Tag Archives: stories

Skutnik Stories: Everyman Stories at the State of the Union

SkutnikBy Rivka Willick

When does a story turn into propaganda? I have no doubt that we will get a chance to ponder that question once again during the next State of the Union Address when one or more Skutniks will be woven into the annual speech.

What’s a Skutnik?  I’m glad you asked. A Skutnik is a story about a real person who has done something exceptional or noteworthy and is woven into the US President’s State of the Union.

Ronald Reagan began the tradition in 1982 when he invited  Lenny Skutnik as a personal guest. Just two weeks before, Jan 13, 1982, this everyman witnessed a plane crash into the Washington D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge. He saw a woman lose her grip on a rescue line and fall into the water. Lenny dove into the river and saved her.  Reagan, “The Great Communicator”, used Skutnik as an example of “the spirit of American heroism at it’s finest.” The camera found Lenny seated next to Nancy Reagan, which surprised him.  Americans cheered, after all who doesn’t love a hero?

Two years later Reagan singled out another hero in his 1985 State of the Union, Sergeant Stephen Trujillo who showed heroism during the U.S military action in Grenada. From that point on this storytelling technique became a staple in all the State of the Unions, regardless of political affiliation.

In 1986 13-year-old Trevor Ferell’s efforts to deliver food and blankets to the homeless in Philadelphia became a story about American generosity.

President Bill Clinton made eighth grader Kristin Tanner a symbol of American academic superiority when she brought in high scores in the Third International Math and Science Study.

Geroge W Bush told Hermis Moutardier’s story in 2002. He was one of two flight attendants who stopped shoe bomber Richard Reid from detonating an explosive on a Paris to Miami flight. Houston Rocket’s center, Dikembe Mutombo joined the Skutnik club in 2007 when Bush used his story about raising $29 million to build a hospital in Africa in his State of the Union address.

Barack Obama singled out Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton, parents of Hadiya Pendleton who was gunned down in Chicago just days after singing at his Inauguration.

Last year Trump took the “everyman story” to a new level. He did 16 Skutniks…(Mr. President, maybe less is more.)

So now that you know what a Skutnik is and how it is used, are you ready to tackle the question? Is there a place for these heart tugging personal ‘real people stories’ in the State of the Union?  Are they used unfairly to draw people to one side or are they a manipulative tool ? Do they illustrate ‘American Exceptionalism’ or use individuals accomplishments to promote  a specific political agenda?  Is this storytelling technique used in other countries during policy speeches or is it just an American Institution?

When does inspiration in a story stop and propaganda begin?

Let me know what you think.

 

Rivka works as a storycoach online, in person, and in workshops.  She’s also a storyteller and writer. Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com

 

Toxic Tales – TOTS (Too Often Told Story)

spherical-ball-joint-746194_1280

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 Lemming Lie

lemming-763780_1920This is the third article in a series on Toxic Tales.  Now it’s gonna get messy.

Have you ever heard the phrase – “Don’t be a lemming” or “If you friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”  Up until a few months ago, I thought lemmings were mammals that willingly followed the group and would jump off a cliff just to follow the crowd.  I grew up “knowing” that fact.  A few months ago I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about white owls and stumbled onto a section about lemmings, their major food source.  The journalist threw in a line about a nature documentary that staged the mass lemming death to create a dramatic ending. Huh? What?

I rolled up my sleeves and investigated the mystery of The Lemming Lie.

Here’s what I found. Back in 1957 Disney produced a nature documentary called White Wilderness about the arctic. The producer needed a dramatic ending so he herded a group of lemmings and drove them off a cliff.  Families gathered every Sunday to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, so when the documentary was aired millions saw a group of gerbil like rodents tumbling off a series of rocky cliffs, many falling to their deaths, others being swept away into the ocean.  White Wilderness won the 1958 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Animal Planets lists Lemmings Suicide as the #1 animal myth.

