Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Worried Storyteller

One describes a tale best by telling the tale.  You see?  The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story.  It is a balancing act and it is a dream.  The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory.  The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.
--Neil Gaiman, from the introduction to Fragile Things

The story does not make sense in the absence of an audience.  I’ll go further.  The story does not exist in the absence of an audience.  It is the silent babbling of the mute falling upon the closed ears of the deaf.

Once upon a time there was a farmer.  He owned a small bit of land that always provided him with enough.  Some years he had just a bit less than he was comfortable with and some years he had more than he needed.  But he always found he had enough to get by.

One harvest season he heard that wild animals had gotten in to the fields in a farm down the road and ruined the crops.  All winter the farmer stared at his own field and tried to decide how to make sure that never happened to him.

My sister tells me that when I was younger I was terrified of going to new places.  If there was a school or church trip to an amusement park or water park my parents would have to take me to the place beforehand so I could see it.  So I could know where it was.  But without that trip the idea of going to a new place made me extremely uneasy.  I don’t remember any of that, but it explains an awful lot about who I have spent most of my life being.

When spring time rolled around and the farmer was beginning to plant his seeds he realized what he needed to do.  So he dug a deep foundation all around his fields and began piling stones.  Soon he had a wall that was so high no animal could jump over it and a foundation that was so deep no animal could burrow under it.  When he was done he looked at his wall with satisfaction because he knew his crops were safe from any animal that came by.

I’ve spent a large percentage of my life walling myself off.  I want to be safe and secure, ready to deal with all of life’s eventualities before I’ll really do much of anything.  It’s ironic, I suppose, that circumstances forced me to make the two biggest decisions of my life with almost no information.  I chose Western Illinois University without ever visiting.  I like to point out that I spent all of 22 hours in Texas before moving, but the truth is that I’d already decided I’d have to make that move before I ever came down.

That summer was extremely wet.  It rained for days, then weeks on end.  The water that fell from the sky could not run off the field over that high, stone wall so it just sat on the field.  The farmer’s crops drowned and when harvest season rolled around he had nothing.  All that winter the farmer stared at his high, stone wall and tried to decide how to make sure that he never lost his crops again.

When spring time rolled around and the farmer was beginning to plant his seeds he realized what he needed to do.  He tore down his high stone wall and turned its deep foundation in to a drainage ditch.  He then dug run off channels in to his field so that any excess rain that fell would quickly drain off.

Girls didn’t really notice me when I was in junior high or high school.  I was an awkward, chubby geek.  The first girl I ever dated was someone I met the summer after high school.  She was a bitch and she cheated on me.  It took me an awfully long time to be able to reduce the reasons why it ended to that simple sentence.

In the immediate aftermath I decided I wasn’t going to start dating until I had figured out exactly what I needed to figure out in order to meet someone and not make mistakes.  I declared a three-year moratorium on dating, during which I would not even consider a relationship.  I then set about creating a convoluted system by which I could decide if a woman would be with me forever or break my heart in to a thousand pieces.

The system basically boiled down to this: figure out who the most awesome girl I knew was, then rate any new girls I met according to whether she was better or worse than the baseline.  Updated the baseline periodically by arbitrarily picking a different girl.  It was a foolproof system.

That summer there was a drought.  What little rain fell from the sky ran down the runoff channels and in to that deep ditch.  The farmer’s crops withered and died underneath the summer sun and when the harvest season rolled around he had nothing.  All that winter the farmer stared at his drainage ditch and tried to decide how to make sure that he never lost his crops again.

My three-year moratorium on dating became something on the order of a six-year moratorium on dating.  When I finally met someone who met all of the criteria I had set out (really, she seemed to blow them all away) who was actually interested in me I decided that I would do my damnedest to make sure she stayed around.  An all-too-short period of something between bliss and denial was then followed by a year and a half of something between misery and denial.

When spring time rolled around and the farmer was beginning to plant his seeds he realized what he needed to do.  He went out to the edge of his field and dug a retention pond.  That way when it rained he could collect the water and use it to irrigate his fields later.

We officially ended our association with each other at the beginning of April.  I went on a date with an absolutely fantastic girl at some time in May.  At the time I was in no shape to be dating, physically or emotionally.  She never returned my calls.

From that point on I kept trying to meet new women.  But I was quick to cut them off.  I was also not nearly so willing to cut my ties to the past as I wanted to be or insisted I was.

That summer wild animals came and drank from the retention pond.  When they were done they went in to the farmer’s field, where they ate his crops and trampled them underfoot.  For the third year in a row when harvest season rolled around he had nothing.

