Category Archives: story coaching for artists

Toxic Tales – TOTS (Too Often Told Story)

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By Rivka Willick

Art in all its forms is a powerful force that can inspire, educate, lead, entertain, and heal.  This is especially true of stories. They can be like a medication that can restore and rebuild us, but too much of certain medications (or certain stories) can do harm.  There’s no formula, it varies depending on the story and person. Let’s take a look how a story can become toxic from over telling.

Getting Stuck in a Story Let’s go to history and classic American drama for a dynamic example.  James O’Neill was a very gifted actor who shared the bill with the legendary Edwin Booth. He played Macduff to Booth’s Macbeth, Laertes to his Hamlet, and Iago to his Othello, often receiving better reviews. He played Marc Antony, Brutus, and Romeo consistently receiving great press. Then he was offered the role of Edmund Dantes in a theatrical version of The Count of Monte Cristo which was a smash hit in 1883.  It meant a consistent stream of money and work for the next 30 years.  He tried a couple other roles, but Dantes was a reliable meal ticket and a sticky trap.  In time the audiences only wanted to see him in that single play which became a straitjacket that eroded his talent and led to depression. This sad but true story was woven into his son Eugene O’Neil’s greatest play, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

It’s easy to get stuck by writing the same story over and over again, or performing that story everyone wants to hear in a storytelling performance.  Motivational speakers often find themselves riding high, then suddenly the offers and recognition drops. Although audiences might weary of these over told stories, the teller also may lose the passion to tell it.

The Painful Story You Don’t Want to Tell Again   Telling or exploring a painful or traumatic event in story form is often empowering and can be healing, but telling it too many times can reverse the positive effects.  I remembers sitting with a storyteller during one of the annual National Storytelling Networks Conventions.  She began telling me about her college storytelling program, but quickly got upset.  During her first year she developed a story based on some very painful personal experiences.  She got positive feedback from her teachers and fellow students, but wanted to try something else.  She told me her teachers, but they wanted her to stay with this story which might lead to opportunities; that’s when she broke into tears.  She said she couldn’t control her emotions after telling the tale and she needed a break.  If a story is causing pain, stop telling it, find another way or another part of the story to tell, or take a break. Reliving a trauma over and over in the shape of a story can stimulate painful feelings and work against healing.

Giving up.  Many artists, speakers and writers find their groove and then get too comfortable. The opportunities to try new stories and ideas are still there, but the teller stops thinking, stops exploring. Trying new material and new approaches is essential in all art and creation.  When you stop exploring you stop growing.  What’s that great line from Shawshank Redemption?… “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

 

Rivka coaches online, does workshops, and all day/multi day intensives.  Rivka@SimplyExtraordinaryTales.com

Toxic Tales: “The Worm in the Apple Stories.”

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Toxic Tales come in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to focus in on a very common type in this post.  I originally thought of calling it the “Oh You’re Gonna Suffer Stories” but decided to be a little poetic and call them “The Worm in the Apple Stories,” because these nasty little tales burrow into listener’s consciousness and often end up spoiling experiences.

These stories are often personal, although not necessarily the teller’s personal experience. They can also be historical or a bit of a tall tale. The story is aimed at a person or persons preparing to go somewhere or do something, and is presented as a warning or a tale of woe.

Pregnant moms and couples often encounter Worm in the Apple Stories, especially at parties or gatherings. The teller will approach the pregnant woman or couple and launch into an account of something difficult, painful, or terrifying that happened to them or someone else.  A bit of drama and emotion is usually part of the mix.  It might go something like “My sister tried natural birth and she screamed for 48 hours… or my friend wanted an epidural but nothing worked then she fell off the bed, ripped out her IV lines…   You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard both of those stories told in detail with lots more drama and promised pain.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about discussing aspects of birth or sharing birth experiences in a caring and authentic way.  These stories are told to get attention, raise emotions or for the enjoyment of the teller. I taught childbirth classes for a couple years and was a doula for decades.  Many parents told me about these stories and how it caused them distress.  Sometimes the distress manifested as nightmares or self-doubt, other times they became nagging memories that accompanied them to labor or early parenting. And just like a worm in an apple, they damage some of the fruit (experience).

