Posts Tagged ‘storytelling

10
Aug
13

A story means itself

The Secret of Roan Inish dir. John SaylesLast fall, I took a Native American Studies course with the wonderful instructor Judy Bluehorse Skelton. Our text was extremely shallow and inadequate, but the best Judy could find, so we used this as an opportunity to challenge and interrogate the text as an opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. As we examined the book chapter by chapter, we arrived at the chapter on Native American Literature.

I was excited at the outset, because stories are dear to my heart and the thought of being exposed to a trove of new, rich authors was delightful. But the chapter bothered me on a deeper level than any previous. Its constant explanation of the themes in the literature was unwelcome and intrusive: I was being told what to think about these narratives, rather than getting to simply experience them. It actually robbed me of an important facet of that experience, by imposing an outside interpretation before I’d even gotten to read them for myself.

It was an essentially colonialist approach to appreciating stories; studying and cataloging, sorting by theme, and essentially treating them as a dead thing—no, more than that, even actively killing them in the name of preserving their valuable qualities. Since the text brought up the relationship of literature to language, I was struck by the parallel to language learning, specifically the value of approaching a language on its own terms rather than trying to translate the words into your own context. There’s a reason Willem Larsen, founder of Language Hunters, calls this “Killing Fairies“; something very real does die when you use analytical tools to hammer another language into your native language’s shape. The same applies to stories: a story is, and doesn’t have a “literal translation”; it means itself. When authors Kidwell and Velie  tried to nail down the “meaning” of a novel, the novel itself wriggled out of their grasp.

It’s a difficult paradox: how do you you appreciate and discuss stories when the language of analytics ultimately fails to truly describe a story in a fundamental and catastrophic way? I suppose the starting point is simply acknowledging the limitations of such discourse, even if we can’t entirely escape it.

Which is not to say I wish to disengage my critical brain when I encounter stories! But it’s a tricky balance, maintaining awareness of stories’ agenda while honoring and taking nourishment from them. For me, experiencing a story involves a sort of surrender to the internal reality and modality of the tale; it’s “true” (though that’s an inadequate and misleading word) in its own context, true in a felt, emotional, mythic sense, even if it doesn’t refer to “facts.” Examining the problematic elements of a story is an important part of the process, but that comes later. First comes immersion, the living and feeling of the story as it washes over me. If a story’s message or agenda is too noxious, I won’t be able to achieve that immersion (and probably be more well off for it), but that experience is my goal, and the standard by which all stories are judged.

Because I couldn’t engage with the stories dissected by Kidwell and Velie, which I hadn’t read for myself—novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday and Ceremony by  Leslie Marmon Silko—my thoughts turned to a story which I do know, which also deals with the theme of connection to the land: the film The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry.

In Roan Inish, an island off the coast of Ireland (Scotland in the novel) is deserted by the fishing community that lives there, as the younger generation becomes restless for the city and moves there in search of work. Only the old remain, living on the mainland in sight of the isle. All concerned is portrayed as broken and empty, needing connection with the island to be whole. (“Do you miss it greatly?” “Roan Inish? Ah, it’s only a place, I suppose. Mostly I miss the way of life. You’re surrounded by the sea, with your whole family about ye.”) A girl, Fiona, is sent by her city-dwelling, widowed father back to live with her grandparents on the coast. The country-dwelling family seems more connected with their place—with the land and sea—than the city-folk, but are still wounded by their severed tie to Roan Inish. Her baby brother Jamie had been lost at sea in the evacuation, forming a living symbol of the disconnect from their place: “The sea had taken poor wee Jamie. It was angry with us for leaving Roan Inish.” The old folk know they belong on the island, but are resigned to their lot. The next generation want nothing to do with the place. It’s only the children Fiona and Eamon who are able to provoke the family to action and reconcile them with the island. As I write these words, I know that I’m doing violence to these stories, as surely as the Kidwell/Velie text does violence to the stories it explains. I have to stop; I’ve said too much. The only words that have any life in them are the scant quotes from the actual film. I’d rather you hear ten words of it than a thousand of mine:

My words are not the stories; they are only a brutish finger pointing clumsily at the stories themselves. I don’t know how else to write about them, though. Game designer Vincent Baker is fond of saying that when someone asks him a roleplaying theory question, he can’t answer it, except by designing a game around it. In his interview on Clyde Rhoer’s Theory from the Closet [49.15], he put it like this: “I’m a game designer, not a statement creator! If I want you to understand [a particular game design concept]…I’m going to design a game and put it in front of you, and you’ll understand how it works in that game.”

Ultimately, the way to share the gifts of these tales would not be to write a paper about them, but to simply share them—give you a book to read, or sit down with you and watch a film. Or tell you a story. Or play a game together. I think it’s no accident that in so many traditions, elders and teachers answer questions with a story. The story isn’t an explanation or an example of the answer, the story is the answer. Even in Christian tradition, Jesus mainly just tells stories, and says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Only when pressed, in a couple of Gospel accounts, does he finally concede and give an explanation to his closest followers, presumably reluctantly.

