This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Len Cabral. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Len Cabral, Professional Storyteller
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Adam Greenfield: Ok, to start, an easy question. Name and what you would say your title or occupation is.
Len Cabral: Ok, my name is Len Cabral and I’m a professional storyteller.
A: And you’ve been doing that since the mid-70’s, yes?
L: Yes, since 1976.
A: So that was- you were in your mid-20’s around then?
L: Yes, I was. I was in my mid-20’s.
A: Was there anything that triggered the start of the storytelling path?
L: Well, I was working in a daycare center and I was in charge of 15 five year olds. That’ll make you a storyteller. But I was taking classes at a nearby college, Rhode Island College in early childhood development and children’s theater and creative drama, and I was always interested in theater. And I got involved with a children’s theater company, do a lot of reader’s theater. And I guess I was influenced by a lot of TV program I watched as a young boy, too.
A: Which programs?
L: Well, they were different variety shows. There was Red Skelton, there was Laugh In, then there were comedians I was excited about, like Jonathan Winters, there’s Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory and later on it was Richard Pryor, Danny DeVito, like the physical comics. I guess it was a combination of a lot of actors and people in my own family. I came from a large family so there was a lot of banter going on in the family.
A: You mentioned Red Skelton and I remember- that name, I haven’t heard it in years, but as a kid my parents used to have these albums that were kind of like a- you would play them it was kind of like a call and response kind of thing. It was like you knew what you were supposed to say. I remember as a kid laughing so hard my stomach would hurt. And especially when I would listen or watch Red Skelton. My parents loved him and it was a great name.
L: Yeah, he would do all those different characters. Clem Kadiddlehopper and Gertrude.
A: Ah, man. Memories. I might have to call my mom after this and talk to her about that. So you came from a big family? How many siblings?
L: Well, I have three brothers but I have lots of cousins and uncles. So we’d get together for Sunday afternoon at grandma’s house and there’s just be a lot of banter, especially as we got older, we became closer with all my cousins and the banter with the uncles became part of the family fabric.
A: Are they also into storytelling as much as you are?
L: Uh, well, no. I’m the storyteller. But they were all storytellers and characters in one way or another.
A: Can you give me an example?
L: Actually, my father. My father was a good storyteller. He’d tell a story. But there are more things that happened on the job or when they were growing up, working as teenagers, and just experiences that they’ve had. And then when I was growing up it was “children are to be seen and not heard.” And so if we were quiet enough, we could hear all these stories that weren’t meant for us. There’d be banter and gossip about this neighbor and that neighbor and funny things would happen that they didn’t know we kids were listening on. Stuff like that.
A: Yeah, I used to steal my parents’ Truly Tasteless Jokes books and just kinda sneak away in the corner.
L: Oh yeah! And the Redd Foxx albums.
A: Yes! Those, too. So it seems like, then, your preferred audience, if you could choose one, would be the kids or the youth, I guess.
L: Well, most of my work is through schools so it’s K through 12 and so that’s most of my work. So yeah, most of my material is geared towards those in elementary and middle school and high school. Though, at festivals around the country, it’s mostly adults at these festivals. So we do have opportunities to share stories with adults but the majority of my work is in school settings.
A: Is there something to your work that lends itself better to school settings than others?
L: Well, I think the opportunity is there because there are more schools than venues for adult storytelling and since I focus on that more, I try to find the stories that are- that would be most helpful in a school setting for that age group, for different age groups. With the use of different types of stories, using repetition or participation, be they folk tales, fairy tales, or myths from around the world.
A: I just watched a video of you telling a story about a bear and a chipmunk-
L: Mm hmm.
A: -to kids, to a group of kids, and there’s that call and response going on and they were so into it. And there was a time where they would slowly, as kids do, sort of go off on their own tangent but you would be able to bring them back around and it was a fun interaction that you had. Is there an interaction you prefer with kids than you do with adults when it comes to storytelling?
L: Yeah, well, when telling to a young audience, I try to use a lot of participation and audience involvement because it’s important for the audience- for youngsters to be involved with the story, to participate. We have so many things where they’re just sitting back watching and not [need better audio here]. When they’re listening to a story and they’re being asked to participate, they have an effect on that story, they work with that story, it becomes part of them, and they feel part of the story. And so it allows us to reach higher ground with them and get them to a deeper engagement when they’re listening to participate.
A: I want to talk about, if adults require that, sort of, interaction with them as kids would.
L: Well, there are stories where we’re- where are adults are participating, maybe not as actively as a young audience would because they’re different stories. But I think all listening audiences participate in one way or another. For example, if I said- if I began a story and I said, “Once…,” the audience is going to know, “Oh, I’m probably going to say ‘once upon a time.” So they’re ahead of me with the story. I said, “Once there was…” or “Once long….” They’re going to know, “Oh, this is going to be ‘once long ago.” So they’re always a word or two ahead of the story and that’s when, sometimes, the story changes up and that’s where you have the “ah ha” moment.
Patrick Yurick: I was just going to say that, like, we were talking about this earlier but, one of my favorite conversations I had with Len was about, before I started teaching, he was talking about the lyricism of storytelling, something I never considered. I’ve studied poetry, I’ve studied music making. But I never linked in a narrative form that having tropes or ideas that you establish that the audience can return to…. You said it, like the way a chorus works. You have a chorus and everybody knows “Yesterday” from the Beatles, and then there’s new information and that’s where you forget all the lyrics because it’s the only time they say it, then you get confused but it’s okay because you’re coming back to the thing you’re familiar with.
P: And there’s this one story that Len tells that I remember from when I was a little kid, is Wiley and the Hairy Man, and my dad and I- my dad thinks it’s the funniest story because it has beagles in it and we had hunting dogs growing up. So it was like- I just have these memories of growing up as a little kid and he will, even if you say Wiley and the Hair Man, he’ll start chuckling. “Wiley and the HAIRY man!” My dad never really got into kids stuff and that was this really powerful thing that, still to this day, I have this connection because he remembered that refrain and it was just as important to him- well, maybe in a different way, I have no idea, but- as it was to me. So it was, like, interesting how in the other speakers we’ve talked to, in the interviewees for this course and the podcast, we haven’t really talked about techniques that can be used to keep the audience-
L: Mm hmm.
P: -while you’re also being mindful of introducing new information. How are you looping back to this other thing?
L: That is part of the repetition where, as you mentioned in a chorus, when that chorus comes back in a song, everybody joins in. And the same thing with the story, where people are listening to a story and here comes that refrain that’s familiar to them and they can grab onto that and they’re ready to go to the next journey of that story. So it’s sort of like a safe ground, a safe spot where the familiarity of the story sort of carries you on to the next part of the story.
P: I have a question, to follow that up. In kids stuff you tend to create almost a catchphrase, you’re like bashing them over the head with it. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just more like, “No, this is definitely the more familiar part,” like “Wiley and the HAIRY man,” you make sure they know. Is it different for adults?
P: And, like, how is it different?
L: No, it’s- well, you don’t need to- a lot of times that repetition is used with young audiences so that you can hold their attention span. With adults you don’t need that repetition as much because they’re adults and hopefully they have an attention span. But with young children you want to be able to keep them engaged with something familiar to them and also have them verbally participate which helps them stay with the story. With adults, sometimes it’s a set-up so that you can do a story within a story where the story kind of comes back and folds in on itself, which creates the “ah ha” moment. It’s when they go, “Ooohhh, okay.” Because something happened at the beginning of the story all of a sudden comes back at the end of that story and kind of ties it together but it’s a surprise. It was just almost like a throwaway line at the beginning of the story and toward the end of the story you see where that throwaway line was really a strong part of the story.
P: So does that mean it’s, like- you had me read that book by Christopher Booker so I- Len lent me a book called “The Seven Basic Plots” or he told me to read it when I was starting to write. And it’s 1000 pages and it’s some guy’s dissertation about how all stories in the world are the seven same stories and he proved this by trying to catalog as many stories as humanly possible.
P: And I read half of it. When it got to the tragedy and comedy chapters I had a harder time with that. One of the things I was connecting to what you just said was like, so you set up a conflict, right? Like that conflict in the beginning leads us to understand where the solution will be? But it almost is, like, we know where the solution will be but it’s almost impossible to get there and the interest in the story is how-
L: Where that journey takes you.
L: And sometimes, I guess that setup or that conflict which appears to be a conflict in the beginning isn’t really a conflict, it’s the beginning of a resolution to something else that transpires in the story where the twist comes in, where some stories, like I mentioned, fold in on themselves and it causes the audience- I guess a way to say that would be, like, a hot spot, especially working with youth, say, their attention span is maybe three minutes because it’s geared to commercials on television, how they set people up. And so every three minutes there’s some hot spot, something in the story that makes kids go, “Ohhh.” And then goes on for another three minutes, then something else happens where they go, “Oh.” And it perks their interest. It’s almost like a way to- “Ok, I’ve gassed up. I can listen for another three minutes. Ooh, I gassed up again. I can listen for another three minutes.” It lengthens their attention span and you get these children whose attention span might be seven minutes but because you tell a story in such an engaging way that they can stay with that story for fifteen to twenty minutes because you’ve interspersed hot spots every two or three minutes in the story where it perks their interest. Either it perks their interest or they go, “Ah ha ha ha!” or “Ahhhhh.” And that “ah” or “ha ha ha” or “oooh,” that means they’ve gassed up. That’s like a gas station where they’ve gassed up and they can listen for another two or three minutes because they just got rewarded for listening for three minutes. “I listened for three minutes and something funny happened. I’m going to listen for another three minutes and- ooh, something mysterious happened.” And so it’s sort of a reward for being engaged for two or three minutes at a time.
A: It’s like a Pavlovian response kind of a thing. I want to sort of bring it back in the lane. I could talk about storytelling all day. I’m a writer as well but at the same time, while I enjoy this, I kind of want to bring it back towards this project. So how do we then, since we’re talking about how we engage kids with this storytelling, if we can figure this out in this discussion, how do we do that with scientists? Can you use these methods you that you use with kids to engage a scientific audience?
L: I believe you can. I believe storytelling is such a powerful tool that with the right setup, you can engage anybody. With storytelling you can engage people with words, but you can also- there’s movement, there’s sound, there’s facial expressions, there’s body language used in storytelling. So it’s a powerful tool that I think can be used in every field. In any field.
