Insights and Musings from TGI’s Emerging Writers

Mind, heart, and the power of breathing – why would you consider breathwork?

This blog was originally published here.

Mind, heart, and the power of breathing – a new perspective on breathwork as a way of life. 

“It takes a very long time to become young”.
— Picasso

You may wonder why I, an opera singer, would quote the painter Picasso. A child will grow and his knowledge will expand. He will come to accept certain rules, to impose certain structures upon his mental development, and, unavoidably, he will lose some spontaneity and freedom in his creativity. The young opera singer will try to act and sing like his idols, to find a perfect sound reflecting his own idea of his voice, which he only hears from within himself. When I was fifteen, I was told that it would take at least ten years of hard work to be an opera singer. I was shocked. Only much later was I able to understand what it truly meant. As one is trying to find a sound and trying to reach some perfect ideal that one has in mind, one misses the essential point.

The sound is already there. The perfection has always been there. The hard work is to allow them, simply, to be.

The path of an opera singer is a quest for truth and a long life of questioning. I was lucky and started my vocal education at the very young age of twelve, with a wonderful, caring teacher. In the following years my teachers were afraid to put undue stress on my voice: they made me sing and understand how to move my ribs and lower back muscles, but did not really teach me the bel canto art. It was quite late for me, and after some years spent in engineering, that I met people able to guide me in using my whole body as an instrument, beyond the natural voice. Along this path I found some of the answers in my quest for truth, just as I often found more questions as well. It is as if one went deeper and deeper within oneself, within one’s mind and soul, which entails a deeper understanding of life itself.

In classical singing, it takes years to learn how to breathe, until one finally realizes that it is as simple as letting one’s whole body, one’s whole self be part of the game. It takes years to learn how to breathe like a baby. Look at a baby crying and shouting: he does it with his full body for hours and hours without damaging his vocal cords. But we, the adults, have lost this ability with pressure, anxiety, and fear brought on by education and society. Real breathing is like real love: full, devoted, trusting, spontaneous. Real love knows exactly where to go and what to do. Real breathing works in the same way.

Real breathing and real love have to be learned or re-learned, as strange as it may seem, and I often think this process might be the very reason of our existence.

From a technical point of view, the beauty of the voice as an instrument resides in the harmonics obtained by the coexistence of chest resonance and a high spot in the cranium. This is quite literally the union of the head and heart through a tiny path made possible by the power of breath. The whole body has to be a soft and flexible mechanism where every single cell of it is breathing.

 

 

It reminds me of birds flying in the sky in their coat of feathers: the perfect mix of strength, confidence, and letting go.

If the body has the slightest stiffness, some quality of sound is lost and, more seriously, the emotion and the art lose their interest too. It means that any fear, any doubt will lead to failure in auditions and competitions.

Nobody truly wants a second Maria Callas, Tatiana Troyanos, or Luciano Pavarotti. What they want, rather, is to be surprised. Embracing our uniqueness is the true secret. Those who succeed are fearless, as curious and open, as arrogant as a young child, despite their knowledge. I witnessed famous opera singers talk about the energy emerging from their solar plexus when they perform. They explained the vibrating crown they feel around their head, and the global well-being that singing provides them. I, too, have been feeling this for years now. I needed to let the fear of not being enough at the door of the audition hall. By successes and failures became the best friend of the child within me: it is always this child who wins when I do well, whereas it is the adult that makes the mistakes. The ability to connect heart and mind means saying “stop” to negative thoughts. This happens through full consciousness, meditation, and breathing.

One’s brain has to serve the heart, as one’s heart has to serve the brain.

The miracle of opera singing lies in the connection between the head and the chest and, concomitantly, between the mind and the heart, by the power of breathing and letting go.

The miracle lies in daring to be, and in daring to love.

Do you have a breathwork practice? Let us know in the comments below.

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Respecting The Comma

While this author’s colleagues discussed the intricacies of the editing process during a weekend session of the Writing and the Oral Traditions cohort, he attended his youngest daughter’s high school graduation. Of course, any parent worth the title would make himself available for this momentous event. But this student would like to examine the event of graduation from an editorial point of view.

As a college composition instructor, every semester this author repeatedly must explain the proper function and use of the punctuation mark The Comma. It is The Comma which tends to confound his students throughout the course, either English Composition or Research and Composition. And no amount of explanation can fully eradicate the fallacies of The Comma’s raison d’etre. The mark has no phonetic purpose; it is used to divide elements of the sentence for the sake of clarity.

The sentence “Let’s eat Grandma” provides adequate reason for writers to respect the value of The Comma. Indeed, omitting this mark has grave consequences for all involved, not the least of whom are cannibalistic relatives. If only the author had known the dangers! If only he had understood beforehand the criticality of The Comma in relation to direct address. It is the difference between eating dinner versus eating the cook, an hour of sated sleep versus a lifetime in Attica. If only the writer had known!

