A story means itself

A young girl from the movie The Secret of Roan InishLast fall, I took a Native American Studies course with the wonderful instructor Judy Bluehorse Skelton. Our text was extremely shallow and inadequate, but the best Judy could find, so we used this as an opportunity to challenge and interrogate the text as an opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. As we examined the book chapter by chapter, we arrived at the chapter on Native American Literature.

I was excited at the outset, because stories are dear to my heart and the thought of being exposed to a trove of new, rich authors was delightful. But the chapter bothered me on a deeper level than any previous. Its constant explanation of the themes in the literature was unwelcome and intrusive: I was being told what to think about these narratives, rather than getting to simply experience them. It actually robbed me of an important facet of that experience, by imposing an outside interpretation before I’d even gotten to read them for myself.

It was an essentially colonialist approach to appreciating stories; studying and cataloging, sorting by theme, and essentially treating them as a dead thing—no, more than that, even actively killing them in the name of preserving their valuable qualities. Since the text brought up the relationship of literature to language, I was struck by the parallel to language learning, specifically the value of approaching a language on its own terms rather than trying to translate the words into your own context. There’s a reason Willem Larsen, founder of Language Hunters, calls this “Killing Fairies“; something very real does die when you use analytical tools to hammer another language into your native language’s shape. The same applies to stories: a story is, and doesn’t have a “literal translation”; it means itself. When authors Kidwell and Velie  tried to nail down the “meaning” of a novel, the novel itself wriggled out of their grasp.

It’s a difficult paradox: how do you you appreciate and discuss stories when the language of analytics ultimately fails to truly describe a story in a fundamental and catastrophic way? I suppose the starting point is simply acknowledging the limitations of such discourse, even if we can’t entirely escape it.

Which is not to say I wish to disengage my critical brain when I encounter stories! But it’s a tricky balance, maintaining awareness of stories’ agenda while honoring and taking nourishment from them. For me, experiencing a story involves a sort of surrender to the internal reality and modality of the tale; it’s “true” (though that’s an inadequate and misleading word) in its own context, true in a felt, emotional, mythic sense, even if it doesn’t refer to “facts.” Examining the problematic elements of a story is an important part of the process, but that comes later. First comes immersion, the living and feeling of the story as it washes over me. If a story’s message or agenda is too noxious, I won’t be able to achieve that immersion (and probably be more well off for it), but that experience is my goal, and the standard by which all stories are judged.

Because I couldn’t engage with the stories dissected by Kidwell and Velie, which I hadn’t read for myself—novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday and Ceremony by  Leslie Marmon Silko—my thoughts turned to a story which I do know, which also deals with the theme of connection to the land: the film The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry.

In Roan Inish, an island off the coast of Ireland (Scotland in the novel) is deserted by the fishing community that lives there, as the younger generation becomes restless for the city and moves there in search of work. Only the old remain, living on the mainland in sight of the isle. All concerned is portrayed as broken and empty, needing connection with the island to be whole. (“Do you miss it greatly?” “Roan Inish? Ah, it’s only a place, I suppose. Mostly I miss the way of life. You’re surrounded by the sea, with your whole family about ye.”) A girl, Fiona, is sent by her city-dwelling, widowed father back to live with her grandparents on the coast. The country-dwelling family seems more connected with their place—with the land and sea—than the city-folk, but are still wounded by their severed tie to Roan Inish. Her baby brother Jamie had been lost at sea in the evacuation, forming a living symbol of the disconnect from their place: “The sea had taken poor wee Jamie. It was angry with us for leaving Roan Inish.” The old folk know they belong on the island, but are resigned to their lot. The next generation want nothing to do with the place. It’s only the children Fiona and Eamon who are able to provoke the family to action and reconcile them with the island. As I write these words, I know that I’m doing violence to these stories, as surely as the Kidwell/Velie text does violence to the stories it explains. I have to stop; I’ve said too much. The only words that have any life in them are the scant quotes from the actual film. I’d rather you hear ten words of it than a thousand of mine:

[youtube id=”-dT-BCVjKkA”]

My words are not the stories; they are only a brutish finger pointing clumsily at the stories themselves. I don’t know how else to write about them, though. Game designer Vincent Baker is fond of saying that when someone asks him a roleplaying theory question, he can’t answer it, except by designing a game around it. In his interview on Clyde Rhoer’s Theory from the Closet [49.15], he put it like this: “I’m a game designer, not a statement creator! If I want you to understand [a particular game design concept]…I’m going to design a game and put it in front of you, and you’ll understand how it works in that game.”

