Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “in Culture”

Daily Ghost Post – B is for Black Dogs


My mother says that my black cat is really a black dog. She insists on this because my kitty wags her tail and greets people at the door.

“That’s what dogs do,” Mom says triumphantly, “so she must really be a dog.”

But in the folkloric sense, that would make her a pretty scary critter. Halloween hype and folklore abounds about the dangers of black cats. And there are many folk legends about dangerous black dogs. So if my cat is both, then I guess I’m doomed.

So what does the black dog signify? Well, it depends.

According to Carol Rose, the black dog is often found at crossroads, bridges, and entrances “marking the transitions in people’s lives.” They can be guarding treasure or doorways to mythic or sacred locations. It is good to leave them be because black dogs can be vicious and nasty. One swipe of the creature’s paw can wield paralysis. Or death.

They also have an unearthly way of disappearing quite suddenly.

In some Latin American countries, the black dog is the embodiment of the devil. Careful if you take a stroll on a lonely road, for you just might encounter one. One variant of the black dog is El Cadejo, a shaggy hound who can appear in two colors. The black one portends evil and the white one offers protection from evil.

So, if you walk a lonely Latin American road and come across a white, shaggy dog with red eyes, it’s all good, right? Well, um, no. You see, in some locations, the color scheme is reversed and the white dog is the naughty one. Tricky, tricky! And to make matters worse, it is said that if you hear a strange howling in the night, listen closely. If the sound is right near you, you are safe because the phantom is at a great distance. But if it is a distant howling, then phantom red eyes are upon you, along with phantom teeth and big trouble.

In the state of Connecticut, the black dog can signify other things, as my retelling of a Connecticut tale suggests.

Connecticut Black Dog Legend

One day, the geologist W.H.C. Pynchon was hiking in the Hanging Hills of Connecticut when he saw a small, black dog. It seemed friendly and wagged its tail. But Pynchon noticed something strange. The pup didn’t leave any footprints.

Pynchon ignored that little detail, and hiked in the company of the friendly little fellow. Then he noticed something else. When the dog barked, it made no sound.

Pynchon ignored that too because the little dog brought him so much joy.

As they climbed back down toward town, the dog bounced out in front of Pynchon. And then, seemingly in mid-bounce, it wasn’t on or off the trail. That scruffy little dog had completely disappeared.

When he got to town, Pynchon went to the inn and told them that there was a lost little dog in the hills.

After hearing Pynchon’s description of the creature, the innkeeper shuddered and said, “That is no dog. It is a phantom.”

And then he told Pynchon what the locals knew about that black dog: “See it once, it brings joy. See it twice, it brings woe. See it three times, it brings death.”

Sometime later, Pynchon went back to the Hanging Hills to work with a colleague, a gentleman by the name of Herbert Marshall. As they hiked up a particularly rocky stretch, Pynchon saw the black dog leaping among the rocks.

So did his friend.

See it once, it brings joy. See it twice it brings woe. See it three times, it brings death.

Pynchon grew worried as this was his second sighting. His colleague said it was his third.

“But who believes in this childishness!” cried Mr. Marshall.

As they continued up the hill, the rocks beneath Marshall shuddered. He lost his footing and fell to his death far below.

Ever since then, people are pretty careful when they hike in the Hanging Hills. Herbert Marshall was not the last to die after seeing the pup. If Wikipedia is accurate, at least 6 other deaths have been associated with the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills.

So, if you see a black dog that makes no tracks or sounds, beware.

See it once, it brings joy. See it twice it brings woe. See it three times, it brings death.

Have you heard black dog lore? Share it below! Have you safely walked the Hanging Hills? Crow about it below!


COPYRIGHT 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Appleborne, Peter, Our Towns – And You Thought Black Cats Were Bad Luck. New York Times, Feb 19, 2006. Burchell, Simon (2007) Phantom Black Dogs in Latin America, Heart of Albion Press.
Philips, David E. (1995). Legendary Connecticut: Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State.
Rose, Carol. (2000). Giants, Monsters, and Dragons:An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth. ABC-CLIO, Inc. p. 51.
Wikipedia entries: Black dog (ghost); Cadejo.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeri Burns, subject StellaLuna Marshall (no relation to the deceased geologist).

Of Mannequins and Princesses

Mannequins and princesses. They have more in common than a penchant for wearing fancy duds.

Two web links were shared with me recently. And though the links are different, they are thematic mirrors of each other.

The first is a video depicting the construction of mannequins. These mannequins were designed to reflect the bodies of disabled people. With exquisite precision, models were measured and mannequins were made in their exact physical proportions. When the mannequins were completed, they were dressed in high end clothing and displayed in the window of an upscale store.

The most gripping moment in that video is when one of the disabled models passes by the mannequin created in her likeness. She stops and gazes at it from top and bottom. Then she smiles with a satisfaction that squeezes my heart every time I see the video. That woman saw herself reflected in the world.