The Lemming Lie really bugged me and I wasn’t sure why.  After all I’m a storyteller, I tell and write lots of fiction.  As a story coach I help lots of folks find and tell their stories. Here’s one of my favorite lines, “know the difference between truth and facts.”  I tell folks to not get hung up on listing every event or even focusing on the right order of things.  But this is different.

Blatantly creating a false fact (and not disclosing its falseness) is toxic.  Today there is an abundant use of story in TED style talks, as a teaching tool, and as a motivational device.  Factual stories are now told everywhere. I heard a local politician tell an emotional story that swayed the audience, but I spotted the fabricated fact.  Some might argue, it’s only a story, and even if it is presented as a true story, we shouldn’t be gullible, but I disagree.

Since stories are sticky causing us to remember them longer than other forms of communication, the false facts embedded in these stories are also remembered.  There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Listeners also recognize simplifications or generalizations in stories, however if the teller, writer, or film documentor is presenting something as fact, which he or she knows is a lie, the story will chisel doubt, skepticism, or false ideas into the audience.

Have you discovered a Lemming Lie…something you accepted as truth in a story, book, or movie, which is false?  I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a link to the clip about lemmings from White Wilderness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOOs8MaR1YM

Do you want to work with Rivka. Check out her Story Coaching page?  http://www.simplyextraordinarytales.com/story-coaching/

 

(note-I read a lot about the lemming myth and found one video that sited a cartoon published a couple years before the documentary was released. Since documentaries take time to create, I’m not sure which came first, but using a cartoon character as source material to justify staging a “true” event, seems like a stretch to me. This illustrates the problem.  Once a lie is embedded into our social consciousness, it’s hard to let it go.)


 

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.

Weening off Junk Stories (Article 6 in a series of 8)

coins-1015125_1920

I’ve identified junk stories and their risks in earlier articles in this series.  Now it’s time to discuss ways to cut back on an over-saturated diet of junk stories. Junk stories, just like junk food are easy to consume and over indulge.  Many of us wake up and discover we are bloated in junk stories and don’t know how to stop.  Since junk stories come in different forms and we listen, read, and tell stories in different ways, let me suggest several different ways to ween off junk stories.

  1. Come out of isolation – If you are watching shows or movies alone, invite friends or family to sit and watch with you. If you are binge reading junk on line or in print, join a reading group or ask a friend to read what you’re reading.  The very act of sharing will expand the quality of your experience and often encourage exploration into other content.
  2. Investigate the other side – The 24-hour news cycle generates a lot of junk. Most so-called news outlets generate content heavily weighted to one side or the other, seasoned with generous amounts of anger, arrogance, prejudice, and righteousness.  The story format creates sticky content that easily provokes strong feelings, but the imbalanced content greatly reduces the value of stories.  Challenge yourself and seek out the other side (or sides) of the story. As you begin to question the validity of lop-sided news, individual stories will gain complexity – a storytelling equivalent to nutritional value.
  3. Try something new – Variety is said to be the spice of life, but we are often reluctant to change, even if we know the change is for our own good. Familiar might be boring, but it’s also safe and reassuring.  We crave repetition, but we don’t want to be bored so we seek out binge content so we can space out.  Make a contract with yourself to watch, read, or listen to something new for every repeat or repetitive show.
  4. Challenge yourself – Easy isn’t always good. Step out of your comfort zone and include a few stories every week or month that takes effort to understand and digest.  Just as a healthy diet must include complex carbohydrates and lean proteins, a healthy story diet should include quality content that pushes you.
  5. Don’t forget to play and have fun – Quality isn’t dull and great stories can be fun. Give yourself permission to play.

Next Blog: Where to find nutritious stories.

How Many Junk Stories are Too Many Junk Stories? (4th in a series of 8)

 

27270377_m

How many “calories” are in a procedural or trash novel?