P: We covered- we watched that animation earlier, too, where one of the techniques in the course we’re advocating the students to do, this idea of narrative and using narrative to introduce your work as opposed to just being, “This is the research I did and this is how long it took.” Tony- one of Tony’s things is he’s advocating you to frame your solution to a problem in a narrative that the audience can relate to so that when they get to your solution they’re, “Oh, that’s a really good idea.” As opposed to just starting- telling them to research. Which we think is important because we did all the work but this is what we had to pay attention to. But when you’re trying to solve, like, say, public transit, and your thing, your proposed solution, is to frame that into a story is a good idea. Is there any, like, techniques other than the one that you saw in that animation that you would think of?
L: Well, there was this- I guess this is part of a story- I heard this story years ago. About- there was a professor who always had a story about anything. A student would say something to him and he’d say, “Oh, I got a story about that.” One of the students said, “Professor, how many stories do you know? Every time someone asks you about- a question about something, you say you have a story about that.” And the professor said, “Well, I have a story about that.” And he told this story about this young man who was sent off for military training. And he learned how to shoot the crossbow, the longbow, throw the javelin, and he really became an expert at the bow and arrow. And he finished his training and as he was returning home, and he’s riding through the country on his horse, when he stopped so his horse could get some water. And he looked around and he saw, on the side of a barn, fifty bullseyes, targets, with an arrow dead center in each one of them. He was amazed by this work and he wanted to find out who’s the marksman in this town. And he saw a young boy and he said, “Hey, whose work is this? Who’s the marksman in this town?” And the boy said, “Oh, that’s Sam, the town fool.” “Fool?! You serious? Look! He’s a marksman. Look at all these bullseyes.” And the boy said, “Oh, Sam, first he makes the hole, then he draws a circle around it.” So that’s how you solve a lot of these problems with reaching out to people.
A: That is going to be my philosophy for the rest of my life. So anytime I make a mistake I’m going to draw a circle around it and go, “Bullseye.”
L: Circle around it, dead center, bullseye.
A: Nailed it just exactly how I wanted to do it.
L: So that may be way to find some of the solutions to that-
P: Yeah, so you’re looking at it differently. Like, so, and I don’t mean to dissect it but, you have your protagonist that’s looking at the problem trying to solve it through traditional means, and then he becomes impressed by the guy who actually solves the problems-
L: Mm hmm, yes.
P: -and I think scientists are often in the position of being the town fool, right, in that story in the way that they have a new of looking at something. But if they told people they’re going to put a hole in something and draw circles around it-
L: Right, yeah.
P: -people are going to be, like, “You’re an idiot.”
L: And also, in many cultures, we have the trickster, where the trickster would also do something unconventional but come up with the right answer just by luck or on a whim.
A: Not to go off on a tangent, which is apparently gonna be easy in this one but, every culture has that… that Loki, right? I mean, every-
A: -they’ve all got an antagonist, right? Alright. I want to bring it to the performance aspect of things. I do a lot of poetry reciting and lately I’ve been working on the memorization of it without holding a book or whatever in front of me while I recite. But I don’t know what to do with my hands. Do I put them in my pocket? Do I hold them behind my back? And I’ve noticed when you do your storytelling, your hands are actually telling sort of a side story along with this. Is it a conscious thing or is that something you’re aware of or is that something you picked up over time?
L: Well, I’ve always used my hands when I speak. But when I’m in a performance or when I’m developing a story, at times I will use my hands to maybe make that story a little clearer or use my hands so maybe I don’t have to use so many words. I was talking earlier this morning about working with schools, working with diverse audiences. You don’t know the depth of your audience’s vocabulary when you’re working with children. So for example if I said, “So the witch flew through the window and sat down by her cauldron.” Now, some children may know what a cauldron is. But even children born in this country may not because it’s such an old word. They may not have heard that word, cauldron. So if I use the word cauldron and at the same time move my hands to show a bowl or half a bowl, a container, so a student who didn’t know that word cauldron wouldn’t be lost because they’ll go, “Oh, a cauldron must be some sort of container, a bowl, a pot or something like that.” Just by moving my hands that way. Now, keeping in mind that a little movement goes a long way. And too much movement would be distracting and I could see that would be distracting with too much movement with poetry, also. But I use my hands- there are certain kinds of stories where I use my hands to show something. Other times I’m just reaching out to the audience with it, with my hands. You know, I don’t have them in my pocket, I don’t have them folded across my chest. My hands are- my arms are open. So I look at storytelling as I’m spreading my arms out and pulling everybody close. You know, like, traditional theater has that fourth wall where you separate the audience from the stage. With storytelling, it’s almost like pulling that audience onto the stage. It’s open, and so my hands are open. I try to use encouragement when I’m- especially when I’m asking people to participate, I’m waving them on. Luring them into the story, using my hands to lure them in.
P: You also do this thing where you- so you just described making a visual-
P: -and then you also described gestures that make you human to them and, like, more inviting in.
L: Mm hmm.
P: And then there’s this other one I noticed you do where you make noises that amplify something in the story.
P: So I saw you, like, tap your arm….
L: Mm hmm.
P: But you do it- how do you choose which story- which things to make audible with sound effects?