So, what does The Comma have to do with graduation? Everything, and nothing. The Comma, well placed, serves in the same fashion as a nail which fixes the frame to the wall; no one can see it until it fails. The punctuation mark is similar to a competent umpire in baseball: the fans will not notice him until he makes a mistake. Then, the hats come off, the dirt flies, the benches empty in anger, or, at the very least, confusion. The coach is heard yelling, “What do you mean there’s no comma separating two independent clauses separated by a conjunction?!” Or later, “The Oxford comma is TOO necessary to clarify and properly separate items in a list! What is wrong with you?”

Alas, this author’s students consistently bring the proverbial knife-to-a-gunfight argument to The Comma debate. “My high school teacher said . . .,” this author can hear in his dreams, “a comma is used to create a pause.” No, a caesura creates a pause. A breath creates a pause. The Comma may form a pause in the reader’s mind, but its purpose is to clarify the essay. When one writes, “We saw the strippers Putin and Trump,” hopefully the reader senses a vague feeling of nausea at the thought of these two decrepit dictators shimmying up a silver pole, casting smoldering glances at the balding men nursing their flat Budweisers, fingering their grimy dollar bills. Meanwhile, with the help of The Comma, the reader can see the strippers, Putin, and Trump all lounging at the bar, discussing hotel arrangements after a long night’s work.

I saw my daughter’s graduation The Comma and it was a beautiful occasion. I love my daughter The Comma and I have never been more proud of her achievements. I raised my daughter for this event to form a comma in her life, a separation between child and adult, apprentice and journeywoman, this and that. The Comma which divides us, my daughter and I, also connects us as she slowly advances along her own way, to her own place, in her own time. It is The Comma which forms the bonds necessary for us to call each other, and to tell each other stories, dozens of years ahead. It is The Comma, that tiny screw, which upholds the chair on which we sit together, flowers in her hand, as she tells me she loves me this night, and 18 years of nights before. The Comma, driven into the sentence of this moment with the very weight of our lives. My daughter The Comma I, and our future stretching left, and, to our right The Comma the past.

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The Invention of Grandparents: Exploring the Origins of Multi-Generational Storytelling

Igniting the Imagination

It began with fire.

Our distant human-like ancestors mastered the primal technology of fire-making more than a million years ago. Even when we were a nomadic people on the African plains, fire gave us a gathering place against the dark of night. Fire gave us a sense of comfort and safety. The flames were our best defense against the threat of animals bigger and stronger than us. We could cook food, aiding us in developing our big brains.

Fire became a technology that helped us shaped the landscape and a tool for regulating the rhythm of dark and light in our lives. We clustered around the glowing embers under the star-sprinkled sky. Uncounted eons slipped by.

By 100,000 years ago, our species, Homo Sapiens, was able to think in symbols and create the first artwork: Ritual burial and decorated objects of bone and stone and antler. We crawled deep into caves and painted our animal dreams on the rough stone walls. We communicated with gestures, facial expressions and body language.

By 40,000 years ago, thanks to an evolutionary re-wiring of the brain, the gift of spoken language allowed us to think in abstract symbols and to convey vibrant images to another person through the spoken word. Image-ination was born.

The Grandmother Hypothesis

But we had a problem. There were few elders. Average life expectancy was barely 30. Many of us died in childbirth or perished from the rigors of living in the open. For our species, thirty is the magic number, because that is the age when a woman could conceivably have a daughter who could then have a child, making the elder woman a grandmother. For most, this never happened. A few of us managed to live to be 70 years old. But this was such a rare occurrence that it had no significant impact on the culture.

Then, due to improved living conditions, something happened that changed the fabric of human life forever: We saw the emergence of a new strata of society that had never existed before. Some researchers call this amazing demographic shift “The Grandmother Hypothesis”.

Anthropologists Dr. James Adovasio and Dr. Olga Soffer tell the fascinating story in their ground-breaking book, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory.

They write,

“In the late Paleolithic about 30,000 years ago, about the same time as the Creative Revolution in Europe, there was a sudden four-fold increase in the number of adults old enough to be grandparents. Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California at Riverside have identified a sudden leap in the number of people surviving to older age by studying the rates of molar wear. The sudden increase in the number of surviving elders contributed importantly to population expansion and cultural innovations and may have contributed to an early version of the recent information explosion, with older people’s long memories serving as living repositories of useful information.”

Family groups who were able to add grandmothers and grandfathers to their circle gained an enormous advantage. This extra set of hands, knowledgeable and skilled in the details of daily living, freed parents to focus on the tasks of gathering resources needed for the survival of the family while offering childcare for those old enough to leave their mother’s breast.

For the first time, a significant number of individuals were living long enough (and had enough useful experience) to bundle their accumulated wisdom and knowledge into a compact, durable package: the spoken story. Before the advent of the written word, the vast weight of cultural knowledge, memory and insight was carried forward through the generations by the oral tradition.

