Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Whew. What a storm. Being here in landlocked Kansas, all I can do is send prayers and maybe cash, look at the pictures in the paper and remember other hurricanes. We had big storms, gales, and I think a few hurricanes when I was a kid in Rhode Island but all I remember is wading in the overflowing storm drain puddle at the end of the street.

I was in Gloria in New York City in 1985. It wasn't too bad. I lived in International House, an independent dorm for graduate students in schools around the city. It was the only day in the entire year that almost everybody was home. We hung out, played scrabble, went up on the roof (!), and went for a walk down Broadway when the skies had cleared.

There was one in 1991 when I lived in Connecticut. My parents were visiting friends in Rhode Island and were on their way to my house. Mostly I remember Dad grumbling about being evacuated--as a Rhode Islander, he'd been through his own interesting times in hurricanes (care to comment, Dad?).

This one is something else. For a resident storyteller's view, check out Dianne de Las Casas' blog.

Wedding stories

I'm going to a wedding this weekend. I've known the bride since she was 6 days old--and I was in college. I asked her mother for suggestions on wedding presents. The e-mail response came a few days later: Kristen would like me to tell a story at the reception.

Wedding stories. The first time I was asked to tell a story at a wedding was back in the mid '90s. A friend of my sister asked if I could tell the story of how she and her sweetie met, and their lives together since. Over ice cream, the couple told me their story. I listened, wrote everything down, listened, asked questions, listened and put it all aside. After a while, I was able to find a thread that ran through all their adventures. I found a form for the story.

I enjoyed telling their own story at the wedding, but it was a little chancy--I seem to have a problem with facts. I got partway through the story and forgot the next bit. I chose to strike a pensive pose, looking down at the ground. Inside I was cursing. What came next?! I couldn't make it up! Then I remembered to breathe and the next piece of their story came back to me.

For this upcoming wedding, it won't be so tricky, I don't think. I'll tell a story I invented when I was about 13 about the kids in this family--I added Kristen's name to the story after she was born. Once the kids made me a little book of "The peanut butter story," nicely illustrated.

And what else? This isn't a full performance, so I'll probably just tell one more, maybe two. I've been looking for the right one. Should I tell an old chestnut, like "Sir Gawain and the loathly lady"? Should I tell a folk tale that's funny and ends well, like the Irish story "The lazy young woman"? Or should I jump right in and tell a new one? It can take a long time to find the right story, and a long time to make it my own, but sometimes, just sometimes, I can find one, love it, learn it and have it work well. It may become a part of the full repertoire as it sinks into my body and mind, or it may be a flash in the pan. Some stories take years, literally, to learn (and sometimes understanding comes much later).

I'll let you know what I tell, but probably not until after the fact.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

ADD and me

Hm. I sat down to write something, not sure what, then remembered that I needed to put a new ink cartridge in the printer, so I can print a promotional piece as I write. I got up to get the cartridge, then decided that lunch would be a good idea. I turned the radio on as I got my lunch, English muffin with mustard, smoked turkey and sharp cheddar, yum! While the English muffin was toasting, I called time and temp so I could set the microwave clock. As I ate, I opened Delivered from Distraction, the book on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) I've been reading. Oh, that's what I should write about! Even as I write that, I think, dang, I forgot to put the printer cartridge in...

Despite never having had a real diagnosis, I've known for a long time that I most likely have ADD (officially called ADHD, but I like ADD better--am I really hyperactive?). As I read this book I realize that lots of my friends and family probably do, too.

I don' t think of it as a disorder, though. Yeah, there are parts of it which make life more difficult, but generally, it's a gift. For quite a while, I've been calling it "diffuse attention." It means that I'm aware of what's going on at several levels when I'm performing. I'm watching everything: the story, my own energy, the audience. I'm paying attention to where I get a laugh, or where I don't, where a long pause makes a difference, where speeding up shifts the story. I wrote about this in the post on energy of space. Occasionally I find myself pulled out of the story, but usually all I have to do is remind myself to be present.

