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:

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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

Accelerated Fluency 3: the Fluent Edge

Welcome to Accelerated Story part 3, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning” from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.

As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The third rule is The Fluent Edge:

It’s easy to be bored by the amount of repetition needed to become fluent, and overwhelmed by the complexity of what you want to learn.

Therefore, perform your skill at your current level of fluency, and then increase the challenge by a tiny bit more – taking you to your FLUENT EDGE.

This is perhaps the most fundamental principle of accelerated learning, or even of gameplay itself. The energizing factor, the sheer excitement of play, is the walking of this edge, getting into the “zone” where players are just challenged enough to engage fully in the game without becoming bored or overwhelmed.

Continue reading Accelerated Fluency 3: the Fluent Edge

Middle School Energy

I’ve been working as an intern for the Language Hunters nonprofit organization, partnering with Corbett Middle School to teach the Language Hunting approach to language acquisition and accelerated learning. Which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been playing games in Irish with preteens for the last month. Four weeks into our nine-week program, we’ve learned a lot about middle schoolers, our approach, and about gameplay and learning in general. We’ve hit an exciting turning point where the students are starting to have “aha!” moments about how the game works, and really delve wholeheartedly into joyous play.

It wasn’t easy to get there, though, for us or them. In two class periods with about 50 students each, we found that managing the delicate flow of a Language Hunt game faced several severe obstacles. The number of players, the chaos of adolescent social dynamics, and of course the compulsory educational environment, even in so progressive a school as Corbett Middle School.

Continue reading Middle School Energy

Accelerated Story 2: Fluency

Welcome to Accelerated Story part 2, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.

As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The second rule is Fluency over Knowledge:

Even after much training, it can be disappointing how little you are able to do (or remember)…

Therefore, prioritize doing over knowledge-about.

Continue reading Accelerated Story 2: Fluency

Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive

My friend Willem Larsen, developer of the Language Hunters accelerated learning system, recently published a series of blog posts on the “Rules of Accelerated Learning.” These are a set of interlocking patterns for fluent skill-building presented in bite-sized pieces. I really dig what he has to say here, and the way he says it.

Ordinarily Willem applies these insights toward the language game, but here they’re presented in a general fashion, to apply to ANY skill you want to build proficiency in. Since I’ve been exploring how the principles of fluency intersect with story games for a couple of years now (no surprise since Language Hunters is itself a game!), I want to dig into these rules and look at the concrete ways they can be leveraged toward collaborative storytelling and roleplaying. As we explore them one by one, I hope to see understanding expand ever outward as the rules break off, recombine and create new connections, building insight on insight.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The first rule is: “Focus on What is Alive.” As Willem says,

It’s difficult to learn skills or new competencies from reading books, verbal explanations, or standardized curricula.

Therefore, always look for situations where you can observe or learn from skilled practitioners, and gauge your success by the degree of engagement of the participants.

This matches up with my experience with roleplaying games. I originally received roleplaying rules via oral tradition, but as soon as I was able to get my hands on RPG books I started acquiring my skills and rules knowledge that way. Reading books was a great way to acquire comprehensive knowledge, but it translated awkwardly into play with actual humans.

Continue reading Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive

The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play

It’s been awhile since I wrote a Dreaming Crucible rules post. The text of the game is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, so I’m sharing pieces of it through blog posts. I hope to get a Dreaming Crucible wiki up and running in early 2012, so that play of the game will be freely accessible to anyone outside the realm of commerce, leaving the physical book to thrive on its own merits as a beautiful artifact. Previous Crucible game text posts:

And now, at last, we come to Beginning Play!

When you’ve got your roles sorted out and are ready to play, make a comfortable, relaxed space around a table. It doesn’t have to be a big dining room table; a modest coffee table in a cosy living room will do just fine if that’s the sort of setting where you can relax and focus. Make sure everyone can see and reach the table easily. Place the bag at the center of the table. it will be a focal point in play. place the bowl of stones off to the side, at a corner of the table or perhaps even off the table—accessible, but unobtrusive. Give every player the Story Cards related to their role. Do whatever you like to provide atmosphere—dimmed lights, mood music, lit candles, food and drink, conversation, focusing exercises. When everyone’s comfortable and engaged, begin by choosing Seeds.

Continue reading The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play