We are Wired for Story

As we sat around the fire at night, our grandmothers and grandfathers encoded the legacy of our culture into stories so compelling that these tales would certainly be repeated and passed along to the next generation. The cosmology and spiritual life of the people was anchored by these stories. Cultural information that did not make it into a story might very well perish with the individual; whatever was embedded in our stories had a far better chance of enduring to nurture the next generation.

In the brain, cells that fire together wire together. Our love of stories was forged by the sound of the grandparents’ voice, whispering into our young ears on those primordial nights by the fireside.

But that is not the end of the story. The invention of grandparents proved to be one of our most successful societal innovations. In modern times, grand parenting remains a mainstay of family life. Because life expectancy has steadily increased, there are more grandparents than ever. Back when the U.S. was founded, average life expectancy was 35. (We had only gained a scant 5 years since Paleolithic times!) By the turn of the century, it jumped to 47. Today it is 78.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Civil War times, the number of U.S. adults over the age of 65 was 3 percent of the national population. Today it is 15 percent. By 2050, the Census Bureau predicts the number will climb to 22 percent. Here’s an interesting factoid: In the next four years, for the first time in human history, the number of people over the age of 65 will exceed the number of children under the age of 5.

The Age of Grandparents

We are living in The Age of Grandparents (and great-grandparents). Soon many of us will be slipping into the ancestral role of the elder storyteller, if we have not already. Despite the many advances in information technology, the majority of teaching, learning and human bonding still takes place in the form of spoken language. Even as the many blessings of the written, broadcast and digital world surrounding us with their versions of modern-day storytelling, a part of us still longs to sit by the fire and hear the voices of The Old Ones, speaking to us in The Language of the Dream.

If this makes sense to you, you might ask:

“How do we modern-day storytellers add to this ancestral river of images, flowing from the human tongue to the waiting ear?”

The answer is astonishing in its power and simplicity:

All we need to remember is the most important question any human can ask another.

We ask: “Would you like to hear a story?”

If the listener agrees, the ancient contract is signed and the human journey continues…

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Family Memories: WOOLRICH, PA

My mother used to visit my husband and me in Connecticut for a few weeks in the summer. She was in her early eighties then and, except for some hearing loss and eyesight issues, in remarkably good health.

One July I asked my friend Sue to drive out with me to Ohio to pick her up. On the way back, we decided to treat Mom by swinging off I-80 in mid-Pennsylvania to Woolrich, the company town headquarters of the eponymous sporting wear line.

My mother had some kind of recessed, Paleolithic hunter gene. She loved to shop and when she discovered a great bargain, an archetypal hunt lust was satiated. That afternoon we shopped the cavernous factory store until finally, knowing we still had a six hour drive ahead of us, I eased Mom reluctantly back to our car with her bags.

Sue and I take a lot of trips together. She drives and I navigate. I believe my genetic lineage descends directly from Odysseus; Sue’s, from A. J. Foyt. In that pre-Smartphone/GPS technological era, I was the maven of maps. Worried about time, I spotted a road that avoided the long highway looping around Williamsport. This one looked to be a straight shot back down to an I-80 interchange­.

Pine Mountain Road, as its name promised, wound through a pleasant green forest. Shortly, we began to climb. As distances between houses grew, I reassured my mother, inquiring somewhat nervously from the back seat, “Are you sure we are on the right road?”

“Of course.”

My mother, always the worrier.

The houses became smaller, quainter, more like cabins. Towering pines blocked out nearly all the sun. I noticed the road sign had four numbers on it now, instead of the usual two or three. We continued to climb. Abruptly the paved surface turned to dirt. I heard my mother in the back, rustling around in her purse. Mom kept things inside it carefully sorted into various, little plastic baggies and I was used to hearing her sound like a loose squirrel whenever she fished out something she wanted.

We passed a sign to keep alert for moose. I asked Sue if she knew when mating season started. She didn’t. She’s from Boston. We passed another sign naming the area a state forest—something to do with bears. Behind me I heard an occasional, faint clicking sound.

The road surface turned rutty and gravelly. Sue downshifted, even though the J-30 had automatic transmission. The engine sounded different, whiny, as we continued to climb. I mentioned to Sue that my ears were popping. Her's were too. My mother began to whisper to herself, which she often did. I think it had something to do with not hearing well anymore.

Sue downshifted again. The odd clicking sound in the back grew rhythmic. I asked Sue how many more gears the J-30 had.

“This is it,” she said, when suddenly the road crested. The engine returned to normalcy and we speeded up. I was glad because so far, we hadn’t saved any time driving in first gear.

We flashed through more pine forest and soon began to descend. I consulted my map again. Our route wasn’t shaded green like most maps do to show the strips of mountains piercing up through central Pennsylvania. In fact, it promised a straight drive down to the interstate.

At that precise moment the road angled sharply to the right into a steep, 180° switchback. The J-30’s rear end fishtailed on the loose gravel, tires skittering to find traction as Sue fought the steering wheel.

