Sunday, August 23, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Become a Storyteller

Storytelling must be one of, if not the, oldest of the arts. We can easily envision the clan huddled around the fire on a cool, dark night, each individual transfixed by a tale spun by an elder or a natural storyteller. Usually, the tale was familiar, one perhaps heard from childhood passed down from one storyteller to another for generations. But also imagine the thrill of hearing a new story for the first time.

The talented storyteller in the ages before mass media, or even the written word, must have been a prized member of a tribe. Can you imagine the power of an all-absorbing story, told with panache at a leisurely pace. With no background distractions, the audience would have been mesmerized. To use a phrase that describes an experience now rare for most of us, the listeners would have been "hanging on every word."

We each have our stories to tell and it's worth spending some time collecting them, honing them, and then telling them. My own children, even as young adults, enjoy hearing stories of my family as I was growing up. And I can recall the times my aunts and uncles gathered around our dining room table and started reminiscing about their growing-up years. I found the tales fascinating, even when there was a debate about whose version of a particular event was more accurate (or, to be honest, especially when there was a debate over whose version was more accurate).

Storytelling is an art, but one which we can all improve on. I recently had a half day of training in telling stories to prepare 30 colleagues and me to raise funds for the United Way. Our goal was to develop stories drawn from our own experiences as volunteers, as family members, and as visitors to agencies whose programs receive United Way funding. We will be telling our hopefully riveting, yet poignant stories to audiences as part of our persuasive efforts to elicit contributions.

Although I've done a lot of public speaking and don't find it particularly daunting, our training gave me some new insights into storytelling as a unique form of public speaking. Like most people, I'm too often tempted to spend valuable minutes setting the stage for a story before I get to the meat of what actually happened. Our instructor's goal was to convince us to trust our audience to fill in the background for themselves as the story unfolds - but to start with "what happened."

We had been given an assignment to tell a 60-second story from our youth to get us started, which I practiced repeatedly the night before, timing it carefully since there would be no extensions of the one-minute rule. My inclination was to start with the background: "It was my sophomore year of college, and my parents were driving me from my hometown in northeastern Ohio to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the back seat was piled to the ceiling with bedding and household items on one side because I was moving into an apartment that year, yadda, yadda, yadda...."

After the instructor's introduction the next day, I realized I was about to fall into the trap of spending a good third of my allotted time explaining the context before something remotely interesting happened. I reorganized my story on the fly and, I'm happy to say, related it within 60 seconds to more-than-polite applause and even some laughter. Which goes to show, even after all these years, I'm still trainable.

I'm guessing your family won't be such sticklers for storytelling methods and rules as my instructor - they'll appreciate you're sharing a memory that's important to you or just plain enjoyable to tell. Seeing your pleasure in the telling will help them experience it vicariously. I wish my own parents had been more inclined to tell stories and I wish I had encouraged them more. My dad did have a few stories that we heard with increasing frequency as he approached the century mark and, although there weren't many, I do remember them and am glad that he shared them. (At the expense of being considered somewhat disrespectful, I will observe that Dad's stories generally ended with him proving someone else wrong.)

Of course, there are courses where you can practice your storytelling skills in front of an unrelated audience of fellow students and an instructor. You'll be able to see first-hand what seems to work, get some pointers, and build your confidence. I've discovered there's a storytelling guild here in Madison that meets monthly and an upper Midwest organization, the Northlands Storytelling Network, whose spring conference is in Green Lake, just an hour from my house. I'm seriously tempted to check it out, whether or not I get up the nerve to tell a story of my own.

You can also find storytelling classes and videos offered online as well as by local community colleges, universities and adult education venues.

In case you've kept reading thus far because you've been hoping I'll share the reorganized 60-second story I told during our training (and I'm sure that's the case) here goes...

"When Dad pulled away from the gas pump, I assumed he was just going to park off to the side to make way for another car. But I quickly realized he was accelerating, heading straight for the on-ramp to the Indiana Toll Road.

"My first thought was, 'Dad doesn't realize that Mom's still in the restroom.'

"My second thought was, 'This could be pretty funny!' But then I thought, 'I'm really anxious to get to Madison but if Dad goes down that ramp, we'll lose a lot of time just to get back here again to pick up Mom! And then, we'll have five more hours in the car with Mom, who will not find this at all amusing!'

"So I turned to Dad and, in a calm voice, said, 'I think Mom's going to be pretty upset when she discovers you've left without her.' Dad jerked around to look in the back seat and slammed on the brakes. We were almost on the Toll Road at this point but no one was behind us, so Dad backed up the ramp, turned around and parked in front of the restroom.

"About 20 seconds later, Mom emerged and settled in the backseat, chatting amiably about a conversation she'd had with a stranger inside. Dad and I said nothing. And, as far as I know, until the day she died, Mom never knew how close she came to being left behind on the Indiana Toll Road."

The photograph shows storytellers who participated in the 22nd Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2009. It was reproduced from the Website

Monday, August 10, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Walk or Bike the Same Route Daily

In a way, this is the complementary HarvilleQuarter to Idea #12, "Walk or bike every block in your town." For this HarvilleQuarter, you will design a route that you find particularly interesting and follow it daily for a whole quarter. It's an opportunity to become fully aware of everything that's on the route, observe the daily life, see it in more than one season and several weather conditions, and even get to know some of the folks who populate the route.

Although I offered biking as an option in the title, I'd go with walking if I were you. The goal is not to cover as much ground as possible, but to take it at a leisurely pace where nothing escapes your notice. You should have time to stop for coffee at a neighborhood cafe or coffee shop, browse the store windows, notice any wildlife that happens to be out and about, and give a pat to the dog whose owner always seems to be walking him as you're strolling down their street. If it's an afternoon or evening stroll, a cold brew in the neighborhood pub or an ice cream treat from the dairy store can be a welcome pause on your journey.

