Wishes really can come true

Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it! You may feel wishes only reside in fairy tales but they are still part of who we are today. Except nowadays they tend to start ‘I am’, or ‘You are,’ instead of I wish. But make no mistake, the results are still as unpredictable as the fairy tales of old.

The making and granting of wishes abound within traditional tales, but their presence is usually a warning against the pitfalls of such desires. Whether driven by greed or the purest of motives, wishes are more often a curse than a gift. Thanks to the wisdom of stories many of us have learned to regard the offer of wishes with suspicion!

Yet despite a strong cultural recognition of the dangers around wish fulfilment in stories, we continue to make wishes all the time in our day to day lives! Of course we don’t consciously recognise them as wishes, but that is in essence what they are. Whilst we don’t phrase them in terms of “I wish,” we do nonetheless put our poorly considered intent or desires out into the universe and then seem surprised when they come true.

The things we say to ourselves about ourselves, about our place in the world, cultivate and shape our internal story. This internal story is the filter that helps us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. You may not even be conscious that you have an internal story, but I assure you you do. Your internal story contains your own values, your morals, the blueprint that gives structure to what makes you, you. The more we reiterate that story to ourselves or to others, the stronger it becomes. And so when we declare “I’m this,” or, “I could never do that,” we become able to convince ourselves of almost anything, even if it wasn’t true to begin with.

We frequently make statements about ourselves, driven by modesty, shyness or just a willingness to fit in (among other reasons), but in doing so we enter the territory of the self-fulfilling prophesy; the most powerful form of wish. Like all wishes, giving voice to statements about ourselves and our views can be positive or negative. The more frequently you give voice to ‘I’ statements the more likely they will become integrated into your internal story, changing the way you view things and potentially driving positive change in your life. However, if not consciously directed you may inadvertently adopt a more negative internal story that could drive negative perceptions about yourself or those around you.

Internal stories are incredibly powerful yet for the most part they remain hidden, almost imperceptible. But from time to time their influence on us can be very noticeable!…

As commented by Angie McQuillin : have you ever been with family or a group of friends when something significant happened, then a day or two later you hear one of the people you were with describing what happened to somebody else. As you listen to their account you discover their version of events seems very different to what you experienced? At first you’re puzzled, then you think they’re embellishing or exaggerating. But slowly you begin to realise that they actually believe what they are saying; they aren’t lying, they are simply recounting their version of the truth. This disparity in perspective happens all the time, we just don’t often have the opportunity to realise it’s there. The only reason these differences exist is because of the filter we view the world through, a filter created from our own respective internal stories.

Of course, when someone’s internal story begins to affect the way they behave and react to those around them, it begins to influence the internal stories of others too. Our relationships with others will either challenge or reinforce our world view, and what happens next is entirely within our power to control. Our response to a challenge may be, ‘I don’t agree!’ or maybe, ‘I never thought of it like that,’ or ‘You have no idea what you’re saying!’ etc. Each of these statements carries power and the ability to change your own internal story, but potentially to also affect or alter the story of the person you are talking to. In this way friendships can be won or lost, but more than that, in the right circumstances it can become possible for someone else’s ‘world view’ to be transferred to someone else. If powerful enough, that world view can be propagated and passed from person to person. When ideas and world views spread in this fashion, great things can be achieved such as the abolition of slavery or putting a man on the moon. But when used to cultivate internal stories from the darker aspect of the human psyche, we get conflict, fear, and imbalance. Cult’s are born in this way along with many of the darker chapters in human history. Dare I say it, such narrow and twisted world views were propagated by the media and power hungry politicians to give breath to Brexit, a jabbering beast of division and derision in the UK that threatens to bring a once great nation to it’s knees.

So beware my friends, be aware of the internal stories you tell yourself as well as the stories you adopt from others! The statements you make to yourself and to others can quickly become the truth with which you see the world, the mould into which you grow; the unfulfilled wish that hangs in the air waiting to be granted!

As the late, great Terry Pratchett said, ‘People think stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.’

Stories that Heal

So today is the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week.  I guess if I was going to have a meltdown, then this would have been a pretty ironic week to have it – But I do love irony!

campfiresmallMid-way through the week and for no particular reason I found myself in a flat spin, a rising anxiety, the sense of panic that heralded the onset of an emotional maelstrom. Many years ago when I first experienced this inner confusion it was painfully disorientating. My inability to recognise these feelings for what they were made the world an exceptionally scary place. The kind of place where popping a pill seemed the best way to function so that I could wear a mask and say ‘I’m fine, nothing to see here!’

Now however, I’m not ashamed to share these experiences. Staying quiet helps nobody and over the last 20 years or so I’ve come to recognise that nearly all of us will experience being emotionally overwhelmed at some point. For some the experience may come only once and be brief, for others it may be sustained. I’ve learned that when those moments come, the way we respond to them has a huge impact on what happens next.

