“Living the Story—Rafe Martin
at the Zen Center”
For one weekend in early October we were treated to a storytelling workshop with writer and storyteller Rafe Martin at the Vermont Zen Center. Rafe is a part of a living tradition of storytelling that has existed in all human cultures (a million years old, says Rafe). This rich tradition, which involves the listener as well as the teller, is being lost in contemporary culture to media such as television and movies.
The three-hour Sunday morning storytelling workshop was preceded by an evening of Rafe telling stories. The evening crowd had many pajama-clad children who were eager participants. During the story, Rafe would ask the audience for a particular detail-do you know what shark skin feels like? Do you know what wampum is? In this way, and through techniques he talked about the next day, our imaginations were kept active. We were creating the story for ourselves out of the material that Rafe gave us. (There were children who insisted on their own endings!)
At the workshop itself, Rafe generously shared the craft he has been honing for over thirty years. He pulled down the curtain and showed us techniques that make a story come alive. Of course, this is an art and not a science. Rafe showed us some tools. The stories, in the end, must come from inside us.
Rafe talked about how to prepare a story. Memorizing is not the way to go. We may well forget key points or get lost. But more importantly, a storyteller should know a story as if he or she has actually experienced it. This means reading it many times. Mulling it over. Reciting it quietly. Eventually it is as if recalling an experience from memory. In this fashion we naturally use the verbal and non-verbal means of communication we are all familiar with and all share. And we can organize and fine-tune the storyline during the telling much like jazz improvisation. Keeping the listener engaged is key.
Rafe showed that stories grip us because they are more than a narrative. Voice tone, spacing and gestures breathe life into the words. An example was the introduction of a snake into a particular story. One could go into a description of the snake and say how dangerous it was. But with a hissing voice and serpent-like arm, Rafe created a snake right before us. Similarly, he created a noble but dangerous alligator that triggered our fears and curiosities. Rafe essentially became the characters for us. How weak mere words are compared to a genuine demonstration! The living story grabs our attention. And story telling goes back well before written language and, no doubt, language itself. We feel the story without resort to analysis. As so many of us struggle in our Zen practice ìto get beyond words,î it is gratifying to find ourselves for once drawn naturally and pleasantly into a live world without explanation.
We are grateful for all we were shown about the craft of storytelling. Yet we know that it is more than following a recipe. Rafe’s voice and movements as he would climb a tree, or become a storm at sea, or conjure up the fear and awe of a strange forest at night, are not just technique. His fluid embodiment of simple story elements touches us and triggers our imagination to create richness and fullness. In this personal way, stories very effectively teach the nature of character traits such as greed or courage or generosity. We feel these at a deep level since we are involved in their creation. It is with reason that our Teachers have used stories and parables to express the inexpressible. Real teaching demands active participation. The storytelling form is a vehicle that enables the listener to actively experience the teaching. Of course it takes an expert storyteller to make this happen. Thank you Rafe!