Tag Archives: storytelling

Performance magic

Sometimes, when you take a piece out and perform it, it does not go as planned. Sometimes, there is magic in the moment and the whole nature of the piece and your relationship with it can change. I’m not talking here about things that go wrong, or things that come up when you are under-prepared, but the way in which a space, an audience or an atmosphere can radically change a piece.

When you learn and practice a piece – be that a song, story, tune or poem – you’ll bring certain emotional tones to it. Much of what you bring will be about your feelings for the piece itself and what it evokes in you. Context can shift that – the mood of an audience, the impact of the performance space and so forth. I’ve done a little bit of singing in churches and those are massively unpredictable spaces for me, and I’m never sure how that kind of setting will shift how I perform.

The acoustics of a place can have considerable impact on performance. The differences between singing in a cave, and in a windy field are enormous. Some places invite you to slow down, to linger, while others encourage livelier performances. Some places you can use your voice quietly and still be heard. Some performance spaces can only be shouted into. This can mean you are working against the vibe of your piece, but sometimes it’s a magical shift that brings the material alive in new ways.

Sometimes it’s all about the audience. It’s effective to dig in with whatever suits the collective mood. Some audiences don’t respond well to certain tones and feelings. The feminist fury that gets you a ‘hell yes’ in one place may fall in awkward silence in another. Some audiences respond well to bawdy humour, others less so. The presence of a child in a room can encourage you to skip hastily over some kinds of detail.

One of my best audience moments was in a poem where I made a joke about bestiality, and the one dog in the room picked that moment to emit one loud bark!

I find it’s best not to fight these things. Going with what happens in a space, in a moment, with an audience gets powerful results, while fighting it seldom works.

How to tell a story

Humans are drawn to stories, but the ability to tell them is not innate. This blog was prompted by seeing author Mark Lawrence on Twitter yesterday pointing out that if telling stories was easy, we’d never be subjected to boring retellings of other people’s dreams. This connects, for me, with two recent incidents of reading comments about how children can’t tell you what they did at school today because they do not know how to tell their stories.

There are many situations in which we need to relate stories from our lives to other people. Much of that is social and about entertaining others through anecdotes. You may need to tell your story to the police, or to a jury. You may need to tell your story to get funding, keep your job, or get a new one. A well told story can be a powerful tool. There are of course no simple tactics that will work for all circumstances, but here are some places to start.

  1. Think about your audience. What do they want and need from you? What kind of story do they want to hear? In a legal or professional context, it has to be relevant and appropriate. In a social context, stories exist to amuse, or to share something personal with someone you trust. Oversharing, and making people listen to you for a long time can be antisocial and defeats the object.
  2. Unless you are talking to a counsellor in a counselling session, assume that people do not want to play the role of your counsellor. If you are going to tell that sort of story in a context that is not already involved in sharing difficult stories, at least ask if it’s ok before you start. Do not assume that people want to do emotional labour for you by hearing about your bad stuff.
  3. How does the audience need you to tell the story? If you’re talking to the police, they need a blow by blow account with all the details you can remember. If you’re telling a story in the pub, the gist and the punchline are likely to work better. In most normal situations, people do not want to listen to you trying to remember who said exactly what and when. Less is often more. Rehearsing the story in your head can help with better delivery.
  4. The longer a story is, the better a teller you must be to sustain interest in it – even if it’s a good story. Brevity is the soul of wit. If you’re just trying to be the centre of attention, this will show, and people will learn to leave for the loo when you start a tale.
  5. Being spontaneous and off the cuff can seem like the best and most natural way to share a story. If you don’t normally tell stories, then relating your funny work anecdote or strange dream won’t come naturally. It pays to rehearse. If you think something is worth sharing, run it through in your head. Figure out the order to tell it in before you open your mouth. Be alert to key events and work out what, if anything, makes the story potentially attractive to someone else. This can also weed out boring, pointless stories before anyone has to sit through them.
  6. Try and remember who you’ve told your stories to already. If the story about how you made a walk in wardrobe was dull and annoying the first time, that’s nothing compared to how much people will hate it when they’ve heard it half a dozen times already.
  7. Listen and be a good audience. People who insist on leading all conversations back to themselves and their stories are not enjoyable company. Story sharing has to be a process of exchange in order to work. If you’re going to say “that reminds me of…” then it had better be a good link. The more tenuous it is, the weaker your story sharing feels.