Experience has taught me that the more you fight against it, the more power it takes from you. And so this week when I realised the anxiety was not abating, when I found my thoughts and perceptions turning dark, I accepted it. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a pleasant feeling, but for me at least accepting it is central to recovering my balance. When I say accept it, I mean accepting it in the same way you accept having a common cold – you consciously note the early symptoms and whilst you know the worst is yet to come, you reassure yourself it will eventually pass. The parallel between mental health and physical health holds true – to push the analogy further, if you pretend you don’t have a cold or the flu and try to soldier through it, more often than not you will exacerbate the symptoms and find recovery takes much longer. I’ve discovered that if I pretend I’m not in a depressive state then it can create far more stress which ultimately makes things worse. Pretending can create a dam behind which the emotions pile up until the pressure is so great the dam breaches and everything comes crashing through.

So how do I deal with it? Well first of all let’s be honest, sitting here reflecting on this subject with a clear head and heart is easy, but when I’m in the middle of it, confusion and doubt is all around. Most of all it can be hard to trust my perception of things and as a result it can become hard to make meaningful decisions – so I don’t! With acceptance comes the recognition that if decision making is questionable, then as far as possible I should avoid acting on any meaningful decisions. In the same way that I have to accept fatigue is the symptom of a cold, I accept that mental fatigue is a symptom of a depressive state. I find this to be one of the most powerful things I can do because it instantly takes the pressure off. Yes I know, easier said than done sometimes, but this is where mindfulness comes in (but that’s a different blog).

The next step for me after I’ve recognised I need to take the foot off the pedal is to tell other people that’s what I’m doing and why. Come on, you knew this was going to end up with storytelling eventually! Telling your own story is so powerful when it comes to mental health. We each have an intrinsic need to be heard, especially when our emotions are in turmoil. By communicating how we are feeling, we are at first required to find the words to express ourselves and this can be empowering on its own. But then in sharing those feelings with someone else, we help recognise those feelings and in recognising them we can start to let them go. If this is starting to sound more like counselling then it’s hardly surprising – what is a counsellor if not a compassionate audience member willing to hear the story you need to tell.

The power of sharing personal stories is gaining mainstream recognition and is being celebrated. Next month in Swansea we have the second Storytelling for Health Conference which builds upon the success of the first one held in 2017. The first conference was a huge eye opener to the expansive role of storytelling, not only in a therapeutic context but also as a tool to improve all facets of person centred healthcare development.

Projects like PeopleSpeakUp are emerging with a focus on giving opportunity for people to discover their voice, not only from a health perspective, but around a broad range of community and social issues. This kind of work helps people discover that speaking up brings a sense of empowerment, but also a strong sense of well-being because it reveals our connection to each other.

Stories sit at the heart of what it is to be a community, and a strong cohesive community is central to our individual health and well-being. So be proud of who you are, both your strengths and your weaknesses because they are what makes you, YOU – tell your story and tell it loud! x

The Eternal Frenemy: Art verses Science

frenemysmall

The Arts and The Sciences have never been comfortable bed fellows – but does it really need to be that way?

My journey to becoming a storyteller has not been conventional (if there is a such a thing). By this I mean my early career was rooted in ‘The Sciences’ not ‘The Arts’. In truth, there are times when this can become quite isolating; for example I have received dismissive comments such as ‘you won’t understand, you’re not from an arts background!’. Yes seriously, that has happened to me!

From an early age I was fascinated by the natural world. I felt attached to it and had a never ending thirst to both understand and admire it. At this age my artistic expression and scientific exploration were synonymous with each other; exploring ponds, lifting rocks and scribbling out my view of the marvels I discovered whilst looking through books to know more about what I was drawing.

But as my teenage years approached, the ‘system’ forced me to begin making a choice. This was the ‘O’ level system of education when we were expected to commit and select the subjects we would pursue into adulthood. This period was referred to as ‘Options’ but for me it felt anything but. For me it was a painful process – my choices picked apart and criticised. I was told it was the ‘wrong mix’ and decisions were forced and Science won.

Don’t misunderstand, I loved science and still do, but the system did not allow room for my creative and artistic side to coexist within the educational environment. University helped me better understand the rivalry between the two… actually no, not understand, but made me aware that the rivalry was deeply ingrained.

By this point Biology was my chosen career path, but I never left the Arts behind – where science became my career the Arts filled my free time.I have never accepted the forced divide between Science and Art. I have witnessed artistic and scientific communities be equally dismissive of each other, but from direct experience I know the two complement each other in a very powerful way. Whilst science is analytical and seeks to understand the ‘How’, the arts inspires flexible thinking, an ability to perceive and conceive different ideas, to broaden thinking and enable ‘What if’. Combined the arts help push scientific understanding and science helps push artistic vision into reality.

So what has all this got to do with storytelling? Storytelling offers a bridge between the world of Arts and world of Sciences. Having straddled both sides for so long, I’m increasingly encouraged to see the tide is turning, both artists and scientists are waking up to the intrinsic dependence upon each other.

Where once the approach was ‘Never the twain shall meet’ there is now a growing swell of appreciation for their unavoidable synergy. Like the optical illusion below, the combination of science and art can enable more profound results that connect to an audience in a different way.

optic

For example, the George Ewart Evans Centre are helping lead the way with inspiring events that bring storytelling together with scientific disciplines. In this regard I’d encourage you to watch the keynote presentation from George Marshall at the GEECS Environment and Storytelling symposium which shows the strength and challenges of story in relation to the opportunities for action on climate change.