Ultimately, the way to share the gifts of these tales would not be to write a paper about them, but to simply share them—give you a book to read, or sit down with you and watch a film. Or tell you a story. Or play a game together. I think it’s no accident that in so many traditions, elders and teachers answer questions with a story. The story isn’t an explanation or an example of the answer, the story is the answer. Even in Christian tradition, Jesus mainly just tells stories, and says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Only when pressed, in a couple of Gospel accounts, does he finally concede and give an explanation to his closest followers, presumably reluctantly.

A story is itself. A story is lived experience, both of the teller and of the untold generations through which the stories have been handed down. A people who think in stories (and not in platitudes or in “rational arguments”) would, I feel, have a greater grounding in love and empathy and of relationship to the wider world.

Peace,

—Joli

Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

Continue reading Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

The Sheathed Sword, Storytelling style!

I gave a talk at my church, The Bridge of Portland, OR, on August 15. It was based on my post here, The Sheathed Sword, but expanded and elaborated into a dramatic storytelling extravaganza! It was quite fun and rewarding.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgyeXIvlA0M]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8VZ9rBoCww] Continue reading The Sheathed Sword, Storytelling style!

Weave richly the dream…

A couple of experiences from Go Play NW last weekend: first, I played my game The Dreaming Crucible with Joe McDaldno and Jackson Tegu. Jackson has a little Crucible experience, so for once I was able to turn the role of Dark Faerie over to another and just play the Hero. This meant that the other players were in charge of bringing the world of Faerie to life. And we had the most descriptively rich game of The Dreaming Crucible that I’ve every played.

A Well-Dressed Man who commanded the inanimate whisked young Aaron on a flying carpet to a vast clockwork plain and commanded him to repair it. A Stickboy borne on a raven persuaded the boy to flee the place, and secured a dog for him to ride through a forest pulsing with life. Aaron met an apple tree who was delighted for company but sad to think he might rob her of her apples. Then he lost his companions and the forest path turned to tile and walls rose up to hem him in and he almost spent forever in a bare room with a vanity and a chair. He came to a cottage where an old witch became an alluring girl and traded him the lives of his companions for passage to the Well Dressed Man’s black spire. The girl skinned the dog and Aaron wore him, still living, as a cloak as he and the Stickboy climbed the spire to confront his suave enslaver. Continue reading Weave richly the dream…

They buy why you do it

Simon Sinek gave a fascinating TED talk in September 2009 called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” I wasn’t drawn to it for principles of “leadership” in the typical sense, but Sinek said some wonderful and thought-provoking things about purpose and vision, which really moves me in light of my recent drive to grab hold of my dreams.

Sinek’s repeated refrain is, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If you simply talk about what you do in rational terms, it might be useful to people, but still fail to draw them in. But if you lay bare your purpose, the reason you make your product, offer your service, you’ll connect with people who are attracted to that purpose. Sinek says, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with the people who believe what you believe.”

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Continue reading They buy why you do it

What’s YOUR trajectory?

Last week I wrote about a couple of game experiences that really nailed a certain emotional desire for me. I rambled on for quite a bit about it! The bottom line was, I’m pursuing a certain element of intimate tragedy, through characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. But now I’d like to hear about others’ experiences.

So how about it? What sort of narrative is YOUR heart seeking in the storytelling that you do or the storytelling that you receive? And by what sort of trajectories do characters approach that narrative in their inner qualities and fictional circumstances?

If I get a couple of answers there’s follow-up questions. But start with that for now!