When we finally pulled out of the skid and slowed, Sue and I both let out expletives.

And in the backseat, my mother’s voice rose, calling out an audible to the heavens:

"Hail Mary, full of grace . . . may the Lord be with us, now and at the hour of our deaths. Amen."

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Reaping the Whirlwind, Unmasking the Writer

Sentence by Sentence

When Our Editing and Writing Instructor Jane Lincoln Taylor handed out a single sheet of white-lined paper and a colored pencil on Saturday morning, I wasn’t prepared for the whirlwind that occurred.

I was immediately reminded of the story Dovie Thomason shared at the Connecticut Storytelling Festival 2018. After the weekend with her and the other storytellers I wrote: “In contrast, Dovie Thomason’s personal story spins a web rooted deep that grounded her words and her audience in a story whirlwind. Stepping on the stage with confidence and drawing us in deeper and deeper until we were wrapped up tight in her story web. I felt I was running in the whirlwind right alongside her as she tangled her words and actions with the wind moving in toward her. The story wrapped the audience like a blanket affecting every inch of their beings leaving us light headed and dizzy after we dropped out of our story whirlwind with Dovie Thomason.”

Amazing how Jane was able to generate the sensation of a whirlwind in me again. This time I didn’t get swooped up into the fast-paced spinning funnel of story, but instead that of editing. Pops of words alongside proofreader marks and pencils combined with ideas all swirled around me sentence by ever changing sentence. Whirlwinds are an incredible weather phenomenon that Dovie attached to her experience as a child and put it into story, but this weekend with Jane words split these phenomena into two spinning funnels of story and writing that entertains, teaches, and heals.

So, the author is consumed with the world spinning around and the one within. Hence that is where the editor secretly steps in; doesn’t change just guides. Jane Lincoln Taylor took what use to be a very harsh, controlling, and dominating figure in my mind of an editor and transformed it into a secret friend and mentor who only wants to bring the best out in you and your work.

Back to that one sheet of paper and the activities we were asked to write on that piece of white lined paper were just extremely straight forward, but informative. First, Jane asked us to write 3-5 things that were great about my writing. I took this very literally and banged out five descriptive statements about what I found great in and about my writing. I hesitated here and there since I let ego burst in but I was able to complete the list. Second, she asked what I thought my real gift as a writer was, what I have to offer, and what I want to offer?

Without hesitation, the following sentences flowed with ease onto the blue lines of the paper. Healing is there, no matter what the trauma is that derailed you. A pen, pencil, or keyboard can take you on an amazing healing journey as a book can take you to another time and place. Reading this statement allowed in class and rereading it again now as I write comforts me in the fact that I am on the right path. I may have been derailed here and there, but I have gotten back up and am forging on.

The third and final question was given these goals that I have and if I had an editor what are the sticking points that I’d want to work on? The pen took on a life of its own. The negatives came so easy. I was jotting down one skill after the other that the author in me needed to work on. Crazy how fast I could find all the flaws in abilities as a writer. It was amazing to me how quickly that list grew and with any hesitation. Scary.

A Hands-On Approach

Throughout the weekend, editing took over. It was quite educational. Hearing that I could become a better editor of my own work was intriguing to me. By a hands-on approach to the editing of our own pieces and the different editing styles she exposed us to this weekend allowed me to begin weaving and intertwining all the skills and learning into “My Living the Writer’s Life Journal” I’ve been composing each weekend I’m in class.

By the end of the weekend with this talented editor, I found that the weekend of writing both positive and negative attributes started morphing into just attributes without the strength of a (+) or (-) sign attached to it. This was so freeing for me both as a person and a writer. Another layer uncovered. Another mask taken off.

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Whom Do You Love? Navigating the Rough Seas of “Correct” Language

Enjoying Grammar

Earlier in the Writing and Oral Traditions Program, we participated in a weekend session involving the importance of play in the classroom. This latest weekend’s editing session got me thinking: Can grammar be enjoyable? Even that very question is enough to make an average teacher recoil.

Lucky for you, however, I am not one of those average teachers. In fact, lucky reader, I give you permission to call me Ishmael, for I am about to chase the question of fun and play through the rough seas of “correct” language.

Since what you are reading is a work of informal commentary, I have already demonstrated one of my highest priorities: Write as correctly as your task demands.

If you are writing a song, for example, and that song is entitled, “Who Do You Love?” do not change “who” to “whom” for the sake of correctness. Chances are the audience will not appreciate. If, however, you are writing a formal letter and you begin with, “To Who It May Concern,” you might want to revisit your pronoun usage for that heading.

But are the lines between formal and informal always as clear? Let’s imagine Bo Diddley wrote a song about when to use standard English, because a high school English class asked him to come and play his famous song, and he decided to do them one better? The song might come out something like this:

Whom Do You Love? (Bo knows Grammar)

I wrote 47 shades of modifiers
Got a question mark for a necktie
Brand new construction on the verbal side
Made out of Warriner's guides

Got a euphemism sittin right on top
Minced outa cooing doves
Come on now - I’m gonna use the imperative,
Tell me, whom do you love?
Whom do you love? Whom do you love?