My most recent performance weaves the evolution of the dog with the life events of the dog who became known as Swansea Jack. Together they emphasise the hugely significant nature of our relationship with the dog which neither story would accomplish on its own.

The links between art and science through story is an area that excites me greatly. You may therefore understand what it means to now find myself faced with potential involvement in an interdisciplinary project on aquatic ecology! Huge thanks for the referral (you know who you are!).

The Sciences and The Arts, whilst different, are both central to our existence; they have a long history of distrust, but both push the other to do more and be more. They will never be friends, the form of thinking is fundamentally different. However perhaps they may go so far as to become the best of frenemies.

Thanks for reading.

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Is it time to get angry?

In an age where our future is at risk, perhaps anger can make a difference.

extinction rebellion smI’m not easy to anger. To be honest it’s an emotion that scares me; a powerful Genie that I try not to let out of its bottle in case I can’t control it. The flip side of avoiding and suppressing anger is a high degree of patience – let’s face it there’s little choice in the matter if anger is a no go zone. I used to be quite proud of my ability to keep a cool head – ‘Patience is a virtue’ so they say. But now I’m not so sure!

Perhaps you’ve heard me tell the story I call ‘The snake among the roses’; a true recollection of an experience I had at the age of about 2 years old when I was approached by a snake. The experience of communion with another living entity fundamentally shaped the person I have become and the natural world continues to be central to my own being. However in spite of my feelings about the natural world, I have never taken a confrontational position when faced with people who abuse it. To be clear I have questioned, I have commented and I have informed, but never confronted; again because of the desire to avoid anger.

Two weeks ago I was in York and witnessed an Extinction Rebellion protest, a sit-in at HSBC and then Barclays regarding their investment practices. In that moment a wall came crashing down inside me, the Genie was out of its bottle and I got angry. I cannot tell you why witnessing this protest affected me in the way that it did, but this was not the red-faced brutal and vicious type of anger I’d always hidden from. No, this was something new, a different face of anger that is measured, calculating, revealing of cold hard truths and demanding of action!

I am angry at myself for having stayed silent.
I am angry that I had begun to believe there was nothing I could do.
I am angry that the media attention is on climate change and plastics when the issues go much deeper.
I am angry that the warning voices have been around for decades but nobody wanted to listen.
I am angry about the excuses.

I’m very aware that a pitfall of anger is unproductive ranting so let me return to the point. The time for quiet and polite acceptance of the global rape of our planet is over. Strong words I know but I don’t apologise for using them. I am facing up to the reality of where we are and if that means getting angry, then so be it! I’m not throwing stones either because I myself am standing in the metaphorical glass house. I am however admitting my own failings on this matter as much as trying to encourage others to do the same. In spite of my own environmental awareness there is a great deal more I could and should be doing and this extends to my role as a storyteller.

For too long we’ve been spoon fed stories that reinforce the importance of economic prosperity over environmental stability, whilst ignoring the fact that without a stable environment the economy is irrelevant! To my great surprise, anger is now providing the fuel for a renewed vision within my storytelling practice. I am setting myself a task to vastly expand my story repertoire – to tell tales at every opportunity that encourage a shift in the narrative around environmental issues. I see a population deceived into inaction with stories that reinforce a perception that the scale of the problem is so vast that individual action won’t make a difference. This is where storytelling can help. This is where stories can unite, empower, educate and encourage.

Do you recognise your own role in the unfolding crisis and can you decide how to make a meaningful change? If you can do nothing else, then I encourage you to read or listen to this story by Jean Giono entitled – The man who planted trees.

You can access a version to read here:

Or if you’d rather sit back and listen to the story, there’s also a good YouTube video of the story

Finally, please feel free to let me know of any stories you think would be fitting in a new storytelling repertoire on this subject.

Thanks for reading.

Why Storytelling?

Why Storytelling? – the mistake I made in not recognising the value of storytelling:
carl gough v2

When I first set up my business, storytelling was just intended to be the glue to join the two main activities of environmental education and creativity. In hindsight, I had a very poor appreciation for the wider role and appeal of stories back then, but that was about to change. Within the first year of business 90% of bookings were for storytelling. By year two, I’d scrapped the original business plan and was focussed entirely upon storytelling services.

 

So why did I so badly underestimate how successful the storytelling service would be? There are probably many answers to this, but most of all I simply didn’t recognise the universal hunger for stories within our society.

Before we go on, let’s disentangle some of the baggage that comes with the word storytelling. When I refer to ‘storytelling’, I mean spoken word storytelling. The kind of storytelling that existed long before movies, before television, even before the written word. The kind of experience that is created in a shared space between a person telling a story and a person hearing and accepting that story. For some this kind of storytelling happens around a fire with a group of friends, for others it’s across a table in a busy café, for others it’s standing up in front of a group of strangers who by the time the tale is told, feel more like a group of friends. This is the kind of storytelling I mean!

