Convergence (continued.)

It is still my biggest challenge  in storytelling that I cannot select the *perfect* words for a given tale and be done with my work on it. The work is the continual internalization of the story (ostensibly in images– which I’ve learned is not my first language) in such a way that I will feel confident to convey the heart of the story, whether or not I use my most-favorite words.

Of course, between my love for precision, and my gift (I have to call it that, I didn’t earn it) of memorization, I find myself with the impulse to “cram” before every presentation, latching on to my favorite phrases like handfuls of candy, hoping the corner of a wrapper will be enough to hold on to this precious sweetness until I can share it with someone who’s never tasted it before.

From then on, with each day that passed, as the black serpents grew stronger, nourished by their ghastly food, Zohak grew ever more hardened, becoming more cruel and ambitious.

“I have seen the world, Rabbi, and I know that God cannot be here.”

“What would God have to do,” asked the rabbi, “to prove Himself to you, young Chiam who has seen so much of the world?”

“He would have to make a wonder, Rabbi. God would have to make a wonder.”

For all her joy and relief she was near tears.

Every time I tell a story, it is a surrender to imperfection. Not because I’m sloppy or don’t care enough, but because every live performance contains variables, and aside from memorizing the entire piece I can’t guarantee how exactly it will go.

Surrender to imperfection.

Accepting my limits, and believing that the story itself is more important than flawless delivery, as if it could be spoken as poetry.

It reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton quote, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

I latched on to that saying in the beginning of my fight against crippling perfectionism.

Now I’m just a perfectionist. Or maybe I have perfectionism, like most people get the common cold. It can be an irritation, a distraction from the simple experience and enjoyment of life. It reminds me that failure is all around me, like dog poop, just waiting to be stepped in if I don’t pay close attention to every. single. step.

The difference between this and crippling perfectionism is that I’m no longer afraid of scraping dog poo off my shoe. It’s disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. Or even the walk.

That said, I’m not bad at storytelling. A number of people tell me I’m quite good. And everyone should know that the vast majority of stories don’t take themselves so seriously that they are massively improved upon memorization. I think my impulse to memorization is tied to my drive for perfection. There’s a competitive element in my nature that wants to get everything “correct” and that element is tangled with an instinct that sees being right as a sort of armor.

Precision as armor is definitely a hold-over attitude from my journalism mind. When I’m writing about something that could make people uncomfortable (especially if they might feel the need to pass that discomfort on to me), getting all my facts/quotes/statistics accurate is the best way I know to shield myself.

Uncertainty feels like liability.

Uncertainty = liability is a crippling mindset to bring into either noveling or storytelling.

In noveling, this shows up as the critical editor, mocking or damning material before it is evaluation-time, squelching the baby bird of a rough draft rather than letting it hatch, breaking itself free with the muscles that must be developed by the fight of its escape. The critical editor’s voice might purport to try and help open the egg, but most often it is too clumsy and can crush the shell while it challenges the blind and featherless life inside to prove its right to exist.

In storytelling, this crippling mindset demands a perfection in practice that is not possible before practice. One of the great paradoxes of learning a story is you always have to start before you’re ready. Ultimately, to make a story mine, I have to step away from carving filigree, from expecting the tools of noveling (falling in love with whole paragraphs of beautiful prose), and start making my story selections based on their content, rather than the poetry in the pen of the collector.

In storytelling, as with noveling and my non-fiction work, the key seems to be know and choosing what’s important to me. Once that core is in place I have the motivation that leads to the attention-span that results in quality work.

I’m still figuring out which tools are best for which area, but recognizing a) different forms thrive in difference circumstances, and b) it makes sense that my __________ muscles will get fatigued through prolonged use, I’m learning to trust my instincts. Which, considering I’ve only acknowledged them for the last five years or so, is an encouraging point of growth.

The Convergence of Expertise

It started out badly enough: a journalism background muddying the waters of my novel-creating.

My scrupulosity — the need to cite/confirm/reality-check everything — was getting in the way of just creating a high-stakes story.

I eventually separated that (in my head) by pretending I was one of those high-output authors who just roll with the story and write it as it comes, waiting till the story is done (and someone complains that it doesn’t work) before seriously considering that something is weird or unrealistic.

Last I checked, a lot of the reason people read is the alternative from reality. (As long as it supports their core view of reality — but that’s another conversation.)

Then, just a couple weeks ago, I shifted from a word-glut of novel-production (that is NaNoWriMo) to prepare for a sudden opportunity to bring storytelling into a local middle school.

And discovered another level of complexity.

It makes me think of the red Snap-On toolbox my dad used for his work as a mechanic in the first half of my growing-up years.

The thing was taller than me (with drawers that slid beautifully smooth, and a satisfying solidity that let one bang the drawer shut  for clangs upon clunks as the tools collided at closing), and no matter how full it got, it never ceased to amaze me that a) more might fit or b) more were needed at all.

Eventually I learned about metric vs. empirical measurements, and the need (essentially) to double ones tool stash in order to best interact with different systems.

Add a third measurement system (tonakle?) and you start to see the convergence of journalism, noveling and storytelling.

