Old Meets New

One of the pleasures of being the young, energetic new member of the storytelling guild is being the advertised contact.

I was called this morning by a storyteller in Toronto who collects storytelling books. A book given by one of the founding members of our small local guild to the local library had joined his collection, via the States.

As usual, the conversation drifted and included pros and cons of putting our history on the computer. He still uses Netscape, so you can guess his overall opinion, although he obviously likes used bookstores to have an online presence.

(My position is the more tools in the toolbox the better we will be able to preserve and use our history. Also, the latest tool, while better than the old ones in some ways, is also worse in others. You have to look at the current need.)

I also mentioned that the first story I ever told was chosen because I have both physical and electronic copies.

In 1920 or so, my grandma’s uncle gave her a copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories. It’s an oversize volume bound in blue, with coloured illustrations, and tissue paper inserts over the drawings. When I was a young teenager, Grandma gave it to me.

When I got my first handheld, I loaded it with old favourites, including Kipling. Later that month at the cottage, those stories were handy, so I read those stories to my kids.

A few weeks later I took a beginning storytelling course. Rather than pick a story from those laid out on the table, I chose The Sing Song of Old Man Kangaroo.

My love for the stories are from that blue book Grandma gave me, how we clean our hands and the table first and are careful to cover the pictures with the tissue paper.

My love for telling it as a storyteller combines that with the convenience of having the entire book in my purse.


Socks Story, 1st Performance

This is the first live performance of my knitting story, titled Socks.

It’s 16 minutes long, 16mb.

The pause at “80,000 stitches” is when I turn around and show the a shawl (which I made) which has 80,000 stitches.

In joke: Brad Woods is a local storyteller who was the guild’s guest last month; he has recorded a storytelling CD. Stuart McLean is well-known Canadian teller who tells on The Vinyl Cafe on CBC radio.


I’ll remove enough to bring it down to 14 or even 12 for the next performance.

Amoral Stories

One of the senior tellers at Baden, very active in his church (as active and formally recognized as he can be without being an ordained priest) told us that a young boy once said, “I like your stories. They don’t have morals.”

Ah, the joys of being with a group of word-loving adults.

Once the laughter died down, it was agreed: We tell amoral stories — stories without explicit morals.

The moral of the story does not need to be stated. If you can’t figure it out from the story alone, then it’s an awkward graft.

Also, the best stories have more than one moral. Most audiences are a mix of people. Some aren’t ready for the moral you intend, but might be ready for one that’s similar, or even one that isn’t central to the story (or at least the way you tell it) but is still there.

Explicitly stating the moral you want them to take away denies them the opportunity to take away the message that’s right for them.

The closest I get is with Richard Hughes’ The Dark Child. (It was published in in 1932 in the book The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories, so is probably out of copyright, but hasn’t yet appeared online.) I like telling it to kids ten and up. I begin by saying some people think the story has a happy ending, and some think it has a sad ending. The story is about a boy who is different, and everyone tells him to go a way. He blames himself for the problems his difference causes. Only two people cared enough to help. One met him where he was and helped him explore his uniqueness, the other forced him to become normal. After his adventures, when “there was no way by which you could tell him from every other child,” his parents are “pleased as pleased as pleased.”

Before I tell it, I prime the audience. “Some people think this story has a happy ending, some think it has a sad ending.” At the end, I ask for a show of hands.

A listener’s reaction can tell you a lot about where they are in their own journey. Do they still dream that being normal would solve their problems? Do they wish people would accept them as they are? Do they distinguish between real problems their uniqueness causes, or just the problems other have with it? Do they mourn the loss of the child’s uniqueness, or are they happy because he fits in?

You can take many messages from this story. Who am I to say what message they should take?

Recording for Learning, Tips for Storytellers

I’m using my podcast addition to help me study for storytelling.

I arrange the play list so after every 30 minutes of listening (very approximate — I let Stuart McLean have his entire hour) I hear the story I’m studying.