I began to withdraw.  I started to say I didn’t want to meet anyone.  I told anyone who was willing to listen that all I ever met was crazy girls and it just wasn’t worth it.  I could hear myself insist just a little too loudly that I was resolutely single, that I was completely content on my own.  I could see the doubt written all across the faces of the people I tried to convince.

After all, it’s incredibly hard to convince people of things you don’t believe yourself.

The farmer went out in to his field, fell on his knees and began to weep.  While he was crying an old woman came walking across the field and found him.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Nothing I do seems to work,” he replied.  “I built a wall to keep the animals out, but it kept the water in.  I built a ditch to take the water away but then no water stayed.  I built a pond to hold the water but then the animals came.  Now I have nothing.”

“Well what did you do before?” the old woman asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I just planted my crops and tended them as best I could.”

“Well maybe you should do that again,” she said.  “Do what you can today and let tomorrow take care of itself.”

The next year the farmer did not build a wall, or dig a ditch, or make a pond.  He simply planted his crops and tended to them.  And from then on when harvest season rolled around he always had enough to get by.

Sometimes, though, the audience member who gets the most out of the story is the storyteller.


I was disappointed with myself last week while I was recording my stories.  They didn’t seem to work, not the new ones, not the old ones.  It was extremely frustrating.

I went to a Guild meeting tonight.  It was the first time I’ve done anything storytelling-related in public in months.  The Fox Valley Folk Festival is coming up over Labor Day weekend and I’ll be there.  If tradition holds they’ll even be kind enough to let me tell a story or three.  Even though I’m a thousand miles away I consider myself a member and I’m pretty sure that’s reciprocal.

I needed to kick the rust off and try to answer a few questions that popped up last week.  The big one was, “Do I really suck at this as much as I seem to right now?”  But I also wanted to minimize the potential damage, so I told my new story, “The Worried Farmer.”  Well, specifically I told the new story I feel the least attached to.

I prefaced it with a quick (well, as quick as I get) explanation of my little project from the last week, along with my observations about what I call my “storytelling voice,” then solicited feedback.  The double-edged sword of storytelling is critique.  Storytellers will tend to reserve criticism unless specifically solicited for fear of hurting feelings, overanalyzing a work in progress, or causing a new storyteller to freak out and quit altogether.  This is especially true if the storytellers in the audience don’t know the teller too well.  So my expectations for feedback at a Fox Valley Guild meeting are quite different than my expectations at a Dallas Guild meeting.  Such is the nature of things.

Either way, “The Worried Farmer” was one of those random story concepts that just kind of came to me while I was working on a different story.  I think it was actually inspired by a Peacemakers song, but I don’t actually recall.  It came as a series of images: a worried farmer, a trampled harvest, and a high stone wall.  From those images I knew the beginning and the end, but I didn’t know the middle.

He built the wall and I tried to figure out what ironic destruction could follow.  Flood made the most sense.  From there drought was the easiest follow-up.  But here I ran in to a problem: I needed a third catastrophe, since stories almost slavishly adhere to the Rule of Three.  The hero faces three challenges, answers three questions, slays three beasts.  The big points are repeated three times.  It’s one of the oldest techniques in the book but we keep using it because it works.  Three drives the point home without beating it in to the ground.  Three draws attention to itself.

So I needed a third.  But I couldn’t, for the life of me, come up with anything.  I also didn’t feel like working on it too much, so I dropped it.

The first time I tried telling the story to record it the third plan and third catastrophe literally presented themselves.  In hindsight it’s the most obvious thing in the world.  But it’s funny how sometimes the obvious isn’t really obvious until we tell the stories.

To the Rule of Three I added another of the oldest techniques in the book to “The Worried Farmer.”  By having wild animals cause the third disaster I’d turned it in to what is known as a ring story.  The ring story allows the teller to bring the story to a point of closure and wholeness where it ends where it began.  But in doing so the storyteller also invites tension.

For when the wild animals do destroy his crops that worried farmer has two options: he can learn from what has happened or he can build another high, stone wall and go around the circle again.  There is an old song about what happens then.  Perhaps you remember it.

This is the song that never ends
Yes it goes on and on my friend
Some people started singing it
A long long time ago
And now they are stuck singing it
Forever just because
This is the song that never ends
Yes it goes on and on my friend…

And so on and so forth ad infinitum.

The thing about a story, though, is that it is not complete until it is told.  So as I stood up at the Guild meeting I did not yet know what the story would become.  All I had was an idea in the back of my head that I didn’t tell it well, but it was okay since it’s a new story and it’s not like I care about it too much.