Another example of this type of toxic tale is given when a person or people are going into something new.  It might be a planned vacation, starting school, or a new job or adventure.  The enthusiastic listeners will hear stories about tragedy, hardship, or sorrow that happened to someone else.  I once was told about a shark attack when I was headed for a vacation. The attack happened a decade before and not exactly where I swam, but I found myself checking the water and tensing up at the thought each time I went into the water.

These stories are usually not told to purposely ruin your experience; I believe they are usually told to draw attention.  The toxins released by these tales may be minor, although for some, they linger.  If you hear someone starting a wormy tale, you can stop them or walk away.  If you have heard one of these tales and you’re having trouble shaking off the negative images, seek out positive stories and/or information to put things in a proper prospective.

Toxic Tales-Bigotry and Prejudice

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A couple people have told me that all stories are neutral, they can be good or bad, it just depends on how you tell it.  Although that does apply to many examples and it might make people feel good, it’s not true.  There are some stories that are hurtful and harmful no matter how they are told. Some stories are weaponized and others infused (sometimes unconsciously) with hurtful elements that define the story. Good examples of inherently harmful stories are Tales filled with Bigotry or Prejudice.

Let’s look at two types of prejudicial stories:

  1. Stories created especially to promote and increase hatred of a specific group of people.
  2. Stories with characters that encourage and promote negative images or beliefs around a specific group of people.

Stories that Promote Hate

Example – Blood Libel

This ‘traditional tale’ has been told and retold for centuries. Specific names and places change with time but the plot is consistent.  This anti-sematic story usually begins with the death or disappearance of a non-Jewish child.  Then the discovery of some evidence is found that ties the death to the Jewish community because they needed the victim’s blood to make matzah or wine for a holiday or ritual. This is one of history’s cruel ironies because Jewish law prohibits murder, sacrifice, and consumption of blood.  (note- that’s why kosher meat is salted after it is butchered-to draw out the blood.)

One of the earliest examples of the story can be traced back to 1144 in England.  The story then spread through Europe and beyond.  The myth has been used to justify violence against Jews, leading to the deaths of hundreds of men and women. Unfortunately this story hasn’t  gone away and has been mentioned as recently as 2014 when terrorists sited blood libel as the reason for a shooting in synagogue in Israel.

 

Stories that infuse Negative Stereotypes into a specific group or race:

Example – Little Black Sambo

Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman in 1899.  The illustrations, some story elements, and names of the three main characters – Little Black Sambo, Black Mumbo, and Black Jumbo – are especially offensive. Although the story isn’t inherently racist, the hurtful images linger and have taken on significance as racist symbols. A new version of the story was released in 1996 with new names and pictures, but many objected saying the story carried too much hateful history.  I suppose you could argue that this story can be retold, but only by changing the elements that connect it to the original story.  By doing that, you’re creating a different story.

Some stories carry histories of hurt that are not easily forgotten.  I’d like to take it one step further.  Maybe they shouldn’t be forgotten.  Are we ignoring or glossing over this history of hatred by changing names, titles, and plot elements of stories that carried prejudicial messages?

 

(note: I considered adding pictures of the cover of Little Black Sambo but decided against it.  I thought it might be hurtful or triggering to some of my blog readers.  If you’d like to see the varied art, search google images using the book’s title.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Weekly Blog

lost-1605501_1920I started a new series for this blog just a little over a year ago.  I had finished the series on “Junk Stories” and was ready to begin a new series on Toxic Tales: Stories That Cause Harm.  I wrote an outline, began research, and started the first article.

…And then…I stopped.

I stopped working on the series and the blog.  I continued creating spoken word stories and other written content, but the blog drifted into silence.  At first I thought about the content but procrastinated.  Eventually I pushed it out of my mind.

Today is the December 17th, 2018, two weeks before the year is over.  I opened my blog this morning and looked at the picture.  Whatever blocked me from writing a year ago is still here.  I looked at the picture and went about my work until midday when I finally read the last article.  I agree with everything I wrote, so why am I still pushing against writing this series?