I tried it a few times before, with recording I had made myself. It worked reasonably well.

This time I had a recording from the author — a New Yorker. She read it at what I call “reading” speed. Six minutes and thirty seconds. It just wasn’t sinking in. I re-recorded it at performance speed. Eight minutes and thirty seconds.

Yes, performance speed is that slow. It sounds painful when listening in isolation, but slower really does work better for an audience. They need time to comprehend and digest.

One would think it the recording speed is irrelevant. Why drag it out when I want repetition?

Two reasons.

First, I don’t want to get used to the high speed, and revert to it while performing. Even with my experience, it’s still easy to do.

Second, it encourages me to think ahead while learning. Performance speed is more than just dragging out the syllables, although that’s part of it. The larger part is pausing between phrases. This story has several lists. After each item, my mind supplies the next, then the recording confirms it. Same with each scene — which is great, because often it’s the first sentence in a new scene that abandons you.

When we learned how to help our speech-delayed first child, one of the techniques was about “closure”. We sang songs with him and did finger plays. They often involved actions, and interaction. After we played the game a few times, we would hesitate before the final line or action. If I sing “Row, row, row your,”, your mind automatically supplies “boat”. You want to hear it. Son would look around as if something were missing.

It worked. Blue, Table and Drawer asked for his help (for the tenth time that week), counted to three, and then he said his first words: Wake up Steve!

So if listening to the a recording made at top speed doesn’t work for you, try slowing it down and leaving those gaps.

Storytelling Research

I don’t normally turn on the internet before school, but today I had a burning question: Is it appropriate to tell a story which assumes the knowledge of guardian angels to a multi-cultural class?

For school kids, I try to be careful. I don’t want to devalue their beliefs, or compete with their family’s teachings, or for them to feel left out. I want them to be aware of diversity, learn a bit about their new home’s dominant culture, learn about other cultures, and feel included. For adults, I’m less cautious. They probably already know enough background to enjoy the story, and no one can claim I’m teaching them religion against their parents’ wishes.

[Fine print: All research done in five minutes online. Close enough for the purpose, but no more than that.]

My kids’ school has many Muslims. Some have adapted well to our culture, others less well. By that, I don’t mean leaving their own faith and rituals, but knowing the culture of their new home well enough to make informed decisions. One girl didn’t have a bathing suit and thought her brother’s Tshirt was suitable to swim in. Fortunately, the teachers noticed before it got wet. Another girl wore a full-body swim suit, which worked much better.

I like to have a special story to tell at Christmas. This year, it’s Jane Lebak’s Rent an Angel. It includes Gabriel, some lesser named angels, and an un-named guardian angel.

I try to be aware of religious differences. When a woman in a blue dress appears in a vision, I tell the young audience that the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, almost always wears a blue dress. It’s enough for them to recognize that this isn’t just any woman in the vision, without bogging down the story or challenging their faith.

Likewise, when I tell Jean Little’s Pippin the Christmas Pig, I sometimes begin with the manger story. Pippin is a great story even if you don’t get the references to the manger story, but it’s even better if you do.

I often emphasis traveling that Mary and Joseph were traveling, and didn’t want to be — many of the kids are from Afghanistan. It brings the kids together. I love how Pippin’s story weaves around and brings new meaning the manger story. Muslims believe Jesus was an important messenger from God, but not God’s son. That’s similar enough that Pippin’s story doesn’t compete. Jesus’s mother is Mary, and he was born under a palm tree, not in a stable. The story has similar importance, but a very different feel and emphasis. God is there for Mary, despite the questions raised by her pregnancy. It’s worth reading for yourself.

I like the palm tree story, but Pippin’s story needs the animals and manger. I simply state “Little assumes listeners know the manger story,” and go right to a very tired Mary, riding the donkey. I don’t mention the source, just that it’s a well-known story. Some day, I’d like to be know enough about the palm tree story that I’m comfortable telling it, and then pair it with a secular story, the same way I pair Pippin with the manger story.