Indefinite "she" took me by the hand
Said I’m a vague pronoun reference, don't you understand
Whom do you love? Whom do you love?

I answer my phone I say, “This is he.”
I use a linking verb cause that's the way I “be.”
Whom do you love? Whom do you love?

The night was black, the voice was blue
Around a corner mixed metaphors flew
"Onomatopoeia!" somebody screamed
You should a heard just a what I seen
Whom do you love? Whom do you love? Whom do you love?

Yeah when I use “who” it's in the Nominative Case
Never ever in a prepositional phrase
Whom do you love? Whom do you love?

Compound verbs, Complex Mind
Grammar instruction never been this fine...

Whom do you love?

Hooking Them

Okay, so that was a bit of showing off, but my point is that fostering awareness of the rules of grammar combined with a sense of story and fun may be the way to hook students. If they are involved in creating something – a story, a scenario, a game – then they will invest themselves in the quality of their final product, and they will learn the skills by applying them in a less restrictive process.

Here are some options:

Students make a grammar game of their choice, with a start, an end, and a list of required areas such as “Pronoun Agreement” or “Verb Agreement”, or “Frequently Misused Words.” The fun is in the design of the game.

Students re-type one paragraph from a novel or short story, having secretly changed three punctuation marks, and then pass to next group. The other groups have to spot their three changes.

Students listen to “Conjunction Junction”, and then write their own songs about, for example, prepositions, gerunds, you get it.

Students create a series of rejected love letters and the respective responses, based on grammatical mistakes.

Students create a series of skits with “unintended consequences” after characters use the wrong words to their disadvantage.

Students write a call-in talk show or a “Dear Abby” column whereby all the callers or writers suffer from grammar-related ailments.

Students write on a topic such as “Raising awareness about youth homelessness in our state,” but change their audience: A group of parents, a group of teachers, a group of friends, the governor. In doing so, they change their language considerations to fit each audience.

A Grammatical Vision

To close: Anything we want to accomplish, whether it is starting a garden, building a bookshelf, or making homemade jam, begins with a vision. That vision is not to master all the individual skills – those are the steps toward the vision. To make kids memorize the steps without giving them a purpose is what happens when we teach grammar in isolation.

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Writing is Hell

I wandered around the unfamiliar community center searching for a group that looked like they would fit the description of a children's writing group. As I walked into a room on the second floor, a woman slammed down a notebook in exasperation and exclaimed that she must be nuts to want to be a writer because writing was hell!

Well, not only did I realize that I had found the right group, I knew that this was a place where I belonged.

She said that she had writer's block and came for inspiration. We then went around the room and told a little about ourselves. Several people there were published children's writers. I was immediately both awestruck and intimidated. I wondered if I should even stay...

Then people were asked if they wanted to share. The intended audience for the writing ranged from picture books to young adult fantasy. What I was most impressed with, however, was the quality of the writing and the helpful comments and advice that came from the group. The procedure after the piece is read is to verbally give comments and to ask questions of the writer. Then we are all expected to write notes on little blue pieces of paper commenting on what we liked about the piece, one tidbit of advice for the piece, and one question that we still had.

I did get up the courage to share my writing that night and I will save my little slips of blue paper for a very long time. I loved getting gems of advice on my writing. It was so hard to share with a group of strangers. But, those strangers could not have been more welcoming and encouraging.

The second writing group I began attending was a group in Clinton. Although most of the writers were aiming their stories at young adults or adults, they were also welcoming and kind with their comments.

Listening to the group, I began to get a feeling about how to say a suggestion in a positive way that would not hurt the brave writer willing to share. And, even though I still intend to write more for children, I learned something from each and every writer at both groups.

Another thing I found interesting was that both groups had different suggestions for me on the same story. Which brings me back to this past cohort weekend spent on editing. Our presenter Jane Lincoln Taylor said multiple times that a writer needs to consider an editor's comments and then make a choice to follow the advice or to pass. I decided to follow some of each group's advice.

Writing. What can be a harder personal burden than to decide to become a writer? Maybe the woman in the children's writing group was right. Writing is hell.

And... I'll let you know how the next writing group goes.

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A Road Warrior Asks: Is Spoken Word the New Publishing Medium?

Listen to this:

Since I live in Pennsylvania and teach at TGI’s campus in Connecticut, I am, by definition, a Road Warrior.

Crazy as it may sound, I have been commuting to this gig for more than 17 years. Let the record show that I have made the 300-mile round-trip journey approximately 250 times. That’s 75,000 miles (the distance required to drive around the equator of the Earth three times).

Think of the vast stretch of time: An astonishing 2,000 hours of White Line Fever. Said another way, that amounts to 166 back-to-back days of 12-hour driving. Where have they all gone, those precious ticking moments of my rapidly-shortening lifespan?

