March 28, 2009

Storytelling Conferences: Shouting Down a Hole

There's a motif in several European fairy tales, where a sister has to rescue her brothers from a supernatural fate (such as their transformation into geese, or ravens), by remaining silent for a lengthy period, say, seven years, seven months, and seven days. Often, the consequences of remaining silent bring her hardship and grief, and in some stories she digs a hole in the earth, and into this hole releases a torrent of emotions in words and sobs. She must then cover the hole, and bury her emotions, so that no one will know that she has broken her silence.

Sometimes I think of storytelling conferences in this way.

Conference attendees gather from all over, get together to speak, but the logistics of the conference are such that if you weren't there, you'd never know that anything was said. For all intents and purposes, the conference covered over the hole where the discussion went on.

I don't envision gatherings of storytellers as sharing of grief, though. So the other vision I have is that of Fight Club. Or maybe a conference of ninjas. The attendees think of themselves as a secret brother and sisterhood, with knowledge to share among each other, but not to those outside the secret club.

Now I've been to some of these conferences. I've learned a lot at them, networked a lot, met some great people, seen some terrific stuff happen as a result of conversations that started at these conferences. I'm not knocking storytelling conferences per se.

I am knocking their dissemination and distribution.

I can think of a lot of historical reasons why storytelling conferences didn't publish proceedings, probably many related to logistics and money (i.e. no papers to publish (because the focus was not academic), there not being enough financial incentive to record and distributed keynotes).

That's all changed. The barriers to entry for publication and distribution have fallen dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web.

Ten years ago, Story, from fireplace to cyberspace : connecting children and narrative (1998), a conference of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Allerton Park Institute published its proceedings as a journal. Nice to see that they've released all the contents digitally... so you can read what presenters like Anne Shimojima, Janice Del Negro, Joseph Sobol and Karen Morgan said there. (Link)

I can't find a single storytelling conference since then that has done the same. Online? In print? Anything? It's been ten years. (Please-- someone, anyone-- correct me! Show me I'm wrong!)

In 2007, I was not able to attend the National Storytelling Network's National Conference, held in July. In October, I inquired about obtaining a copy of a recording of a keynote. It took months for anything to happen (An audio of the keynote was, for a brief time, made available for sale. It is not currently). For that 2007 conference, the text of the keynote by Ron Turner is publicly available via the Web (link) for anyone to read. The text of the keynote by Jo Radner is publicly available via the journal Storytelling, Self, Society. (And good luck trying to get a hold of a copy of that particular issue of that particular journal if you're not an academic).

In 2008, Eric Wolf brought his own recording equipment to his panel discussion at the National Storytelling Conference and released the audio of the entire session on the Web as an mp3 file, under a Creative Commons license. I can't find any evidence that any other part of the conference is available, in text or in audio.
(BTW, Eric Wolf is singlehandedly doing the work of a national storytelling advocacy organization: via his podcast, he is disseminating discussion and insights from a wide variety of respected practicioners to an international audience. For free.)

<Oops. Left out a significant source of conference coverage and interviews on the Web: See comments, below.

With the economy what it is these days, I'm predicting that there will be fewer people in attendance at storytelling conferences this year. That makes it even more essential that these gatherings make an effort to share and disseminate widely the goings on.

I'm attending a storytelling conference next month. I had hoped to encourage liveblogging and twittering during my session. Turns out my room will not have WiFi coverage (although, there may be cell phone access if anyone wants to text out). I will be blogging from the conference.

Coming up in future posts: I'm going to look at various storytelling conferences held in 2009 across North America and rate them on their accessibility for those who could not be there in attendance. (I'll likely look at both accessibility during the conference (via blog posts and Twitter), and dissemination afterwards (via their own websites, YouTube, blogs, Storytell, etc)-- let me know in the comments if there is a metric you think I should track)

March 25, 2009

Have Stories, Will Travel. On Foot. Or Horse.