All require similar skills, and understandings of a fairly consistent process or structure: Problems – real, natural, or created – are encountered, and decisions must be made and/or consequences ensue. That is the core of everything I deal in.

But journalism (what I began with my formal, college degree) uses what I would call the empirical system. It is (sometimes) less elegant, but definitely complete and logical. And (having the advantage of being brought up in the system), it feels as natural as any externally prescribed system to label the world I’m interacting with.

Words themselves are a system of labels, and God knows I’m comfortable with those.

Noveling, as I encounter and interact with it, is more like the metric system. Decidedly more elegant than raw journalism, “literature in a hurry,” noveling gets to make sense (in fact, most readers demand it).

Mark Twain is attributed with this gem: “Of course life is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

Sense and symmetry in journalism is like the beauty in nature as distinguished from the beauty in human-created art; it most-emphatically exists, but we don’t generally get to choose when.

That said, just like a good photographer can bring meaning and (through that) beauty with the angle of a lens, in the way s/he chooses to frame an image of reality, just so a journalist can seek or distill beauty from a hard place.

Noveling has the freedom to be deliberately beautiful, a freedom that can become a beloved obligation.

I’ve made peace with that. I’m wresting into cooperation my two major art forms of the last 13 years.

And then, Storytelling.

Orally. Out loud, in front of an audience: attentive or indifferent, it doesn’t matter.

Let me rephrase that: It most-definitely makes a difference how engaged the audience is, but my job doesn’t change. If I was more of an expert, I might feel more of an obligation to make sure the audience was connected, no matter what.

At my current level of skill, my focus must still be on the story as much as the audience, and if this particular story doesn’t connect with an individual, all I ask from that listener is a quiet patience till the end where you’ll soon get the chance to try an alternative on for size.

Storytelling is another animal altogether.

It has the requirements of the novel:

  • It must entertain, or why will anyone listen?
  • It has elegance and symmetry, because those are ingredients of beauty as well as aids to memory

But it also reminds me of journalism, because the stories tend to be short and spare– a description that invokes a reaction, not necessarily because of the exact words chosen (since the piece is seldom memorized) but primarily because of the content itself.

When I talk about massive snakes growing out of a man’s shoulders (something, in all my years of folklore I’d never seen before this story), people react. And why wouldn’t they? The original teller told it to get a reaction, and so do I.

That is the work of every journalist, every novelist and every storyteller. To grab the imagination of that consumer of our words.

Ah, but the means.

Knowing the difference between the systems has become so important. This is where the tools can start to slip, or have to be held so carefully in order not to strip the useful edges and angles from what we’re working on.

Mourning Isn’t Over When the Flowers Wilt


Image courtesy of q83 via stock.xchng

This is a recording I made of poems about admiration, love and loss, from a variety of poems and poets: To be of Use by Marge Piercy, A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Perfection Wasted by John Updike, and an excerpt from Four Poems in One by Anne Porter.

I have completed my First-10 speeches for Toastmasters, and am now working on my first “advanced manual,” Interpretive Reading.

I performed this collection of poems at a new Toastmasters group yesterday. The feedback was mixed, kind compliments, and appreciation of how I compiled the cycle, with questions from other people about the point or purpose of poetry and such a “dark” theme: Remembrance, death and loss.

Jay came with me to the meeting, and returned to the questions when we got home.

My first response was to think, Maybe I’m just morbid.

But that didn’t fit my intent or my emotional state. I dug deeper while he tried to help.

“Is it to share at a funeral or memorial service like [name] asked? What’s the application?”

“Mourning doesn’t end when the service does,” I finally said, coming to my understanding as I spoke it.

“I repeat the poems because it is a way of remembering. The people who hear only death and gloom hear what they have ears for, and that’s okay, that’s not up to me, it’s where they’re at. But there is ever-so-much more and better going on than gloom.

“There is grief, because I still grieve. That doesn’t go away for me or anybody. And it’s comforting, somehow, to go back to what you might expect at a service. It still honors them, and comforts me.”

Courage– Revisted

Image courtesy of Colin Brough via stock.xchng

It takes one kind of courage to look straight at  your life, compare where you are to where you want to be, and then dive into making your life the one you want to live.

It is another kind of courage (more in line with General Sherman’s definition) that has us look straight at the cost of something, and choose it anyway.

Both have been coming into play in this “year of courage” (as I labeled 2013).

I have had a string of successes and delights this spring.

  1. I adopted a dog that was just what I wanted (still learning how to train him ;])
  2. We had a family vacation in Hawaii that was almost completely stress-free and got me far enough into my novel that the momentum meant something.
  3. I finished my first 10 speeches to achieve my “competent communicator” award in Toastmasters
  4. I finished my novel last week, and am now letting my story-brain rest, working on non-fiction writing instead (blog, WynMag).
  5. I’m wrapping up a last few editing of WynMag projects and the first issue will go live soon. (And I’m ahead on my submissions for the next issue).
  6. I’ve got the children signed up in a homeschooling program for next year (that we will actually start this summer), so that we have more financial flexibility to explore and experiment with curricula to find what will work best for our family.
  7. We’ve sold the rabbits (most of them, anyway), bringing us down to pet-levels.
  8. Our second round of baby goats is due this week (and we know better what to DO this time, so the enjoyment level will be even higher).
  9. The children will complete their first year of “away school” next week, and I won’t have to be the bad-guy, sending them on with empty hopes that people might change, and the slightly less-empty hope that there’s not many days left.