I started out more quickly than I usually do.  This was a good thing, as I tend to take a long pause, collect myself, and then kind of drone in to a story.  Honestly, I think that’s the thing I need to avoid the most, because that’s what sets the tone for everything else.  I need to tell stories more conversationally.

I still took pauses.  But they made a whole hell of a lot more sense with an audience hearing the story for the first time.  It’s a story that started more with images than words and is built more on images than words.  So you need to take a moment to let the images build and sink in.  Let the audience see that high, stone wall.  Let the audience see the crops withering under a relentless summer sun.  Let them feel the farmer’s distress as he cries in the field.  Then let them feel relief as that outside agent arrives to help the farmer see what he could not and break the cycle.

The storyteller interacts with the audience, too.  When the wild animals came to drink from the farmer’s pond one of the other storytellers, a guy named Tim who is really quite good, got that little smile on his face that said, “I know exactly what’s about to happen.”  That’s an absolutely key moment, because one of the biggest secrets of storytelling might be the thing that’s the hardest to comprehend: a story should always let you know what is going to happen next.  If it doesn’t then that means you haven’t created a proper narrative structure.  If you haven’t created a proper narrative structure then you can’t tell a useful story.

This, too, is why The Worried Farmer is a story with two characters.  We need to believe that, if left to his own devices, the farmer would endlessly build and tear down walls, dig and fill in ditches, and create and drain ponds, always expecting a different result from the last time whether he’s on trip two around the circle or two thousand.  We need the old woman to show up and offer a way out.

And, for the record, it’s almost always an old woman in these stories.  In mythological archetypes the wise old man arrives in order to call the hero off on a journey, while the wise old woman arrives to dispense advice at the right time.  It’s the classic father and mother figure that we write in to our stories.

But I digress.

This marks the third time that an afterthought story has become one of my preferred tales simply because I got in front of an audience and told it in a way that I understood it for the first time.  Funny how that works, I suppose.

It also resulted in a discussion about how things that sound good in front of an audience don’t necessarily work in a recording and vice versa.  Which was honestly an aspect of the whole thing I hadn’t really considered.  But it’s an extremely useful bit of information to store away.

Anyway, when all was said and done Tim told me that he thought I have a unique voice and should basically keep working on cultivating it.  I don’t necessarily know if that was something I needed to hear, but it certainly was something that I appreciated hearing.  I have been extremely fortunate in my short time as a storyteller to be exposed to the work of some fantastic tellers.  I have also been extremely fortunate in that there is a large overlap between the list of fantastic storytellers I’ve seen and the list of fantastic storytellers who have helped me, offered me advice, and encouraged me.

But I have also basically only told my own original stories.  That means that after about three and a half years I only have nine stories that I consider “done” for a value of done that merely means, “I have told them in public or would be confident doing so,” and another dozen or so stories floating around in my head that are somewhere between a random idea and something that’s just not ready yet.  What that means, though, is that I have nine stories that I have never heard anyone else tell.  I have nine stories that mean something to me and that are, ultimately, a part of me.  What that means is that I have nine stories that no one ever heard before they heard them from me.

That means that I am developing in to a storyteller rather slowly.  But it means that I am developing in to the storyteller that only I can be and speaking with a voice that I had no choice but to create for myself.


David said...

I found your blog through Unreasonable Faith, and I am enjoying your series on After the Flood.

Anyway, I'm not sure how germane this is, but I have to ask: are you familiar with the work of Hannah Arendt? I ask because she is, as far as I am aware, the only philosopher/political thinker who devotes a significant amount of thought to storytelling.

Geds said...

I've been exposed to Hannah Arendt (okay, that just sounds weird), but only with the occasional snippet here and there. I'll guess I'll have to take a closer look.


Mark Goldman said...

I found you through Google Alerts related to storytelling. I am a storyteller from Phoenix AZ.

I loved both the Worried Farmer Story and the entire blog. The integration of both traditional story and personal journey would seem to make a great story itself(vs. telling only The Worried Farmer). If not a regular storytelling event, perhaps a Fringe Festival.

Two thoughtful and well crafted stories!

Janet said...

I second Mark. I have always loved the combined telling of parable with personal narrative, and you did it beautifully in this blog post. It is a joy to watch a skilled artist apply his craft.

Geds said...

Thank you, Mark. I've thought about doing Fringe, but it was always an attempt to interlace different stories within a master narrative. I'd never considered telling two different stories quite like that.

But I'm still experimenting. Although one of the big things I was trying to do with this particular piece was show the difference between the spoken word and the written word and how the story is simple, repetitive, and tells a universalized story while my narrative is none of those things but both get to the same point.


Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.