Here’s what I’ve come up.

Art is fun.  All art forms are fun to create, experience, and enjoy, and it’s easy to just leave it there.  Stories fill up a lot of our time.  We listen, tell, write, watch, and read stories.  There’s a part of me that just wants to enjoy the story and not think too hard. If I admit (especially on a public blog) that stories can be harmful, I need to take responsibility when I encounter toxic tales. Part of me just wants to have fun, but another (wiser) part of me knows better.

So I’m stepping forward.  Over the next few weeks I’ll explore how stories can be harmful or dangerous. I hope you’ll join me in this (sometimes scary) exploration.

Toxic Stories: Stories That Cause Harm

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The story is the most powerful form of communication. This idea not only applies to verbal and written communications but other types of human expression as well.  If a story can be infused into other forms of communication such as  the music, visual art, and dance, they will be more accessible and memorable.

The story structure with its beginning, middle, and end is sticky and approachable. As children, we are drawn to story. When we grow old, we remember and find purpose through our stories. During every stage of our development stories wait for us and we search them out to be entertained, to understand, and to be understood. Stories connect us as individuals, communities, and societies.  Stories allow us to form identities on many levels.

Yep, stories are powerful…

But that doesn’t mean they are always good.

This very powerful form of expression and communication can be used for good and for bad—no, not just bad, some stories can be downright evil.  In my last series of articles, I wrote about junk stories: these stories fill you up like junk food, and if over consumed can affect your mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.  This new series will focus on toxic tales: stories that can cause harm.

We can often look back in time and identify stories in history, literature,writing, and folklore that generated hate, self-loathing, and confusion, but when they are presented as popular culture or “the next big thing,” it’s often difficult for the target audience to understand how toxic a tale can be.

I’m not suggesting that stories, movies, books, or shows should be banned.  Banned content often becomes more popular, besides, poisonous prose is often embraced.  The best way to protect yourself from toxic tales is to learn how to identify it and then refrain from creating, consuming, and/or promoting it.

I will focus on one form of toxic tales at a time focusing on my experience storytelling and story coaching.  Please send me your thoughts about different types of toxic tales…and I encourage you to list specific movies, stories, shows, and books.

 

Next: Toxic Tale #1-Promoting Hate through Discrimination

Recipes for a Whole Story Lifestyle

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Consciously choosing to live a balanced and rich life requires us to choose to listen, read, and tell a rich variety of stories. In this final article in this Junk Story series we will explore the elements necessary to build and maintain a Whole Story Lifestyle.

Let’s go back one more time to our food analogy to understand what is needed in each healthy story we consume as well as our overall story diet. Although there are tens of thousands of recipes for any given food type, each recipe will share basic elements. So, let’s say you want to bake bread. The recipe will require a leavening agent such as yeast, sour dough starter, baking powder, etc. You’ll also need one or more grains like wheat flour, rye, cornmeal, millet, and so on.  We can’t forget a liquid; it can be as basic as water or we could add milk, orange juice, beer, or something else. Include seasoning and/or flavor and the bread is ready to be made, baked, and eaten.   The types of ingredients will vary for different types of foods, so basic ingredients for a soup or a salad will be different than the ingredients for a bread.   Obvious, right?

Same applies to the stories we consume.  Ask yourself, are you enjoying stories from different groups and do they have the basic elements.

Each type of story requires basic elements. Stories need a beginning, middle, and end. Stories that jump to the middle are confusing. Endless stories are unsettling and can lurk in your memory without resolution. Historic stories need accuracy not only in general facts but also in details. News stories and stories with philosophical concepts need balance. Folklore and mythic tales need to honor their core.

Remember to consume a variety of stories.  If you are stuck in one area, consciously add different types of stories and media forms. Limit the amount of junk stories you take in every week.

Share stories by becoming a listener, talking about the shows, books, movies, and tales you enjoy.  Become part of the chain of stories by telling and passing down family traditions, experiences, and ideas through oral stories.

As a story coach I not only help you find and create your stories, but I also make suggestions and guide you in your exploration of stories in all forms.

Finally, become aware of toxic stories and avoid them.  Since stories are the stickiest form of communication, when we take in toxic content, it lingers in our brain and causes harm.

Living a whole story lifestyle has a dynamic impact on all aspects of your life. Opportunities and awareness will increase as well as your general feeling of well-being when you actively vary and choose the stories you consume.

 

New Series: Toxic Tales

 

The Risks of Living on a Junk Story Diet

By Rivka Willick

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We process and store the stories we hear and read just as surely as we ingest and process the food we eat. Stories, just like food, offer a wide range of benefits and risks. The best tales will challenge the mind, generate courage and hope to the heart, and inspire the spirit. Toxic stories, and yes there are many that act like poison, can generate fear, mistrust, hatred, hopelessness, cruelty, and confusion. During this month’s exploration, we will look at the stories that are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.  I call them Junk Stories.  Enjoying Junk Stories in moderation is OK, but if you fill up on Junk your mind, heart, and spirit will suffer.

Let’s take a closer look at the negative effects of consuming too many junk stories.

Dumbing Down – Stories can fill us up mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  When the content is challenging, curious, or inspiring we grow and flourish. However, if the content is pleasant or titillating but lacks substance, we can spend our mental and emotional energy with little in return. That’s OK in moderation, just as a handful of potato chips are also OK.  Problems arise when we take more than just a handful. Remember the old Lays Potato Chip slogan, “bet you can’t eat just one!” Focusing on just one type of story or binging for hours or days on a series are serious signs of a JUNK STORY DIET. Remember, there are structures used purposefully to ‘hook you’ and keep you coming back. The story in and of itself is OK, dependency isn’t.

Lack of Empathy & Narcissism – Stories are bridges and often become connectors between people, cultures, and different ways of life, but they can also act like a funhouse mirror reflecting how we see ourselves, often in a distorted way.  We’ve all met the guy at a party who monopolizes the conversation with self-aggrandizing tales; people will walk away or try to change the topic but he just doesn’t stop. Personal stories are now one of the hottest trends, but when these tales are solely focused on just the teller, often jumping from one gory or shocking event to another, narcissism has fertile soil to grow.  A diet of shocking stories can also reduce your ability to empathize.

Isolation – Some stories expand the world and others insulate the reader creating a bubble for the reader or listener to escape into. Vacations are good, imprisonment is bad.  If you feel entrapped by media, addictive novels, or your own stories, you need to turn those off and find stories that connect you to others.

Dependency – An exciting movie, novel, or performance can produce an adrenal rush. That heightened emotional state is thrilling and fun, but it can also become addictive. I remember a commercial featuring a zombie-like woman who begins to panic at the end of the last episode of a TV series. The spokesperson assured her she’d be OK if she subscribed to their service, they had lots of binge-worthy shows. The ad ends with her smiling as she sits back to zone out once again. Your natural curiosity and emotional growth can get stuck and that can lead to frustration and depression.

Spiritual Disconnection – Every religion and spiritual practice uses stories as a conduit to understand complicated and challenging ideas. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who did ground breaking work understanding the stories in folklore and comparative religion showed just how powerful the narrative format can be.  The opposite is also true.  Just as stories can connect us to higher truths and lead us to deeper meanings in life, other stories can desensitize us.  Junk stories can stifle our desire to stretch and push ourselves.  The easy story often fills us up making us reluctant to tackle challenging stuff.

Miscommunication & Lies – This category is closer to Toxic than Junk, but I decided to include it because dishonest stories often mascaraed as important or essential stuff even though it’s just junk.  Propaganda campaigns seek out stories which evokes emotional responses and appear to be true.  Once you ingest one of these “true” but dishonest tales it can get stuck in your mind as truth.  This form of junk is often delivered at political and sales events.  They also flourish all over the internet.

Do you have other ideas about the risks of junk stories? Leave a comment below.  If you’d like to explore the power of story, drop me a note.  I do one-on-one coaching, workshops, and performances.

Next Blog: How to Identify Junk Stories.