The second link was an article about a five year old girl with leukemia who is facing her next round of chemotherapy. Devastated at the thought of losing her hair again, the child told her mother that she won’t look like a princess anymore.

Arrangements were swiftly made with a photographer and a party planning company to do a photo shoot of the little girl. In spite of the fact that she was balding from the effects of chemo, she dressed up like a princess in a flowing, shiny dress. The model who came to the photo shoot was similarly attired in a shimmering princess gown. She was also wearing a bald cap. The little girl’s smile and delight sent tears of joy down the faces of those present, especially when the child said, “She looks like me.”

Seeing ourselves as part of the world is important to us. It is not hype or new age fluff. #Colormyshelf, for example, is a Twitter hashtag devoted to sharing children’s books that feature characters of color. Human beings want to see themselves in books, in stories, in role models, and advertising. Adults and children need this.

Not only do people hunger to see themselves reflected in the media, but able-bodied children need to see that disabled people are part of the human landscape. White folk should see way more than themselves reflected in literature and advertising. And why can’t beauty standards be inclusive of good hair days, bad hair days, and no hair days?

Writers can write with this intention. Artists can create with this intention. Our language can shift to accommodate this intention. And in the meantime, anyone who can speak can tell stories that include people of all abilities, looks, and heritages. Spoken stories allow listeners to manufacture the pictures in the stories – pictures of themselves and others. The more we do this, the less it will seem like news and the more it will become an everyday, natural part of life.

Use words and create visuals with the same impulse that sparked the creation of uniquely shaped mannequins and a family’s princess moment of glory. That is what mannequins and princesses have in common.

Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit:
By thebrandery (Flickr: The Brandery Winter Edition 2010) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Campfires Spark Storytelling

Stories have always been important to human beings. Ancient people painted story pictures on cave walls. They carved stories in stone. But just when and how did oral storytelling take place?

People have long thought that some of it occurred around the campfire or hearth. Michael Balter, writing for Science Magazine, reports that recent research suggests that the campfire setting sparked the human storytelling impulse.

By studying an African hunter-gatherer tribe that only recently settled down to agricultural, village life, anthropologist Polly Wiessner noted different styles of narrative communication among them. It all depended on when and where tales were told.. During the day, stories were more likely to be about topics like economics and land issues. But as days stretched into evenings by the fire, people’s talk turned to social institutions, people in other communities, and traditions.

Storytelling is the oldest form of social networking.

The idea that the campfire setting is an incubator for stories won’t surprise campers and counselors. Countless imaginations (and marshmallows) sizzle while listening to ghost stories around a fire.

That age-old human tendency to enjoy stories in the evening continues even today. We attend theatrical shows at night, we sit around supper tables telling each other about school or work, and we share bedtime stories with our children.

It is an iconic, romantic image – people sitting around a fire listening to stories. It is also now documented that language-rich worlds are kindled by the warmth and glow of a fire.

As a performer who has told stories in every context imaginable, from campfires to hospitals and parking lots, I would like to offer an additional insight. The intimacy and sweetness of the campfire setting, combined with the full-bodied, live presence of a campfire audience, gives storytellers and listeners the focus and comfort that can set everyone’s imagination on fire.

There is nothing like an in-tune, authentic audience for encouraging communication and creativity.

That said, I will keep this topic in mind the next time I struggle with writing. Perhaps the darkness of night and the roar of a fire can help to burn my writer’s block to ash so that creativity, like a phoenix, can rise.

It’s worth a try, at any rate!

And then there is that other night light that connects us to stories. It is a cooler light. A bluer light. A light that brings us stories of friends on social media and makes it possible for us to binge on Netflix. Is this screen-based, mediated connection to stories an outgrowth of storytelling around the fire? Does it inspire connectivity and imagination and sustain the storytelling impulse? Or is this storytelling of a different kind? Let’s chat this up!

Comments below. Ready? Go!


Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan

How to Avoid Splashing Muck

Hello people! Nice to be back to blogging after a hiatus. I was nudged back in the saddle by a recent event that touches on the power of words even though, ironically, it’s about pictures..

The rhetoric around the theft of celebrity nude photos has me thinking. As most of you know by now, private photos of many celebrity women, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Duntz, were hijacked from their private accounts and made public on the web. To say that there is public outrage is to put it mildly. A major violation took place, and people are horrified.

In the frenzy of commentary about this, I saw some interesting discussions. One writer, Scott Mendelson at, urges the media to describe this incident as a sexual assault, not a celebrity scandal. He argues that the connotations associated with the word “scandal” puts blame on the women, when in actuality, they did nothing wrong. One or more hackers ransacked their privacy, scoured through their intimate photos, and then broadcast them to the entire world without permission. Hackers were the ones who committed a crime, not the women.