There are many other kinds of ‘storytelling’ out there, but spoken word storytelling is fundamentally different. It’s the kind of storytelling that brings people together, that forges a connection between disparate people who suddenly discover shared understanding. The kind of storytelling that leads to an audience lingering long after an event because at some unconscious level they want to bathe in the powerful sense of connection for as long as possible. Compare this to the end of a theatre production or movie where people scrabble for the doors as soon as the house lights come back on.

When I set up my business I was focussed on delivering a good story. It seems obvious now of course but back then I hadn’t really paid attention to the profound effects a well told story can have on an audience. The role of stories and storytelling are central to what makes us human and it was this I hadn’t recognised when incorporating storytelling into my business.

Within western cultures, traditional storytelling has been buried by the avalanche of film, television and now even on demand media and social media. We bury our heads in this ‘white noise’ trying to ignore the hunger in our hearts for connection, for calm, for reflection. If you’ve never been exposed to a spoken word storytelling experience you may struggle to understand what I mean. It can be hard to believe that a single person telling a story can compare with the excitement and drama of the latest Hollywood blockbuster or your regular dose soap opera or reality TV … and yes you’re right – because the two aren’t comparable. Whilst both may involve revealing a story, their method of communicating it is fundamentally different.

My challenge to you if you are reading this and have never experienced a spoken word storytelling event – go to one! I can’t tell you what it will be like because even when I tell the same stories, it is different every time. All I can say is that it will most likely reveal something to you that you never knew was missing; not necessarily in the story that you hear spoken, but in the sense of connection to something you’d forgotten. To this day, I still love the look on someone’s face the first time they discover spoken word storytelling. The wide eyes, the almost breathless appreciation that comes from deep within.
Try it – then you’ll know!

www.storyteller-carl-gough.co.uk

The snake among the roses (True Story)

OK, so I freely admit, the blog rather went on the back burner of late, but every now and again I find a need to retreat from the electronic world we live in. Its a time to stand back, reassess and find direction.

For some time now I’ve wanted to experiment with true stories but couldn’t find an angle that fitted. Taking a step to share a true story is tough because you are sharing something very personal to a wide audience, with no idea if what you’re sharing is of any interest to anyone except yourself. I can’t get away from the feeling that putting a true story out there kinda says ‘hey look at me! Isn’t this interesting!’….. and that doesn’t sit very well with me either.

Anyway, for better or for worse here it is. I decided to share my first attempt here and see what the feedback is. Please let me know what you think as the next step will be to perform this, but only if the subject matter achieves what I hope it will.

Carl Gough

The snake among the roses

… The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. 

They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Sadly those words are not my own, they come from ‘The Outermost Post’ by Henry Beston and when I stumbled upon them as a young teenager, they perfectly communicated my own view of the natural world, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to achieve.

My view of nature has always been one of respect, admiration, almost envy at times. There was a time in my life I felt a much closer connection to animals than I did to the human world. People confused me……they still do to a large extent, but in the presence of animals,…well nature in general really, I felt a profound connection, a place of accept and be accepted, a sense of being different and yet the same …. that concept of them being  ‘Other Nations,’ as Henry Beston put it.

Let me ask you, what is your earliest memory? I don’t know about you but when I’m asked that question I have a rolodex of visual recollections that scroll through my head, some mere snapshots, others more meaningful, but none of them with a clear date stamp that enables me to say, ‘this one! This is my earliest memory!’ I can narrow it down to about half a dozen, such as looking out from a pram on a rainy day, or pulling myself up on the cot sides so I could scream blue murder, but none of them have any other sensory information such as sounds or how I felt at that time or which comes before the other.

However, if you were to ask me my earliest memory of an animal…..I mean really consciously being aware of another life that wasn’t human…… well that one is much easier for me to answer:

I guess I was about 3 years old. It was summer, one of those summers we used to get when the sun’s warmth made winter easier to forget. I was at my Grandmother’s house, she and my mother were sat on deckchairs in the sun talking and I was sat on the browning grass in the cooler shade beside a large rectangular rose bed – Oh how she loved her Roses. I was sat what felt like a reasonable distance from my mother, investigating my world in every tiny detail, the stones half buried in soil, clods of soil, the shape and colour of grass, the smell of fresh creosote on the garden fence. As I looked around my gaze was drawn to the rose bed, particularly the change in texture and colour where the grass met the broken soil of the flower bed.

My Grandmother was a demon with a half moon lawn edger, not a single blade of grass from the lawn had been allowed to creep onto the rose garden. Where she had cut down and lifted away the tatty lawn edges it had created a slight trench, a shallow gulley marking the border between the lawn and the banked soil of the rose bed. I remember being fascinated by that crisp line dividing soil and grass. My gaze was drawn out along that line, my eyes searching the edge of the rose bed for a point of origin…or maybe destination, I can’t be certain. As my eyes reached closer to the fence, something else came into view that excited and delighted me.

It moved from the shadows in silent, sinuous, style. Slowly but steadily it slid across the soil, using the slight gulley between turf and soil to guide its way toward me. Even though this snake seemed huge next to my infant size, I was not afraid, I held no sense of fear. There was not a single movement or action in that long, beautiful, undulating, olive green body that suggested aggression, hate, malice or spite. In that snap shot of a moment I recognised another nation, another life alien to my own and yet with a shared personal history, ‘caught in the net of life and time.’