Some of those moments were spent daydreaming, some were spent cursing the traffic on the Merritt Parkway. But most were spent with my constant traveling companions—recorded books. Like many long-distance drivers, I learned long ago that nothing makes the miles roll by faster than a really good audio book.

Once I am entranced by a good reader and a gripping story, I can push through exhaustion, road rage and sheer boredom--finding my way to my destination with a smile on my face and the knowledge that I have learned something. And, I should mention: These audio books are free! My local library has an extensive collection of recorded books on CD. Full Disclosure: I tried Audible—too expensive.

In no particular order, here are the recorded books lying on the floor of my van right now:

The Whistler/ John Grisham
The Future of The Mind/Michio Kaku
Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Michael Baigent
Writing Creative Nonfiction/Tilar Mazzeo
The Professor in the Cage/Jonathan Gottschall
The Death of Ivan Ilyich/Leo Tolstoy
A Plague of Doves/Louise Erdrich
Spoonbenders/Daryl Gergory
Murder is Forever/James Patterson

Why do I carry so many? Some will be duds: After listening for a few moments, I will be annoyed by the reader or will discover that I don’t care about the premise. But a few will be gems and will wrap me in an aural blanket of listening bliss as the landscape zips past my windshield at 75 miles an hour.

A Fast-Growing Medium

Turns out, I am not alone in discovering the benefits of listening to books, often read by the author, while I do something else.

Consider the headline of a recent article in the June 3, 2018 edition of The New York Times: “Listen Carefully, Book Lovers: Top Authors Are Skipping Print”. Journalist Alexander Alter notes the impressive rise in audio sales as publishers respond to consumers’ desire for books that can be enjoyed by the ear rather than the eye.

“Audiobooks are no longer an appendage of print, but a creative medium in their own right,” Alter writes. “The rise of stand-alone audio has also made some traditional publishers nervous, as Audible (owned by Amazon) makes deals directly with writers. While e-book sales have fallen and print remains anemic, publishers’ revenues for downloaded audio has nearly tripled in the last five years.

"The battle over who will dominate the industry’s fastest-growing format is re-shaping the publishing landscape, much as e-books did a decade ago, driving up advances for audio rights and leading some authors to sign straight-to-audio deals.”

“We are scripting to a new aesthetic,” said Donald Katz, Audible’s founder and chief executive. “This wasn’t a full-fledged media category before, it was a tiny little Siberia stuck in book publishing, and it shouldn’t have been.”

Audible executive Davis Blum says that this change will require that book lovers expand their ideas of how they perceive literature. “We’re trying to break down the boundaries of what people think content ought to look like,” Blum says.

Listening to your favorite book is easier than ever. Advances in digital technology now allow cellphones to function as audiobook players. Consumers bought 90 million audiobooks in 2016, totaling sales of $2.1 billion. According to Alter, more writers and publishers are warming to the concept of delivering stories through the spoken word. Audible is now approaching writers directly to buy the audio rights for their latest works even before their book proposals are submitted to mainstream publishers.

A New Frontier

Once again, TGI finds itself on the cutting edge of contemporary culture. TGI’s Writing and Oral Traditions program is different from every other writing program in the nation because it focuses on the marriage of the spoken and written word in the creative process.

Since the launch of the program in 2000, we have understood that orality informs the writer and provides us with access to a neural pathway which carries messages into the storehouse of memory, imagination and insight in a way that mere ink on the page can never do. By combining the ancient art of storytelling with the latest trends in literary experimentation, TGI’s emerging writers have the opportunity to explore an alternative medium for delivering story.

The Graduate Institute Publishing Center is currently offering TGI writers the opportunity to publish in both print and digital form before a world-wide audience on the Amazon.com platform. Are audio books, with easily downloadable content, far behind? Keep posted as TGI's first-time authors learn how to distribute their work to story-lovers connected by the rapidly-growing matrix that is modern-day publishing.

Some researchers think we are entering an era when technology will allow the spoken word to open our ears in a new way. Among them is Psychologist Carol Gilligan, who reminds us,

“To have a voice is to be human. To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act. Voice is natural and also cultural, a powerful psychological instrument connecting inner and outer worlds. Speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing. This ongoing relational exchange is mediated through language and culture, diversity and plurality. For these reasons, voice is a new key for understanding the psychological, social and cultural order.”

As intelligent and empathetic listening becomes a skill necessary for meaningful participation in our steadily-growing understanding of what it means to be human, perhaps this new interest in the pleasures of both orality and aurality will help to lead the way.

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A Dolphin Tale

The Little Dolphin That Could

Our recent cohort session on humor in storytelling reminded me of this moment in time:

It was the year of 1995, and all was not well.

Andy and I had been married for approximately eight months, and we were still finding our way through life. We got together, both in debt, plunged further into debt with the wedding, and found ourselves struggling to get out of debt as we were both working in the restaurant business with no healthcare or retirement plan. But we were still young, in our late twenties, and had a lot of living to do.