By Rivka Willick

For most of us, an occasional ice cream cone or order of fries is OK, but a diet filled with junk food will sooner or later cause health problems.  The same applies with junk stories. For most of us watching a procedural, reading a serial romance novel, or sharing a self-absorbed story is harmless, but bingeing on stories with addictive, simplistic, or narcissistic elements will dumb you down, emotionally stunt you, and dull your spirit.

So, how do we find the right balance for a nutritious story diet? It will vary for different individuals and may be a little tough to get a grip on, since stories are so entwined in our lives.

Let’s go back to the food analogy to find our answer. Some people have a very low tolerance for sugars, fatty foods, and starches.  If you have heart disease, diabetes, or binge eating disorders, you need to limit and illuminate certain foods.  I believe there are similar conditions connected to our story intake.

  1. Media Binging- If you are obsessively watching, reading, or listening to stories for hours at a time, losing sleep, skipping work, or avoiding responsibilities consider limiting or cutting out the types of stories that you’re hooked on.
  2. Irritability and social isolation – Certain stories are structured to build dependency; these often are simplistic and repetitive. If you find yourself separating from others, consider expanding your story diet.
  3. Fatigue and a Dumbed Down Feeling (Couch Potato) – If you’re spending a lot of time reading, watching shows, or listening to stories that lulls you into a complacent or dull state of mind, consider reducing or changing your story habits.

You may not fall into any of the above categories, however a conscientious examination of the different types of stories you take in every month will help you stay balanced.  After all, you want a diverse diet of both food and stories.  If you eat nothing but greens, eventually you’ll have problems.  The same is true with your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual consumption of the world around you.  (We are focusing on stories, because stories are sticky and show up in everything). Try to take in some challenging stories, along with some inspiring tales, narratives that connect, and some playful yarns.

Also try to take in a variety of story forms.  If you mainly watch TV, add reading or listening to stories on the radio, as blogs, or audio books.  If you have a seat with your name on it at the local cinema, try to take in a play.  And don’t forget live, unscripted stories.

 

 

Next blog: When Junk Stories Become Personal

How do you handle the Junk Stories around you?  Leave a comment.

Are You Living on a Junk Story Diet?

 

49780169_l

We  all know that junk food might taste great, is easy to find, and fun to eat, but a steady diet of fats, carbs, and processed sugars is unhealthy.  The health risks include obesity, cardiovascular disease and a long list of chronic health conditions. Habitual fast foods may also cause depression, headaches and even acne.  But I don’t have to list reasons not live on junk food, you already know it’s bad for you, but healthy  food takes a little more effort and focus. Kale, toss salads, and brown rice aren’t as easy or fun as french fries or candy but taking the time and effort to eat nutritious quality foods allows you to be both physically and mentally healthy.

 

 

Now let’s consider your intake of stories.

Stories are the stickiest form of communication. When information is delivered within a story structure it is remembered longer and understood deeper than any other communication format. We also like stories, we crave stories, stories are enjoyable. When we are young they are the building blocks of learning and connections.  When we grow old, stories tie us to our past and allow us to retain an identity even when memory fails. Stories propel religions, inspire beliefs, help politicians get elected, promote and increase sales, and build bridges to lasting and meaningful connections.

Stories are a constant.  We connect by telling them to each other and build an understanding of ourselves by owning stories (both positive and negative) about ourselves. We digest stories daily through movies, TV, books, blogs, comic strips, oral performances, and unscripted discussions.

We consume stories just as surely as we consume food, but not all stories are alike.  Just as food varies widely in nutritional value, stories also cover a wide spectrum in intellectual, emotional, and spiritual power.

Are you nourishing your mind, heart, and spirit with quality stories or are you gorging on a junk story diet?

Over the next few weeks we will explore different aspects of junk stories.

  • The risks of living on a junk story diet
  • How to identify junk stories
  • How many junk stories are too many?
  • When junk stories become personal
  • Weening off a junk story diet.
  • Where to find nutritious stories
  • Recipes for a whole story lifestyle.

I’d love to hear your questions and ideas. Please leave your comments.