(via BBC News)

Storyteller and songwriter Eric Maddern is going on tour. He's got a new show, it's up and running, and he's taking it across Wales—on foot. Also on bicycle and on horseback. That's unusual enough that it made the news. Of his tour, Maddern says:
“In Australia, a songline is an ancient mythological route that connects sacred places across a landscape. In a way, I’ll be journeying along songlines in Wales, starting off by walking over Snowdon and visiting Dinas Emrys, where legend has it that dragons appeared and Merlin made his first prophecy; spending a night on Cadair Idris after which, according to folklore, you wake up mad or a poet; walking across the Preseli’s, where the bluestones for Stonehenge came from; travelling east-west along old drovers’ roads as well as cycling on the more modern Sustrans bike paths. I want the experiences of meeting people during the day as I slowly cross the land to enter the performances I do at night. The whole thing is an exploration in how to sustain and restore the world in these challenging times. What’s more, I believe it’s possible to have a great adventure without going to the exotic ends of the Earth. I spent ten years travelling the world in my youth, but as far as I’m concerned, Wales is as good as it gets. So I’m really looking forward to getting to know the country more intimately.”
Eric's repertoire of songs and stories have always reflected his interest in ecology and sustainability. His new show for adults, What the Bee Knows: Songs and Stories to Sustain and Restore the World, is described as "a provocative look at the roots of our current global crisis, threaded around the story of the bee."

Nice to see a storyteller who has carved out a niche aligning his business with his values. He's walking the walk (literally).

If you're in Wales this Spring, and want to catch his show, venues are listed on Eric's website, here.

March 24, 2009

Condensed Thoughts

Came across this question on Twitter on Sunday morning.So I just had to respond to @ContentedCopy, who had asked it. (She later confessed that she posted this question strategically, as a way to start a conversation. Heh. It worked.)
My reply:
Is breathing still relevant? Storytelling is always relevant, recognition of that fact waxes and wanes over time.
Twitter limits such responses to 140 characters. But soon I had a flurry of "tweets" --exchanging ideas with someone 2500 miles away. That wasn't surprising, as I've been using the Web for 15 years, and know that it shrinks geographic distances.

What was surprising was that the limitation of Twitter, that is, that my posts can't exceed 140 characters, actually managed to clarify my thoughts.

I'm reposting our conversation here (with Carol's gracious permission), so you can see this abbreviated exchange of ideas. The # you see is a hashtag-- we're essentially bookmarking these posts (so that later, we, or anyone else interested in storytelling could search on "#storytelling" to find key entries).

Carol (@ContentedCopy) responded to me:
agree 100%. Given your bkground, and mine, are we moving into a new model of storytelling? Esp. via soc media etc?

Me: media gives us tools to connect and collaborate and engage. Re-inventing storytelling: no. Marketing: yes and how.

Carol had another response to my post about relevancy:
So why then are storytelling festivals so hard to get audience #'s out to? How do you make it inviting to joeblo?

Me: For 30 years, storytelling festivals have been telling the wrong story about #storytelling. Great talent, lousy marketing.

Carol: #storytelling what is the right way to market a festival? Very curious now!
Carol: We're having a Frog Storytelling Festival this yr, with green issues too. Boomers make up our largest audience
First step: forget the epic journey myth and hold events close to where people live. #storytellingfestivals
Audiences prefer genres (in dance, theatre, music, art, movies). Why do #storytellingfestivals offer smorgasboard every time?
I don't know the marketing secret, but #storytelling as -antidote to hectic pace of modern life- no longer the right message

#storytelling as relief from modern life = message for boomers. Younger generation likes constant connection afforded by tech

How many music concerts/ series/ festivals market the idea of "music"? Zero. They market the talent. #storytellingfestivals

#storytelling festival marketing: Q: Who would enjoy this event? Answer: everyone. That's not a message that grows audiences.
I elected to re-post our conversation here not only as an example of how Twitter made me focus my thoughts on a storytelling issue into concise points, but to leave these here as seeds for future conversations.

Leave a comment if you'd like to sprout one of these seeds.

March 09, 2009

Storytelling with Twitter? I don't think so.

