Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “in Words”

To Edit or Not to Edit, That is the Question

Words matter. Writers and storytellers live and love them. And when we write, we choose words carefully because we want to craft expressive phrases and images that are, to quote Goldilocks, “just right.”

Every time that sought-after “just right” word clicks into place, it’s as satisfying as popping a non-dairy chocolate chip. A really productive day is metaphorically fattening and worth every bite.

The art of writing expresses meaning, catches mood, and matches words and image. It is also about getting rid of the passive voice and all of those inefficient extra terms and bulky word orders that make phrases really awkward and that unnecessarily increase the word count.

Editing is important.

But at what point does the editing process change from editing to perseverating?

In my work, I usually stop editing when I can read the piece all the way through without a desire to alter text. Sometimes that happens quickly, and other times, well…

When do you stop editing and call it done? How do you stop yourself from spinning around on the hamster wheel of “cut and paste” and “Control-Z” and finally, finally call it a wrap?

— Jeri

Photo Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

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Daily Ghost Post – X is for Xunantunich

Xunantunich – Maya Ruins, Belize

Pronounced “shoo-nahn-too-nitch,” these ruins in Belize remind me of Indiana Jones movies. But instead of a writhing pit of snakes, exploding statues, and a swashbuckling Harrison Ford leaping and flying about, there is a ghost who gently haunts this site.

An early sighting of the ghost occurred in the later 19th century. One fine day, a gentleman was out walking near Xunantunich when he saw a woman he’d never seen before. Dressed in a beautiful, white, Maya dress, she approached the ruins. He followed after her. When she turned to look at him, he was startled to that her eyes were fiery red. The mysterious lady walked up the stairs to the highest part of the ruins, El Castillo, and slipped into a cavern. The gentleman raced to the village to get assistance. But when he came back, he discovered that no human could ever hope to go where he saw her enter. It was not a cavern, but solid wall.

He was not the first person to see her, and not the last either.

Is she the ghost of someone who was climbing to witness a ritual Maya execution? Was she a relative of a sacrificed person? Or does her spirit perpetually re-enact the moments before her own execution? No one knows.

Xunantunich is not the original name of this ancient Maya community. Like the civilization, the name is lost in time. But once the previously lost site was excavated in the later 19th century, the ghost sightings began.

Because she was seen among the stone ruins, she has been given the nickname “Stone Maiden” and “Maiden of the Rock.” A local legend, she is remembered by people who have seen her, and by those who see her still. She is also remembered in the name of the ruins, for Xunantunich means ‘Stone Maiden.’

What’s in a name? A great deal.

Place names often come with a story. Are there any locales or sites near you with a story attached to its name? Do tell!

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Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

SOURCES
http://www.belizeinthesun.com/xunantunich.html
http://www.duplooys.com/mayansites/xunantunich.php
http://nichbelize.org/ia-maya-sites/xunantunich.html
http://www.paranormala.com/the-ghost-of-xunantunich/
Wikipedia – Xunantunich

PHOTO CREDIT: By Thomas Shahan /CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Daily Ghost Post – G is for Ghoul (or The Short History of a Creature with an Overused Name)

Real ghouls don’t raid graves.

This misrepresented creature of fright needs to be redeemed. “Ghoul” is a word that is associated with graveyard robbing, flesh-eating creatures that go bump in the night. It is time to disentangle their evil reputations from this horrible image.

This is their history in as few words as possible.

Ghouls originated with Arabic Bedouins. The bane of travelers, ghouls were renowned for getting people lost in the desert. Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, ghouls could use their voices to lure unsuspecting travelers deep into the desert where they would be lost forever. Or eaten.

They appeared in other ways as well. Sometimes when an individual fought and killed an animal for supper, it suddenly transformed into a cloven featured creature on the way back to camp. Goodbye dinner, hello ghoul.

You see, traditional ghouls are accomplished shape shifters. Often depicted as women, ghouls are not the ghosts of departed souls – they arise from a very different place. Ghouls are the offspring of demons. With bonafide demonic DNA, they have a penchant for human flesh.

Here is Merriam Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word ghoul:

an evil creature in frightening stories that robs graves and eats dead bodies

As the definition suggests, Western culture depicts ghouls as grave opening, corpse eating monsters. A quick browser search will reveal that most definitions of “ghoul” include the graveyard aspect. Perhaps the more sensational version of the ghoul makes a more gripping story image, but it is not a correct one from a folkloric perspective.

The traditional Arabic ghoul is not that disrespectful.

This ghoulish, corpse-eating twist to the lore of “ghouldom” is attributed to Antoine Galland, a Frenchman who translated the Arabian Nights in the early 1700’s. One story, called The Story of Sidi Nouman, tells of a man who is married to a woman with such a small appetite that one grain of rice at a time was all she could manage. Though their marriage was happy as marriages go, he wondered about a couple of things – her appetite quirk and her strange habit of leaving home in the middle of the night. One evening, he quietly followed her when she stole out of the house. As he approached the graveyard where she had gone, he watched in silent horror as his wife dug up graves and devoured corpses. No wonder she ate like a bird all day. That was when he realized that he had married a ghoul who was adept at shape shifting into a beautiful woman.

According to folklorist Ahmed Al-Rawi, grave robbing and corpse gorging were either Galland’s invention or his mistaken representation of other Middle Eastern folklore as Arabic. Galland’s gruesome image was then perpetuated in literature, including popular Victorian writings. The new meaning fell into common language use and western popular culture. Now ghouls the all over the world pig out in cemeteries.