Bard Skills – matters of ownership

No one can claim ownership of a traditional song, or a story, or someone else’s poem. However, there is a kind of optimal etiquette around this, and everything works better when people are respectful of each other’s repertoires.

When you start out as a new performer, the odds are you’ll have no idea what the people around you know, and you may pick up something someone else is performing. However, the probability is that as a new performer, you’ll pick up fairly obvious material (let’s nod to good old John Barleycorn again.) This is ok, and something not to worry about too much. There are things that happen around certain kinds of material, I’ll be back to that in a moment.

However, hearing a piece performed by someone in the same circles as you and thinking ‘I’ll have that’ is not a good way to go. Many songs and stories share content, and having a different version from someone else works well, but taking someone’s version to perform in the same spaces, is bad manners. If you are going places they are not, that can be fine. Otherwise, ask. It may be that this is the sort of beginner’s piece that the performer is happy to let you have, or that they don’t mind sharing it. Get permission.

If the material you want to borrow is the creation of someone in your circle, really, really get permission. Material written by people you don’t know (youtube has become such an interesting part of the oral tradition) is fair game, but do credit it where you can.

When I started singing folk songs in public places, I sang Wild Mountain Thyme, Bonny Ship the Diamond, The Leaving of Liverpool, High Germany, and others. Nobody else at the club I was going to seemed to be singing them. My repertoire expanded rapidly in that first year and became more diverse, less obvious. Then I watched as other new-to-folk people came along, and sang a lot of the things I’d been singing. I put those songs down. It was fine. I’d had my time with them, and other people needed them more than I did. No doubt, other people had stopped singing those songs when I started.

The process of handing material over is part of what helps us all to grow, helps new people get started, helps keep things moving. I started a new singing venture this autumn. One of the regulars has picked up Wild Mountain Thyme. Another expressed enthusiasm when I sang Shenandoah. I sent her the words, happily, and have since heard her sing it. There are balances to find around what we keep and what we let go of, but it’s a key part to participating in a living tradition.

Festival at the Edge

Folk festivals have been something of a feature through my life, from childhood visits to the Holford Arms, (tiny, windswept festival in the Cotswolds) to Bromyard in my teens, Alcester through my twenties, and assorted one-off visits to many others. I’ve not been in a field full of folkies in too many years. Festival at the Edge is in Shropshire, and is primarily a storytelling festival, although there is a music thread, dancing, beer tents, and folk people.

Tom and I were invited to go along by the fabulous Genevieve Tudor (of BBC Radio Shropshire’s Folk Show fame – and you can listen online). We did a three hour stint in the children’s area, getting a large number of brilliant, enthusiastic young people to write dreadful poetry and draw hideous monsters. It was a very intense session, and excellent.

I caught a fair bit of music – Biscuit Badger and the Biscuit Heads, Phil Hare, Na-Mara, Lady Maisery, and Bill Caddick. Bill made me cry. He pretty much always does. Back when I used to run a folk club I once put him on as a guest with a reference to how reliably he reduces me to tears, and then had to explain that no, this isn’t because the songs are terrible… Every time I feel lost and don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, someone needs to sit me down and make me listen to Cloud Factory, John of Dreams, and Unicorns. I will probably sob pathetically for a bit and then get my arse into gear.

I didn’t get to much storytelling, but I did go and see Amy Douglas, someone I also booked more years ago than I feel inclined to admit. She’s a lovely performer with a warm and intimate style.

I spent quite a lot of the festival catching up with people – old friends from the Midlands folk and Pagan scenes, and the Matlock the Hare creators. And one epic moment in the history of this blog – if you read the comments (and you should, the standard here is always high and the posters splendid, and friendly) I had the surprise and delight of finally getting to meet Argenta in person!

