Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Pedagogy of the Short Tale

I'm often asked where i get all the short tales i tell and i'm always happy to refer people to my favourite sources (see below). But i always experience a bit of a twinge when asked. Looking at this twinge i can see that it is made up of a combination of curiosity and concern. I'm always curious about what people got/get from the stories i tell. I'm also curious to understand their desire behind asking for sources. I know that part of people's response is one of pleasure and delight and they want more of that, thinking that it can be found in the sources from which i draw inspiration. And that's cool. I also know that part of the response when it comes from educators, fellow storytellers and other professionals who present publicly is that they need some short pieces that they can use in the many situations that arise (segueing from item to item, opening comments, closing comments, etc.). And it is this latter circumstance that i want both to examine and to understand more.

I use the term "wisdom stories" to name the many short stories i tell. It's a common enough term that i see used more and more to categorize the many parables, fables and teaching stories used by the many faith traditions (buddhist, hindu, sufi, christian, jewish, etc.) around the world. "Wisdom stories" has both a secular and an ecumenical feel to it. And it's general enough to affirm the genealogical roots (and routes) that stories share. These wisdom tales have been swapped back and forth amongst earth's peoples for millennia. So does that make them all common property? In a sense it does. Apart from copyright (which legally protects the specific property of a creator - in this case a particular text and/or unique spin on an otherwise traditional story), there's no storytelling regulatory authority that can either assign permission to tell something or hold to account someone who is deemed inappropriate. We are left with the messy world of politics, culture and the very, very complicated relations of inequality, oppression, struggle and so on.

What is most true to me about telling stories is that there is always a context from which the stories came, in which they were learned and in which they are being told. And it's really that context that concerns me most. Nor is that context something i control. Though i do think we have influence over the contexts in which we act - even if it is merely the act of abstaining from certain contexts. I guess as much as i respect the very human need simply to laugh at a joke, i'm reluctant to facilitate people using wisdom stories as cosmetics. In these wisdom stories is condensed incredible lessons learned over the ages. And the story is a storage device, a medium to preserve and transport that learning across time, space and culture. But who am i to judge? We need our wisdom tales as much as we need our jokes and, while i'm pretty good at telling wisdom stories, i'm not such a great joke-teller (for that you should listen to my brother - he knows how to tell a joke).

My advice for people who ask me about the sources of the short stories that they see me tell is two-fold. First, from Eduardo Galeano i learned something i have not forgotten in since he told it to me over 15 years ago. My friends Clara and Ruby and i were having drinks with Galeano after a reading he'd done at Harbourfront in Toronto. And between his roguish flirting with my friends (which seemed harmless enough) i trotted out the most prosaic of questions (a tiny bit dressed up, at least) authors get asked: "How is that you find such magical things to write about?" Galeano looked me straight in the eye and with a well-practiced grin he said, "You don't understand. You see, two or three magical things happen to me every day." And i knew immediately the truth he was sharing. It was a moment of startling clarity and i knew all i had to do from then on was to keep my eyes open. Galeano's simple response is one of the great gifts in my life. I have honored every day since.

My second piece of advice regarding wisdom stories is this: once you've found a story that strikes you (whether with pleasure or with pain or, more likely, something between) sit with it, reflect on it, repeat it to yourself many times, meditate. Wisdom stories are like songs without apparent music. And as you come to know the story and some of its onion layers of meanings, you may begin to hear the secret music of that story. Some stories i have told dozens if not hundreds of times and every now and again i worry that the story will get stale if i carry on repeating it so. But if repeating is what i was doing then it probably would get stale. The challenge of telling is to tell it new every time. And the stories that i tell over and over again are always new to me, they always hold something new for me to learn, their music refreshes my soul. And i love to share that refreshment with others.

So, after all that preamble, here's a few of my favourite sources:

De Mello, Anthony
1988 Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations. NY: Image Books-Doubleday.
1989 The Heart of the Enlightened: A Book of Story Meditations. NY: Image Books-Doubleday.

Feldman, Christina & Jack Kornfield (eds.)
1996 Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Fumoleau, René
2004 Here I Sit. Ottawa: Novalis.

Galeano, Eduardo
1991 The Book of Embraces. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
1993 Walking Words. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.

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