Closer still it came, its golden eyes recognising my presence. Almost within reach it paused and ever so slightly raised its head from the sun baked soil, its forked tongue tasting the air to learn more about me. In that single moment the world fell away, a bubble of communion surrounded us to the exclusion of everything else. It is hard to explain what happened in that moment, how a 3 year old boy could experience a spiritual connection, a genuine sense of unadulterated love, admiration and respect for an animal that evokes such revulsion in so many people. And yet something unspoken but deeply felt passed between us. Transcending the need for imperfect words; I felt part of something bigger, felt that snake look into my heart as I looked into its own, recognising each others individuality, no fear, no doubt, no baggage ….. just perfect acceptance. Serpent and Child in shared recognition of the other.

Finally, it lowered its head and continued as before, moving onward down the rose bed in silent splendour, assured my presence was no threat. As the shining pearlescent scales slid past I reached out with my stubby uncoordinated fingers and touched its silky smooth body. It did not flinch, speed up, or stop….it simply persisted on its slow but deliberate journey, the muscular warmth undulating beneath my fingers.

With a scream, the bubble that surrounded us was burst. My mother, suddenly registering the scene unfolding before her was flooded (I imagine) with maternal anguish. The sense of calm and peace I shared with that snake was shattered, my mother sprinted across the garden, snatching me up in her arms in a whirling blur of panic and fear. My grandmother came rushing past with a blue bucket and spade in hand, and with righteous fury demonstrated Man’s place upon the food chain. With adrenalin pumping she beat the snake into a defensive ball, aggressively lifted it upon the spade before abusively throwing it into the bucket, which she then picked up before dashing into her house.

I was confused. Had I been bad? Where had they taken my friend? …. and why?

My mother carried me back to her chair where this time I was placed within an arms reach on the grass. Eventually my grandmother joined us, but there was no sign of the blue bucket. I don’t remember anything being said to me, they just seemed to return to their conversation as though nothing had happened. I sat on the grass now, alone…. looking around the garden for the blue bucket. I wanted to go back to the rose bed in search of the snake, my young mind unable to comprehend exactly what had just happened. But every time I made a move toward the rose bed I was pulled back as if that part of the garden was now out of bounds.

I think my Grandmother went back into the house at some point, maybe to get a drink I’m not sure. All I know is that my Mother and I were alone in the garden when I finally asked, ‘Where?’
‘Where’s what darling?’ she replied.
‘The Snake?’
‘Grandma flushed it down the toilet!’

I was angry. Really, genuinely, angry and in that moment, that 3 year old boy that I was, hated my grandmother for having done what she had done. For what seemed like days after that I hoped, wished and prayed that snake would find its way back through the pipes to wait until my Grandmother was sat upon the toilet bowl and bite her on the bum to take its revenge…… But it didn’t.

Of course she was only doing what she thought was right, but those thoughts were rooted in fear. She didn’t see the peaceful mutual respect between her grandson and a snake. She only saw what life and ancestral experience had taught her to see – A threat.

But as for me, that chance encounter set a precedent. It showed me at a very young age that some people are blind to the inherent beauty of Nature, in all its many forms. That the things we perceive to threaten us, individually and as a species, are not evil, not intent upon Man’s destruction, they are simply doing what nature intended them to do….and therefore, if you ask me….that makes them far more justified in their actions than the things we do in a feeble attempt to separate ourselves from Nature. And so I say again:

The Animal , shall not be measured by man.
In a world older than ours,
they move finished and complete,
gifted with … senses we have lost or never attained,
living by voices we shall never hear.

They are not brethren, they are not underlings:
they are other nations,
caught with ourselves in the net of life and time,
fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Does the storyteller craft the story, or does the story craft the teller?

The path of the traditional storyteller is a strange one and the motivations that prompt us to do what we do are probably as diverse as the stories themselves. In my experience (and I hope I’m not alone in this), the internal processes involved can be profound and create ripples that spread into my day to day life.

Whether I’m working with words from a page or just the spark of an idea, taking and crafting a story to deliver through the spoken word demands an inward journey; A challenge of ego and id that I’m sure students of psychology are far better placed to comment upon than me. The outward manifestation of this process will depend on many things, namely the type and content of the story and the reason why I feel compelled to tell that particular story. This blog in itself is undoubtedly one such manifestation stimulated by the performance I’m currently working on for Halloween.

storyteller carl gough halloween event‘Gethin’s Harvest’ is my own creation, borrowing traditional concepts and folklore surrounding the festival of Samhain and weaving them with a narrative to reveal the more meaningful origins of the modern celebration we call Halloween. The story follows the transformation of Gethin (an unwitting ‘hero’ in the classic sense) who is forced to face some painful truths which at first prompt realisation and finally rebirth.