Pippin’s story shows welcome and caring, which many of these kids can identify with. Also, Pippin’s story shows how one small, insignificant, under-valued pig can make a difference. It’s an inclusive story, even though it’s based on a Christian tale.

Gabriel and guardian angels, though, worried me. How would kids whose families believe guardian angels don’t exist feel?

Then, duh, I thought of Googling “Muslim” and “angel”. Facts are always a good place to start.

It turns out Muslims are more into angels, including Gabriel, and guardian angels, than the average Christian-by-default. I can tell the story without modification for that group.

That still leave agnostics, atheists, and a whole host of others, so I’m not out of the woods just yet. It’s a typical Canadian small city school, between two very different socio-economic neighborhoods. Many immigrants stay for a year or two to get their bearings then move on. I may add an extra sentence for the kids who haven’t heard of guardian angels.

One sentence will be enough to bring those who don’t know into the loop, without boring the rest. Or maybe the existing wording will work: “I want to see this man’s guardian angel.” It implies there is a specific angel assigned to guard the man. One angel (or in Muslim, two — one for day, one for night) per man isn’t critical. A few paragraphs down it’s made clear the guardian angel has the time to concentrate on individuals. Earlier parts of the story show angels do more than physically guard people. Regardless, it will work for those who haven’t heard of guardian angels.

While researching this, I remembered the elderly neighbour with the turban, and a few boys with topknots. Sikhs? Possibly. Another bit of research to be done.

This is one of the many reasons I love storytelling, especially to this age group. To do it right, I have to learn about my neighbours. I have to know where they’re starting from, and where I can comfortably travel with them. It also lets the kids experience similarities and differences for themselves, without setting up “us” vs “them”. It’s a great way to create a community that celebrates both similarities and differences.

My Favourite Podcasts

I admit it, ever since I got an mp3 player at Christmas, I’ve been hooked — even to the point of learning a bit of Python (a programming language).

Why the programming language? My player’s back button is flaky, and I often walk on noisy roads, or listen with kids in the house. It can take five seconds to go back just 10 words, more if I have to dry my hands first. It only took an hour or so to find a free program (mp3splt) that will split by time. Most mp3 splitters split at silence — good for dividing a CD into songs, but not so good for my needs. The interface only did one file at a time, but it worked.

(A note about mp3pslt: If you want the nice interface, use Mp3splt-gtk. For the command line, use Mp3splt . The Windows builds are at the end of the list. The installer.exe files work fine with Vista. Since Wonderful Husband wrote the multiple file program for me, mp3splt has added support for multiple files to the nice interface.)

It also came with a command line for the actual splitter. Cue wonderful husband, who used his favourite programming language, Python, to write a program that automates the entire process. Then, of course, I wanted to play with some of the options. To do that, I had to edit the Python source. At one time or another, I’ve done the equivalent of a first year course in five different languages (five? Basic, C, C++, Pascal, Fortran, Prolog, and Forth. Also Ladder Logic (ugh!). Several versions of most of those, and some serious projects in a few.) So, after he gave me a quick “key differences” heads-up (whitespace counts!), I could edit it. (He still helped me a bit — the instructions for the splitter’s command line interface was poorly written, and Husband’s experience helped decipher it.)

So now I load up a folder with mp3s, run the splitter, and throw them onto my player.

At the moment, I use ThunderBird (yes, the email reader) to catch the latest episodes, but I’m experimenting with iTunes. I also use Firefox and DownloadThemAll to get older episodes — go to a “past episodes” page, then tell DownloadThemAll to filter for audio files. Castroller is also nice, combined with DownloadThemAll.

I try to keep up with current episodes of friends’ podcasts. Strangers’ recent episodes come next. Then archives from the beginning. I try to rotate them, so I don’t listen to five episodes of one podcast back-to-back.