During the quarter, you'll hone your observational powers. Carry a camera or sketchbook or even a videocamera or pocket tape recorder for quickly noting sights and insights you want to write down later at home. Pick up small, interesting found objects or save a menu from that neighborhood pub or cafe. All of these will become input into your quarterly diary, which I envision as a coffee table book filled with photographs, sketches, written observations and mementos from your walks.

How long will your route be? That, of course, is up to you, although if we take the rule of thumb that a typical HarvilleQuarter involves four hours a day, I'd suggest six to eight miles. That should be slow enough to allow stops for coffee, beer or a snack, photos, sketches, conversations and window-shopping, not to mention rest and restroom breaks.

How to choose your route? If you've already done HarvilleQuarter #12, you've seen every block in your town, so you'll have some good ideas. I'd choose a route with lots of variety- a few diverse residential areas, a park, a traditional retail area, a path along a lake or stream, a wooded lane, a college campus. I understand that this mix may be hard to find in some towns, but I know I could easily find such a route in my hometown, throwing in a small zoo and art museum or gallery to boot. You may be surprised at the variety you'll find on your route when you really look around.

Be sure the route is pedestrian- or bike-friendly and you're not sprinting across eight lanes of traffic halfway through. And, needless to say, be sure it's safe. Although it may be tempting to make the route circular, consider laying it out so you can take public transportation at the end to get back to your starting point.

Depending on your health and stamina, you may need to work up to a four- to six-mile walk. Start slowly, wear really good walking shoes, take frequent breaks, and make sure you are well fed and watered. Know where the available restrooms are. Carry a cellphone (but don't use it to carry on conversations as you stroll - it's for emergencies). Find a friend to walk at least part of it with you. Dress in layers. Carry an umbrella or rain poncho. Wear sunscreen - or insect repellant, or both - and a hat.

And never, never spend your four hours plugged into your iPod. You want to be fully aware of everything around you.

The block in the photograph is Knickerbocker Place in the Monroe-Dudgeon neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. This photograph was reproduced from

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer to Build a Home

Well, you probably won't build a home all by yourself, especially in three months, but you can be a key participant in building a house for a low-income family. The best-known program, of course, is Habitat for Humanity. I recently visited a Habitat site here in Madison where a number of homes are under construction and it's impossible not to be impressed with the dedication of the volunteers, the commitment and competence of the staff, and the positive impact on the homeowners.

I'm guessing that anyone reading this, at least in the U.S., is aware of Habitat for Humanity, so I won't spend time on more than a quick overview. Habitat, as it's commonly known, is a program that builds homes for low-income families unable to buy a homes on their own in the foreseeable future. Participants get a lot of professional and volunteer help building the homes along with financial counseling and a zero percent mortgage on a reduced principal. In return, they must contribute a certain number of labor hours on their own house and help build a neighbor's as well. If they sell the home some day, Habitat recovers the remainder of the principal then.

The building of a Habitat home is led by professionals - either paid or retired tradespeople volunteering their time. They in turn supervise what is largely an army of volunteers with skill levels from impressive to non-existent. It's up to the supervisors to find work that fits the volunteers who happen to be on hand that day while making genuine progress toward completing the house in a workmanlike manner -- and ensure the volunteers have a rewarding experience. As you can imagine, this is not always a simple task. It's been suggested more than once that Habitat supervisors are candidates for sainthood -- perhaps someday there'll be a St. Larry, protector of drywallers and roofers.

Last year, I volunteered with some fellow Rotarians to help on a Habitat house under construction. On arrival, we discovered that our first job was to remove the insulation that had been installed by another set of volunteers the previous day and put it back in the walls correctly. So our first couple of hours consisted of undoing poor work before we could begin making a positive contribution. This was not ideal, but at least we left the house in good shape for the drywall installers arriving the following week.

One advantage to doing a Habitat HarvilleQuarter is that it helps you develop skills you can apply to another HarvilleQuarter, such as creating your dream room. Habitat supervisors are very open to letting you select the kind of work you'd like to do. You could learn framing, drywall taping, painting, or installing doors, windows, moldings or cabinets. Certain work must be done by professionals to comply with building codes, but if you'd like to become an experienced door and window installer, for example, that most likely can be arranged. Even if you start with few skills, the fact that you are volunteering four hours a day, five days a week, will you make you a valued volunteer as you will require less and less supervision as the Quarter goes by.

Even if pounding nails and taping drywall is not appealing, there are many other volunteer opportunities. You can work in a Habitat ReStore, which collects donated building supplies for use on Habitat homes or for resale to the public to raise funds. You can provide lunches and snacks for Habitat work crews. You can help with office work, provide financial management training for Habitat families, or organize fundraisers. And beyond your local chapter, there are opportunities to volunteer your business and technical skills on a three-month project at the national Habitat headquarters in Americus, Georgia -- a great HarvilleQuarter.

I'll close by mentioning that Habitat is not the only housing assistance program for which you can volunteer. An example here in Madison is Operation Fresh Start, which uses home building and renovating as an opportunity to teach construction skills and sound work habits to young people who have had difficulty in traditional schools. The participants not on;y help build and refurbish homes but spend part of their days working to complete GEDs or HSEDs. Volunteers are welcome for both the classroom and construction phases of the program.

If you're physically able, working with either Habitat or local programs like Operation Fresh Start can be tremendously rewarding and would certainly meet the HarvilleQuarters criteria for learning new skills, meeting new people, taking some risk and growing as a person. I recommend them.

The photograph shows an Operation Fresh Start completed home in Madison, Wisconsin. Source: