Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “In Families”

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.

Finally.

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

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.

Jeri

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.

The Power of the Verbal Delete Button

During a kindergarten residency at a school recently, we visited individual classrooms many times. On one visit, we noticed an injured child. It was hard NOT to notice. Laced with lacerations, one side of his face was every shade of the red spectrum, from pink to purple. Greeting us, he cocked his head to show us the palette of pain that marked his cheek.

“Did you fall on the playground?” we asked.

He shook his head.

Then his teacher approached us and gently set a hand on his shoulder.

“He was bitten by a dog,” she explained.

The boy nodded sadly.

We said something soothing and then headed over to the story corner where all of his classmates were sitting in a cozy semi-circle on the alphabet rug. Finding his place at the letter Q, he joined them and we began the session.

Our presentation carried everyone away from the plastic, primary colors of the classroom into the lush, tropical fruit colors of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. One of our stories was crafted specifically for the residency. Not only was it age appropriate, it fit our curricular goals, and it represented the culture of one of the minority students in the class. For all those reasons, it was important to tell that tale that day.

As we were telling it, we came to the moment when an old woman is threatened by a snarling, sharp-toothed wolf. We thought immediately about the injured, little boy. This was not the sort of image he needed. But there was no way around it. The woman had to be threatened by the animal or the story would no longer make sense.

Such a dilemma is exactly when in-person, live storytelling has one of its many moments of glory.

Because live storytelling is not hardcore and scripted, storytellers have freedom. Because live storytelling has improvisational aspects, it is possible to make shifts in text and image on the fly. So we changed the way we described the threat to the old woman. Instead of telling the story as we usually do (by focusing on a kindergarten-appropriate scary description of the wolf’s teeth), we dropped it completely. By “deleting” all references to the animal’s mouth, we pulled the teeth out of the image, so to speak. We kept the story integrity intact and also preserved our integrity as caring people.

While deleting phrases may sound insignificant, it is not. It is what live storytelling is all about.

Storytellers often change their work in response to their audience. It is part of the magic and allure of live performance art – it is also its brand. Instead of stiffly adhering to a script and leaving the boy with a reminder of a dark memory, we left him laughing and happy like the other kids.

Live storytelling can bring the needs of audience members into sharp focus. Take your eyes off the text and put them on those who might listen to you. You can learn a lot by watching them. Parents, teachers, and therapists are lucky because they know their audiences intimately. But even if you don’t know yours, you can ask about them before you perform. And whether you know them beforehand or not, watch them.

Could the old woman be a role model for the boy, showing him that it is possible to overcome a scary canine? Quite possibly. At the very least, we avoided salting a wound in the service of a script by invoking the verbal delete button.

If you heed your audience, you honor them. And maybe, you will offer the balm of blissful forgetting graced with healing.

Do you have moments where the power of your writing or speaking is amplified by what you don’t utter or write? Let’s have a conversation -if you comment I will respond and visit you back!

**********

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Reimagining Beauty – V is for Voice

Blogging A to Z

If you are new to this blog, welcome!

For my Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, I am writing about how storytellers, writers, parents, teachers (in other words, just about anyone) can reimagine beauty to be more inclusive. That way, people with disabilities, varying body types and racial backgrounds, etc. (in other words, anyone) can feel and be recognized by the world as the beauties they truly are.

Reimagining Beauty – V is for Voice

At a farmer’s market last summer, I was talking to the seller about the eggplants when a little girl beside me sucked in her breath. Flashing me a “Santa’s Here!” smile, she was shook excitedly as she told me about her day. The thing was, I never saw her before in all my life. Noticing all the flies congregating in my wide open mouth, the girl’s mother told me that her daughter listens to my storytelling CD’s. The little girl recognized the sound of my voice, and through my familiar voice, I was an old friend.

The voice cultivates powerful connections.

Recent research confirms that babies listen, in utero, to their mother’s voice. Other research suggests that newborns prefer their mother’s voice over others. Not only do babies learn language from their mothers, listening to a mother’s voice may help a baby develop a loving bond with her.

Familiar voices are beautiful in their familiarity. Even unfamiliar ones can be aural sources of beauty. Whether spoken or sung, a voice can be comforting, sensual, pretty, and so much more.

The voice isn’t only an instrument of speech. Everyone has a voice in the way they write words or formulate their spoken lexicon. That kind of voice can also be beautiful.

There is also inherent beauty in the way people give voice to their own personalities. Whether it is physical, political, the way we decorate our homes, or the causes we stand up for, when we give voice to ourselves, it can be beautiful.

Be a voice for broadening the way we portray beauty. Depict characters in stories with beautiful voices in the many ways that voices can be beautiful. Allow your characters to fall in love at first sound. Write about them, tell about them, give your audiences an earful of the myriad possibilities in the beauty of the voice.

What voices in your life are beautiful? Can you think of any voices in literature that are beautiful? Have you ever connected to someone because of something in the sound or tone of voice? Are there voices that call up memories or inspire feelings of a coming home? I’d love to hear from you.

**********
Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge

Blogging A to Z

Hey, I’m doing something neat next month! A group of bloggers (nearly 1500 as I write this post) will blog every day in April, except Sundays. Starting on April 1 with the letter A and going forward to the end of the month with the letter Z at the end of April 30, bloggers will write daily posts on the same letter. Over the month it will be like savoring alphabet soup, one noodle at a time. People say it is great fun, so I’m raring to go.

You can read more about it here.

Many bloggers who do this challenge orient their blogs to a theme. And today is the big Theme Reveal.

My theme is Reimagining Beauty.

One of the most beautiful children I have ever seen is a little girl. She was born with a genetic syndrome that among other things, alters the way she looks. It got me to thinking about the images of beauty that she will encounter in her life. Will she feel excluded? My recent blog posts have touched on this and other related issues, and there are more to come.

But when the A to Z Challenge came my way, I thought that it would be great opportunity to really dig down into this issue. So I decided to focus on how anyone – storytellers, writers, people in everyday conversation, parents – anyone has the power to describe beauty inclusively, regardless of cultural background, body type, age, abilities, or what their physical appearance has or “lacks” in terms of media driven imagery. Because that stuff is not what matters or makes one beautiful. At least that’s my take on it.

Storytellers know that words have great power to change mood and mind. My blog series on Reimagining Beauty will focus on the words we can choose to redefine and reimagine beauty in ways that are inclusive of anyone.

It will be one fun roller-coaster ride through the month of April.

***************

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

Be the Superhero

In my last post, I wrote about how the power of visual images can marginalize children with disabilities. Here is a case in point.

Anthony Smith is a young fan of superhero comics. Born deaf as a result of a genetic syndrome, he refused to wear his hearing aid because the superheroes in comics didn’t wear hearing aids.

Children notice many things about the images that come, and that don’t come their way.

However, storymakers can be as powerful as superheroes. According to the Huffington Post and Wikipedia, when Anthony’s mom wrote a letter asking for help, the folks at Marvel Comics acted like their characters and came to the rescue. They created a new character who wears a hearing aid. His name is Blue Ear.

Upon seeing the character, great delight came to Anthony. Great delight came to his parents too because Anthony started using his hearing aid.

Anthony is a lucky boy. He has caring parents who took action. Their letter landed into editor Bill Rosemann’s activist hands. Then, a corporation approved a brand new idea and made it happen quickly. Wow.

Wonderful as all this is, it is unlikely that publishers can or will modify the entire literary canon to reflect the extraordinary diversity of children in the world. Though we too can write letters to educate publishers and wait for changes to happen over time, we can also do something right now.

If there are children in your universe who don’t see themselves in visual depictions of characters in books and other media, remember that you – parent, teacher, therapist, child care worker of any kind – have the power to be a superhero storymaker. You can tell stories that describe characters in ways that are inclusive of children with disabilities. Take it another step too, for stories can be inclusive of children from any cultural heritage, of any shape and size, and on and on.

By telling stories, you can be as marvelous for the children around you as Marvel Comics was for Anthony Smith.

***
***
Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

*********
In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

What to Do About Those Disney Princesses

In improvisational acting, one big rule is that when another actor does something, you say “Yes! And…” This means that you embrace the prompt that the actor gives you : Yes! Then, collaborate by adding something of your own to it: And….

Joy Martin-Malone from the MamaPop blog wrote a piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. To this I say “Yes! And…”

I love her article and urge you to give it a read. I love it so much that it is preventing me from doing my sacred exercise ritual because I have to write this post NOW.

