Tag Archives: stories

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)

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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)

 

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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?

 

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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.

When Stories Herald Reality

The stories we see and tell sometimes mirror the reality we live. It’s usually easy to shrug it off and call it a coincident, or maybe you’re reading too much into it, but there are times when the storyteller and the fortune teller seem to be one in the same.  Our stories often predict the future and tell us truths about the present even if we don’t want to see or admit it.

China Syndrome  Manchurian-Candidate mocking jay

On March 16th, 1970 The China Syndrome was released in the USA. You might remember the movie starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon, and Michael Douglas about a cover-up and near disaster at a nuclear power plant.  12 days later radios and television stations across the country delivered dramatic reports about a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor located outside of Middletown, PA.  This was, (and still is), the most serious accident to occur in an American commercial nuclear power plant.  A malfunctioning valve caused the problem and the nation waited for days to learn if there were disastrous consequences.

I went to see The China Syndrome on March 27th,   just one day before Three Mile Island incident.  I went back two days later on March 29th in a state of disbelief and amazement.  I wonder what affect the movie had on the collective consciousness; a million people experienced the fear of a nuclear meltdown in a power plant by watching a movie and then it happened for real.

Here are the two taglines that promoted The China Syndrome:

“Today, only a handful of people know what it means…Soon you will know.”

“People who know the meaning of “The China Syndrome” are scared.  Soon-you-will-know.”

 

There were no fatalities or major injuries, but the event was the catalyst for major changes in regulations and standards for nuclear power plants.

 

Frank Sinatra starred in The Manchurian Candidate, a movie about a prisoner of war who is brainwashed and then becomes an assassin. The film was released in October 1962.  President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed November 1963, just a little over a year later.  Back in the sixties movies circulated for a year or two after their release so when The Manchurian Candidate naturally finished its run, the rumor spread that it was yanked because of the assassination. People saw the connection between the story and reality and jumped to their own conclusion.  We search for (and create) stories to help us make sense of life events that are often too difficult to embrace head-on.

 

Last night my 18-year-old daughter, Chaya, and I went out to see The Mocking Jay, Part One.  It’s the third movie in the Hunger Games series.  We both read the books and liked the first two movies, so we were excited to see the third. The Hunger Games is about a futuristic society.  The wealthy and powerful Capital controls and oppresses the poorer districts by forcing them to sacrifice a few young people each year to a televised fight with only one victor.  The third movie is about the rebellion.

About 15 or 20 minutes into the movies we see a few of the poorer districts (filled with people of color) forced to watch public executions. A few minutes later we see them fight back.  My daughter turned to me and said “Oh my gosh, it’s just like Ferguson.”  As the movie continued the connection became even clearer.

The Mocking Jay Part 1 came out November 21st and three days later on November 24th the Grand Jury Announced that Officer Darren Wilson would not be charge in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Riots and protests followed.

Once again story became the herald of our reality.

Infusing Story onto Products

STORY is the big new word in marketing & advertising. Stories are sticky-memorable-and people want to hear them. Stories are very old but it sounds like modern marketing gurus have just discovered the concept. Tell the story of your product and you’ll be a multi-millionaire overnight. It sounds simple, and it is…but first you have to understand how stories work and honor their structure. That’s sometimes tricky.
Let’s look at two companies that tried to infuse story into their message, one was more successful than the other.
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Example #1 – Coke-a-Cola and Santa Clause
Just about everyone in the Western Hemisphere has seen the picture of Jolly Old St. Nick with his snowy white beard and bright red suit holding a bottle of Coke. The image of the soda pop drinking Santa first appeared in 1931, long after Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Images of the red clad gift giver were seen on magazines and books before 1931, but using Santa as product placement was new. Instead of eating a cookie set out by children, he took a moment to refresh. It all fit into the narrative and the branding sizzled. The soda pop just expanded the image of Chris Kringle and created a fresh chapter to a delightful story. Great illustrations and a sense of humor made this branding story a best seller for decades.

My beautiful picture

Example #2 – INOX Watch and the NYFD

August 2014 Vitorinox, a major fashion brand that originally created the Swiss Army Knife, rolled out a new watch. They joined forces with the New York Fire Department and created a flashy event at SIR Stage 37 on West 37th St in Manhattan. They’re hoping to create a branding story using images of the most famous fire fighters in the world to show off the durability of their watch. We heard bag piping firemen and saw dramatic demonstrations of the watch’s durability. The INOX watch kept ticking after a fire engine rolled over it and a washing machine washed it. The durable watch was boiled in a tea pot and froze in a mountain of ice. Lots of wow, but where’s the story?

Stories work because they create connections and give us a sense completion, that’s why they’re memorable. I walked around the party and asked how the FDNY and INOX are connected but got no real answer. “They thought it was a good idea.” “The FDNY wanted to try something new.” Yep that’s what I was told, but that doesn’t make a story. I asked if the firemen were going to be given these durable watches and the Vitorinox spokeswoman said maybe. Images alone are not enough. Don’t get me wrong. I love the image of the watch in the teapot, but it’s just an image. The marketers might be hoping that the watch buying public will create their own story from the images. Sometimes that works but it feels like they just missed creating a branding story that will last for generations.

Santa will always enjoy a Coke during his midnight ride because a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end was set up before the first 1931 image and is remembered every time we see it. The jury is still out about the firefighter’s timepiece.