If you know me online and happen to be at an event I’m doing, please do come and say hi, (and expect to have to tell me who you are, my facial recognition skills are abysmal.)

Inspiration for a Greener World

On Friday night I went to the book launch for Storytelling for a Greener World. Having loved the book, it was fascinating to get to see and hear some of the people who contributed to it. Having had some encounters with Forest Schools via the boy, I was really excited to get to meet Jon Cree, one of its founders. I’d not heard Anthony Nanson storytelling before, so that was lovely, and Jonathan Porritt, with his imagined future historian, talking about how we saved the world, was really inspiring. There were many other participants and great moments, but name checking everyone and talking about everything I liked would take up a whole blog.

What touched me most over the evening came from Alida Gersie. Alida was an editor for and significant contributor to the book, and I had not heard her speak before. She talked about her work with terminally ill children, and the importance of thinking about what we do now. Thinking too much about the future, doesn’t work, she pointed out.

Lights came on in my head. I’ve taken a few days to really sit with this and think about it. I spend a lot of my time on how we get there. Politically, especially, but also practically, there seems to be an alarming amount that needs to happen to get us from this mess of greed and climate change, to a compassionate and sustainable future. The right wing around the world seems to be getting ever more crazy and psychotic in its pronouncements and activities. This scares me.

I could spend every waking hour of my whole life doing everything I can think of to make a greener world, and still not make enough difference. This haunts me. It gnaws at my guts in the early morning. It eats into my hope, and undermines my faith in my own work. Got to try harder, got to do more, got to make changes, got to push towards getting there… what happens? I get ill, exhausted, demoralised, as do a lot of other activists.

I wish I could quote Alida word for word, but I was so busy being struck by what she said that I did not manage to commit it to memory. There is no point focusing on the future. What we have to do is focus on now. What can we do today? What can we do in the next ten minutes? How can we change the small, day to day things for the better?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last few days, much of it yesterday afternoon on a hilltop in the quiet company of other Druids. How would I be living if we were there already? If the political and social changes had been made, to change our collective direction. If we had already transitioned to a more viable, sustainable, compassionate way of life, what would I be doing with my time? Not working and worrying myself sick, for a start.

I made a decision. I do not know how it’s going to work in practice because figuring this out is going to be a day to day sort of process. As I find out more about how it works, I’ll come back and talk about it. What I’ve decided is to live like we’re already there. To imagine the life I would have in a post-transition, rational, politically sane, carbon neutral bio-regional economy of the necessary future, and then to live that as best I am able. One thing I am certain about is that it involves days off and changing my relationship with money. The rest, is going to be an adventure.

A life made of stories

All autobiography is to some degree a construct. As soon as you start talking about your ‘real’ life there’s a process of editing, and as with all kinds of history-making, more is bound to be left out, than mentioned. I’m very conscious of this when blogging, because I write from my own life a lot. I pick which points to dwell on. I decide which experiences are important or interesting enough to seem worth sharing. Consequently my life probably comes across as a lot more engaging than it is. But then, much of the life of an author involves sitting down and churning out words, and that bit is no kind of spectator sport! All normal human life is full of dull but necessary bits, and unless the laundry is your art-form or you’re really into cleaning, it’s not easy to talk about that in engaging ways.

We all tell stories about our lives, whether we consider ourselves to be ‘storytellers’ or not. We tales of who we are and where we came from. Those tales can root us in land, culture, family, community and faith. Such stories can be powerful, grounding forces in our lives that underpin identity, sense of purpose, sense of self. We tell stories that explain things. These can be helpful. I’m claustrophobic because I had a bad experience in the London underground. I don’t have to feel ridiculous or irrational, I have an explanation. However, if my story is that I can never make friends because I was bullied at school, or no one will love me because I am fat, that story can become a toxic thing that prevents me from taking the risks needed in order to move on. If my story is that it is never my fault and people are so unreasonable wanting me to behave decently, then I’m going to be fairly psychotic.

