A Means to an End!

OK, I know this seems very bizarre to post this, so feel I should explain. I had to post this in order to finish a Pinterest storyboard of the images from the ostara story I posted on YouTube this week.www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hqTlFz57iQ As I had to create this image it doesn’t exist online yet and therefore I can’t pin it. Trust me, all will become clear soon sparrow on snow

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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.