So far so good you may think, but the process involved with this particular story has been deeper than any other performance I’ve worked on to date. It has virtually haunted me since the end of August when I started work on it. Some of the characters seem to have almost created themselves and at times their words feel directed toward me, rather than Gethin. Each tale and each turn in the plot has led me to evaluate my own position and beliefs, but more than that, my awareness of everyone around me has also increased. As the days have become shorter, I have observed the changing attitudes and emotions of people as we drift closer to the mini-death of winter. It has been reassuring to see that even when people have no knowledge or understanding of the significance our ancestors gave to this time of year, that each and every one of us still feels its effect.

Gethin’s Harvest has helped me appreciate that traditional storytelling is much more than an art form. Whilst there are many studies and articles that describe the power of tales as a catalyst for change, they usually report from the audience’s perspective. However it should never been forgotten that such transformative effects apply to the storyteller as well (and if recent experience is anything to go by), to a far greater extent. Every story I’ve ever told has affected me in some way, but I will freely admit that I now realise that I’ve significantly underestimated how deep it can go!

For me, the process is not yet over! Each day I work with the story, something else bubbles up to the surface for me to consider. As Gethin travels deeper into the forest, I too am drawn; the parallels between my life and his at first seem disparate, yet there is a commonality which resonates between us both. As the performance dates draw near there is a distinct sense of the journeys end in sight and an inkling of final revelation that is creating an additional frisson. I have a distinct feeling that the final piece of my personal jigsaw will not be revealed until I have shared this new story with the first audience. What it will be I can’t tell, I’m not even sure if I’ve found the question yet, but my understanding of the storytelling craft has definitely stepped forward. I now consciously recognise that it is not necessarily the storyteller who crafts the story but the story that crafts the teller.

The fact this blog has ended up being totally different from the subject I planned to write about is just one more example of how this story seems to have taken over my life. For those who may be interested and live in (or will be visiting) South Wales, UK you can catch my telling of Gethins Harvest on the 1st Nov in Pontardawe,  2nd Nov in Brecon and 3rd Nov in Swansea.

Storytellers shouldn’t write?

Image

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, at least I hope not. I’m referring to those times when your conscious mind utterly fails to give due and proper attention to something. To be fair, there is a great deal of information that quite rightly flies straight through to the mental spam folder, but now and again a real nugget of information gets missed. Unnoticed by your conscious mind, it gets lodged in the subconscious mind where in snug obscurity it takes root and grows. Eventually that errant thought reaches toward significance, making its presence known (annoyingly often days, weeks or even months after it happened). Your conscious mind then finally realises what it missed and responds with a totally inadequate “Oh!”

Such was the case with an article I came across a couple of months ago. Unfortunately the process described above also means that I can’t remember which website or forum contained the information, but the statement I read is now shouting at the top of its voice in my conscious mind, urging me to respond. With no source to return to, I have no option but to appease my conscious mind through this blog. I have tried to point out to my conscious mind that it should have been paying better attention in the first place, but I never was very good at arguing with myself!

So, what was the statement that has perturbed the boundaries of my conscious and subconscious mind I hear you ask? Well it all comes down to a simple statement that said, ‘storytellers should stick to telling and leave writers to do the writing.’ The point being made was that the skills of a teller are not the same as that of an author and therefore storytellers should leave writing well alone and leave it to those who are good at it. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree about the difference in skills, I do take exception to the wholesale ban on tellers using the written word!

I am vaguely aware that there was a tiny niggle when I read this, but I didn’t anticipate it would grow into angst. My issue with this very simple statement is that at best it seems to suggest a fundamental lack of understanding in the difference and similarities between a storyteller and a writer. At its worst, the statement totally de-values the additional contribution storytellers can bring to written work, especially with breathing new life into near forgotten tales.

I do not for one second suggest that I am a great literary writer, but there are many other storytellers who do have a talent for that style of written work. Despite any shortcomings in this respect, there is much more a teller can bring to the page. In the course of crafting a story into a telling, a storyteller goes through an internal process of living with the story, existing within it, living and breathing it in a way that transcends the experience of reading. In order to perform a good story, a teller must peel back the layers, ask questions and dig into the heart of the tale to be told. In this process we can discover new meanings or even a possible common root for tales from different cultures. This in itself can (and in my experience often does) lead to reinterpretations of older stories and create a fertile seed bed for new stories to grow.

The written word has power because it provides a mechanism for stories to skip generations and still survive. To a storyteller, ancient tales captured through the written word are like an archaeological dig, providing a teasing glimpse into a time gone by, revealing the motivations, thoughts and aspirations of people lost in time. Therefore when genuine inspiration comes to a storyteller, surely we have a duty to use the written word? If we do not write down our thoughts, experiences, or dare I say our own stories, we risk such revelations becoming transient and ephemeral, eventually lost to the abyss of time. Whether those written words remain as simple musings or whether they are worked up into more solid prose, I don’t think it matters.

Photography is a perfect analogy – Historians are concerned with how digital photography has altered the visual historical record. Where photographs were once printed onto paper, the wealth of modern day images now exist as data where they are at constant risk of instant deletion. People do not print pictures in the way we once did which represents a potential loss of  significant images from the historical record. Historians do not care that photographs are taken by professionals, quite the reverse in fact. The photo’s of everyday people reveal more to the historian than the contrived and perfectly framed photo of the professional. So why should the written word be any different?