Because of this, I'm forgiving of children in the audience who need to move a little bit, as long as they're not bothering anybody. I build in repetitive hand gestures and phrases into stories for young children so the kinesthetic learners have something to do to anchor them physically in the story.

It also means that I can keep lots of stories in my head at once, lots of projects going at the same time. I think it's why I can improvise within a story or with a puppet.

True enough, I have phone messages written on the backs of envelopes and on scrap paper around my house, and I have a tendency to procrastinate or lose focus when I'm working on something less than scintillating. Conversation with me can be an adventure or just plain confusing, as I tend to flit from idea to idea. I'm always reading about eight books at once.

I've set up systems to help myself stay on track. Lists and deadlines help. My Palm is invaluable, not only for playing Scrabble. Periodically I sort and file all the piles of clutter in my house, all at once (I think of this as "infrastructure cleaning"). I try to arrive at gigs early enough that nobody, including me, is anxious.

I'm interested in the strategies in this book for working with ADD. I already do some of them: meditation, regular exercise, systems that help me keep track of my life, having creative outlets. There are others that look intriguing: brain exercises to help focus, taking omega-3 fatty acids.

Maybe I'll go look up some of the websites on ADD. Or I'll put the printer cartridge in.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Long story festival

Hmm, I think all I needed to do was write that post yesterday to get myself back to work. That, and talking on the phone with Liz Warren about our upcoming project, "Going Deep: The Long Traditional Story Festival."

We're really going to do it. We've talked and dreamed about this for years.

Here are some details: March 16-19, 2006 at Cynthia Changaris' Storyteller's Riverhouse in Bethlehem, Indiana (not far from Louisville, KY). Three long stories in the evenings, three long workshops the next morning, three afternoons to stroll by the Ohio River or nap or chat quietly. We have space for 15 participants to stay for the entire festival, though of course the public is invited to attend the evening events for a small fee.

What stories? Liz Warren will start us off in style with her elegant telling of "The Grail," the quintessential hero's journey. The next night Olga Loya will captivate us with an Aztec creation myth. We'll save romance for the last night, when I tell "Tristan and Iseult."

Who might come to this? Storytellers, storylisteners, librarians, academics, anybody who says, "Hey, cool! Count me in!"

Whaddya think?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


August is like this. I can't remember what I'm supposed to be doing.

I don't have many performances or workshops, libraries are done with summer reading programs and schools haven't begun. I know I should be working on my marketing or on other projects, but I have very little focus. How about another game of solitaire? Bejeweled? Bookworm? (I warn you, click on those at your own risk. They will suck the brains out of your head and hours out of your life.)

I had a plan this afternoon. I was going to sit down at Z's Divine Espresso and write out a plan for the five or six projects coming up. Instead I went to Office Depot and Target. I thought I'd come home by way of the coffeeshop, but before I knew it, I was pulling back in to my driveway. I sat down to check e-mail (a fine stalling tactic) and then needed to have a nap. Now it's almost 6 p.m., a time that seems just wrong to have coffee, even decaf. I could sit on my porch swing and write, but the last time I did that, I only got a paragraph down before my brain switched into daydream mode.

I guess this is a day off. That's one of the things that happens in the self-employed person's life. It's usually late in the day when I realize that it's a mental health day. There's always a chance that I'll find some motivation after supper for a bit of work. That also sometimes happens--I'll have a little thought that turns into a bigger thought and then it's ten p.m. and I've actually accomplished something. Or it's ten p.m. and I've played another game or six of spider solitaire.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Dog days

Midnight came over to visit again yesterday. She's a black Lab mix who lives two houses away. Her owners seem unaware of the leash law in town. On the one hand, I wish they would take better care of their dog and would clean up after her (good thing the other neighbor who mows my lawn uses a riding mower), and on the other hand, I love her visits.