Her article is about the striking parallel between Disney princesses and drag queens (big hair, fancy gowns, dressing up). It is also about the author’s discomfort as a parent of young girls who adore Disney princesses and their glitzy paraphernalia, princesses who share perfect looks and wait around for rescue from princes and their assorted ilk. She says that where drag queens revel in humor, Disney princesses wait and worry; at other times they wake up singing with animals. But unlike drag queens, they lack spunk. Martin-Malone worries how that imagery affects her children. About such princesses, she writes that “[t]hey are a perpetuation of the stereotype of the weak, dumb woman who obediently waits for a man to come along and make her valuable. Between the two I’ll always promote the big-wigged man crooning “I’m Every Woman.”

Yes! And….

Much of the imagery that Martin-Malone disdains is borne of visuals. Movies and accompanying products like dolls and princess apparel are examples. Because they are visual, these images get FIXED in the minds of those who view them: the princess must look or dress a certain way, sometimes she must even behave the way we saw her behave. The power of the picture is very strong indeed.

So what can you do about it?

Tell the stories yourself.

If the stories are told in person, face to face, by parent to child at home, in live storytelling performances, by librarians or teachers without picture book accompaniments – if visual representations of the princesses in a story are NOT physically shown to a child, then that princess can look and act like anything the imagination can conjure.

Together, the storyteller and the listener can fashion the princess into anyone. A princess can look like Mommy, she can look like the child, a friend, a relative, a babysitter, a drag queen, anyone! Princesses can be from any cultural background and they can have spunk, compassion, drive, or whatever your parental heart desires. Stories contain powerful role models; you don’t have to let Disney be the main storyteller in children’s lives! Take back that power and draw princesses with your own lips.

As professional storytellers, Barry and I take this responsibility seriously. We carefully craft our stories to describe princesses (and all characters actually) in broad enough terms so listeners can thrust themselves or others they know into the role. A broad description opens the door for them to do this while hearing the story and later in imaginative play. It also allows listeners to be creative and morph their princesses in future play sessions or when they tell the story to others.

An upcoming blog post will share ideas for how to describe such characters in broad terms. Be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, tell stories to the young ones around you. Later, when you look at the pictures in books and movies, you and your children can talk about how each visual representation of a princess is only one representation out of the limitless human imagination.

Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters

iPads Notwithstanding, Talk to Your Children

It’s all over the internet this week. A four-year old child in England is being treated for iPad addiction. http://ow.ly/kpXd1

According to various sources, she is not alone. Many young children spend four hours a day playing with electronic devices. Commentary about this is flying around the web like angry birds are flying across screens in the chubby hands of toddlers.

Similar discussions probably erupted with the dawn of the television age as well. And that is why a storyteller wants to pipe up now.

The arrival of television coincided with a dramatic decline in oral storytelling. People stopped sharing live stories in community with others in favor of hours in front of a television. Many people have never heard of storytelling. That is why there was (and is) a resurgence in the art.

Barry and I saw this in action when we went to rural Jamaica many years ago to learn about traditional Caribbean storytelling. Instead of the romantic image of tales told by fires on moonlit beaches, we encountered people getting their stories from glowing boxes in their kitchens. Television service arrived in that part of the country 5-10 years before we did, and storytelling was gone, at least for a time.

Today, we are lucky to live in a time of momentous electronic innovation, making the era of television’s birth, by comparison, a mere blip on the screen of history. And with the brilliant onward march of technological change, comes other sociological change. But I ask you: do we dare lose those things we know while embracing others that we are uncertain of?

Storytelling has been part of human life for thousands of years; it endures for many reasons. A pertinent one here is that oral interaction is important for children’s brain development. (For an online article that mentions this, see http://ow.ly/kr9wk, but do also check out books by Jane Healy for more detail).

Children need to be spoken to. They need to hear words uttered by human beings. Words soaked with emotional content, words that have meaning. Telling live stories can give children what they need. It strengthens their connection with the teller, with language, with humanity, and with other listeners. Storytelling matters.

It is my fervent hope, whether parents allow young children to use electronics or not, that they make time to talk to their children, sing to them, and tell them stories. Looking into the eyes of children as they listen to stories is a visual vortex more engaging than the dazzling digital delights of an electronic gadget. They will feel the same way too.

We’d love you to comments, but something funky happened in the blog settings and the comment page went away. Will work on a fix… in the meantime send comments by liking the page, sharing, following the blog, and hopefully this bug will go away soon.

*************
Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: