Saturday, March 7, 2009


My Professional Storyteller friend LaRon recently shared with me an event that happened in his life. "I performed earlier this week at a school in Detroit," he said. "During lunch, I went with one of the teachers to a McDonald's 'restaurant' not too far from the school. I never eat McDonald's food, so I was just along for the ride and the conversation, but she does, and she ordered her lunch through the bulletproof safety glass that seals off the staff from the customers." He then exclaimed: "Bulletproof glass at McDonald's!?!?"

LaRon is intensely interested in the history of the creation of slums and the economics of demographic patterns. "What are the stories that support the mindset of hierarchy that allows for such extremes of social polarity to pass virtually unnoticed, and certainly uncared about, in the larger society"," he asked. LaRon then goes on to wonder if we have ever heard a report on the mainstream news about the social tragedy of bulletproof McDonalds-es? "Why aren't we, collectively, as a nation, up in arms about such a horrible situation? How have our stories fostered such a culture of indifference?" LaRon asked.

I "met" LaRon on the storyteller social networking site Professional Storyteller. I invited him to be a part of the "Applied Storytelling: the Power of Story" group, since his profile really intrigued me. In it he said:

"I believe in the creation of a new kind of 'folklore' that redefines our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with our planet. Many traditional folktales reflect the historical era(s) in which they evolved, and contain messages that reinforce human clannishness, antagonism toward the environment, and a weak or nonexistent sense of global perspective. My belief is that contemporary storytelling needs to incorporate themes that teach us the 'new' understandings we've learned about human beings as a single global family, about ourselves as an integral part of the environment, and about the flow of 'cause and effect' in human history."

Now who wouldn't be fascinated by that, may I ask?

LaRon's response to my invitation was equally fascinating. "I believe that we've reached a point in time where it's essential for human beings everywhere to develop different concepts of ourselves," he said. "We simply no longer can afford the old divisive ways of thinking that have determined the course of our history. We can't go on with the incredible levels of violence, the astonishing environmental degradation, or the extremes of hierarchical thinking that allow huge populations to starve and otherwise suffer while others 'enjoy' a glut of overblown luxury." He continued, "The problem is that we're addicted to those old ways -- not simply through our patterns of behavior, but also in our deepest emotional being. The entirety of who we are is rooted in the stories that have grown out of ancient divisive lore. We can't afford to continue to hear those old stories. Our entire Archetype must change if we hope to see new behaviors.

This will be no easy job, LaRon concluded. "We'll need millions of new stories if we hope to counter the old-fashioned mindset that has been developing since before humans even walked erect."

LaRon, I hope you don't mind me sharing your thoughts! I find them extremely poignant and rich fodder for discussion.

What say ye?

Saturday, May 31, 2008


For a word, there is no meaning outside of context. In a way, that is also true for stories. Consider an iceberg. When we tell or hear a story, all that is understood about that story is the tip of the iceberg seen above the waterline, unless we also know all of the context that is hidden below! When we know the context, the story often takes on different or fuller meanings or understandings. Often, when we take stories from the more oral cultures to the more literate ones, some subtleties are grasped, but not all and not always. However, when we take stories from the more literate world to the oral one, oftentimes the gaps and barriers are huge and little is comprehended. So, the words and phrases used in a story then become very important, as well as an understanding of how the story will be understood from "their" point of view within their cultural, social and historical contexts. Therefore idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms don't "translate", jokes aren't understood, and, most times even proverbs, are not understood. While stories speak at the heart level, and stories speak the language of the heart, we need to be especially mindful of "packaging" the story in the language of the ear, the mind, and the emotions.

When storytelling across cultures, we need to take into consideration several things: meaning, context, cultural gaps, important or difficult words/phrases and expressions, worldview, the plot/theme and intended meaning of the story, idiomatic expressions, historical implications, implicit information, frame of reference and shared frame of reference, etc. In short, we need to do a lot of homework! [All of this kind of takes the fun out of just telling a story, doesn't it?] Anyway, cultural anthropologists repeatedly say that a culture's stories reveal worldview. And I strongly believe this. I also believe that it is stories that shape worldview. Therefore, if one is not an "insider' of that culture, sometimes it is hard to understand its stories and tell its stories. The issue of language is really an important one. If you don't know a language well, you can't really tell a story well in that language. Word choices, implicit information, grammatical structures, idiomatic expressions, etc, all come into play here, and when telling through a translator, all of these things need to be worked through with the translator so the story can be conveyed with the meaning you intended but through understandable expressions. You can tell in a local language, and sometimes there's a certain charm to it. This, however, should become part of the storytelling "style" - playing on it to the storytellers advantage - but even in the broken simple language (or I should say especially in the broken simple language) meaning must be conveyed in understandable forms.