Peace,

—Joel

Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

10 years or so ago I picked up a little book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  It lit up my whole switchboard and gave me a philosophy and direction for creative living. Its subtitle even found its way unconsciously into Story by the Throat’s tagline. This book was one of the first sources to talk about something I had a thirst for. I read it over and over, soaking up Stephen’s exciting ideas.

But now a decade later I find I’m barely closer to realizing these principles in my own life. So I’m going to take a closer look, step by step, and see how Free Play‘s concepts connect with the other things I’ve learned and experienced with creativity, spontaneity and collaboration.

I’ll begin delving into it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I present the Japanese folk tale from the book’s prologue. It speaks volumes all by itself: Continue reading Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

Reinventing “Us”

I’ve staked out some pretty lofty territory for the role of creating stories together in real time—”roleplaying,” in a word—that territory being no less than the reclamation our shared humanity through mythmaking.

But what good does that actually do for us, really?

Well, the short answer is that through mythmaking we tell ourselves who we are. We burn patterns into ourselves that make it easier to enact specific values. Just because the Labors of Hercules and the Death of Cuchulainn have been replaced by the Tale of the Spider-Man and the Goblin of Green, and the Death of Gwendolyn the Fair doesn’t mean we’ve escaped from that patterning at the soul level. Oral-tradition cultures believe that without stories, you can’t know who you are. And indeed we’re shaped by the stories we’ve received, whether it’s Sam and Frodo, Elizabeth and Darcy, Han and Luke, Scarlett and Snake-eyes, or Jack and Sawyer. Our experiences our contextualized by reflexive associations like “oh, like on Simpsons,” whether we like it or not.

Of course, we like to think that in the brave, bold 21st Century, we’re freed from the bonds of tradition and able to reinvent ourselves as we each see fit. After all, we’re all individuals. But really, isn’t that all the more reason to consciously work to define healthy patterns for ourselves? We’re blessed now with more ability than at any time in history to consciously redefine who we are, so why not take advantage of that?

There are several means available for rewriting our internal pathways. Religion is one; therapy is another. But roleplaying—the act of telling stories to and with each other—is an immensely powerful tool. It works on us in much subtler ways than an explicitly educational activity, because it tells a story rather than preaching a message, and yet acts much more dynamically and relevantly than passively receiving a story. And storytelling helps us swallow the pill of self-revelation and transformation smoother than a purely therapeutic process. Stories are perfect vehicles for receiving messages and processing our existence, as they allow us to live and breathe a thing, to take it into ourselves instead of merely talking about it. And this is no mere dodge from living an experience “for real,” but rather works hand in hand with our actual life experience to help us process and contextualize it.

How this works in passive media is, you receive the story, and it stirs something inside you. You identify with it, or you’re challenged by it; either way you contextualize your own experiences by the story’s metric. When you encounter an experience that evokes that story for you, you’re likely to act in resonance with or defiance of that story’s pattern. That’s powerful enough in itself.

How it works in roleplaying is even more potent. We choose. We choose. Together. That’s so dead simple and obvious, yet mind-blowingly revolutionary.

Playing out an experience at the roleplaying table is a unique activity—not amateur therapy and not wannabe novelization–that has its own peculiar quality. As I said, we make the choices in the story, and if we choose with integrity to our own hearts and to the vision we see, then we will make something TRUE. Something authentic, not “factual”, not “what it would be like if…” but something valid about us within a shared fiction that reveals our souls and bolsters our hearts.

This is who we are, as humans. This is the birthright we cast aside when we commodify entertainment. This is the mythic force we can reclaim.

Peace,

—Joel

Making it ourselves

I saw the Tim Burton film 9 last night with my wife. It was a movie that promised so much, yet failed to satisfy. In fact it was painful how breathless plotting, ponderous dialogue, and shameless clichés managed to rob a story that could have been heartbreakingly human. Instead it was a collection of fascinating ideas and themes that were ultimately lifeless.

This has always been a hazard of Hollywood, for seekers of substance. Every now and again a film is the real deal, but often it’s a pale, stilted imitation of authentic expression.

My wife and I noted that more and more of the promising movies we’ve seen have left that empty taste. The question hit us–are we witnessing a twilight of artistic depth? Is the age of personal human vision in art and storytelling passing from the earth?

