Tag Archives: storytelling

How to Identify Junk Stories (Article 3 in a series of 8)

 

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By Rivka Willick

Stories, the stickiest form of verbal communication, are as essential as food and water. Instead of nourishing our bodies, stories feed our intellect, emotions, and spirit. The quality of the stories we consume affect us in fundamental ways. Quality stories challenge our minds, guide and strengthen our emotional growth, and inspire that element we might call our unique self; whereas toxic stories cause damage on all those levels. Junk stories are somewhere in between. In the first two articles of this series we’ve explored the concept of Junk Stories and the harm they can cause when you fill up on them.

Now let’s tackle identifying categories of Junk Stories. Remember, junk stories in moderation are OK, just like a sweet for desert or an occasional fast food meal, but a steady diet of junk stories should be avoided.

Formulaic Stories – This is the narrative equivalent of comfort food. The structure never changes, the characters are usually interchangeable, and the endings are predictable.  The modern TV Procedurals are great examples. The structure = An interesting, quirky, or odd character uses his or her oddness to investigate, faces at least one risk, and then helps the police solve the crime. The structure has become so predictable, that some shows will do two or three crimes per episode, but they do that every time.  The predictability is reassuring, it makes us feel good, but if we only stay with the sure things, we’ll become complacent.

Made for Binging – There’s a lot of money to be made in media, so if you can hook the reader, listener, or watcher through an addictive structure or content, you’ll have a customer base you can count on.  I’m not talking about compelling content or great artistry; I’m talking about tricks that keep people hooked. This isn’t new.  Harlequin Romance Novels began in 1949.  Many women throughout the decades have devoured them, sometimes on a daily basis.  Binge Worthy TV Series are designed to keep viewers hooked. Let me be clear- there’s nothing wrong with getting caught up in a great story, book, or show, but if the story is designed to be addictive, you won’t have much brain or heart space for anything else.

Stories with very little middle – All stories have a beginning, middle, and an end with some sort of challenge or movement.  This contained structure is what, I believe, makes stories so sticky. When content is over simplified or minimized the story will still linger in your memory but your understanding, curiosity, and natural compassion is reduced. The Modern News Story is a great example. It begins with a headline grabbing beginning, sprinkles in a few simplistic facts, and ends often with a conclusion meant to provoke a response. If we jump from one incomplete story to another, our view of the world around us becomes distorted and we can be controlled by those creating the news. I believe this is true of all news stories, no matter how they are delivered (internet, radio, TV, newspaper, or magazine) regardless of the viewpoint. However, if you follow up on these news spurts with research or a longer, more complex exploration of the same story, the junk story will become nutritious.

The Fixed Folktale (also known as Disneyfied) I’m a storyteller (and have been a professional teller for almost 2 decades), so I’d be remiss to ignore traditional tales. Both Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly spoke about the power and importance of myth and folklore. These stories endure because they provide structures we need for personal development. When we change the story to fit commercial needs or the rules set by let’s say a school administrator or party planner, we may take away its power and relevance. This is a topic needing a longer exploration, but for now, let’s makes sure there’s room on your plate (and our children’s plates) for a few traditional tales along with the Disney versions. (BTW-comic books are great-they are today’s folklore).

Me, Myself, and I Stories – I might get some push back on this one, but here goes.  Personal stories which are self-absorbed should be spoken and listened to in small doses. If everyone but the protagonist is unappealing, consider looking at it from a different viewpoint. Remember Narcissus died looking at his own reflection.

I know I’ve missed a few categories.  Drop me a note if you’d like to add to the list.

 

Next Blog: How many junk stories are too many?

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.

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.

Remembering Mrs. Konningsberg

broken-glassWhen I first moved to New Jersey, I met an elderly woman named Mrs. Konningsberg. She lived in Perth Amboy and every Shabbos (Saturday) afternoon young men from the Yeshiva (Jewish religious college) would come by to visit. She’d put out cookies and drinks in disposable plastic cups and after they left she’d collect all the cookies, saving them for next week and wash out all the plastic cups.  The cookies were very stale and the cups became brittle.  Mrs. Konningsberg was frugal.