In cross-cultural situations, it is important that the storyteller conveys to the audience that he or she understands the audience and its culture, at least somewhat. Then, the stories in some way need to touch on that audience and its culture -- telling within that shared context or shared frame of knowledge, experience, and meaning. The audience appreciates it when it can relate to your stories, when they don't seem so foreign that the audience can't relate to them. If "foreign" stories are told to illustrate, inform or enlighten, they really must be told in ways that they can be understood and appreciated! So, it is good to tell some of "their" stories and even how, being an outsider, you messed up in sometimes telling their stories. Sometimes audiences enjoy some of the cross-cultural "snafus"! Oftentimes, they also want to be exposed to new cultures (that's why they come to hear "you"). But it is important to help them understand and not be confused! Be magical, be mystical, be enchanting, be entertaining, be informative. And be YOU. You and who you are are the greatest translator from one culture (yours) to another.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


“If this is your land, where are your stories?” Edward Chamberlin asked in his book by the same name. This question carries with it the impact of a doubled-edged blade: Not only do the stories of a people define who they are and the space they possess, but the stories of a people are also the tools used to possess that space. There are two African folktales that so poignantly illustrate this. One, The Departure of the Giants, is from the Horn of Africa, while the second, Strength, is a Limba tale from West Africa. Each is too long to convey in its entirety, so a summary will have to suffice.

The Departure of the Giants is a tale of giants and how they once occupied the land to the detriment of the “little people.” Reluctantly, God decided they could no longer be on the earth and gave them the choice of leaving with his blessing or leaving with his curse. They chose to leave with his blessing, which was to honor their desire for the women to give birth to only sons and the cows to give birth to only females. Eventually both – the giants and the cows – died out. The story has a wonderful ending: "The roofs of the tombs fell long ago, and all that remains are piles of stones. Because they remember what happened to the giants, people of the tribes sometimes say when life seems too generous to them: Take care, let us not die from blessings like the giants did."

Strength is a tale that turns from delight to disaster. It is endearing, sobering and thought-provoking. One day elephant has the idea to have a contest to see who was the strongest. Chimpanzee tied a small tree in a knot. Deer ran three miles into the forest and three miles back. Leopard mightily scraped the ground with his powerful claws. Bushbuck plowed a road through the cane-fields with his horns. Elephant bought down a huge tree. With each feat, all declared that, indeed, it was a show of strength. Then it was man’s turn. He whirled, twirled, did somersaults and cartwheels. “That’s not strength,” the animals said. Man climbed a tree and threw down the palm nuts. “That’s great, but not strength,” the animals said again. Then man took a gun and shot elephant dead.

Man was jumping and bragging.
“Strength! Strength!
Wasn’t THAT strength?!”
“Strength. . . .”

Man looked around.
The animals were gone.
They had fled into the forest.
“Strength! . . .”
There was no one left to hear him brag.
Man was alone.

In the forest the animals huddled together and talked.
“Did you see that?”
“Was that strength?”
“Would you call that strength?”
“No. That was DEATH.”
“That was DEATH.”

Since that day the animals will not walk with Man.
When Man enters the forest he has to walk by himself.

The animals still talk of Man . .
That creature Man. . . .
He is the one who cannot tell the difference
between strength
and death.

Cultural anthropologist C. McKinney said, “The collection and study of oral traditions are crucial for understanding essentially oral societies, and they serve as the bases of the literature of literate societies. Events in both oral and literate societies are the bases for the continued development of oral traditions.” It is not until the role of story in worldview and culture is firmly grasped that one can fully comprehend the value of story in worldview change and in life and cultural transformation.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


“In his book Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn says, ‘The most powerful narcotic in the world is the promise of belonging,’” said Annette Simmons, author The Story Factor. “To that I would add, the promise of being ‘known’ – not understood, not necessarily even valued – but simply to be acknowledged and seen.” She said that in a technological economy, human attention is the emerging scarce resource. “People need it, crave it, and will pay for it with their cooperation,” she said.