These are all tied, in my mind, to the first type of courage.

Now comes the second kind.

Image courtesy of Sarah Peller via stock.xchng

In the process of getting healthy on a mental/emotional level, I’ve come to recognize a series of needs that I must not just balance or juggle, but meet.

  • Writing
  • Exercise
  • Right eating
  • Sleep

These are the non-negotiable for internal stability.

But having those covered allows me to see there’s a second tier that really enhances the first tier.

  • Clean Space
  • Calm companions
  • Achievable, completable goals
  • Spiritual pursuit (singular)

I suppose having spiritual pursuit in the second category is going to look bad to some people, but it’s true. Until I am stable physically and mentally, asking the hard questions and pushing in any realm that has Deep Meaning is simply asking too much.

One of my biggest problems, all through my mothering journey (I can’t remember much thinking about it before then), was an image of a robot changing its own batteries. That’s how I saw “self-care”.

Continue reading »

Three Story Elements

I have the unfortunate habit of shooting myself in the foot sometimes, intellectually speaking.  I devalue something because it’s too easy, but can’t complete something else because it’s too hard.

So this speech (#7: “Research your topic”) when I kept hitting a wall, I took the easy road. I took an essay I wrote years ago to satisfy a three-points-and-a-conclusion Nazi. Then I upgraded it (to this version you’re about to see on the blog), then I cut it down to a 5-7 minute speech.

The whole thing felt horribly formulaic and “cheap,” and the points seemed so self-evident I wasn’t sure if it would count as “research,” but I got the job done, and it was even a job I could be proud of, so it all worked out in the end.

Maybe what I’m trying to learn is that easy doesn’t have to mean without value.

Maybe I could just call it straightforward.

Main critique of the speech: I need to be more aware of ambient noise in a room so I can try and match my volume to the needs of the space. This I appreciated. One of my goals is to teach more on specialized topics like these, so I’m glad when someone gets specific about presentation.

It tickled me to hear my evaluator say how I’d clearly researched my topic. I do suppose he’s right– it just happened so long ago it doesn’t feel like research any more :)


I began by reciting this section of Anderson’s The Nightingale in my best storytelling rhythm.

Death kept staring at the emperor out of the empty sockets in his skull; and the palace was still, so terrifyingly still.

Image courtesy of Akbar Nemati via stock.xchng

All at once the most beautiful song broke the silence. It was the nightingale who had heard of the emperor’s illness and torment. She sat on a branch outside his window and sang to bring him comfort and hope.

As she sang… the blood pulsed with greater force through the emperor’s weak body.

Death himself listened and said, “Please little nightingale, sing on!”

“Will you give me the golden saber? Will you give me the imperial banner? Will you give me the golden crown?”

Death gave each of his trophies for a song; and then the nightingale sang about the quiet churchyard, where white roses grow…and where the grass is green from the tears of those who come to mourn.

Death longed so much for his garden that he flew out of the window, like a white cold mist.

“Thank you, thank you, whispered the emperor, “you heavenly little bird, I remember you…. When you sang…Death himself left my heart. How shall I reward you?”

“You have rewarded me already,” said the nightingale. “I shall never forget that, the first time I sang for you, you gave me the tears from your eyes; and to a poet’s heart, those are jewels.”

There are as many different ways to tell stories as there are storytellers, but somehow we all know when we’ve heard a good one.

According to Albert Lavin, and English Teach and author, Stories, “are a way of organizing human response to reality…they are a fundamental aspect of the way we ‘process’ experience.”

A good story affects our feelings, our perspectives, sometimes even our world, if only for a blip of time. If it is a significant story, the change will be more permanent.

One desire of storytellers is to cause what is significant for the teller to become significant for a listener.

Flannery O’Connor, a famous short-story writer, observed, “A story is a way to say something that cannot be said any other way…. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

With this goal in mind, of conveying significance, a good storyteller has many tools to help her. Elements that have been a part of telling as long as there has been language. Continue reading »

Speaking Practice #1: Start as You Mean to Go On

I gave my first speech at Toastmasters today.

Posting here at UT will probably be limited to speech-topics and/or the speeches themselves while I push through this speaking track. (There are 10 speeches in the first book, and my goal is to do one/week as long as the children are still in school.)

Part of what I find interesting about this start is comparing it to the first time I gave an “Icebreaker” speech.

It was literally my first blog post, almost 7 years ago. It had three precise points, and a reasonable structure. This one dismisses the possibility from the very beginning.

I started blogging at the same time I (tried) to start speaking, and blogging is what stuck. Instead of wondering what to get up and say, I made notes, some of them incredibly short, of complete thoughts.

I got used to “capturing” ideas. And organizing them (somewhat) and presenting them. Continue reading »