I personally accept and fully embrace the differences between teller and author. Writing in the style of a storyteller does not make great reading, just as telling in the style of good literary writing does not make a good telling. But that is no reason to place ‘author’ and ‘teller’ into their own independent silos where never the twain shall meet. Teller and author use a slightly different craft, but we both weave a fabric of words with meaning and emotion.

Therefore, to alleviate my nagging conscious mind I say No! I do not agree. All storytellers should write. They have a duty to record their journey, to put pen to paper and immortalise their individual insights and imaginings in written words; for their own personal use, for publication, or even to lie in a dusty old box in the dark corner of an attic, waiting for the day some distant future relation will find them and be inspired.

Traditional Storytelling in Education – A learner centred approach

It should come as no surprise that traditional storytelling can be a great educational tool for curriculum enrichment in schools. However all too often the craft of storytelling becomes pigeon holed as an activity just for infants or at best for language and literature classes. This tendency whilst understandable, drives me into perpetual frustration as a storyteller.

storytelling for cross curricular content
There can be many reasons for this scene but a boring lesson shouldn’t be one of them

First let’s clarify what we mean by storyteller:

You know it’s a terrible thing to admit to but whenever I use the word ‘Storyteller’ I automatically assume others know what I mean. But in reality the term ‘Storyteller’ has many different interpretations…. I guess you could say it comes with baggage which we need to unload before going any further.  By inserting the word ‘Traditional’ before ‘storytelling’, we storytellers try to differentiate our art from that of an author, screenwriter or someone reading out loud from a book. However even the term Traditional Storyteller is prone to being misunderstood. Therefore, to try and clear things up a bit, Traditional storytelling is about:

  • Relaying a story as a living, breathing, adaptive and responsive performance art using the spoken word.
  • Interacting with and relating to an audience.
  • Conveying feeling and emotion, picking you up and placing you in the heart of the action until the story becomes greater than you or the storyteller.
  • Being ephemeral: it lives in the moment and then is gone, never to be delivered in the same way again.
  • A storyteller who responds to an audience, maybe provoking deeper thought, revelation, or a good ole laugh.

Changing the perception

I increasingly find myself encountering people who believe traditional storytelling is just about telling trivial fairy tales with ‘happy ever afters’ to a group of infants. It cannot be denied that this element exists as a small part of the storytelling tradition, but to only view storytelling in this way is like saying that French cuisine is just about garlic and escargot! More and more I find my work as a storyteller involves helping people understand the true nature of traditional storytelling. It has a power and flexibility that is as relevent today as it has always has been.

Now you would think that the use of storytelling as an educational tool would be fairly obvious and it is true that schools have re-awoken to the value of a storyteller in the classroom. However, even here we find the craft of storytelling becomes limited because many teachers have a restricted view of how it can be applied. I continually try to get teachers to recognise that ‘stories’ are part and parcel of all good teaching methods, irrespective of the subject being taught.

A storyteller can emphasise the story element within a subject, transporting students into worlds old and new, bringing subjects to life within the mind. The fact is that storytellers can help develop many subjects, whether it’s history, geography, science, politics and so on. Whatever the subject, storytelling achieves a visceral and emotional connection with a subject that enables each student to develop their own relationship with the subject and this in turn aids their understanding. By creating the space for individual approaches we open the doorway to genuine learning and retention of information is greatly improved.

There is quite a varied response among teachers when it comes to recognising the learning benefits of storytelling across a range of subjects. This response does appear to be governed by two different mentalities (and to all my teacher friends out there, please excuse me but I am about to make a huge broad sweeping generalisation here):

Type 1 Teachers:

These are teachers whose love of their particular subject is so great that it can drive them to become overly subject centred at the cost of being learner centred. They become driven by an earnest need to get their students to take the subject seriously. The resulting lessons are often highly focussed and packed with information, but can also be stiff, regimented and hard to digest for some students. Many of us can remember teachers of this type when we were at school, whose ‘Monasterial’ approach was often strict and demanded supreme focus to the exclusion of all else during the 60 minutes of their lesson. Whilst this approach can be great if a student is already engaged and enjoying the subject, it can create isolation and distance the teacher from the needs of a student who is struggling.

Type 2 Teachers:

These teachers hold an equal passion for their particular subject, but it is tempered by an acceptance that learning is driven by enjoyment. They recognise that the content of the lesson becomes irrelevant if the students are not engaging with the subject. They recognise that their role as educators is not only to provide brain fodder, but also to cultivate particular skills in their students that will enable them to become the directors of their own learning.

To paraphrase Galileo:

“You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help them find it within themselves.”

Type 2 teachers are often far more willing use a mix of teaching methods and styles in order to keep things scintillating (which does not mean the educational value is compromised, in fact quite the reverse) Type 2 teachers are more prepared to experiment and actively respond to what works best with their class. I have found that Type 2 Teachers are more willing to invite storytellers into the classroom and once they have witnessed how their students respond to a storyteller, they may also begin to consciously incorporate storytelling methods into their own teaching style.