Which leads to the next part of the post: Podcasts I regularly listen to. The episode length is for 90% of the episodes. The occasional one goes over — sometimes way over.


Knit Spirit
Ivy Reisner discusses knitting and spirituality. She doesn’t confine herself — so long as it’s about knitting or spirituality, it’s fair game. I love seeing how the two topics merge. Episodes are usually 15 to 30 minutes long, unless there’s an interview.

Knit Picks (And a more convenient site for this one, for archive grabbing.)
You’d expect a podcast from the owner of a very large online knitting supply store to talk about how wonderful the products are, but Kelly’s a true knitter and spinner. She has faith in her products, but it’s not a sales pitch. She often suggests home-made alternatives, and she often talks about products they don’t even offer, like some specialty fibres. Maybe she’s just far-sighted — get us hooked on the craft with the cheap equipment, then we’ll want to upgrade. Her technical information is awesome, like the structure of wool fibre and tips for colour pooling. She interviews members of the Knit Picks staff, and all sorts of knitters and spinners. There’s also a great books section — enough that I can’t decide which book to get next. Episodes are reliably 20-30 minutes long.


The Writing Cast
Another by Ivy Reisner, about writing. She covers writing and publishing information. Episodes are 15-20 minutes long, or up to an hour if there’s an interview. My interview is episode 79, July 18, 2009.

I Should Be Writing
Mur Lafferty is a writer who is trying very hard to be published, and I expect she’ll make it. She gives advice, interviews a variety of guests, answers listeners’ questions, and talks about recent events in the field of writing. Early episodes are under 20 minutes. Later ones are about an hour.


The Seanachai
“Seanachai” is Irish / Gaelic for “storyteller”. The site’s “about” page has a bit of historical information about seanachais. Impressive people! Patrick McLean presents absolutely awesome short stories and essays, written by himself and others. Some stories are in series. The written background notes are also worth reading. Each episode is 5-10 minutes, but one interview was an hour.

Vinyl Cafe
I grew up listening to CBC radio. Stuart McLean keeps the tradition alive. He tours all over Canada, telling stories and featuring guest musicians. His most famous stories are about Dave and Morley. If you want to understand what it’s like to be a Canadian, this is a must-listen show. Each episode is an hour.

The Moth
I just discovered this one. It’s a group in New York that encourages storytelling. I’m not sure how long the episodes are.


Stuttering is Cool
Daniele Rossi challenged himself: Stop letting his stuttering get in the way of his life, and also create a place where other stutterers can feel less alone. He has succeeded. He started with ordering a moccacino at StarBucks, and now does presentations at PodCamp. Tons of interviews and listener questions. Some interesting interviews, too. Episodes range from 5 to 70 minutes.

A super-short podcast by a speech and language professor who stutters. He discusses whatever’s on his mind, as it relates to stuttering, from the latest research and therapy methods (good, bad and criminal) to books about personal finance — and how the lessons therein can be applied to stuttering. Episodes are exactly 8.5 minutes long, including intro and outro music.


Not quite a podcast, but you can make it one. Free audiobooks, both classics (i.e., out of copyright) and new (i.e., copyright owner puts it up, the author herself). You can download as many chapters as you like immediately, or you can create an account and have it create a podcast feed for you — tell it how often to send you episodes, and it gives you a feed for you podcatcher.

Murder at Avedon Hill
The audiobook I just finished listening to. It started as the author reading the story, but over two years it evolved to a full-featured, multiple-voice combination of narration and audio-drama. For this one, I went directly to the author’s site, so got a lot of extras. You can get just the audiobook at podiobooks.com.

That’s it for now. It’s enough to keep me busy knitting and doing housework.

The Rabbi’s Question: Recording

Another recording, of a shorter story, with a different microphone.

The recording is here.

Let me know how this recording compares to the previous one, and how it compares to what you normally prefer to listen to.

The pacing and emotion are, again, performance rather than “audible books”.

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