Storytelling Renaissance, Sort Of

photo by Local Studies NSW/Flickr
photo by Local Studies NSW/Flickr

The word storytelling seems to pop up all over the place over the past year.  A quick glance at cultural events in your community and projects being carried out by NGO’s (such as our very own hardworking Small World News) and you are sure to see the word storytelling.  Storytelling as an art, a hobby, an activity to bring people together, to share experiences and culture; it’s this thing that has always been there, for generations, and might just be having a bit of a renaissance in the context of on and offline culture.

I’m often involved in discussions or projects related to the world of online story telling.  Truth be told, I do love a good story, and I do believe it is part of why I love to record other people’s words. By and large it must be a big benefit for all of us now and for future generations, that in 2013 storytelling got hip!

photo by giulia.forsythe /flickr
photo by giulia.forsythe /flickr

Despite the fact that it is probably good for our collective health and I myself am involved in teaching and promoting story telling online, I am also partly skeptical of all the noise surrounding the word. Storytelling for the sake of sharing with the world and bringing us closer together- yes! Surely it does matter how you present something, if the audience can understand it, follow it, and to some extent relate somehow. But storytelling that is focused on entertaining and manufacturing emotional high’s and low’s, as a journalist at heart, that is not what I am about. Of course I like a good story and have certainly exaggerated my way through some tales for the sake of a big smile or a “huh.. wow.. that’s amazing” reaction.  I too love the stories coming out of radio projects like This American Life, Radio Lab, or Snap Judgement.  But if indeed I am a storyteller and I’m busy teaching means of better telling their stories, I would rather inspire people to not try to entertain but rather – tell the truth.

Choose to record the words of a person without chopping up the audio or video in an effort to create an emotional moment. Films do that. Radio plays do that. Even the guy or gal at the bar on a Friday night does that. But we who genuinely want to bring stories of real lives and real issues from one part of the world to another, our priority should not be to produce “a story” that will captivate and move an audience, we should let the truth do that.  And if the truth isn’t enough to get someone’s attention, if the reality of suffering or triumph from some corner of the globe isn’t enough to compel an audience to listen, at some level, I say- so be it- life is not always entertaining or captivating. Sometimes life is just sad or wonderful or something in between. It is not a made for tv drama, and there are still many of us out there that don’t need to be entertained before we learn something new.

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Putting the Puzzle Together

A good friend said to me today “seems like all the work you’ve been doing and the journeys you’ve gone on, they are all pieces of a puzzle, and now you have to put that puzzle together.”

Paris RiverIt would seem so, after 13+ years as a blogger, 9 years as a podcaster, and over 7 years of giving lectures and workshops around the world, I’ve always believed that this was building up to something and I would know what at some point down the line.  All this knowledge, experience, and the contacts I have around the world, they do indeed fit together in different and sometimes unexpected ways.

But the puzzle still lies before me, waiting to be solved.  And whereas in the past there always seemed to be time and a natural order to all this, now it would seem push has come to shove financially and professionally and the question is – can I put it all together and make something out of it that I will be good at, enjoy, and be able to live from.  Over the past decade the answer has been yes, yes it can and will work. I have been fortunate enough to have lived the kind of life where I do indeed have options and people willing to help me sort through these options to find what is real and worth while.

One feeling that follows all this is that the time for sitting back and just going with the flow has ended. The time for action, decisive, meaningful, and well thought out, has arrived. Success is in no way guaranteed; I need to stand up and create the next opportunities.  Just like I did when I started this whole thing all those years ago.  The same spirit that caused me to start writing online, with an honest and determined approach, even at the risk of sounding like a fool, is what once again will get me to the next level (of life and slow journalism) which I very much desire.

On that note, on to Brooklyn!

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The Difficult Part, After the Journey

Over the past 10+ years of traveling and creating media based on those journeys, I’ve discovered that the hardest part is not the journey itself, but what happens after.  After all the excitement and the learning, most journeys end.  And most times, it feels good to come home, examine what has been done, and reflect on that.  This is especially true if you live in a community, as I do, where people love to discuss and reflect right along with you.

The trouble comes with that age old insensitive question – what next?  What more will you do with what you have learned? What’s your next move? Will it be as interesting or exciting as this latest journey?  Can’t you go back and build on the first journey?

Giza
Pondering the Pyramids of Giza. November 2012

Sometimes the answers fall into my lap.  An invitation, inspiration or an idea that pull me like a magnet in whatever direction seems to be a good fit.  Sometimes, however, the answer doesn’t come easy.

Budgets dry up. Invitations expire.  Ideas get lost among other ideas. Even the belief in my own self and ability will waver at times. It may all be a natural progression when you’re following a personal mission that is so different from what we normally think of as “work” or “career”.

Thankfully whenever the question of “what’s next” has come up in the past, the answer never took long to appear. The answer sometimes comes from within, but more often comes with the help of good people in my life who understand what this is that I am dedicated to and sometimes see things that in the moment, I am not able to see.

This month will mark the end of the Arab Artists series here on my website.  A five week journey that was so rich in learning and communication, it produced more than 3 months of content.  Making it the longest series I have ever done for the podcast. A series I hope one day will have a part II.  But for now, I’m thankful to have had a part I and that many of you have made the trip with me and enjoyed what came out of it.  I honestly wish more people would give it a listen, I think there is an education in there that you can hardly get anywhere else.  But hey, as my Egyptian and Lebanese friends would say (in different pronunciations): khalas (خلاص), you did your best.” 

Now for what comes next….

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Fresh Eyes, Ancient Place

Photo by Fin

We are a little over two weeks from the beginning of the North Africa/ Middle East journey lovingly titled “Arab Artists in a Revolution.” As with any great journey, the preparation also raises questions about how to approach our conversations and media creations in the best way possible.  The term “best way” is particularly tricky in an era where it’s difficult to capture and retain the attention of any audience, though Im pleased to be starting off with you my listeners and readers, not to mention the Radio Open Source audience who have clearly shown their desire to see this project become a reality.

But here’s another aspect that makes missions like this one a special challenge. My history as an independent, make-it-up-as-I-go-along blogger turned journalist turned media producer or whatever I’m defined as these days. I’ve been working on topics that interest me (and hopefully sometimes you) for more than 10 years now, and throughout my tenure I’ve only occasionally stopped to look around and ask – what do the people want? That was, for me, the major point of being a personal media- citizen journalist type, I don’t just try to entertain or capture your attention, I first follow my heart and learn about topics, people, and places that capture my attention.  With any luck my interests intersect with yours, that’s when it feels extra special.

This particular journey begins with a unique partnership, two guys from different generations with different experience, setting off for a land they have -until now- only read and talked about. A region the entire everyone seems to have an opinion about after it re-captured the world’s attention last year. So the question I have for myself is, how do I make sure this one is not only a pleasure for me, but exciting for you as well? To what extent should I be listening to the opinion and experience of others, as opposed to doing what Ive always done, following my nose and relying on my global network to guide me to the fantastic stories of real life?  How do you keep your mind and your heart open when you’ve done something one way for so long?

One thing I realize beyond any of these questions, is that it is good to try something new and challenge my own traditions. Thankfully I set off next month with someone who’s work and friendship have taught me a lot about what is possible and what I’m capable of.  And of course, I set off with all of you along for the ride, via this daily noise machine known as the internet. So all in all, the fundamentals are in place. Everything else, as always in life, we will figure out and make it great.

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