Once upon a time, I listened as Noa Baum, an oral storyteller, told a story about her German-Jewish mother. Noa’s gestures and facial expressions, the details of culture and history, the characters she fleshed out with an accented turn of phrase–these all held my attention. Yet at some point early in the telling, Noa was describing my Cuban-Catholic mother–whom she had never met. The question of what drove the metamorphosis of one story into another fascinated me as a writer and, in addition to my friendship with Noa, has led me back repeatedly to her performances and workshops.
This past June, Noa organized a workshop in the DC-metro area, “Hidden Treasures: Your Story as a Gift,” and I was lucky to be part of a group of twenty or so oral story-tellers, writers, poets, physical therapists, psychologists, and trauma survivors. We were ready to discover a memory that could be transformed into a gift, to turn what was lost into something found. We were ready to plunge in and start speaking. So Noa insisted that we listen to a story.
In the discussion that followed her performance that morning, I rediscovered something primal in the comfort of listening. What I felt was akin to the difference between legend, (a story rooted in the specifics of time, place, and character), and myth, (a story untethered from those elements). The same legend cannot be found across continents. The same myth fragment can. In The Bond Between Women, for example, China Galland traces the myth fragment of “The Handless Maiden” across continents, part of her odyssey in search of “fierce compassion.”
“Oral narrative is not about words or context,” Noa told us. “Yes, the teller has to know the story and develop its structure. But the teller has no control over the relationship between listener and story. The listener is the co-creator of the story.”
Clearly, Noa’s skill as an oral story-teller rested on well-honed techniques: gesture, voice, breath, rhythm, facial expressions. She also invited and sustained her listeners, asking us to become the co-creators of her story. As listeners we came to trust that she would create meaning without delimiting or constraining it.
Were readers co-creators, too?
What came to my mind was Aristotle’s insistence that plot was moral. The narrative arc that leads to “the catharsis of pity and fear” rests on trust because audiences identify with the stories they hear. Sometimes, for better or worse, audiences act on what they hear. In our time, the definition of “story-teller” is expansive: anyone with a micro-phone, a cable news show, a social media feed, or hacking skills can tell a tale. But storytelling, with its recognition of the listener, is the opposite of marketing. It’s the opposite of propaganda.
“So why are you here?” Noa asked us.
My reflection interrupted, I joined the group and started scribbling. “I came to this country as a political refugee. The experience of exile shattered me. I seek to heal, to become whole through story,” I wrote.
Noa assigned each participant one of two myth fragments. One half of the group was assigned “The Cocoon,” a story of a butterfly torn away from its shelter too soon by a well-meaning passerby. The other half of the group, myself included, was assigned “The Broken Pot,” a story about a clay pot that comes to life and asks the servant who carried it for forgiveness. For years, the pot leaked, causing the servant to lose precious time and energy. The servant’s response surprises the pot. The flaw in the pot, its brokenness, leaked water onto the servant’s dusty path. That water, in turn, made grow the flowers that gave the servant such joy.
As I worked to prepare my telling of the story to the group, I was surprised by the parts that shifted or dropped away entirely. At the first telling, “The Broken Pot” was about irreparable loss. With each telling that followed, my voice and gestures shifted. The silences shifted, too. When Noa asked each participant working on “The Broken Pot” to pair up with someone telling “The Cocoon,” there was an uncanny moment when both fragments collapsed into one, forming a story about loss and recuperation, a tearing apart that led to something greater.
I began to see what was redemptive about the story Noa had assigned. I began to see, for example, the parallels between “The Broken Pot” and the Old Testament promise (Psalm 118:22-23 and Isaiah 28:16) that the stone rejected by the builders would become the cornerstone; between “The Broken Pot” and Christ’s repetition of that promise in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42-43); between the pot’s brokenness and the wound that opens the door for the Apostle Paul to God’s grace (II Corinthians 12:9).
In classical mythology, “The Broken Pot” resonates with the story of Orpheus, the brilliant musician who struck a deal with Hades, the god of the underworld (Pluto, in the Roman version). Hades would allow Orpheus to bring his wife Eurydice back to the world of the living, as long as Orpheus did not look back, which is of course exactly what Orpheus did. Ovid, the Roman poet exiled by Augustus to a remote province for an indiscretion never quite named, understood. Throughout each of the stories that make up the Metamorphoses, the impossibility of discerning why anything happens is palpable.
Rilke understands. In The Sonnets to Orpheus, neither the beauty nor the sensory pleasure of the music Orpheus plays on his lyre are as important as the fact that Orpheus “built a temple deep inside their hearing.” “[T]heir” refers to the “Creatures of stillness [that] crowded from the bright / unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests” when they heard Orpheus play. Rilke focused on the image (and experience) of the listener as part of the telling.
For Rilke the metamorphosis of Orpheus is abstracted, the intervals of sound and silence stretching, becoming a space held open, waiting. Rilke’s Orpheus is the architect of a space within which the most transgressive, radical act is the seemingly passive one of listening. For Rilke, the “new beginning, reckoning, change” that Orpheus initiates is a usurpation of crude materiality: Orpheus “built a temple” where there had been “at most a makeshift hut to receive the music, / a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing, / with an entryway that shuddered in the wind.” Only the story fragment, in medias res, remains, giving testimony of what happened and pointing toward change as the only possible constant, for “if the earthly no longer knows your name, / whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing. / To the flashing water say: I am.”
Do you/would you explore other creative mediums (oral story-telling, painting, drawing, music, etc.) as a way of deepening your writing practice? How do you establish trust with your readers (“listeners”)?
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