L: Well, I guess it comes with practice and rehearsing that story. When I’m in my studio working on a new story, I’m pacing, I’m using different voices, I use different techniques to help me to capture that story in my mind. So I might sing that story. Or I might do the whole story in mime. It’s what I call physicalizing the story. So when I’m telling the story, and let’s say a bell rings or a door slams, and I lose my train of thought because I got distracted, I can check out where I am physically and I’ll know what story I’m telling, I’ll know where I am in the story. I can look at photographs of people taking pictures of me telling stories over the years and I can say, “Well, I was telling such and such story.” It’s because, I guess, how I learned the story is physically as well as verbally. And so I can check myself if I’m speaking too fast, if I need to slow the story down. So the movement is- for me, the movement is a big part of the story because it connects me to the story and it also helps me if I lose- if I get distracted by, like I said, a slamming door or a bell ringing. When you’re working in schools, you may have the fire alarm going off, you get the intercom coming on, and so there’s a lot of chances where you could lose your train of thought. But because I always learn the story physically, I can always bring the story back to myself.
P: So basically I need to act out the test in order to start memorizing the text book.
A: A lot of the people listening don’t have that training. Do you have any techniques that, for a story that may not have that physical- or may not lend itself well to that physical aspect of storytelling- do you have any techniques that can sort of help them stay focused and get back on track?
L: Well, one thing I suggest is reading aloud. A lot of people don’t read aloud. I love to read aloud. I love to hear people read aloud. But reading aloud, finding a story that you want to be able to share, but reading that story aloud helps you find the rhythm of the story and your pacing and how it works with you. And so by reading aloud for me, if I hear things, I remember things better than if I read them. So by reading aloud, my voice leaves me and comes back to me and I can lock it in. And so I’m a strong proponent about reading aloud. When I worked in the daycare center, I would read aloud to the children until I get tired of those books and they get tired of me reading, and then I started telling them stories. But I think reading aloud helps one find your voice, find the rhythm of your voice and the rhythm of that particular story, and it also allows you to play with that story, as reading aloud realizing, you know, this doesn’t have to be said in that story because when things are being read you might need more words. But when things are being spoken, because you can use your facial expressions and your body movement, that you wouldn’t need as many words as you would if you were just reading from text, from a text. And I think, you know, just as a poet, practicing that- finding the rhythm of a poem, that you write and not all poems are read the same way, just as not all stories are told in the same pace. It’s finding a correct pace for that story.
A: And it’s hard. There’s one that I’ve been- one of mine that I wrote that I really wanted to memorize that I’ve been practicing and I noticed that when I read it in my head, it comes off at a certain pace. But when I read it out loud, it’s almost like there’s more feeling an emotion to it. And there’s some words where I kind of just elongate them out a little bit just to give it that emphasis.
L: Yeah, sure.
A: So you learn and you hear it and you’re like, “Oh, I gotta do that next time.”
L: I look for the rhythm in each word. Sometimes you elongate a word and you get a different response from an audience. And then reading aloud also- pacing that’s taking a beat between a verse, giving the audience a chance to catch up to that story or that phrase that you just used. I’ve come across some powerful phrases in folklore and some that I just love to hear- let the audience really hear them. One I was thinking this morning, I was driving up here, I was in traffic and I was reciting a story that I know, and there’s this line in the story where this person is sent into the forest and before long she found she lost her way. And it had the word “found” and “lost” in the same sentence. “She found she lost her way.” Or another line was, “By making herself invisible, she disappeared.” And you want to sort of take a beat there, let the audience go, “Wow.” It’s like, in some tales it’s “Yeah, that person turned up dead.” Think about that. “Turned up dead.” Ok…. But taking a beat there, you could read that and just read right over it but if you verbalize it and you realize, wow, the play on words is like a Carl Sandberg play on words, to take that beat, that time with it. So I think it’s very important to sort of read aloud and to hear your voice and that’ll tell you- you know, find the rhythm of the story.
A: Are there posts in stories that you tell that sort of help you remember which direction to go with the story? So for example, when I recite poetry, or even in poetry in general, there are some words that, they don’t rhyme, but they sort of allow you to help you take that step forward, propel you forward. And there’s a wordplay with that. Can you do that with folk storytelling and things like that?
L: Yeah, you mean wordplay, for example-
A: It’s like you know how you’re trying to memorize the names of the planets and there’s that “My Very….” Oh, I can’t remember. My Very Educated Mother whatever it is. You know, Mars, Venus, Earth. Is there something like that you can do with storytelling? A lot of these people don’t have that experience or practice doing it and I don’t think they’re going to spend too much time taking classes on storytelling.
L: Mm hmm. I know what you mean about trying to memorize the planets and stuff. But I don’t know- I guess people could discover certain ways to help memorize their story, a story, if they’re having trouble memorizing it or keeping things in order, the sequence. But I think it just comes with practice, trying to find that rhythm. There’s certain things that I do that I may use in different stories, a combination of different words that I would use in different stories, just as a way of showing time in a story. But I’m not sure if that answers your question there.
A: It does. It’s just a matter of practicing and repetition and just saying it loud and kind of hearing it along with trying to think of what you’re saying.
L: Right, yeah. Because like I mentioned, when I use words and it leaves me and comes back to me, it kind of locks it in and I got a pretty decent memory and so I can kind of recall things. A lot of these things fall back in- fall back into place when I’m telling a story. Once in a while I’ll have stories that maybe begin in the same way and so I’ll intend to tell one story but it begins in such a way that it could be this other story that I tell also and so I’ll have to catch myself. And sometimes I don’t.
A: How do you recover? If you’re on the spot, is there a graceful way of recovering?