Sometimes I’d also come by with my kids for a visit. We’d chat, avoid the cookies, and sometimes she’d tell us about her life.  Mrs. Konningsberg died many years ago, but her story is extraordinary and I’m passing it along.

Anna was born, grew up, and got married in Germany. She and her husband lived a comfortable life, and although the rise of Nazism caused some concerns, their loyal service to the Kaiser during WWI gave them a sense of security.

Then Anna had a dream. Her father, who had died years ago, appeared in the dream and told her to leave.  That was it.  No fireworks or special effect, none the less, the dream disturbed her enough to wake her up.  She woke her husband and told him her dream.  He dismissed it.

The next night she had a similar dream, only this time her dad was angry.  He asked her why they hadn’t left and insisted on them leaving. She again woke her husband.  This time he took her seriously.  After all, things were getting worse, and so he agreed to begin the process of selling the business and home.

On the third day Anna became tired before her husband returned from work.  She fell asleep in her wooden rocking chair.  Her father must have been waiting; shortly after she dozed off he appeared in her dream and began yelling.  “I told you to leave,” he said.  Then he picked up a leather belt and struck her across the face.

Her rocking chair tumbled over causing her to wake up. Just then her husband arrived home.  He picked her up off the floor and discovered a throbbing red welt across her cheek.  Anna made her decision. “You can do what you want, but I’m leaving now, with or without you. Both husband and wife quickly gathered up their valuables and a few personal possessions then boarded the next train out of Germany.

The last train out of Germany.

The last train out of Germany before Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938,

Mrs. Konningsberg ended her story with a short silence, and then she said “I don’t know exactly what would have happened if we didn’t follow my dream, but I am sure, my father saved us both.

 

Scary Stories: A Training Ground to Endure Discomfort

Horror, Suspense, Terror; let’s face it, we love scary stories. We even designate special times, (Halloween), and places, (Camp Fires, Hay Rides, Haunted Houses) to enhance these spine tingling tales. And it isn’t just stories; we go out of our way to experience fear. The longest lines at amusement parks can always be found at the scariest roller coasters and horror movies are sure bets at the box office. WHY? Are we a masochistic society or is there a reason we crave experiences that terrify us?

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Some might suggest that these scary entertainments stimulate our adrenaline and give us a rush, but I think there is a higher purpose. We are rational creatures and fear tells us to avoid perceived dangers, unfortunately new and unknown things feel strange and can be perceived as dangerous. If we allowed fear to direct our actions, we would never venture out of our safe space or dare to create new things. Scary stories allow us to experience fearful emotions without putting us in harm’s way.
Zombies, demons, and vampires can come at us through stories while we sit in the dark only warmed by a flickering flame. Our hearts may race, we might ever shiver, but we will survive. We’ll watch Psycho and scream, but we’ll continue to munch on our popcorn. Then the next day we just might ask for a raise, apply for a job, or submit art work to be judged. Last night we survived the ax murder so today we can risk rejection.
Remember, stories are sticky. They will hang around in your memory when facts and rationalizations disappear. You’ll remember the fear, but if you are smart and choose the right stories, you’ll also remember surviving.
So, is there a good scary and a bad scary? I think so. Scary stories help train us to endure discomfort and face risk, however they can also break down our defenses and convince us to avoid risks. If the story ends with survival and a sense of hope, the listeners, (and the teller) will internalize these ending values. If on the other hand, the story ends with death and devastation, we might internalize those outcomes. This is different than a tragedy, which often appeals to our intellects. Stories of terror just like the roller coaster stimulate primitive instincts and may act as an emotional training center.
Ultimately trust your gut. Be conscience of your reactions during and after the tale is told. If you walk away from a horror story, a zombie movie, or frightening novel feeling disoriented and raw, that scary experience might have caused more harm than good. If you feel empowered or exhilarated, you might be ready to take a chance tomorrow.