Two weeks prior, I had quit my job at the restaurant Andy and I worked for as I was tired of always having to find coverage if I was sick -–that was how the mom and pop places worked.

So I ventured over to Bennigan’s and brought Andy with me, which turned out to be worse. It was like working at a restaurant that was run by high school students for high school student customers who were trying to get served without a valid ID for high school student tip money. After about two weeks of covering for the oh-my-God-you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-to-me staff of Bennigan’s, I had enough.

I threw down my green smock and walked out the door, again taking Andy with me.

Mexico

My friend Andrea had the perfect solution: “Why don’t you come to Mexico with me and Marcella? It’ll be a blast!”

Broke, and armed only with credit cards, we embarked on a week-long vacation to Cancun, Mexico.

But out of the many highlights of the trip, one of my favorites was found a bus trip away in…

Xcaret- nature’s sacred paradise.

The beginning of the word is said like the beginning of the word escarole if pronounced in an Italian accent or the end of the word babushka if pronounced with a Polish accent. The end of the word pronounce like “Ay” or simply just “A.” At any rate, this Xcaret held the most coveted activity on Cancun—swimming with dolphins. This activity was not as common as it is today, and you had to get there early as the spots filled up quickly. So when the bus pulled up to the entrance, our first challenge started.

With a map already strategically printed out the evening before, I led the way. Sprinting through hordes of tourists who were trying to find their way, over baby carriages, and through finally manicured bushes to get there first. Andy was close behind me, but Andrea and Marcella had fallen back a pace. That pace was the difference between scoring a swim with the dolphins and watching other people swim with the dolphins. We were among the last five to be counted for the days totals, and we were told to return with our tickets at 11:00 a.m.

So we spent a ten-minute hour on the beach until we found ourselves suiting up in pink and blue life jackets as we got our safety lecture from the dolphin trainers. As I struggled to put the vest on, my mind drifted back to the gay couple we had met the evening before. While on our fifth rum punch on a booze cruise, I had told Wayne that we had plans to swim with the dolphins if we were lucky enough to score a ticket. He screeched.

“Or unlucky enough!!!” He clutched his white tank like he was having heart failure.

“Girrrrrl, you better watch out! There have been stories about people getting fuuuuucked up by dolphins,” he practically sang it.

“Dave, honey, tell these girls what we just heard about today, to---day!”

Dave captivated us with a tale of woe in which an unsuspecting tourist was swimming with dolphins when it treated her like a giant human ball--poking her in the ribs, swatting her around with its tail, and dragging her underwater to the point where she practically drowned.

Wayne sipped his cocktail, until he was just sucking at air.

“Don’t do it, girl,” he said.

He placed his hand on my forearm, “Don’t do it.”

The Moment of Truth

As we inched into the water, we were with two other people on our side of the tank. They had two different dolphins for the two different groups of people on either side of the tank, and the dolphins would get familiar with us before we did our grand swim across the 150’ length of the tank. I do not remember much except the cold blubbery skin slapping up against my legs, and then the trainer saying that the dolphin would respond if you just said her name, “Dolly.”

I was entranced. A moment in Mexico for a Broadway classic?

“Hello, Dolly! Well, hello, Dolly!” I crescendo-ed.

Apparently Dolly liked this a lot. She swam through my legs, jostling me around a bit, and nudged up right alongside of me, where the trainer on the dock snapped a photo.

Fear dissipated…love ensued…Xcaret lived up to its name of nature’s sacred paradise.

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Story Creation begins with asking the Right Questions

Last weekend’s session with the Writing and Oral Traditions cohort was like being at a retreat.

The Annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival and Conference at Connecticut College in New London was filled with music, laughter and most of all, good stories.

My favorite presenter was nationally-known storyteller Donald Davis. He was mesmerizing and funny from his first story Friday night, “Come Home with Me,” to his last “gem” on Saturday night. Through his real-life stories about his childhood, you felt like you knew the characters he described as you listened to him. There was a universal feeling of commonality in all of his stories that everyone could relate to.

Donald’s description of his parents, grandmother and little brother, were tender, warm, compassionate and funny. I wondered how he could remember all of those stories. In his Saturday afternoon workshop, titled “So You Think You Don’t Have Stories?”, he explained in a simple, straightforward way that one can find stories just by looking into their past.

Asking the Right Questions

Donald started the session with a look at early education. When a child is in grade school up to Junior High, after they read a story, they’re asked what happened. In high school, after students read a story, they’re asked what the plot was. Donald pointed out that those two questions end the creativity process. Those questions make a student feel that something has to happen or else they don’t have a story. It’s difficult to find a plot if the idea for a story hasn’t formed yet.