L: Oh, yeah. There’s graceful ways. The wonderful thing about telling a story is you’re the only one who knows what you’re going to say next? So whatever you say is right. If there’s a part of a story where you forgot to mention something in the beginning of the story but as you go on you remember that, you have to decide, is that part that I forgot necessary in the story? If it’s not, ok, forget about it. If it is, that’s where the creativeness comes in. How can I weave this part that I forgot to interject at the beginning of this story, how can I weave it into the story so that it’s seamless? Or you could say, “What they didn’t know was…” and then add that part into it. Or you could just figure out a way, here’s a space where I can slip that part into the story. Then you might realize, you know, the story worked better with me interjecting that part of the story- instead of the beginning of the story, it worked better at the end or in the middle where I put it in out of necessity.
A: I’m curious, if when practicing and you make a mistake, do you sort of roll with it to see if you can keep creative or do back and recite it the right way?
L: Well, it all depends. If I’m working on a new story, I’ll go back because the first time, I want to get the story down smoothly, the way I’ve intended to do it. And then after I get that down, then I could change it up a bit. The other thing is, with stories, you know, when you mentioned people who were beginning storytelling is it’s better to have a tight three minute story than a loose seven minute story. So maybe you might have a story and the first time you tell that story it’s five minutes. But you’ve worked on it, it’s an eight minute story, but you were nervous and when you first told it, you whipped right through it and it became five minutes. And you go, “Oh my gosh,” but you know it was an eight minute story. But it’s better to have a story that’s five minutes that’s really solid, and then you can start to embellish that story and make that story an eight, a ten, a twelve minute story instead of having a story that just goes on and there’s not enough to carry it and your audience loses interest in it. I always say it’s better for a story to be short and build it from there, make it a powder-packed five minute story, and then once you got that under your belt, then you can start embellishing it here, embellish it there, change it here, and before you know it, you have a very interesting or engaging twelve minute story or fifteen minute story. But not to try to start it with a twelve minute story is sorta weak.
A: Is there anything you learned in your years of storytelling that you kinda wish you knew before?
L: Well, I’m always learning things about stories. Stories that I’ve been telling for quite a number of years, they’re different to me now. I start to understand them differently and I see where I can use them to maybe address some of the environmental issues or some social issues. Or as before, I just took them as a story. But now I realize, you know, just by tweaking this story, I can address bullying or by tweaking this story- or it’s always there. Because, I mean, people have always told folk tales- people have told stories since the beginning of time. Before people could talk they drew pictures on walls. So all our great ancestors told stories and people still tell stories and still tell folk tales. Which means folk tales must be important because these stories have been told for eons, so they must be important and we’re just telling them to a new audience. So we have to find ways to engage that audience because these stories are carrying messages in them. And so we can probably deal with issues and find solutions to a lot of the problems that we have in today’s world through folklore and folk tales. If they’re told right and we’re patient with them, we can figure out, this is the type of story that needs to be told at this particular time because if storytelling and stories weren’t powerful and needed, people wouldn’t be telling stories. But people have always told stories.
P: I also feel, like, that- I was in Sevilla in Spain and I went into this cathedral and it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever went into and it had all these- at one point they realized they weren’t getting enough parishioners in. So they knocked out a ceiling so that more light would come in because the light was preventing people from getting in. But then they were like, “That’s kind of ugly,” so these brothers, these four generations of brothers, created these- so 9am on Sunday mornings, when church happens, the sun would shine in through this skylight and they build all these sculptures of angels reaching into heaven so when you were being blinded by the sun it looked like there was all these people climbing into the sky. And the guy who was giving the tour- at this point the reason why all this art took generations [indecipherable] and what you have to remember is people didn’t read and write back then. So the pictures and the way you could visualize the stories in the bible was half of the attraction to getting people to come in. And it kinda blew my mind because we take for granted, the last 100 years we’ve basically solved literacy issues. Most people can read or write. But 100 years ago, that wasn’t true. In fact, 200 years ago, probably people mostly heard news through stories.
L: Mm hmm, yeah.
P: And we didn’t have technology 200 years ago, or electricity. So it’s interesting to me that scientists wouldn’t study and see storytelling as a way of communication because it’s way more engrained in us to hear stories that way than it is for us to read it.
L: Yeah. Right. We got the gruyiots (?), we go the court jesters, the raconteurs, we got, you know- was it Socrates that thought if people started reading, only the elite would read and people wouldn’t share knowledge.
P: Like Homer and the Odyssey and all that was oral and people are often like, why didn’t they write down more things, and I’m like, well that wasn’t how they passed on information.
L: That’s right. Population wasn’t reading.
P: They never thought it would be important to have it written down.
A: Native Americans. They were very oral, more than written.
L: Yeah, sure. Well, many cultures were, and many cultures still are, oral and not so much written language. And people collected stories, thank god. People collected stories and shared them. But they were handed down long before they were written.
A: It’s your favorite character in Vikings, Patrick. Athelstan.
P: Yeah! Well, and like, I mean, I just- part of me thinks about, a lot, like how much do we- we don’t understand why stories are so important. Like, I think it’s hard to quantify.
L: Mm hmm.
P: In Christopher Booker’s doctoral thesis dissertation, The Seven Basic Plots, kinda proved that it’s hard to synthesize why stories are important. We do know- I think every scientist almost- I would defy somebody to not tell me a story that they resonate with. In popular fiction and music or in art and it probably informs a lot why they practice the work they do because it reflects a lot. And it’s interesting because I wonder how hard it is sometimes, and I study the meta-cognitive aspect of storytelling, and it is really hard to, like, write an original story. Why is that? Why is it so hard?