Taking storytelling beyond the stereotype

I wonder how many of you who read this are still imagining the stereotype everytime I use the word ‘Storyteller’? It’s OK, it takes time to change a aperception, but at least you are aware that your concept of a storyteller is inaccurate. The problem is however that in my line of work as a storyteller, teachers and parents are ‘the Gatekeepers’. They are the filters through which children see the world and for obvious reasons this is an important role. However, if the Gatekeeper’s perception of something is inaccurate then children may miss out on a valuable educational experience – this is often the case with storytelling. Once teachers and parents come to better understand the art of the storyteller, they see that it works on a very individual basis (see related post on subjectivity). Stories resonate differently within each person and this has the potential to create profound changes in perception, understanding or beliefs. When these changes are applied to an educational environment, storytelling can cultivate independent thinkers and inquisitive minds that are hungry to know more, optimising the learning experience for everyone.

So if your perception of storytelling….. sorry I mean TRADITIONAL Storytelling… has been changed by this blog, please feel free to spread the word, share, repost or tweet this blog. Get others to recognise that storytelling helps children (and adults for that matter) connect to a diverse range of subjects. It can create a hunger for knowledge by making subjects meaningful which in turn helps teachers and educators of all kinds establish an effective learning environment.

Traditional Storytelling verses Modern Technology – Can they co-exist?

video and storytellingIn this age of technological revolution, the craft of storytelling has exploded into a dazzling array of different forms. Whilst the spiral of digital innovation creates exciting new directions for storytelling, it equally creates some dilemmas.

As a storyteller following the oral tradition, my choice of medium is simple – the spoken word. For each session, the tales I tell adapt in tone, energy and choice of words depending upon the audience in front of me (whether they be children or adults, daytime or evening and so on). As an audience becomes immersed into the narrative, the session takes on a life of its own and opportunities for direct interaction with the audience begin. It is a craft of living in the moment, which is ironic considering many of the tales I tell are many hundreds of years old. In that storytelling space, a tale is woven through words, gestures, body language and movement to create images and an emotional connection.  The tale is told and then gone, never to be retold in exactly the same way again. For me at least, the power of traditional storytelling is in this immediacy and direct interaction with the people listening.

However, for all storytellers, we ignore the rise of social media at our peril! The internet has totally changed the way the world operates and receives information. For all the good and bad that this silicon fueled future has brought, it cannot be denied that the web offers a way to reach far more people than any of us could have done before.

The most obvious way for storytellers of the spoken word to reach out to the global community is You Tube. This medium provides a way of introducing the powerful art of storytelling to a completely new audience, although in my opinion this opportunity comes with a significant BUT!…

A recording of a storytelling session can communicate the words of a story but not the actual experience of sitting in a live storytelling session. There are a plethora of subtle nuances and interactions between teller and audience and even among the audience itself that cannot be captured by the lens of a video camera. As a result I have been continually frustrated in trying to create a video of a storytelling session that portrays an authentic rendition of what live storytelling is about. The many recordings I have made seem hopelessly inadequate because they are distant, lack atmosphere and seem sterile. Basically what the camera sees and hears, does not reflect the full experience. However, tellings direct to camera haven’t seemed right either, they felt artificial.

My breakthrough came while trying to create a video of a Christmas story. Finally the dawning realisation came after several recordings. I eventually woke up to the fact that video will NEVER be able to capture the experience of sitting in front of a storyteller which seems obvious in hindsight! Yes I felt stupid to have not considered this before, but in my defence I am a storyteller, not a film maker. I had caught myself in a dilemma of my own making, namely that the video should enable the viewer to get a good ‘sense’ of what the oral tradition is when this can never be a reality.

I realised the key word here is ‘sense’ because an audience in a live telling have all 5 senses at their disposal to fully experience the story, whereas video is restricted to just 2; sight and sound. What video lacks in its sensual experience, it more than makes up for through its ability to optimise and enhance those 2 senses beyond what would normally be achieved in a telling and so create a richer experience. Video can also be replayed and paused whereas a storytelling session can never be replayed exactly the same way twice.

As soon as I allowed myself to accept that film cannot capture a truthful recording of a telling and instead embrace video as its own medium, I was freed to capitalise upon the tools and techniques of video in order to ‘paint a picture’ of what storytelling is about.

From now on, when it comes to creating and posting videos I will always intend to optimise and enhance the video experience to do my bit in feeding the growing resurgence of interest in traditional storytelling.

True, the video may not be what an audience would experience when told live, but that isn’t my focus anymore. I simply want each viewer to recognise that storytelling is not just the preserve of children sat in a library. It is a living, breathing part of who we are as a species.  No matter how far we externalise ourselves into technology, storytelling will be there with us to the bitter end.

So which do you prefer?

You can see the difference I’m talking about for yourself in the clips below. The two clips show the start of the same story in two different situations. The first clip was recorded during an actual telling whereas the second clip was created specifically for sharing on You Tube. My video editing skills are not brilliant but I believe the difference is apparent. So which one do you prefer?

P.S. I do not regard this as digital storytelling – I think that is a subject for a wholly different post.

If you want to see the full story please see my previous post

CLIP 1 – live storytelling

CLIP 2 – storytelling adapted for the medium of video