I don’t know much about how 9‘s vision germinated. I do know that the production processes of movies and television provide a wealth of material for consumption, but are not conducive to authenticity. Human-ness is not produced by committee. What are then chances that a creator will say something honest, and be heard, as content-as-product proliferates?

Perhaps this trend in movies represents a mere slump, a recession if you will, in creativity. But if it is indeed the birth pangs of a complete creative collapse in the “entertainment” industry, then I must conclude that if we want to have stories with integrity, we must make them ourselves.

This is why roleplaying and storyjamming are more than mere diversions for me.

This is the way we make our own myths, the way we keep the flame of story alight. This is the way we teach ourselves, over and over, to be humans. This is the way we celebrate who we are.

Occasionally, within the “system,” (or sometimes in defiance of it–Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, for instance) a fire will blaze up that speaks with integrity, that teaches us, that celebrates with us. We cherish these flames. But by and large, we’re on our own. So we write our own novels with a purpose beyond leveraging motion picture rights, we make our own comics which explore the endless possibilities, we make our own music in our living rooms and on our street corners for whoever is there to hear. . .and we sit down by the hearth to tell stories together.

Put like that, storyjamming is less a pastime and more a calling. A calling I mean to keep.

Peace,

-Joel

Fluency Play

So my friend Willem Larsen has developed this method for learning and playing story games which I’m in love with. We’ve struggled with finding a name that does justice to the process, until suddenly it hit me:

With respect to Willem, I’d like call this play method “Fluency Play.”

This cuts right to the heart of the method: basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you’re fluent at.

See, the thing about fluency isn’t that you’re an “expert” in something. People say “I speak fluent French,” meaning they have a high level of mastery with complex vocabulary and grammar. But really, fluency means you’re comfortable and fluid in performing a skill. My baby girl is fluent in crawling but not in walking. You can be fluent in asking “Where is the bathroom” (i.e. you can say it without thinking or flipping in a phrasebook) without being fluent in discussing the social impact of human sanitation practices throughout history. You wait until you can perform the current level effortlessly, without a moment’s thought, to move to the next level.

So applying this to games? You don’t introduce all the rules at once. You don’t even introduce all the rules “as you need them.” (“Oh, you moved across a threatened square? Time to read the Attacks of Opportunity rules…”) You introduce new levels only when the group is FLUENT in the previous level. For instance, you might first do an intro scene for each character, with no conflict, getting comfortable with description and dialogue. Then do simple conflict scenes, with a simple card draw or die roll. Then run conflicts adding bonuses for traits. And so on.

The payoff, in a word, is FLOW: a seamless experience where collaboration is natural and effortless and that creative bubble isn’t “popped” by head-scratching confusion, flipping through a rulebook, or the sheer overload of trying to hold a dozen interlocking concepts in your head at once. This is largely–not entirely–uncharted territory in game design. We accept page-flipping and headscratching in our games, the way someone might accept knotted back muscles and chronic neck pain, little imagining that some proper massage therapy might release the tension and free up their body to perform fluidly, joyfully.

I wrote once about traction–about procedures having just enough granularity to give your feet purchase and your fingers a handhold, that your choices are meaningful in the game. So how does friction relate to fluency? Simply: fluency is the path to playing with teeth. Fluency encompasses all the steps from sitting in the car and turning the key, through putting it in gear and pressing the accelerator, to steering deftly along roadways and around obstacles–until at last you’re feeling the tires grip the blacktop as you swing around the corners of a winding road in a daring mountain race. That’s the sweet spot we’re aiming for. Not puttering around the parking lot forever, but also not falling into a trap like “Whoa, there’s a sharp turn coming up and another car ahead of me hugging the inside–now WHAT to the instructions say, again, about applying gas and brake to glide safely past him?” Flow and traction are two complimentary opposites.

So in the end I lose nothing–I can enjoy all the richness of robust mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that bolster my story and my play, without the jarring disconnect of breaking flow to learn. Learning shouldn’t be work, learning is play. And play is good.

Peace,

-Joel