L: (laughs) I wish I knew!
A: Patrick, you only got through half of that book. Maybe your answer’s in the second half of that book.
A: Well, I mean, there’s seven story types, right? So maybe that’s why it’s so hard, is because it all boils down to those seven.
P: Yeah, I don’t know. Like…. I do know that over the years I’ve been able to recognize good stories, really good writing. I was just watching Fargo, Season 1 again, and what the creator did on that show is phenomenal and I have the pitch document and how he outlined it and got it green lit for production and it’s a beautiful four page document. Even without the show. It’s just a beautiful four page- because the characters jump off the page. I mean, is it hard? Do you find it hard?
L: I find it hard. You know, I read a lot to get ideas for stories. I also have started many stories, which are on my desk and halfway through them and trying to figure out an ending for a story. Sometimes I’ll come up with what I think is a pretty good beginning of a story but then I kind of run out of steam with it. Because I think to write you need to write. You need to have time to be in one place to write and with my schedule, I’m sort of helter skelter and I don’t- and you need to be disciplined. Probably more disciplined than I am. But I think it takes time and space to really follow through with the ideas. And my problem is, sometimes I’ll have ideas but I don’t have the time because I gotta drive here and I gotta perform here. And then when I have the time, I don’t have the ideas or the creativity. So trying to create that creative energy with open space is a chore in itself. But I’m always looking for that time to have and hoping that I’ll be creative during that time.
P: Adam, did we want to do anything, like- is there any way we can get a story onto the podcast?
A: Yeah, I was about to ask-
P: And I’m probably putting him on the spot right now.
A: Well, I was going to ask at the end, maybe one of the last things we could do is see if there’s a three or five minute story that’s relevant to-
P: [indecipherable]… or can we pull one off the audio from something else you’ve done or….
L: Yeah, um….Well, let’s see if….
P: I mean, you already did a couple good stories just anecdotally but….
L: Adam, you’re a poet? You write poetry?
L: I write some poems, too.
A: Oh, do you? Do you have any published?
L: No, I don’t have any poems published, no.
A: Poetry is a hard thing to get people to read. I don’t know- what’s crazy is that the poetry is read but it’s read by other poets and it’s hard to get it out there to the masses.
L: I know there’s been a lot of spoken word events and trying to get people to come out to listen to poetry but a lot of those that come out to listen to poetry are poets themselves.
A: It’s hard to just get the random, layperson to be like, “Hey, let’s go check out poetry. It’s a Tuesday night!” Nobody does that. It’s not the ‘60s anymore.
L: Yeah, it’s sad. Well, I could tell you this story here. It’s tale from these two boys in Kenya. They were walking to school one morning and they had their backpacks on, they were walking to school, talking stuff, “Hey, what’re you gonna do tonight?” “Oh, I’m gonna play some basketball tonight. How ‘bout you?” “Oh, I got a new camera. I’m gonna make a film.” “Oh, yeah, we’re gonna get together to listen to music.” “Yeah, yeah.” And as they’re walking, one boy looks and goes, “Uh oh, look. Look over there.” And he looks across a field and there was a cheetah. Now, you know cheetahs, they run like the wind, right? Nothing faster than a cheetah. They were like, “What’re we gonna do? What’re we gonna do?” That cheetah was looking at breakfast. Those two boys said, “Oh man, what’re we gonna do? What’re we gonna do?” One boy’s friend sat down on the ground, kicked off his shoes, reached into his backpack, and took out a brand new pair of Nikes, started putting his Nikes on. His friend said, “What’re you putting your Nikes on for? You can’t run faster than that cheetah.” The boy said, “I don’t have to run faster than that cheetah. I just have to run faster than you.” Woo! And off he went. Oh, I hope you don’t have friends like that. You got friends like that, Adam?
A: I had a friend like that.
L: (laughs) I’m glad you said “had.” That’s good.
P: That was how we dealt with- we were talking about in San Diego, they have different critters in the wilderness than they do in New England. All I had to worry about when I was a kid was bears and deer and deer weren’t really a problem, it was just the bears. And they weren’t really that much of a problem, as long as you had a friend that was slower than you and I was always the friend that was slower. That’s how I made friends. That’s why I moved to California.
L: But they got mountain lions out there.
A: I live near a canyon and there are stories every week about people walking their small dog at dusk and these coyotes will just come out of the canyon and snatch the dog and run away. Like, it’s insane! It’s scary that I live, like, seven blocks away from this. And they hang out there all night. That’s where they live.
L: Just waiting for dinner.
A: That’s it. Well, you know, everybody’s gotta eat, I guess. Even if it’s a Chihuahua or whatever it may be.
P: They got the scary ones, though. They got like spiders and snakes. Those are the ones- the mountain lions don’t scare me so much because they don’t usually go around people. It’s very rare that they go around people. But the snakes and the spiders, man, they’ll sneak up on you.
A: You can scare away a mountain lion. The idea is just get big and loud. When I go hiking out in the mountains I’ll pick up a handful of rocks and just kinda hold on to them as I’m walking because that’s how you- you get big, loud, and kinda- the rule is that if you think the mountain lion hasn’t seen you first, you’re wrong. So you want to make sure that you’re just ready for that. But with snakes and spiders….