Writing for Time Magazine, Charlotte Alter disagrees about calling it sexual assault. She argues that using sexual assault as an umbrella term for violations against women dilutes the meaning of the phrase. (Sexual assault encompasses a range of violent crimes whose definitions vary state by state). About the photo hacking incident, she writes:

It is not the same as being raped, or forced to perform oral sex, or molested as a child, or beaten. It’s not a question of “more or less awful,” because both scenarios are horrific examples of how women are treated in our society. But they’re different, and it’s especially important to be precise when we’re talking about violence.

Alter suggests that we call this revenge porn, a newer legal term referring to crimes where angry lovers publicize erotic photos from broken relationships.

I applaud both writers for their great contributions. And I concur that this issue needs to be carefully named. But I am not comfortable referring to this as revenge porn, and this is why. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines porn as:

Movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement.

The word “porn” suggests that these photos were taken to cause sexual excitement. But that’s irrelevant. They were private photos. It is nobody’s business what their purpose was. The hacker(s) committed a pornographic act by placing those pictures in the public eye. But just as “scandal” can suggest that the celebrities did something wrong, the word “porn,” with its deeply negative connotations, could leak from the hackers (where it belongs) onto the women (where it doesn’t), shadowing them for a very long time.

Whatever we ultimately call wicked acts of this nature, we must take care to avoid splashing any more muck upon the victims. How can we do this?

1. Stop and think before we write and speak. Everyone, including the media, has the responsibility to carefully consider the meaning and connotations behind words.

2. Use alternate phrasing. Perhaps the broader term sex crime carries the story of what happened. It doesn’t dilute the term sexual assault or put the onus on the women.Sexual exploitation crime might be considered, as the word “exploitation” clearly places the responsibility on the wrongdoers, not those who were victimized. The same could be said of sexual harassment.

3. View the situation from a different angle. Indeed this crime has a sexual side, but maybe a broader view can be instructive. The hacker(s) committed an egregious violation of privacy. So I offer up another phrase for consideration in describing this kind of offense: privacy assault.

We can all agree that a serious crime was committed. Let’s ensure that our rhetoric doesn’t inadvertently victimize the victims more.

I’d love to hear what you think! Make some comments below and let the conversation begin.

For more thoughts on this, you might be interested by this Upworthy post!

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Why We Need to Spin it Ourselves

Think about warm, fresh-out-of-the oven muffins. Tasty for sure, they can be desirable, happy, delights for carbo-gluten-dairy tolerant people. But that’s not all. Muffins have muffin tops. Torn from the muffin bottoms, their crunchy shells and feathery interiors are savored first or saved for last by hard-core muffin top lovers.

But muffin tops on human waists are not as popular. The only thing they have in common with the desirability of the cake is the desire to rip them off.

The Urban Dictionary provides yet another of its memorable hip definitions and usage examples for muffin top:

When a woman wears a pair of tight jeans that makes her flab spill out over the waistband, just like the top of a muffin sits over the edge of the paper case.

Jeez, check out the Muffin Top on that chick! *shudder

If the Urban Dictionary can be said to provide definitions of culture,” *shudder tells you about how muffin tops are perceived. And because of this, people try to exercise them away. People try to hide them under sweaters. People try not to grow them because culture frowns on pounds. Culture shudders.

But really, who exactly decides what things are desirable or shudder-worthy?

I woke to a wonderful link that reminded me how anyone can take back that power and decide these things for themselves. Anyone can choose the spin. It’s in the words we choose and the attitude we use. That’s what makes all the difference.

The link was a Youtube video by Erin Keaney, a mama who raps with pride about her muffin top. It is her badge of parenting. And her video is awesome. Writers and storytellers and anyone can learn from her example.

In her rap, Erin tells how her muffin tops came about. She raps about her fighting efforts to vanquish her opponent with Rocky style commitment. Ultimately, she gives up muffin top fighting. But not in despair! Erin turns the whole thing around and embraces her muffin top. Erin takes joy in her muffin top and her winsome, winning video gives me joy in her muffin tops too.

We don’t have to accept all the images put forth in the media. We can take control of the images in context, attitude, and in how we use our words. We can change the connotations associated with words and phrases. It’s all in how we spin it.

Sure, muffin tops can remain hidden in the cupboard of our bulky knits. Or we can shout from the rooftops and proudly shake ’em, like Erin does. As storytellers and writers, teachers and parents, we can shake anything up in the words we use and in the mood we create in the telling of our stories.

Muffin tops are a fact of life for so many people, especially for those of us in the Mama Club. Next time I look with disdain in the mirror, I think I’ll go watch Erin’s video instead.

If we carry our muffin tops with joy, we won’t create dreaded fear of muffin tops for future generations. If we teach children to shudder, they will shudder. If we reinforce the shudder, anyone, not just children, can have distaste for self and others.

Instead, choose your words carefully. Choose the way you utter them. Choose the way characters respond to them. Choose to shatter the shudder with the words you utter.


What other issues do you think you can put your own spin on? Have you already done this? Please share in the comments! I’d love to hear and will comment/visit back.


Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

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