Donald doesn’t find stories by asking himself what happened; he goes back in time and remembers places and people. Donald writes lists of the places he’s lived and visited to start gathering bits and pieces for his stories. For example, if you ask Grandma about something that happened in her life, she would probably say nothing or wouldn’t be able to think of anything she thinks is important. If you ask Grandma to describe her house; what the rooms looked like, who came to visit, what she liked to cook and what her family liked to eat, she would tell you everything she could think of. Through those reminisces, stories form. “Uncle Grover” may have been over one night when something happened and there’s a story. A story can be found in the midst of an uneventful memory on an average day. You may hear an inverted sentence or something out of the ordinary.

Donald makes another list of people. He writes down all the people he knew from immediate family to distant relatives, teachers, neighbors, classmates, family friends, church people, all the way down to the postman. Then, he goes back many times in his mind to those memories, concentrating, until they become clear. Years ago, he wanted to write about his childhood neighborhood, but he couldn’t remember much in the beginning. As he kept at it, going back in time to the same place, he was able to name all of the neighbors on his old street.

Sadly, Donald lost his wife last December, but he still keeps her alive in his stories. Sometimes all that’s left living of a person is their obit and their story. He doesn’t invent stories and he keeps them positive, so he doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone. He finds the humor in storytelling through descriptiveness. In laughter, there’s recognition. The audience has to feel the emotion to be there with him.

Donald used “The Odyssey” as a model for everything. Leaving home to find home. When you go back, home is the same, but we’re not. We’re changed by the journey. All of the scraps of life we gather up in our lives are like quilt scraps. They’re all there in bits and pieces and we, as storytellers, have to put them into piles, and select our stories from them.

If you build a portrait for your story, it won’t move. There has to be progress, everything comes back again and the end is at the story’s starting point. What did we learn? And, you don’t have to be chronologically correct all the time. In memoir, you can add some truth to a place in the story where it fits best and the story will still be real and authentic.

I heard every word Donald said Saturday afternoon and it got me thinking way back in my past, to all of those people who touched my life in many different ways. Not only the good but the bad, because there are stories there too, to flesh out and learn from.

The exercises Donald uses to find stories were the highlight of my weekend because I like to know how things work. I came away with so much rich material in my own life, I’ll never be without a story again!

Here is a story I created using the techniques I learned at the workshop:

Grandma’s Wake

The summer I graduated from high school my maternal grandmother, Susan, died. She was the matriarch of her family (see vintage family photo above) and every one of her four living children behaved while she was living. What happened after was a saga that continued for many years.

My grandfather designed the plans for the big white house that sat on a large corner block of Woodin Street and Glemby Street. The front door with the vestibule was on Woodin. If someone rang the doorbell, my grandmother wouldn’t answer because she didn’t know them. Her house was spotless and everyone took their shoes off in her back enclosed porch or you stayed outside.

After the wake, everyone (including people I didn’t know) went back to my grandmother’s house. This was a complete surprise because my grandparents lived quietly in their later years. They never had parties or people over except their children and even then, they were kept in the kitchen or on the back porch.

That night, in late June after my Grandmother’s wake, every light was on in her house. The front door was wide open and the vestibule door was open. The little anti-chamber had small black and white tiles on the floor and there was a closet in there. No one ever entered the vestibule and I was afraid to look in the closet, but that night, it was overloaded with hanging coats and coats thrown on the floor. There were people everywhere. My grandfather sat in his chair in the enclosed porch, oblivious to what was going on around him. Everyone was walking on my grandmother’s white rugs with their shoes on. Someone moved her stuffed dog off the white couch and it was on its side on the floor. Drinks sat on her expensive mahogany coffee and end tables without coasters. As I watched the pools of sweat from the glasses make rings on the wood, I pictured my grandmother’s face if she were there.

I felt uneasy as I went from room to room, sober and sad, watching her family and strangers smoke and drink all over my grandmother’s beautiful, immaculate house. She wasn’t even buried yet and people were sitting in her sunroom off the living room, on the couch where she used to lie when she suffered from “palpitation” attacks. I always thought those “palpitations” were serious, because she was incapacitated for a whole day. You never knew if grandma was going to keep a date because if her “palpitations” occurred. My mother would pronounce grandma out of commission for the day, but the event would go on anyway.

I walked back through the living room into the kitchen where my Uncle Babe, the youngest, was opening the refrigerator door. He was a nice quiet guy, and the complete opposite of his siblings. I was looking for something normal in the house that night and he seemed to be acting like himself.

With his back to me, Uncle Babe asked how I was doing.

I replied, “Grandma would die all over again if she were here tonight and saw all of this.”

Then, just as he was taking a large bottle of soda off the shelf, a dozen eggs fell right out and shattered all over the floor! He turned around and looked at me.

I said, “Oh, Grandma’s watching and she doesn’t like this at all!”

A Memorable Cohort Experience

The entire Storytelling weekend was an experience I’ll never forget. It far surpassed my goals, objectives and visions. I enjoyed every second of it. Spending the weekend with the cohort and bonding even more through this experience was very special to me.

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