The first time she came over, she was very skittish. She eventually let me pat her. Now she runs over when she hears my screen porch door open or when I drive up. She has lovely toast-colored eyes, and a sincere look reminiscent of a certain Lab/setter mix in my past. She also has only half a tail, which doesn't keep her from wagging her entire back end.

I thought maybe she wanted food, but the other night when I offered her a corn chip she took it politely, carried it to the grass and put it down. She sat down next to it and watched me. I told her it was okay if she wanted to eat it. She didn't. I've tried throwing a stick for her. She's not interested. She occasionally drinks water I put out for her, but it's becoming clear that she merely wants to be patted.

Midnight doesn't bark and isn't aggressive. The night of the corn chip, she was on my lawn and I was on my porch swing when some boys went by with a big dog on a leash. They were on the other side of the street. Midnight just watched.

Last night I was on the porch swing with my cat, Joe Fish, when Midnight strolled over. At first she didn't notice the cat, but then she began smiling. No barking, no chasing. Joe hissed. She didn't show a strong reaction, but she also didn't come up on the porch. Joe Fish didn't threaten her again.

Last week I had story night in my backyard and Midnight came over. She grazed on some fescue while I told the first story, and eventually wandered out of the yard. Maybe tonight I should tell dog stories.

I'd like to have a dog of my own, but I travel a lot and I have this fabulous geezer cat who wouldn't be pleased. Maybe Midnight is the solution. As I write this, I'm realizing that I'm doing exactly what my grandmother used to do, playing hostess to a neighbor dog. Granny had two or three who used to visit regularly. (Mom, you can probably clarify this.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The energy of space

I've come to understand that much of my work is about energy management. While telling the stories I love, in order to be effective, I have to manage my own energy, the energy of the audience, the energy of the story, and the energy of the space. Am I pushing too hard in this place? Am I losing that kid in the third row? Does this story need a pause here? Have I set up the space so that everyone can listen easily? I imagine it is like being a conductor, or maybe like playing a pipe organ (MADewH, want to weigh in on that?), paying attention to everything all at once. I like it. It's also why a day of four performances can be totally exhausting. Fun, but tiring.

I've learned how to do this through the years. A few weeks ago I had an example of how the wrong setup of the space can sabotage all the other aspects. I was at a library that uses a former school gym for performance space. I walked in and saw that it was set up so I was in the middle of the room, and the kids were to be on the bleachers.

I explained to the librarian that I'd prefer to have the audience on the floor, with me at the narrow end of the room under the basketball hoop.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I explained that when I'm in the middle of the room like that, and the kids are spread the width of the room, they can't pay attention. The energy of the story seems to go into the air behind me, and the kids don't focus. It's better to have something behind me to define the space and hold the energy in. (This is also why outdoor storytelling can be a challenge.)

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do. They'd tried it the other way once and it didn't work.

I tried again.

She said no, she wanted to be consistent with what they always do.

I was getting angry, something that rarely happens. I've never been a prima donna storyteller, I don't think, but I explained that I've been doing this for twelve years full time (didn't mention the five years part time before that) and that this is something I do understand. She went away to ask her supervisor.

By the time she came back (without the supervisor), I had calmed down and decided that I'd rather not fight. I agreed to do it her way. I resisted quoting Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, adored by petty statesmen, philosophers and divines."

Did I mention that this room had no air conditioning, just big fans on the floor, on one of the hottest days of the summer? I did know that in advance, so I was prepared. I wasn't prepared for the librarian to give the children, mostly preschoolers, paper fans. Preschoolers and paper fans, imagine it. About 150 of them. On bleachers. Heat rises.

I did my best, but it wasn't very good. There were a few kids in the middle who seemed to be paying attention, but many were unaware of what I was doing or saying. I felt set up for failure. The librarian's comment at the end? "Thanks, they loved it!" Huh.

Thank goodness every other performance since then, including one later that day at another library, has been great fun, with the kids listening attentively and all of us having a good time. In fact, of the more than 60 performances since June 1, only two or three were less than optimal. That's pretty good.