P: Especially, with the kids- my school was in the desert. So the baby rattlesnakes, the ones you had to be afraid of, because they didn’t know- like their venom is growing so they have a lot more if it and it’s a lot more potent and they don’t know when not to use it yet. The big ones aren’t going to come anywhere near people. The baby ones are, like, crazy. I’ve never seen spiders that are as scary as the ones I’ve seen in California. Big black ones. And they had this one, the brown recluse-
A: I’ve been bitten by one before.
A: Yeah, when I was back in Maryland.
P: Is that the one that can cause your skin to disintegrate?
A: I don’t think so, no. So when I was living back in Maryland I was bit by a brown recluse right on my wrist. Right here. And I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was just alike a regular bug bite but later on that night when I was out with friends we noticed that there was a streak of something that was moving up my arm and it stopped, like, right about here. My friends were, like, “We have to go to a hospital immediately.” Because that was poison traveling towards my heart because that’s the quickest route, right that way. So I had to get a shot and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. But yeah, so I’m familiar with that spider. I never saw it the results of it I’m quite familiar with….. Patrick, I don’t have any more questions, unless you do.
P: Um, I don’t think I do either. I was going to ask you about ethics, though, because earlier we were talking about- you mentioned about the environment in different ways and I don’t think you talked about it too much in this podcast but how you choose the characters- you talked about how when you go to a school you go into the library. So we’re doing an episode on ethics and I’m really interested in ethics of communication, like how you choose the pieces of the narrative that you’re introducing and, like, how that plays a role. Like when- how do you choose what things to put into a story that give a sense of the world you’re trying to convey, but when does some of that- I don’t want to call it political correctness- more like those conscious elements….
L: Yeah. Well, for example, there’s a folk tale that comes from West Africa called “Anonzie and Common Sense.” And it’s about how Anonzie went out and he collected all the common sense from everybody in the world and he had it all for himself. So what I will do as I’m telling that story, I’d say, “I want to tell you a story about common sense. I’m going to give you an example of what good common sense is.” And I’d say, “You should always wear your seatbelt, right?” And the kids go, yeah. “And always look both ways before you cross the street-“ Yes. I say, “Ok, who can give me another example of common sense?” Kids will raise their hands and they’ll say, “Don’t go for a ride with a stranger.” And I say, ok. Another kid will say, “Don’t smoke.” I say, alright. And “Don’t pick on somebody. Don’t be a bully.” And I say, oh, that’s a good one, that’s a good one. And they’ll be throwing these things at me. And then I’ll finish up and I’ll say, “Ooh, ooh, ooh. I’ve got one, I’ve got one. My cousin told me about this and she’s a doctor. She said, ‘If you can’t remember the last time you washed your hands, it’s time to wash your hands.” And the teachers go, “Ooh!” and the kids go, “Ooh!” and it’s so true. And so I say it that way and I also say, “It’s true, my cousin is a doctor.” But I want to say, “My cousin, she’s a doctor” so first of all, there’s someone of color whose cousin is a doctor and she is a woman. For those little girls in the room and boys in the room who look like me can go, “Oh, she’s a doctor.” And the powerful thing about if you can’t remember the last time you washed your hands, it’s times to wash your hands, is simple. And so it’s stories like that that I’ll, maybe as a segway between stories, I would tell- I would ask a question about- something about- maybe I’ll say, “You know, when I was little, my mom said to me- I came home one day from school and I was feeling kind of blue about something and she said to me, ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you.’” And kids will say, “Oh, I’ve heard that before.” And I’ll say, “Let’s say it out loud together.” And so we get 200 kids saying sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you. And I’ll say, “That’s what my mom said to me and I felt pretty good that day when she told me that. But then I got older, like you boys and girls, and I started realizing that my mom was right. Sticks and stones will break your bones, no doubt about that. But you know what?” And they’ll say, “What?” “Bones heal and bruises, they go away after five minutes. But hurtful words go right in there and they hurt for a lot longer than a broken bone or a bruise. And that’s why our parents and grandparents say, ‘Uh uh. Don’t tease people. Don’t make fun of somebody because you don’t know their struggles. You don’t know what they’re….’” And then I’ll go on and tell the story. When they see that, “Ooh, it hurts.” Sticks and stones but words really hurt, and the kids really understand that because a lot of the kids I’m telling the stories to, they got hurt because somebody called them fat, somebody called them stupid, somebody called them slow. Somebody said, you can’t play, you can’t sing, you can’t dance, and hurt their feelings and that goes right in there. So just to have an adult verbalize that, that kids would realize, yeah, I shouldn’t call little Joey shorty or something like that. And I say yeah, because you don’t want to hurt somebody like that because so many adults are walking around because they got hurt on the inside. And then the kids go, “Oh,” and it’s just something that they’ve heard before, they’ve heard that expression, stick and stones, but here’s a new twist on it. And so that way I can make a little difference in their lives, especially the kids who’s getting picked on, and hopefully, the kid who’s doing the picking on.
P: I think what’s interesting about what you’re saying, that comes back to an ethical implication for communicators, is, and you can tell me if I’m right or not, but what I’m getting is that no matter what the details about how you’re constructing a message to an audience is going to say volumes about your view of the world-
P: -whether or not you want to think about it or not.
L: Mm hmm.