A story is itself. A story is lived experience, both of the teller and of the untold generations through which the stories have been handed down. A people who think in stories (and not in platitudes or in “rational arguments”) would, I feel, have a greater grounding in love and empathy and of relationship to the wider world.

Peace,

—Joli

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31
Jan
12

First

Atlas Games posted a list of 31 “Reverb Gamers 2012” prompts for blogging. The idea is that for the month of January, roleplaying bloggers will take a prompt each day and write a short post. Me being me, the impetus to blog daily has proved elusive. But the first prompt really stirred some thoughts, so I’d like to tackle it, however  belatedly:

What was your first roleplaying experience? How did that introduction shape the gamer you’ve become?

When I was about 11 years old, I attended a small Christian school. I mean, like, small small: 9-12 students, across all grades. Though my dad was a pastor, it operated out of a different church in the area. It was little more than a home school co-op, run entirely by parents on a volunteer basis. It was a very close-knit community, but it also provided scant opportunities for varied social activity.

Continue reading ‘First’

17
Aug
11

Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

Continue reading ‘Guest Post: Taking Stories Back’

11
Aug
11

Of Community and Crucibles

I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium last weekend with The Dreaming Crucible. It was the culmination of a year-long anticipation, since I first published the Crucible just one week AFTER the previous year’s Symposium. Sunday from 11 to 4, I sat at a little wooden table, a massive cloud of origami cranes fluttering in my hair, and introduced folks to my little storytelling game. It was fun and eye-opening! Initially I felt a lot of commercial anxiety, as I always do when I table with product—they’re not buying! Man, why aren’t they buying? I hope that person comes back like they said they would; they seemed really interested! Jeez, I’m going to be here for hours and only sell one copy; that works out to two dollars an hour and I might as well just quit self-publishing and work at McDonalds!!!

Continue reading ‘Of Community and Crucibles’

19
Apr
11

A Piece of Myself

I played two games of The Dreaming Crucible with some old friends and new at Vancouver, WA’s Gamestorm convention last month. I had fun in both, but the second game did something the first one didn’t: it moved me to tears.

The Dreaming Crucible is designed to enable the kind of raw, vulnerable stories that provoke strong, even cathartic reactions in the participants, but I’ve rarely seen this potential fully realized. Usually, the story produced is imaginative, engaging, and satisfying, but the emotional impact is fairly light. Once or twice a game has educed a quiver of emotion from me. But more often the better games I’ve played feel right, like all the basic elements I envisioned for the game are present and operating properly, but the result is merely…diverting.

The Sunday game at Gamestorm was different. I could tell from the start that something special was going on; I began as I usually do by explaining the I Will Not Abandon You mode of playing the game, which is generally greeted with nods and shrugs, as if to say, “oh, that’s nice.” But this time my fellow players Drew and Lisa responded with satisfied mmms and a gleam in the eye. I could tell they were switched ON, and ready to truly, enthusiastically play with vulnerability. And when we played, something wonderful happened.

Continue reading ‘A Piece of Myself’

12
Dec
10

The Dreaming Crucible: Principles of Play

My storytelling game The Dreaming Crucible is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, which means that while I do sell it as a handmade book, you’re free to make any use you like of the game’s text, commercial or otherwise, so long as you credit me and allow others to use your work under the same conditions.

That being the case, it’s high time I started releasing the Crucible’s text on the internet. Before too long the whole game will be available in wiki form; in the meantime I’m going to showcase the more significant portions in a series of blog posts. I’ll start with the Principles of Play, which are a set of guiding precepts that function as a baseline approach to playing the game, on which particular rules and specific narrative and collaborative techniques can be built.

Have a look: Continue reading ‘The Dreaming Crucible: Principles of Play’

06
Dec
10

A Shocking Tale

I recently played a game of Shock: Social Science Fiction by Joshua A.C. Newman, with my wife and a couple of friends. It lasted something like 4-6 sessions, was fun and rewarding for us, and produced a satisfying story. Not only was it a work of art to be proud of, but it retained tension and life for us as players the whole time we were playing. Looking back, I can see several solid reasons why.

In Shock: you pick a future shock, some fantastic sci-fi development that irrevocably changes the world, then brainstorm relevant social issues that the Shock would exacerbate. You then each play a Protagonist in this alternate world who wrestles with one of the Issues. In our game the Issues were War, Class, Man vs. Wild (actually more like Civilization vs. Primitivism), and Living in Denial. The Shock was dependence on fossil fuels being replaced by dependence on alien technology in the control of a scientist elite.  Utopian city-domes rise up across North America, while outsiders in the wasteland are left to their own devices, and exterminated when they cause trouble. After we concluded our final session, I reflected on play and noticed that several key aspects of the rules and procedures kept play fresh, engaging and satisfying. I’m going to break down the lessons I learned as I describe the path of our story.

Continue reading ‘A Shocking Tale’




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