Question: is Twitter, the social messaging utility, a good platform for storytelling?

Short Answer: No.

Not that I heard anyone say it was. But with Twitter being the "in" tool this year, and storytellers jumping in, I wanted to add my two cents.

Do I use Twitter? Yes. I appreciate its functionality for those times when I need to be connected in real time. I'm impressed that its fans have been able to build online relationships despite the tools built in limitations, namely, the 140 character limit for each message.

I don't see these two primary features (real-time messaging, and limited length) as essential to storytelling.

That there's a tool, ie Twitter, that lets me receive messages in real-time from friends, relations, colleagues, celebrities, politicians, and NASA missions is cool. I like being connected, being reminded on these people-- those that I have a relationship with in real life, well, it helps "grease the wheel" of that relationship during that time when we're not in contact. But Twitter is about the "what I'm doing now" not about "remember when we..." or "once upon a time."

Could you use Twitter to tell a story? Yes, of course. But it's an inelegant tool.

(I'll grant that when it comes to stories for journalism, however, Twitter is useful as a tool for gathering information of stories-as-they-happen, as events in San Diego, Mumbai, and the Hudson River have shown us)

But in terms of spinning narratives: using Twitter is like selecting a toothpick to paint on a canvas that's meant to fill a room.

Partly it's the 140 character limit. Now, Flash fiction is nothing new. Storytellers from Vishnu Sarma to Aesop to Jesus were using the short short form long before the publishing world took a shine to very short tales in the 1990s. Setting limits, even arbitrary ones, can prompt some very creative output, so I can see the appeal of using Twitter to share these mini works of fiction.

Some of my favorites:
This bit of magical realism/spy novel and this melodrama from David Vanadia.

This retelling of a fable from Jerrold Connors.

Two writers in particular, I've found, who use Twitter to write nanofiction. I would categorize their work as character sketches and platforms --more seeds of stories that could be than actual beginning-middle-end kernels, but sometimes worth a look:
@nickwarren (I especially like Nick's use of first person, since it plays within the Twitterverse milieu nicely)

Smith Magazine, home of the six word story, set the bar higher (or tighter, I guess. You can fit a lot more than 6 words on Twitter). It's difficult to pull off a good six-word story, so you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the gems, and then, there's not so much a haiku feeling as a "wish they served dinner instead of hors d'oeuvres"... still, Twitter seems an excellent channel for them to utilize: @smithmag

Portland Story Theater sneaks around the limitations of length and genre with a serial format:

Do you follow anyone on Twitter that is creating interesting stories? Post them in the comments!

(And just so we're clear: "creating interesting stories" does NOT mean "promoting their business" (story-based or otherwise)


So maybe you're not looking for Twitter to deliver bite-sized stories. Maybe you just think it'd be cool (for this year anyway) to receive real-time messages from working storytellers. In that case, here are some current storytellers with active or semi-active Twitter accounts:

Baba the Storyteller: @Djeliba
Hope Baugh: @Hope_Baugh
Karol Brown: @Browntones
Buck P Creacy: @BuckPCreacy
Lynn Duddy: @storywoman
EthNohTec: @ethnohtec
Tim Ereneta: @tereneta
Stephen Hollen: @mountainstories
Sean Buvala: @storyteller
Terry Free: @TerryFree
Rachel Hedman: @StorytellingAdv
Priscilla Howe: @priscillahowe
Dale Jarvis: @DaleJarvis
Carol Knarr: @ckanrr
Debra Olson-Tolar: @storytolar
Laura Packer: @storylaura
Ellouise Schoettler: @ellouisestory
Tim Sheppard: @TimSheppard
Dianne de las Casas: @storyconnection
BZ Smith: @bzsmith
Teresa Clark: @teresaclark
Limor Shiponi: @Storyteling
David Vanadia @Vanadia
Eric Wolf: @Ericwolf2

(Yes, I left out a bunch of "organizational narrative" and "corporate storytellers" who are very active on Twitter. That's by design. They've got their own blogs. When the day comes that they tell a story around a campfire, then I'll add them to my list here.)