An Irish saint named Columba (or Columcille in his native language) is said to have confronted and rebuked Loch Ness Monster for killing and attempting to eat an unfortunate Pict. The saint was in Scotland at the time because he had managed to get himself exiled from Ireland by instigating a small war.
The trouble began with what has been called the first copyright disagreement. Columcille, founder and abbot of several Irish Abbys, learned that another Abbot, Finian, owned a beautiful Psalter, a book of the psalms used in worship. Since such books were exceedingly rare, Columcille asked for the privilege of making his own copy. Finian, for reasons that are not clear, refused. So Columcille, while visiting Finian’s Abby, crept into the scriptorium, one night. Working not by lamp light but by the supernatural glow of his own fingers, he managed a complete copy of the Psalter, a task that usually took many years and many copyists. (See the Book of Kells.)
When Finian learned what had happened, he claimed ownership of the copy. Columcille refused and the two abbots took their disagreement to the High King who responded with the first known example of copyright law: “To every cow belongs its calf, to every book its copy.”
Columcille turned to his royal relatives for assistance, one thing led to another, and 3,000 men were killed in subsequent battle. Columcille, either struck by his own conscience or at the urging of his fellow Abbots, decided to go to Scotland and convert the Picts. (Those were the people who painted themselves blue before going to war.
None of this sounds the least bit saintly. My efforts to turn the life of Saint Columba into a historical novel taught me one important lesson: a story, written fiction or an oral folktale, must have a genuine connection to its own time and place as well as making sense to the contemporary reader/listener. If I had attempted to make Columcille into a saintly plaster figure, there would have been no story.
To demonstrate, I am applying the same process of understanding to one of the simplest and best-loved Norwegian folktales. In case you missed the story, here it is
Winter has ended , the fresh green grass is poking through the snow in the high meadow and three billy goats, all named gruff, prepare to leave the farmhouse where they spent the winter. The smallest goes first, running down the trail and across the bridge over the stream. The sound of his hooves alerts the troll under that bridge: “Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?”
The smallest Billy Goat Gruff identifies himself and says “I am going up into the high meadows to eat the sweet green grass.”
The troll replies “Oh, no you’re not. For I am coming to eat you up.”
The little trickster goat suggests that the troll wait for his brother who is much bigger and would make a more satisfactory meal.
The troll sends the goat on his way and the whole scene is repeated with the next goat.
This brings us to the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, who replies to the threat by saying, “Come along then, for I have upon my head two spears and I will poke your eyeballs out your ears. I have as well two milling stones and I will crush you to bits body and bones!”
Which the goat proceeds to do, as soon as the troll emerges from under the bridge.
As a young man once said in a class where I was telling stories: “That is a very violent story.”
He wasn’t wrong. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a very violent story just like Columcille was a very unsaintly saint. Where truly understanding Columcille’s antics required me to look at Irish monasticism in a new way, truly understanding the violence in the Three Billy Goats Gruff means connecting the folktale with its mythological roots.
This connection is not my own idea. I found it in George Webbe Dasent’s preface to his English translation of Asbjórnson and Moe’s
The story goes all the way back to the Norse creation story, where Ódinn and his brothers killed Ymir, the forefather of all the frost giants, and used his body parts to build the world. The few giants who survived the flood of Ymir’s blood swore to avenge his death, which began the feud between the giants and the Norse gods.
The frost giants were not merely being cranky. The concept of a revenge-based society was very common in Germanic cultures. You kill my brother and I don’t call the cops. I just kill you in return, but then your brother kills me and my son kills … it gets messy in a hurry.
So the giants were all about trying to kill the gods and the gods were all about killing the giants before they could kill the gods (even though everybody knew that gods and giants would all die in the end). And Ódinn’s son Thor was the gods’ primary giant-killer. That’s what his hammer was all about.