To put the folkloric record straight, that is not how they started their ghoulish business. The world’s first ghouls caused desert travelers to become lost in the sand, which put them inside a ghoul’s sandwich. In short, lost travelers became desert dessert.

Were the first ghouls nasty and hungry? Sure, look at their parentage. But the first ghouls didn’t defile the buried dead for food. That was going a bit too far.

What is a ghoul to you? Do you have favorite ones from literature, folklore, or film?

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Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

SOURCES:

Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. (2009) The Arabic Ghoul and its Western Transformation. Folklore, 120:3, 291-306, DOI: 10.1080/00155870903219730

Encyclopedia Brittanica – Arabian Mythology – ghoul: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/232832/ghoul

Melton, J. Gordon (2011). The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, Third Edition. Visible Ink, Press.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: ghoul http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghoul

PHOTO CREDIT: By R. Smirke, Esq., R.A. Digitized by Google Books. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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

One Reason Storytellers Do What They Do

Fans of JK Rowling’s Weasley twins will be familiar with their joke shop product called “extendable ears.” With one end of a cord held close to the listener’s ear, the other end crawls along the ground, winding around corners and sliding under doors until it reaches its destination. Then, it listens to the secrets of unsuspecting friends and enemies alike. My son desperately wished for a set to use around the time of his birthday whenever we whispered about his gifts. There are probably numerous politicians, spies, and Academy Award nominees who would love a set as well.

Old-fashioned extendable ears

So why am I discussing this intriguing fictional product here? It is because stories reach and stretch into the human heart and mind like extendable ears stretch into other rooms. When people speak of the power of stories, this is what they mean.

Stories have a seemingly magical way of touching those who need them. They sneak in the cracks and openings of heart and mind and do their work: stories heal, stories connect one to another, they teach and ignite dreams.

But the work of stories is gentle. They seep into people like a mild rain softens dry soil. The images and messages embedded in stories, like water moistening dry soil, find their ways to their destination. This is one of the biggest reasons why we do the work that we do.

Stories reach in.
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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Anybody with stories about stories doing this work? Share them (way) down below!

Beauty and the Branding Beast

Let’s face it. Faces matter. But why must they matter so much?

The actor Renee Zellweger is facing the music because her face looks different. This has ignited a bonfire of speculation about whether she had “work” done; Ms. Zellwegger indicates that her changed look reflects nothing more than a healthy change in her lifestyle. Jennifer Gerson Uffalossy of The Guardian doesn’t wonder what is wrong with Ms. Zellweger’s appearance, but rather what is wrong with us for making such a big deal of it. Good question.

THE PROBLEM

Steve Rose suggests that a performer’s face can be his or her brand. Consumers expect predictability about brands. We want that boxed cereal to taste exactly the same every time we eat it.

So, generally speaking, by branding actors’ faces, it suggests that those faces mustn’t change.

The only problem with this is that human beings are designed to shift and morph. Change is a biological imperative. The world marches on. And the passage of time is etched into our souls and onto our faces.

I’m on the brandwagon about this celebrity issue because branding performers bothers me in certain contexts. Expecting actors to remain youthful and unchanging saturates society with a desire to freeze the world at the age of 26. The personal and societal consequences of this addiction to perpetual youth, not to mention Photoshopped standards of beauty, has been expressed a thousand times over. The fountain of youth is an unattainable holy grail that distracts us from what is really important. We all know that.

But branding does something more. It can handcuff performing artists by preventing them from exploring new terrain and growing their art.

I know a marvelous storyteller who shares funny tales about his life as a kid. He performs semi-regularly at a particular storytelling festival. One year, he told a serious, long form story about an important historical figure. Though it was a beautifully crafted piece with golden thematic threads linking past and present, the audience didn’t accept it. They couldn’t hear it for the art it was. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t his brand. His trademark goofball antics (aka “LOL” moments) were not part of that piece. The storyteller was stuck with his brand, whether he liked it or not. A humorist doing drama? It takes time for audiences to warm up to that, if they accept it at all.

Audiences are powerful. That is why artists strive to connect with their audience. But here is the heart of my concern: Do artists connect to audiences as brands or as people? Can artists be authentic if they are hog-tied to a brand?

It is certainly true that branding is important in business. And the performing arts are a business. Still, while branding can help a performing artist connect with the right audiences, it can also be limiting.

Creativity needs to exist outside the box, inside the box, without the box, and anywhere else it wants to be. If branding locks people up in a box, creativity may not thrive. And if artists are hampered, then what they bring to their audiences suffers.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Whether people are celebrities or not, we can applaud the changes that life brings instead of sniggering at them.

We can fashion brands for performing artists that incorporate change as part of the brand, so that life and artistic transformations are anticipated and appreciated.

Even though the arts are a product and art is a business, artists are not boxes of cereal. The signature of the arts is growth, development, and change. If artists don’t try new things, their work suffers. So does art. Branding can stifle creativity. It certainly caused quite an uproar when one woman was altered by time, surgery, or lifestyle changes.

Let’s allow Ms. Zellweger, other performing artists, and everyone else to be who they need to be. There’s no need to brand them like cattle. We can remain open to what they have to offer. There is beauty in change and delicious depth in the lines that mark the passage of time. C’mon society! Let’s do an about face and applaud for that.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Photo Credit: By Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Branding is a hot topic (no pun intended). I was recently on a Twitter chat with independent artists. The topic of branding came up and it sparked a lively debate. What do you think? How do we brand performing artists? Should the arts be branded at all? Any artists out there with an opinion on this? Love to have a conversation…share your thoughts in the comment box down below.

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..

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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 Forbes.com, 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.

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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

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