The stories I tell are constructs. They are true stories, but just by making a selection, I change the effect. Most often what I do aside from missing out the boring bits, is remove from the story those people along the way who I haven’t much liked. They become vague allusions, unnamed, ill-defined. It is a power that I know causes offence because I’ve had some very specific feedback, from one of the few people I don’t talk about in detail. People only like me, she said, because I am so selective in the stories I tell, I construct a falsely good impression of myself. If you really knew me, you’d hate me as much as she did, she felt.

I think she was missing the point. I don’t write this purely in order to be liked. I write to be useful. I’m guessing most of you do not read this because you are interested in my life, per se, more because you are interested in what light stories from my life might shed on your stories from your life. That’s a good deal more useful all round. Used that way, it doesn’t matter how factually ‘true’ a story is, only how useful it is. My stories are limited by being from my perspective, but other perspectives are available and a few of those cast me as villainous, selfish, demanding and unpleasant. I don’t expect to be able to keep everyone happy.

What I have for you today is a story. It is a true story, except that I missed out the boring bits, and I pared the cast down to a few interesting figures. A lot else happened during the time frame I’m talking about, but for the sake of coherence, I left those bits out too. This is a story about spiderwebs and the tenuous strings of connection that hold my life together. https://soundcloud.com/cradle2gravestories/nimue-spiderwebs-allow
It’s hosted by cradel2grave stories, who make a habit of this thing – people telling tales from their lives. It’s a really interesting project, so do have a poke around!

The tales we tell

Humans are storytelling creatures, and our favourite subject is ourselves. We tell stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we aspire to be going. For many, the process of growing up is the process of changing those aspirational stories from wanting world peace, to wanting a nice kitchen. Thus far I have singularly failed to grow up, and am doing my best to keep it that way.

We know each other to a large degree through our stories. It’s one thing when you live amongst the people you grew up with, all holding the same myths in common, identities interlocking, but quite another meeting strangers. We go off to university and other places to reinvent ourselves. When I changed town, I changed name. As a child, I had a name I hated, when I moved to a place no one knew me, I was free to offer any name I liked, and I did. Having come back to the place I grew up, that old, unwanted me hangs around like a ghost. Sometimes it is simpler to answer to the old name and not tell the tales of change.

Much reinvention is harmless, some of it is actually productive. A clean slate to experiment with ideas of self can be a good place to find out who you are, free from all the assumptions that chained you as you grew. Live your life out in the same place, and those stories of youthful error can become your defining features, whether you want them or not. Then there’s that other kind of reinvention. The sort that doesn’t mention time spent in prison, much less the reason for it. The sort that invents prestige and experience in order to impress. Offering the fantasy of who we wanted to be, and not the reality.

I’ve been through a few of these, and the mind bending process of having to unpick the threads of my own life from the vast tangles of other people’s fantasy webs. The trouble is that one little lie is seldom enough, they need extra details to make the story plausible. Characters are added in. Friends, lovers, events, and once those stories tangle into other people’s lives, it gets complicated.

I think about the man who told his family he had an agricultural accident, leaving him scarred for life, but who told his friends he was injured whilst fighting as a mercenary. Maybe neither version is true. That one didn’t turn out to be terribly important, because no one was counting on his soldiering expertise. It could have been a very different story if we were.

Now here we all are living our lives in public, where the guff that a teenage girl says can come back and cost her a lucrative job. These days you can’t just move town, you’ll have to start a whole new online identity if you want to step away from the past. The past, I have noticed, has a knack of coming back, and if it doesn’t fit with the story you tell, that can get messy. The ex girlfriend who isn’t ex at all, the child you didn’t admit to having, the friends and enemies historical who it turns out have no desire to be written out of the story.

We invent ourselves all the time, in every expression of self from conversations with friends and colleagues to the snippets of life we put up in public places. I think the internet may have made some of us more self-conscious in our story making. It also makes it easier to spin incredible webs of lies and deceit. Invent whole identities. I’ve seen friends burned by attractions to works of fiction in online dating. I’ve met people who were so convinced by their own stories that they had no awareness of how they might be perceived from the outside.

It’s no good flashing the words around if there’s nothing to back them up. Of course we can invent and reinvent ourselves, that can be a good part of the learning and growing process. Everyone should have the scope to change, but if we don’t live out that ‘once upon a time’ narrative, there are always going to be consequences. The bigger the story, the harder it is to tell what it might be going to do to us.

That’s my story, anyway.

Death (it being Samhain)

“Denial of death is the route of all evil.” New Scientist, 20th October 2012. Possibly they meant ‘root’. It’s a good time of year for thinking about death, and the place of death in our lives. I read this observation a week ago and have been mulling it, on and off, ever since. The article in question argued in part that death-avoidance underpins much of our cultural achievement – agriculture, medicine, clothing, architecture, it all comes down to trying not to die. But as we extend life ever beyond our scope to make much use of it, is this a fair observation?

Thinking we are immortal can certainly encourage us as individuals to behave in bloody stupid ways that may well result in our becoming dead sooner rather than later. Interestingly though, the same article suggested that a higher awareness of death changes how we behave. Death consciousness leads to more interest in spiritual and personal growth, relationships and a life well led. Death consciousness takes us away from selfish and greedy behaviour. Arguably then, the hiding and avoiding of death so normal in western civilization, feeds collective greed and materialism.

With my quiet revolution hat on (it’s got very small bells on it) this excites me. I’ve been looking for a long time for the point at which to apply myself. Being one, small, finite and not going to live forever sort of person I’ve been aware that my scope for causing international change has never been good. Especially given my unwillingness to either enter politics or start killing people. But I can talk about death. I can spread death consciousness, and I can do it in good ways.

This may in fact, be what I am here for. That may sound arrogant, but bear with me. You see, pretty much as soon as I was able to talk, I started asking awkward questions about death. Maybe I was born death conscious. I carry a keen sense of the fleeting nature of all things, my own self included. Add in my weakness for all things gothic and my fondness for storytelling, and Tom’s dark and moody art and you may see where I’m headed.

Tell stories about death. More importantly, tell stories about death that put life into a meaningful sort of perspective, moving people from the material greed towards the good stuff. I have my calling. I feel like I have a clear sense of direction for the first time in more than a decade. Dead things, and extra teeth. Stories with malice of forethought. Revolution.

Anyone who has not wandered over to the gothic side of my life, www.hopelessmaine.com is out there waiting for you. Take a moment for the dead people today. They have a lot to teach you about the bit that comes before being dead, and how not to waste it.

Storytelling magic

Humans are storytellers. It’s easy to assume that story making is the exclusive preserve of authors, and that telling is something only skilled bards do, but this is not quite it. We all tell stories. We tell them about who we are and how we got here, what we did today and why it is that certain things happen to us. We all have shared stories, belonging to the tribe, or our traditions. We tell jokes and anecdotes, and ask each other ‘do you remember when we…?’ History is also story.

All kinds of things happen when we transmute life into story. There is a process of making sense that accompanies story creation. You have to kick reality into story shape, and that tends to mean finding a coherent conclusion, a way of tying up the loose ends. Story making is a method of creating meaning out of chaos. In this process, we can get a sense of control. A person who can tell it as a story is far less of a victim than a person who has no voice.

Sharing is critical to storytelling. It’s not enough to make a narrative, you have to be heard. Here too, complicated things happen. Often in life, there is no fairness and no justice, however, having your story heard, taken seriously and empathised with can bring relief over the most bitter issues. Having a witness to failures and triumphs, wonders and setbacks, we feel less isolated. Sometimes someone else turns out to know all about it. Then they offer back another story in which we might see our own experience mirrored. We are no longer alone and out of kilter with everyone. We are part of something, even if it is only a tradition of two. Once one person finds the words, it’s not usually long before other people dare to use them as well.

When we share stories, we open doors to the possibility of change. That which is held in silence, kept in the dark, or too personal to offer up, remains unchallengeable. If I share a story and someone says ‘Nimue, you are being silly, that wasn’t what it meant at all,’ I might have a chance at changing the story, my relationship with reality, and everything I do. If someone says ‘that happened to me too. We should do something about it,’ then in our story making we have just crafted the beginnings of a revolution. It may be small, but then again, it may be epic. There are many people who would do differently if only they knew of the consequences. When we tell them the stories they listen up, and make changes.

We also tell stories about the future, and where we want to be going. For a fledgling tradition like druidry, this is important, shared work. Every time we pause to imagine what druidry could be, we build towards possible futures. Every story we tell about where we have been contributes to the ones we shape about here we might be going. This is a part of how we construct all of the stories of our future, as individuals, family members, as countries, as a planet. Knowing that we are making stories and that we can direct them in very conscious ways changes everything.

Do I believe in magic? Absolutely. Do I believe in Harry-Potter-style, pyrotechnic laden magic? Not so much. I believe in the magic of change and transformation, and the awen, the flow of inspiration that makes all things possible.

What stories will you tell today? What stories will you tell about today? Make them good. You can reimagine the world as it should be. Where story goes, reality will sometimes follow.

Truth and Fiction

I recently had it suggested to me that because I write fiction, everything I write can be assumed to be untrue. I think this is rather an interesting line of thought, following on from previous proof-ponderings. What is the relationship between truth and fiction? Isn’t fiction basically about lying? How then can an honourable person be a fiction author?

What this flags up to me is the idea of truth working on different levels. There is situation specific truth – he said this, she said that. There are also the deeper, broader kinds of truth about human nature, psychology, reality. For fiction to work, in any genre, I think it’s essential to tap into those wider truths. If there is no emotional truth in a story, people do not find it credible. To function, a story must be believed, and to be believed it must express something recognisable. We might be in a galaxy far, far away fighting strange alien life forms and wielding wild technology, but the human emotions have to make sense.

Truth in other art forms is equally about capturing the essence of a thing. So in visual art, you aren’t limited to literal interpretations, you can go after creations that capture a feeling, a moment, the way something moved or a host of other entirely true things. In music I think there’s a continual reaching for emotional resonance that is entirely about truth.

A lot of human thinking has to do with abstracts and archetypes. Our notion of ‘horse’ is broad enough that we can fit any individual horse we meet into it. The same for person, or tree. A thing that challenges our understanding may make us shift the boundaries, but we hold them and they matter to us. Story-truth relies a fair bit on archetypes and abstractions, but to ring true the reader needs to feel that if they were that person, who had been through those things, they might just act in the same way.

To be good fiction, the story must be true in essence even if you have made up all the details.

I am therefore inclined to suggest that a person who writes fiction needs a keen sense of what is true and what isn’t, and develops a clear understanding about what is imagined by them and what belongs to external reality.

I’m also very wary of broad, sweeping thought forms that can be used by one person to entirely invalidate another person’s perspective. Too young to know what you’re talking about. Too mentally ill to have an opinion. Too inexperienced for your thoughts to count. Too naïve for your hurt feelings to be worth bothering over. Too demanding. Too influenced by someone else. Too much not agreeing with me for me to listen to you.

And while I’m venting, I’d like to raise the issue of people who write erotica. We don’t imagine that all crime and horror novelists go round killing people for research. We don’t even assume they might want to. And yet so often the idea that erotica authors are obviously a bunch of depraved, amoral creatures comes up in the whole truth-fiction debate. I hear this one now and then because I write erotica under another name. Fiction is not autobiography, nor is it a declaration of intent or enthusiasm. Looking for truth in such a literal, surface way is dangerous, not least for the poor author involved. But when people are determined to write the facts off as storytelling and claim the storytelling as fact, life can be challenging.

My druidic anti-hero’s slogan was “The truth against the world.” Well world, time to see what you make of the next round.