

“It smells in here, Granny.”

“That is does, dear. That it does. It’s dark and hot too, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Although Red could not see her grandmother, she knew she was smiling. Red could hear it in her grandmother’s voice.

The humidity rose and rose. Granny tried to take deep breaths, but found it hard. The fetid air grew heavier until there was a great rumbling roar and release. For a while Granny and Red could breathe a little easier.

There was a slight movement and it felt like something was pushing in against one of the walls of the wolf’s stomach. A shining point came through the wall and with it, a thin sliver of light. The sudden brightness grew as the slit grew. After the complete darkness, the light made Granny cover both her own eyes and those of Little Red. More light poured in and a pair of hands followed. Little Red was pulled from Grandma’s grasp and lifted out of the belly of the beast. Granny cried out. The hands reached down again and carefully lifted Granny. They both blinked in the bright light and saw before them a tall, strong, kind-faced huntsman. Although he smiled at them, there was something about his face that told Granny how both she and her granddaughter looked and smelled.

“Are you two ladies alright?” he asked. He looked about and got a cloth. After dampening it he handed it to Granny who wiped her face and hands clean. A basket lay on the floor, and flowers were strewn about. An empty bottle lay on the floor next to an untouched loaf of bread still wrapped in a cloth. The table had been pushed across the floor and a chair tipped over. The old lady stood still shaking a little, wetted the cloth once more and began to wipe off Red. The young girl clung to her grandmother looking between the huntsman and the wolf.

The huntsman began to pick up things which had been knocked onto the floor and straighten the house up a little. He said: “I’ve been tracking this old sinner for a while now. Sorry I didn’t find him sooner.”

Granny looked at the huntsman. He was handsome and made Granny’s heart skip a beat. She smiled at the man. “Thank you. For saving us and for picking up the mess.” Granny looked over at her bed and saw the wolf with his head flopped back and belly opened up. “Please take it away.”

The huntsman pulled the sheets around the wolf, took the body outside. Granny washed Red’s hair at the water pump in the kitchen.

When the hunter came back in he told them he had skinned the wolf and butchered the meat. “No point in letting it all go to waste.” His clothes were rough but well made. The boots heavy and worn, but looked comfortable.

Granny remembered her husband, when he had been alive, had a pair just like them and he used to say they were as comfortable as slippers. She smiled at the memory, but then shuddered again, thinking of the wolf.

The man looked around the house and then at Granny. “Well, there is a reward for a wolf’s pelt. It doesn’t seem right to me that I keep it all. After all, I found the sinner in your house.” He moved from one foot to another, slightly embarrassed. I’ll bring you the money, or we could split it” said the man.

“No need to do that.” Granny stroked Red’s hair with lavender oil trying to get the rid of the smell. “If you had not been tracking him, I don’t know when we would have got out. You keep the money.”

“If you say so. Thank you. Can I help out here? Should I send word to anyone?”

“No. We will be fine now. If you could burn the bed covers and sheets, I would appreciate that.”

“Of course.”

So, the house was put right again. The great pot was boiled and the water poured into a small tin tub into which Little Red was thoroughly scrubbed. The pot was boiled again and Granny washed herself. She picked some lavender and rubbed the leaves over both of them. Granny dressed her granddaughter in some of her own clothes, and the two laughed at such a small girl dressed in such roomy clothing.

 While the washed clothes dried in the sun, the girl’s hooded red cloak flapping in the warm breeze. Together they made some soup which went very nicely with the bread Red had brought.

Before dusk, they went out together and picked some new flowers and put them in a vase. The flowers Red had arrived with were broken and trampled. Red’s mother and father visited a couple of days later to check on them both. The hunter had told them that the wolf had been found and killed and Granny and Red were fine.

Although it needs not to be mentioned, I will say that Little Red never strayed from the path again; unless it was with her grandmother to pick flowers.

 

Copyright Simon Brooks, ©2017