In the middle of an intuitive storytelling workshop for a local high school, I demonstrated an ‘impasse’ in a story, where it was unclear what the central character should do next. I used the first pillar of Intuitive Storytelling, ‘Attention’ and noticed three things in the room to use as a “seed” for the next part of the story: a dolphin poster, the sound of a pencil tapping on a notebook, and the slight smell of coffee in the air. All three options were perfectly valid as an inspiration for what happened next: not one option was a clear choice. I offered up the three possibilities and asked the twenty-five participants to simply choose which way to go. They were to shout out their answer – not to think about it – just to choose which ‘felt’ right. They chose the tapping pencil. No one dissented. The tapping pencil sound was the ‘right’ option.
Because intuitive storytelling is unlike any other kind of storytelling – it is magic. Inexplicable things happen in stories that are told out of one’s intuition. Stories unfold in seemingly random directions and then suddenly, with the revelation of a mystery novel and the nuance of a psychological thriller, the narrative doubles back and delivers the perfect conclusion. And the ‘perfection’ of the conclusion is not measured only by its structural merit – this is less important with intuitive storytelling – but by its relevance to the personal needs of the listener.
The goal of intuitive storytelling is less to entertain, and more to heal or give incite to the listener or listeners. The story might very well be a laugh riot, but woven throughout it are nuggets of wisdom that are just what the listener needs in that point of their life. And the true magic of a story told out of the intuition of the teller, is that the teller often doesn’t realize this is happening. The teller might have had the intention to tell a story that addresses a certain challenge a particular listener might be experiencing – say, fear of swimming – but once the story starts to be told, it may take a very different angle entirely and address something else going on for the listener. Or the fear of swimming might be approached from a narrative ‘back door’ and sneak up on both the listener and the teller. When the teller is able to let go and let the story be told, he or she will often ask themselves ‘I wonder what is going to happen next?’ right along side the listener.
So then the question returns: why was the tapping pencil the ‘right’ option for that story. Quite simply because it felt right to me – my intuition told me to go in that direction – and then the shear “rightness” of it was infectious enough to instantly convince everyone else in the room. I had employed the second pillar of intuitive storytelling: Affection. This is the feeling component of intuitive storytelling – right after the thinking component of ‘Attention’. When we pay Attention we engage our thinking and observe our environment – noting what we see, hear, smell, imagine, consider and allow all that data to offer narrative options. For instance, I may be telling a story about a duck that is lost and I reach a point in the story where he leaves the pond. Suddenly I am not sure where to take the story so I pay attention to the moment. I become present to where I am and pay attention. My two boys are in their beds, lying still and listening to me, the shade is down and the room is dark,. I look around and see my elder son’s stuffed longhorn cow, I hear a squirrel outside and there is a faint smell of chamomile tea in the air. The breeze outside moves the window shade for a moment and suddenly I feel my heart swell. This is affection. This is the second pillar. I feel a clear affection for the duck and the wind and a smell in the air. That is the right choice – no question. So the story continues: a breeze blows over the grassy meadow and the duck smells the sweetness of chamomile lavender tea and follows it to a boiling pot of water stirred by a very old rabbit.
Affection is the most difficult of the four pillars to distinguish. Attention is our thinking pillar – with attention we take in information and identify it: birdcall, smell of chocolate, taste of mint, shape of a cloud. With Approach, the third pillar, we engage the will and start talking. We take a leap. We tell the tale. With Allowance, the fourth pillar, we let it go. We let the story lead. We take our own agenda, judgment and standards out of the picture and let the story unfold before us.
But Affection is tricky. This pillar is immediate and spontaneous. This is the pillar that requires trust.
Affection is different than ‘liking’ something. Liking something will not lead your story – it will not give you the guidance that you need. For instance you might not like poison ivy or fisher cats or a pirate with one tooth, but that might be just the ticket for your story. Liking and disliking will get you into trouble and put your own bias in front of the ultimate task at hand: delivering a story that is intuitively tailored for the listener. Affection will get you there. Your story may present you with some options including baby seals and a whaling boat. You may find whaling reprehensible but also find a certain affection toward the boat in that moment. Whaling boat is the way to go. It is the ‘right’ direction to take the story. If you choose the one you like better, the baby seal, you would inevitably find yourself in a narrative hole seeking to be pulled out.
Affection is focused and determined love for the story. There is an emotional flow to the story that follows the rules of the heart. These are the same rules for dreams. Dreams may have the craziest and absurd things happen, but they ‘feel’ right. Somehow things make sense in a dream – and it is because they have emotional relevance. They are in the flow. When telling a story, the teller invites the listener into a similar dream-like state and then the emotional flow becomes just as critical.
The combination of Attention and Affection become what I like to call the ‘inbreath’ of storytelling. They are what precede actual telling. They can both happen in a split second, in a moment’s pause and pass by unnoticed by the listener. And then the outbreath follows: we Approach the story and then Allow the story to be told. In and Out, In and Out. Over and over until the final outbreath – not by the teller, but by the listener: it is the deep and satisfied sigh of appreciation and gratitude.
David and Lisabeth will be bringing a story to life each season here at Rhythm of the Home. Their Winter story featuring Jack and the Snowman can be heard here.
David Sewell McCann fell in love with spinning stories in first grade — the day a storyteller came to his class and captured his mind and imagination. He has been engaged in storytelling all of his adult life through art, film-making, teaching and performing. Out of his experience as a Waldorf class teacher and parent, he has developed a method of intuitive storytelling, which he now shares through workshops and through his website.
Together he and his wife Lisabeth Sewell McCann have created Sparkle Stories.