Eventually Christianity arrived in the North and the believers in the old gods faded away. For some time the followers of Thor, who was known to protect the common man worshipped Christ while on land but turned back to Thor while at sea where it was really dangerous!. But traces of the old myths remained in folktales, at least according to what George Webbe Dasent wrote in his preface to his translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Popular Tales from the Norse into English. Webbe points out that those three goats have a direct connection to Thor. The first two billy goats are the story-descendants of the pair of goats who accompanied Thor on many of his adventures. The biggest Billy Goat Gruff, is Thor.
In the world of this story the troll has a deep rooted duty to kill the goats. And the biggest billy goat gruff has an equal duty to kill the troll. That violence is embedded in the roots of the story. Now I did not need to go into a historical exploration of the relationship between the Abbots of Celtic Christianity and the political situation in Ireland in the 6th Century. Nor do I need to go into a mythological/social discussion of the background ofT Three Billy Goats as I tell it.
What my understanding does helps me stay away from the trap of twisting the whole story out of shape in order to meet contemporary expectations. So, as I worked with Columcille, I saw him as a man who did feel responsible for all those deaths, but not one who was willing to give up his political/kingdom-building mindset. And when I tell the Billy Goats Gruff, I remember that the Troll was not angry because the goats disturbed him. He was not simply hungry, he was the goats’ bone-deep enemy.
The up-the-mountain story starts, as many good stories do, with a foolish hero – in this case a hen – sets out on a foolish quest. Since the original story is a Norwegian folktale, the hen must climb to the top of the Dovrefjell, the mountain range that divides the southeastern, more populated portion of Norway from the north. And since this is a cumulative or “chain” story, the hen manages to include a cock, a duck and a goose in her quest.
All too soon the four fowl run into a (trickster alert!) fox who invites them to spend the night in his den thus adding the necessary element of danger to the tale. The hen is worried and insists on sleeping perched near the smoke hole in the ceiling. She wakes early the next morning to the horrifying sight – and smell – of the fox roasting duck and goose (without having removed their feathers). Hen and rooster escape through the smoke hole and, with no further delays, make it to the top of the Dovrefjell, where hen proclaims her triumph.
The rooster has a single question. Why?Find Harriet
And hen (revealing that this story is classified as Tale Type 20C (End of the World) answers that she had been informed – in a dream – that she must save the world by climbing to the top of the Dovrefjell. (By the way, the hen had been sleeping in an oak tree which gives us the obligatory connection between a Norwegian folktale and Norse mythology. Oaks, at least according to some sources, are connected with Thor, god of thunder and protector of the people.)
This is a fine little story, one I greatly enjoy telling. The gruesome deaths of duck and goose make it eligible for inclusion in my upcoming Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce a book of uncomfortable Norse tales for 10 – 12 year olds (soon available through the Small-Tooth-Dog Publishing Group. However, I did not understand this tale until I started moving it from one story-world to another.
When I first started telling folktales during the moon hikes at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center in Phoenix AZ, I needed stories from/in/about the desert. My specialty is Scandinavia where there are no deserts, at least not the kind that are dry and hot. But there are mountains. And South Mountain is a mountain! What if I moved my hen?
Up South Mountain became one of the most popular stories I tell. I usually start by explain that the tale followed the immigrants from Norway to Minnesota and the snowbirds from Minnesota to Arizona. Then I invite audience participation. The hen always needs help saying:
“Gotta get up, gotta get up, gotta get, gotta get, gotta get up South Mountain!”
I’ve had kids who are returning for their second or third Moon Hike walk up to me and say “Gotta get up … gotta get up!”
Recently it has become my turn to migrate. Or – less dramatically – return to my original territory in Northern New Mexico. Norway has the Dovrefjell. Phoenix has South Mountain. What could I do with my world-saving hen?
Northern New Mexico has the Jemez Mountains west of the Rio Grande. I could turn Up South Mountain into Up the Jemez and even keep the coyote! As I made this decision, I started to compare the three actual worlds in which I have set the same story. What did the hen see when she finally reached her goal?
When it comes to the Dovrefjell. I am at a bit if a disadvantage. I have been to Norway but did not get as far north as the Dovrefjell. In any case it was winter and I suspect the Dovrefjell looked just like the mountains I did see – covered in snow and pine trees. The magic of the internet shows me that the Dovrefjell, without snow is a collection of rocky lumps of mountains in a tundra-like setting. Apparently it is also home to the only Norwegian population of musk oxen.
South Mountain in Phoenix is also rocky and lumpy but definitely lacks tundra. Instead of musk oxen, there are scorpions, bats and Sonoran Desert Toads, the ugliest amphibian known to man. Reaching the top of South Mountain means reaching an impressive collection of radio and tv antennae and looking out over the vast spread of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.
What about the Jemez? For the past twenty years the eastern slopes of the Jemez have been slowly recovering from two major forest fires. Going up the Jemez means encountering the few remaining ponderosa pines, some aspen trees and vast amounts of scrub oak and other ground covering plants. There is a single radio tower at the summit of Pajarito Mountain, which is part of the Jemez. And the view is spectacular because the Valles Caldera, lies to the west, a vast sprawl of valleys and hills created by the collapse of an ancient volcanic caldera. This land was long held as private property but has become a National Preserve.
At the very end of her story, the hen tells the rooster that she has saved the whole world by getting up the mountain.
The people who created the Valles Caldera National Preserve had to get up a lot of mountains to save that beautiful part of the world. The students who so enjoyed my story in Phoenix were climbing their own mountains. And, on the Dovrefjell itself, the hen was doing mythological work.
Not all stories can be moved from one story-world to another this easily. But when it is possible, it is a satisfying endeavor that helps the teller truly understand the story.
So, you’ve got a mountain. Go save the world. Or at least, a story-world.
Building a story world is part of crafting a story. This world building does not demand that the story-crafter live in that world. If that were the case, none of us would be able to tell very many stories. Story crafters can use research and imagination to build their story worlds. But imagination, in my experience, is rooted in the world I consider especially mine – not my everyday world, but the world of my heart. And I know that world not in words but through my senses, not only visually but through sounds, feelings, and even smell.
The world that anchors my imagination is centered around a small town in northern New Mexico. Los Alamos occupies a number of the mesas along the Pajarito Plateau between the Jemez Mountains and the valley of the Rio Grande. This world has specific boundaries (I am using the word “boundaries” with the meanings of “edges” not the meaning of something that cannot be crossed.)
The Jemez Mountains -- more usually referred to as “The Jemez” (HAY-mez) – define the western edge of my childhood world. I still know the shapes of those mountains as well as I know the shape of my own hands. The eastern edge of the world was marked by a much newer and far more official boundary. Where the last of the volcanic eruptions that resulted in the mountains of the Jemez occurred approximately 40,000 years ago, the “Main Gate” of Los Alamos was erected in 1943 after the United States Government acquired a portion of the Pajarito Plateau (between the Jemez and the Rio Grande valley) for use by the Manhattan Project.
It was not until 1949 that a young chemist, who had spent the war years on the Project, but at Oak Ridge, drove his pre-war Plymouth up the narrow road the clung to the side of a cliff east of Los Alamos. He and his wife had travelled from Wisconsin, where he had just finished a post-doc, to New Mexico with their new baby girl tucked into a basket in the back seat.
That is why my father always told me I came to Los Alamos as a baby in a basket – it sounds a bit Biblical but that was not my father’s intent. Besides I’ve seen the basket. It would not have floated. Given my age at the time, I have no idea if my parents checked in at the war-time Main Gate, or the “newer one,” the one I do remember. Soon we were all settled in the form of housing called a Sundt, directly across the street from what was then called the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where my father spent his entire career.
With the passage of time, my parents moved to one of the post-war neighborhoods, one built for the vast numbers of young scientists hired by the Lab to work on the development of what was sometimes called the H-bomb. Many of these scientists arrived, as had my father, with a wife and the beginnings of a family. The ones who were single soon snapped up (or were snapped up by) the young teachers hired to work in the Los Alamos School system. In any case it was the era of the baby boom and the US Government spent the early 50’s building laboratory facilities to replace the wartime buildings and neighborhoods to house that baby boom.
My family ended up in what was called Western Area, a neighborhood of one-story single and duplex houses with nice yards and an average of three kids per family. For the kids, the best thing about Western Area was playing in “The Woods.” This was an extensive ponderosa pine forest with canyons both to the south and north of the slopes that led up into the Jemez.
We were, at a rather young age, allowed – nay encouraged during the summers – to leave home after breakfast and play in the woods, canyons and all. Sometimes we went as part of a pack of kids, but solitary exploration was also common.
Thus I, at the age of 8 or 9, started to find the world that would provide me the raw material for the world of stories like one of my favorite Norwegian folktales. Shortshanks!
In this tale, collected and published by Asbjornsen and Moe, Shortshanks was the younger of a pair of twins born to an impoverished family. As soon as he arrived, the elder of the twins sat up, looked around, and announced to his mother: “I can see there’s no room for me here. Give me a bite of food to eat and a rag to wear and I’ll be on my way.”
The poor mother was not a woman who was willing to turn a newborn loose, but the child won the argument, took the food and toddled off. Soon the second twin put in his appearance, made the same observation and the same demand as his brother and also toddled away.
Once he caught up with his brother, the twins sat down, shared their food and decided to name themselves. Thus the elder became “King Sturdy,” and the younger “Shortshanks.” The twins then divided the world in two and parted. Before bidding his brother farewell, King Sturdy told Shortshanks, “If you ever need help give me a shout, and I’ll show up.” But he wasn’t that good a big brother because he added, “First be sure you really need me. I won’t like it if I find out you could have settled matters on your own.”
To that, Shortshanks answered, “Then it will be a long time before we see each other again.” And off he went, stumping and stamping and stamping and stomping along the traill that wound through thick pine forest.
Research tells me that the large conifers of Norway are the Norway spruce and the Scots pine, not the Ponderosa pines I stumped and stamped and stamped and stumped through in the woods. But the feeling of independent and maybe slightly scary aloneness among trees that towered far over my head is one I can give to Shortshanks.
Yes. A world of story, built from my world with research and imagination,
I have been looking back at some of the earlier entries in this blog and have found my first reactions to El Becerro. I had just been to the 2014 NSN Conference where New Mexican storyteller Joe Hayes had used the story in his class on working with stories from different cultures. El Becerro (the word means “calf” or “young bull”) goes like this:
There was an old woman who, as was the custom, sent her cattle into the mountains for the summer. Unfortunately, she soon fell terribly ill and learned that she would not survive unless she drank a broth made from the liver of a calf. Since her own cattle were not available, she went to her neighbor, an old man who had kept one of his own calves in the valley. He agreed to “loan” her that calf. (“Loaning” meant she could slaughter the calf he gave her and pay him back with one of her own at the end of summer.)
The broth did not help and the old woman did not survive. Once the cattle returned from the mountains the old man asked the woman’s son for a calf. When the young man refused to pay his mother’s debt, the old man’s wife came up with a plan. The couple pretended to forget about the matter.
When the time came to clean the acequia, the communally-owned irrigation ditch, the old man asked the Mayordomo, the ditch boss, to schedule the young man’s first water in the middle of the night. The Mayordomo was well aware of the argument between the neighbors and agreed to do just that.
On the night the young man went out to the irrigation gate to turn his share of the water into his fields, he saw a strange and wavering figure in the distant trees, a figure who called out to him in a tearful voice.
He was terrified and turned to run, but the figure seemed to come closer. “Do not be afraid, m’jito,” she cried. “It is me, your own mother. I need your help. I owe my neighbor a calf and I cannot reach heaven until my debt is paid. Please m’jito pay my debt. Give the old man a calf. No, wait, give him two for all the trouble you have caused him.”
Terrified, the young man went straight home and spent the rest of the night under his bed, trembling.
The old man emerged from the bushes. While his wife untangled her best bedsheet from the branches, he turned moved the water from the young man’s field to his own.
The next morning the young man took his two best calves to his neighbor’s house. When they opened the door, he – with deep apologies – gave both calves to the old couple.
In 2014, I was interested in the ways research could help me build the world of this story. Why did the community send their cattle into the mountains? What exactly was an acequia, and how did the community work together to clean it? Why and how was the irrigation water allocated? Since I had lived in Northern New Mexico for almost forty years, I knew the answers to most of these questions, but I had a lot of fun digging deeper.
Now that I am looking more broadly at the world of the story, I am realizing that I am more closely connected to El Becerro than I originally thought. As a matter of fact, I met one of the calves in the story (or at least one very like him.)
During my childhood my father occasionally loaded my brother and me into the back of our family’s ’57 Chevy Carryall (a distant ancestor of today’s SUVs) and took us up into the Jemez Mountains, just west of Los Alamos, for an overnight camping trip. Those were the days when State Road 4, which wound from the Pajarito Plateau up into the mountains was narrow and not yet paved.
On one of these trips, Dad navigated the Carryall around a particularly sharp corner where the aspen trees crowded the road and came to a complete stop. There, in the middle of the road stood a small cow. Or, as my father explained, an adolescent bull (which is an exact translation of the word becerro).
This becerro had planted himself right in the middle of the road and – undoubtedly hormone-befuddled state – seemed unable to understand that he was no match for the Carryall. He refused to move and we could not get around him. Dad honked the born.
El becerro did not move.
Dad opened the door, stood on the Carryall’s running board and shouted.
El becerro did not move.
Dad climbed down and walked toward el beccero, waving his arms.
El becerro lowered his head.
Dad walked rather quickly back to the Carryall.
I was a child with a vivid imagination and I immediately became deeply unhappy. What if that cow (I still thought of el becerro as a small cow) trampled my father? What if the cow refused to move? We would have to back down the road! What if dad couldn’t find a place to turn around before we got to the place where the road went along a cliff? I saw nothing but disaster.
Dad climbed back into the Carryall and shut the door. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have a plan.” And he put the Carryall into compound low, otherwise known as granny gear.
The Carryall was not a 4WD vehicle, but it didn’t matter, not with compound low. All Dad had to do was tap the accelerator once and the Carryall started forward and a speed somewhat slower than a walk.
El becerro stood his ground. He even lowered his head, bur the Carryall was undeterred.
My imagination when back into high gear. “Dad, what if we run over the poor little cow?”
“Don’t worry,” Dad answered. “He’ll move.”
He did, but not until the Carryall’s front bumper nudged him. And when that cow’s nerve finally broke, he fled with a truly impressive burst of speed.
We continued up to the campground where we all had a fine time.
That little episode, by itself, is barely a story but it did – years later – provide me with more than facts about the world. Remembering the story helped me remember the smell and taste of the world. I am not saying that storytellers need this kind of connection with the world of a story to tell that story.
I am saying that storytellers need a deep connection with their own worlds to connect with the worlds of the stories they tell. I will be exploring this further in future blog entries.
My husband Stretch and I arrived in Tempe on January 2, 1991. During the past 29 years in Arizona, I have been a traffic engineering technician, and an unpublished novelist. I have hung out in the back of various local ‘cello sections and have been both a community college student and an adjunct instructor (at the same college). I have also become a storyteller.
As a storyteller, I have always been deeply interested in building the worlds of the stories I tell. It does not matter if I am working with one of my favorite Scandinavian folktales or the legends of Scotland during the Dark Ages, I want to understand the world of the story. And by understand, I mean more than knowing about the geography. I want to know how the people who lived in that world lived there. From that information I can build the world of the story – and that’s something that deeply interests me.
Building a world requires research – and research is always fun – but it also requires having a world. By leaving Tempe, which will happen in January of 2020 when Stretch and I return to New Mexico, I am returning to the world that is most truly mine.
If you look at the top of the NM license plate you'll notice the words "Land of Enchantment." Those of us who have left New Mexico tend to describe the place as the “Land of EnTRAPment,” instead of Enchantment. This is not meant in a bad way. There’s a pull, there’s always a pull, because nowhere else is quite the same, no matter what happens. As I prepare to return, and as I actually survive the practical aspects of the move (it is all so much more complicated than it was 29 years ago), I will be exploring the way the world that will again be mine connects with the world I build in stories.
In my next post, I will start with a story I worked on with Joe Hayes in his workshop at the NSN conference in Phoenix a number of years ago. It’s a folktale from Northern New Mexico which I have combined with a personal story.
Storytellers who are interested in the Völsunga Saga material have a number of sources, as well as a number of translations of those sources. William Morris, a late-nineteenth-century textile designer, J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, that Tolkien) and University of California archaeologist Jesse Byock have all translated the Saga. Of these, I prefer Byock. Morris is so late-Victorian elaborate that it makes my head hurt, Tolkein relies heavily on the alliteration that was a feature of Nordic poetry which also makes my head hurt. Byock simply tells the story.
Much of the Saga material is also found in the Lays (narrative poems) in the medieval collection called The Poetic Edda. The stories in the Edda are similar, but certainly not identical to the ones in the Saga and the various translators have made their own decisions concerning the action.
That’s where the tangled trails come in. In broad outline, the story I call The Fight of the Valkyries goes like this:
Sigurd the Völsung kills the dragon Fáfnir, follows the advice of seven nuthatches (small European birds), takes the dragon’s treasure and go finds the Valkyrie Brynhild, who is sleeping in a ring of fire.
But wait! The “Lay of Fáfnir” calls the birds “titmice.” They tell Our Hero to get the gold and take it straight to the hall of a man named Gjuki, who is the king of the Burgundians. They mention Gjuki’s daughter Gudrún and then talk about Brynhild. And “The Prophecy of Gripnir” has Sigurd going first to Gjuki’s Hall and then to find Brynhild. (BTW – Morris gives the avian speaking role to eagles!)
Once Sigurd finds Brynhild, he decides he loves her. She feels the same way and they exchange pledges before he rides to the hall of a man named Heimir, who is Brynhildr’s foster-father. There he spends his time doing fun happy warrior things – hunting, starting small wars – with her kinsmen. Once she arrives at Heimir’s Hall, they again pledge their love but she tells him they will never marry. He wanders off and ends up doing fun happy warrior things with two sons of a king named Gjuki. The three young men have so much fun that they pledge blood brotherhood and Gjuki’s sons take him back to their father’s Hall.
This is if Our Hero hasn’t already made friends with Gjuki’s sons before waking Brynhild.
Gjuki’s witch of a wife casts the spells that bind Sigurd to her daughter Gudrún. He completely forgets Brynhild, happily marries Gudrún and swears blood brotherhood with her brothers (if he hasn’t done so already). Then Gjuki’s wife, whose name is Grimhild, decides that her older son, Gunnar, should marry Brynhild. Everybody – even Sigurd who is still under the influence of Grimhild’s magic ale – thinks this is a wonderful idea so they all go visit Brynhildr’s father Budli. Budli is in favor of getting his daughter married off, but issues the standard caveat – if she is willing. Then they all go ask Heimir who gives the same answer. He also warns them that she will only marry the man who can ride his horse through the blazing fire around her own home.
Sigurd has already ridden through the fire once. What happens next? That’s for Tangled Trails Part 3
During my recent visit to Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico, I discovered that the ruts of the Santa Fe trail look more like a tangle of random arroyos than a tidy set of tracks across the short grass prairie. I am told that tourists often ask how to find the Santa Fe Trail while they are standing in one of those arroyos that are the trail.
I thought Google Earth might help me find the “real” trail. The iron tires of all those wagons, which were capable of carrying as much of 6,500 pounds according to Mark L. Gardener’s Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail published by the National Park Service must have left tracks that look like a road.
Not really. Those wagons may well have all started in Missouri (either in Fort Leavenworth or Independence) and followed one of two routes, the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff. Many of the journeys actually ended at Fort Union, for much of the freight on the trail was military. But the trial, up close and personal is an enormous collection of nice straight lines.
In some ways, this makes sense. As a hiker and cross country I have often been on trails that turn into a confusing tangle, usually when hikers or skiers try to bypass a mud hole or find a smoother path. I’ve gone around a few mud holes myself. I have noticed the same need to go around mud holes as I develop the story of the great quarrel between the Valkyrie Brynhild and Gudrún, her sister-in-law. Brynhild, under the name of Brunhilda, is best known in her operatic form. She is soprano, often wearing a completely inaccurate horned helmet, in Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” The trail that I am following has two main branches and in some places, those branches contradict each other.
The first of these branches, The Saga of the Völsungs, compiled by an unknown Icelandic author during the 13th Century. This work is primarily prose and was drawn from the oral tradition in the form of Eddic poetry which is, in its turn, based on oral tradition. The second of these branches is a set of Lays, skaldic poetry, that are part of The Poetic Edda, which was also compiled by an anonymous Icelander at approximately the same time.
And why am I comparing the literature of medieval Iceland with the Santa Fe Trail? Because both processes – the formation of the trail, mud holes and all and my decisions while I craft my story – involve decisions.
What to do? Which way to go? What do I use, what do I not use as I work on The Fight of the Valkyries, which will be part of the upcoming (September 20th, 6:30 pm) MYTH MOB performance in the South Mountain Community College Performance Hall. Some hear my decisions and those made by my fellow Mobbers – Liz Warren, Marilyn Omifunke Torres and Sulé Greg Wilson.
My mother read all six volumes of Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while breastfeeding my younger brother. As a compulsive reader (yes, it runs in the family) she explained that Gibbons was just boring enough to put down when the baby finished eating. It was rare to see my mother sitting down without a book in her hand and she passed her love of reading on to her children. By the time my brother and I were in elementary school, the three of us – my mother, my brother, and I – often found ourselves working our way through the same book. It made for interesting dinner table conversations.
Even though we were no longer sharing a dining room table, Mom and I were still reading in tandem when Jean Aul’s Clan of the Cave Bear came out. We wanted to love that book! Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, romance, flint knapping! What’s not to like?
Aul lost us at the flint knapping. Pages and pages of flint knapping unleavened by anything resembling plot or even pre-historic sex. As my mother said, “she let her index cards show.”
The book was written during the 1970’s – researching meant going to the library, finding (which was not always easy) the necessary books, and sitting down with a stack of index cards. The procedure went as follows: 1) write name of book on top of index card 2) jot important notes and useful phrases on rest of index card 3) wrap stacks of index cards in rubber bands. While writing: 1) copy relevant information into hand-written first draft 2) develop some kind of method to keep track of citations (this is where the color coding helped) and 3) smoosh it all into a paper or a scene in a book or whatever.
I’ve done research like this and it’s really kind of fun. There’s something satisfying about a desk piled high with books and orderly little stacks of hard-won information.
Research is how I, as a storyteller, build the world in which my story lives. When the time comes to actually craft my story, I have to remind myself of my mother’s wisdom – don’t let your index cards show. The temptation is definitely there. How can I resist adding a detailed description of a Viking era turf house to my story? That’s what the people who told my material so long ago would have seen, right?
That’s index cards. As a storyteller, I have to remember to trust my audience, and my audience’s imagination.
How do you keep your index cards under control?
“Focus on images, not words.”
That’s good advice – and something I tell my Art of Storytelling students at the beginning of every semester. You need good images in order to tell stories.
But that’s not all you need. Think about those storytellers who create the cleanest and most evocative images for their listeners. Those tellers whose stories become your whole world. The ones who can make you forget that you are in a huge tent, along with a couple of hundred of your closest friends, sitting on a hard chair. As those tellers craft their stories, I am pretty sure that they make some very intentional choices about their use of gestures, voices, and words.
Intentional use of gestures does not mean that storytellers turn themselves into talking mimes, but some of the techniques in mime can certainly inform the gestures of storytellers. Intentional use of voice does not mean that storytellers turn themselves into actors without scripts, but some of the techniques in acting can inform the way storytellers use their voices. Intentional use of words does not mean that storytellers turn into out-loud readers, but some of the techniques of writing can inform the way storytellers use their words.
Which is the title of the workshop I am developing for this fall: “Use Your Words.”
A writer who veers from one point of view to another, a writer who mixes tenses in a random fashion, is a writer who pushes readers out of the story. A teller who makes the same mistakes has the same effect on listeners.
Serious writers can (should, and do) self-edit. They can (should and do) take their work to a writing group. They can (should and do) work with editors.
Admittedly, the process is not precisely the same for storytellers. The point here is not to create perfect sentences and commit the words to memory. (I tried that a couple of times when I was a student in The Art of Storytelling – at it was not a good idea.)
But storytellers can be aware of the pitfalls writers try to avoid by self-editing. They can develop the habit working within intentionally chosen boundaries – of tense, or point of view. They can also work with others storytellers, and many do. Storytellers also go to coaches and there are some very good coaches available.
In my 1-day workshop “Use Your Words” we will intentionally focus on using the literary techniques of writing and editing to craft stories pull your listeners into the world of your words.
Recently I had the opportunity to do a weekend storytelling project with very small group of nine- and ten-year-old boys. Before I even met these kids, I suspected that I should not try anything the least bit “school-like” with them. Who wants to sit indoors learning something on a beautiful Saturday morning in the mountains?
They turned out to be a great bunch of kids, but I was right about the school part! They would have much rather been on the ropes course with the bigger kids.
This was a challenge. Or an opportunity, depending on how I looked at it.
After telling the first story, I had everybody make name tags out of paper plates. My initial idea had been to use half a plate per name tag but the boys – still under the influence of David and Goliath, started referring to the paper plates as “breastplates.”
OK, turn a whole paper plate into a breastplate with your name accompanied by a drawing of your favorite scene from the story you just heard.
The drew a lot of bloody headless giants. They also talked about the story with each other.
My inner light bulb went on.
Leave the worksheets in the folder.
It was going to be a stories, crayons, and pictures on paper plates weekend.
Sequence a story? Let everybody draw their favorite part on a paper plate, punch holes in the paper plates, string them on a long piece of yarn in the proper order and hang it across the front of the room.
The 5p’s, beloved by the SMCC Storytelling Institute?
Outline your hand on a paper plate, decorate it while remembering People, Place, Problem, Progress, and Point.
Then listen to a story and draw your favorite person on a paper plate.
String everybody’s favorite person plates on another long piece of yarn.
And so on and so forth through the rest of the P’s.’
Not everything was a success. I had planned to have the kids make animal masks to go with Noah and the Ark. That was the reason for the paper plates in the first place. I even had popsicle sticks and glue so that the masks would have handles.
Gluing popsicle sticks to the edges of paper plates did not work so well.
When I wanted to punch holes in the paper plates to hang them on the yarn, I realized that the scissors at hand were not really up to the job.
When it was all over, my mall but mighty group of storytellers had taught me four important lessons.
First – paper plates are your friend. Heck, you can even use twelve of them for a storyboard!
Next – test your glue before you go.
And – know lots and lots of movement/story games. Make some up on the spot.
Finally – when in doubt, take a walk.
Thanks, guys. I had fun. I hope you did too.