Simmons continued: "In today’s world almost everyone you want to influence is operating under a deficit of human attention. They are not getting enough time or attention from the people that they love. They have enough information. They have all the facts and statistics they could ever want. In fact, they are drowning information. Desperation is at epidemic levels because all of this information simply leaves us feeling incompetent and lost. We don’t need more information. We need to know what it means. We need a story that explains what it means and makes us feel like we fit in there somewhere."

According to Simmons, the current revival of storytelling is no fad; it is a demonstrable artifact of a profound cultural shift in our society. “Becoming a better storyteller is not hopping on some psycho-babble bandwagon,” she said. “To find your story is to join in a worldwide search for authenticity and those things that are truly important – a search for meaning. The more influential your stories become, the deeper they tap into that which is meaningful.”

Bruce Bradshaw, in his book Change Across Cultures: A Narrative Approach to Social Transformation, presented a similar view: “Narratives, the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions, are the stories that govern our lives. They empower people to organize [their] institutions, to develop ideals, and to find authority for [their] actions.” He said, “Cultural narratives explain why people behave as they do, and they can provide social justification for any behavior. This social justification is the starting point to discern how behavior can be redeemed.” (p. 24) They reveal how values and virtues are developed and shaped over time as well as the nature of the truth that governs them, Bradshaw surmised.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


“Why story and storytelling?” Thomas Boomershine asked in his book Story Journey. “Story is a primary language of experience. Telling and listening to a story has the same structure as our experience,” he said. “The episodes of our lives take place one after another just like a story. One of the ways we know each other is by telling our stories. We live in stories.” He continued: "Storytelling creates community. Persons who tell each other stories become friends. And men and women who know the same stories deeply are bound together in special ways. Furthermore, good stories get retold and from an ever-expanding storytelling network. There is something about a good story that virtually demands retelling. New connections are established between persons who have heard and identified with the same stories. And the deeper meaning of the story, the deeper are the relationships that are formed by the sharing."

“The heart does not respond to principles and programs; it seeks not efficiency, but passion,” said authors Brent Curtis and John Eldredge in their book The Sacred Romance. “Art, poetry, beauty, mystery, ecstasy: These are what rouse the heart. Indeed, they are the language that must be spoken if one wishes to communicate with the heart. ... Life is not a list of propositions, it is a series of dramatic scenes. Story is the language of the heart. Our souls speak not in the naked facts of mathematics or the abstract proportions of systematic theology; they speak the images and emotions of story.”

Without intellectual assent or intentional behavioral change, the stories enter the heart and affect change. Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, said that much later, after one hears a story, he or she proclaims “what are these doing here?” but then finds oneself embracing the truths embedded within the stories. “All of a sudden we see things and people we had never noticed before,” he said. “We hear words and sentences that make sense of what we’ve had intimations of but couldn’t quite place.” Curtis and Eldredge conclude, “The deepest convictions of our heart are formed by stories and reside there in the images and emotions of story.”

Cultural anthropologist Charles Kraft said, “For solid changes to happen throughout a culture, people must make basic changes in the worldview of that culture. Just as a tree can only grow as the roots allow it to, so a culture and the society that lives by that culture can only function as well as their ‘worldview-habits’ allow them to.” However, he warned that change in worldview-habits needs to be accompanied by a change in behavior. “Changes in both the cultural structuring of the basic assumption and in the personal living out of those assumptions need to take place,” he said.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Could it be that any story, every story, has the power to not only inform but to influence? It seems that every story told touches somebody somewhere at sometime. In fact, it is probably true that every story selected by a storyteller to share is selected for a reason, no matter how innocent – at minimum because that particular story touched him or her in some way when it was heard or read. It was then decided to pass it on to others.

One of the leading scholars on human communication as narration is Walter Fisher. Fisher focused on the concept that all human communication is narrative based. “In the beginning was the word or, more accurately the logos. And in the beginning, ‘logos’ meant story, reason, rationale, conception, discourse, thought,” he said in his book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. “Thus all forms of human communication—from epic to architecture, from biblical narrative to statuary—came within its purview.” Professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, Fisher published his work on what he called the Narrative Paradigm in 1995. It focused on the importance of narration as a mode of human reasoning and has led to a fundamental rethinking of how people apprehend knowledge. The Narrative Paradigm is a theory…that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or to give a report of events…and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends. In 1984, Fisher proposed that the way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument.

Fisher referred to humankind as homo narrans and proposed that all forms of human communication need to be seen as stories. He considered individual forms of communication as “good reasons,” that is, as values for believing or acting in certain ways. These good reasons are a type of narrative logic that all humans have naturally, forming the foundation of all human communication. Fisher said: “The narrative paradigm proposes that human beings are inherently storytellers who have a natural capacity to recognize the coherence and fidelity of stories they tell and experience. I suggest that we experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, as conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends. The various modes of communication—all forms of symbolic action—then may be seen as stories, interpretations of things in sequences. … I propose the narrative paradigm as a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Narrative rationality is its logic. The essential components of this logic are the following. Human communication is tested against principles of probability (coherence) and fidelity (truthfulness and reliability). Probability, whether a story “hangs together,” is assessed in three ways: by its argumentative or structural coherence; by its material coherence, that is, by comparing and contrasting stories told in other discourse (a story may be internally consistent, but important facts may be omitted, counterarguments ignored, and relevant issues overlooked); and by characterological coherence. Concern for this third type of coherence is one of the key differences between the concept of narrative rationality and traditional logics….”

Could it be that story is just part of who we are and that, indeed, human communication IS narration?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Dasho Kinley Dorji, chief editor of Bhutan’s Kuensel News Corp, feels his country is going through difficult times, on the road to a complete destruction of the country’s values systems. One way to combat that, he believes, is to create stories calling attention to the situation and ensure that those stories are shared and heard.

His creative non-fiction short story Pretty Woman portrays how the introduction of television to Bhutan in 1999 thrust the country into dramatic and painful change. The story tells how, over a period of seven years, a young boy and a young woman collide with forces much greater than themselves, their community and even their country. She was the prettiest girl around – strong, sun-darkened, and hard working, with a face as round as the moon and a singing voice that enchanted all the men. He was a young boy, growing up in a volatile climate of change (still continuing today), confused by what he observes.

“The story invites important questions,” Dorji said. “Are the side effects of development taking a toll that is more powerful than the effects of mainstream development? This is symbolized by the immediate excitement over television that far exceeds the advantages of electricity as a source of power for utilities.” (Electricity comes to the story’s setting in 2003.) “In a country where there are now an estimated 50,000 television sets compared with 14,000 computers, television becomes a major status symbol and dominates the altar in the altar room” (as it does in the story), he said.

Over a period of seven short years, the country’s hero is no longer the king, but athletic superstars and Bollywood film actors, and the beautiful image of the hard working village girl is replaced by singing and dancing Bollywood stars and bikini-clad Pepsi models. The end of Pretty Woman is poignant and bittersweet:

Aum Thrimi looks into the distance. “They are so pretty, the girls. They are so thin. They are so fair. They smell so nice.” She looks at Kuenley, a gangly five-foot nine-inch boy, standing with his hands in his pockets. She turns and looks out the window again. “Better study hard, Kuenley. Otherwise you’ll have to live in the village. You have to work all day in the sun. You have to walk everywhere with no shoes. You have to carry manure on your back and smell of cow dung. In the village you will quickly become ugly. We have no choice because we are already old and ugly.” Kuenley says nothing. He does not know what to say. Thrimi is 27 years old. She has not changed. But the world had changed.

“This story is Bhutan’s story,” Dorji said. “The metamorphosis of a rural society is documented through the eyes, and the confusion, of a Bhutanese youth who personifies a generation in transition. There are no subtleties because the experience is not subtle.” The message that comes through as the pair’s community feels the impact of globalization is that there is an urgent need to put on the brakes before it is too late to do anything about it.

Bhutan is a country crying for help and believes in the power of story to help them. What do you think?