P: Like, if you say scientist and you have, say, a white, male scientist on the slide deck, that says something about what you believe about science. Even if you’re like, “Whoa, that’s not important.” Well, it also says something that you think it’s not important.
L: Yeah, right. Right. And once again it’s what audience are you in front of and what are you trying to- what are you trying to convey? I take storytelling very seriously and when I’m invited to a school, I have the opportunity to do a professional job of storytelling but I also have the opportunity to share where I am coming from and I’m not telling kids to do one thing or the other but just be kind. I want everybody to be kind. There’s nothing wrong with that. Be kind. Interview your grandparents. Put away your little computer game and listen to your mother talk or your dad or ask questions of your aunts and listen to stories and tell stories and encourage them to be more connected with their environment, with their elders in their family. And I tell them, your grandparents aren’t always going to be here. Now is the time to ask them questions, especially since now kids have all these- you know, they can interview somebody very easily. I mean, instead of carrying along a big video camera on your shoulder, they can interview their grandmother with their phone. I mean, it’s easy. So have them do that. Encourage them to pay attention to their elders. Another thing I stress with them of lately is how when they’re young, if they have their grandparents tell them stories and they remember the stories, when they get older and their grandparents get older and the grandparents start forgetting their names or losing their memory a little bit, they could help by telling their grandparents some of the stories they remember. And maybe their grandparents would say, “Oh, I remember that story. You know what else happened that day?” And I try to stress to the young children that they have a stake in the health and the elders around them because they can say, “Grandpa, remember you took me here and there?” and grandpa will say, “Oh yeah, that day was great,” and help them regain that memory. And this way it empowers children to think, hey, I can do something about grandpa’s health, I can do something about grandma’s forgetfulness. And I give them some responsibility.
A: There’s a podcast by NPR called “Storycorp” where it’s very much that, where these kids or grandkids will say, “Hey Grandpa, tell me about that story from 1963 that you told me about when I was a kid about when you went down the street and picked up the Christmas tree” or whatever it is, you know, and they would sit there in this booth- and now there’s this actual app or website that people can download to use.
P: Yeah, the guy that created it created an app so that people could contribute to a whole database of stories that are being collected all over the world. It’s really cool.
A: It’s a great idea. Now, I have a quick question, then. Do you, right or wrong, do you think that your background or your appearance has an effect or can create a preconceived notion with an audience?
L: Yes, I think so. I think stereotypes abound, especially in communities that aren’t diverse where the only time a child sees a person of color is on TV, maybe being arrested or something else. So if they haven’t been exposed to diversity and their in a community that isn’t exposed to diversity and their parents aren’t into taking them somewhere so they can get a wider look at the world, they’re going to form stereotypes because of the news, the media, the books in their schools, in their settings. So when I go into a school, I might be the first time a person of color has been in that school or addressing these children. Hopefully I’m not but in some cases I am. And so I know my words are going to stay with these kids and my appearance is going to stay with them, my actions are going to stay with them. So I think it’s important- someone said- a woman told me that when she was young, whenever she was going somewhere, “Hey Dad, I’m going to California,” her father would say, “I don’t think anybody from our family’s been there before,” which meant be a good example, you know. You’re representing us. And so I feel in some ways I’m representing.
A: I was just going to say, if that adds an extra pressure or focus for the communicator or storyteller if they have to sort of, I don’t want to say overcome it….
L: Well, no, it’s not any pressure. I don’t feel pressure. I always put my best foot forward no matter where I am because I wouldn’t want to embarrass my parents or myself. I keep my parents and family in mind when I’m out and about.
P: I was just going to say, you know my parents and I was raised to have a diverse set of influences when I was growing up, which I found out was uncommon. I mean, as a kid I was like, in the white-ist part of New Hampshire. I was like, “Doesn’t everybody have old people from all over the world hang out at their house?” and they’re like, “No.” And when I was in high school, see, kids didn’t start doing race jokes until middle school and high school and I’d get really upset because they were talking about cousins from the Cayman Islands or they were talking about friends of mine. We had gay uncles and we had African American and Indian and Japanese and all these people. And I used to get really angry and I’d get mad and I’d leave the room. And then I started to become more friends with people in those situations and I always used to ask people, how many- they would say stuff about black people- and I would say, how many black people have you met in your life? And they’d say, four. And I’d say, you’re judging a whole race of people on four people you’ve met. And they never thought of it that way and I was like, alright, I think we’re making some headway here. I think that this is something because what you’re saying resonates with me a lot. Like, you do almost have to be conscious of what you’re communicating and how you appear and what you’re saying because things are actually- they could be- and I know because one of my fellow art teachers told it to me. I was like, well when are they going to master art? I was teaching art at a high school. She looked at me and it diffused my entire pedagogy. She goes, this might be the last art class they ever take in their entire lives. And actually, in all probability, their high school art class will be the last art class they ever take because it’s no longer enforced after, even, fifth grade. And all of a sudden I realized my job wasn’t to give them mastery of art. My job was to make them love art. That’s a different responsibility. Anyway. I’m good.
A: Yeah, I think we tackled a lot.
L: We did a long interview. That was an awesome interview. Hopefully we got some for the ethics podcast.
A: I could probably try to fit some in there, absolutely. Ok, I’m going to stop the broadcast. Len, again, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
L: No problem. It was a pleasure meeting you and hopefully we’ll do it again sometime.