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Chapter 1: Form Encourages Freedom

Although this book is not a philosophical document about the metaphorical power of story, I want to give you a bit of background. Do not worry, there is a good story included in this chapter.

I am writing this book in 2011. Awareness of both story and storytelling (two different things) is growing again, just as it happened in the early years of the 1970s and then again in the last part of the 1980s.

Story is getting a lot of attention of late. With that comes a jubilant, yet incorrect, promise that “everything is storytelling.” As a professional storyteller, I am delighted to see so many people excited about stories. Come to the table, the tent, the stage and let us see where story takes us. When I am teaching about storytelling in the midst of this jubilance, I often hear or see questions like these:

“Why do we need definitions about story anyway? Aren’t stories supposed to be free and unfettered in order to have powers to change my business or family?”

I know that creating good stories is a lot of work. It can take me years to craft a story before it is ready for use or, more frequently, I can get a spontaneous idea that can be created into a story in just a few days. I can craft stories because I understand how stories are made. Since I understand the structure of a story, I can take an idea to a story. A definition of story helps me create stories and it helps me to know when to bend the rules.

I am not a story-snob but I do know that understanding definition and form encourages, not hinders, freedom to create. Let me share with you a story from many years ago, when one of my now-teenage Daughters was much younger.

* * *

In our house, baking and cooking is a big deal. Food is fun to create and eat. With children, cooking also teaches valuable life, literacy and math skills.

Daughter wanted to be allowed to bake a batch of chocolate-chip cookies all by herself. My wife and I offered to help her with her first-time cookie-baking adventure, but Daughter wanted to do it on her own. She was old enough to use the oven and she had watched the adults do it many times.

After much work, the first cookie batch was ready to be sampled. Well, they were cookies in name only. The baking pan was filled with one solid field of somewhat baked cookie dough that was stuck to the pan. It was not even thick enough to be called “bar cookies.”

My wife and I tried to help Daughter figure out what went wrong.

“Did you put every ingredient in the bowl?” “Yes.”

“Did you measure all the ingredients?” “Yes.”

“Did you mix the ingredients until they were completely blended?” “Yes.”

“Was the oven set at the correct temperature and pre-heated?” “Yes.”

This incident of the thin layer of cookies was considered one of those mystery moments that anyone can have as a baker.

A week later, Daughter was back asking permission to bake cookies again. We again offered assistance and guidance. “No,” Daughter said, “I can do it myself. It is not that hard. I have seen Poppa do it a lot of times.” That was true- she had watched me bake and even helped a few times. How hard could it be if even her parents could do it?

As you may have imagined, the same slurried cookies resulted again.

While we as parents are firm believers that a few baking ingredients are a small cost to pay for a learning opportunity, something was clearly amiss. When the third request came to bake cookies, I insisted that I help her. While there was a degree of protest, she agreed to have some help if I would watch and not “do it all.”

I watched her put the ingredients together. She took the ¼ cup measure, filled it twice with flour and then dumped the flour into the bowl.

“Daughter, are you going to put the rest of the flour into the bowl?”

“I did put all the flour in the bowl,” she answered.

I looked at the tiny amount of flour again. “No, dear, it requires more flour than that. Look at the directions on the package of chocolate chips.”

She picked up the package and showed it to me. She said, “See, I am supposed to use two of the ¼ cups of flour.”

The package read:

“2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour”

The experienced cooks among us who are familiar with U.S. measuring know that the instructions intend that you would use “two and one-fourth cups of flour.” Her previous baking attempts had missed two entire cups of flour! For my international friends, she should have used about 290 grams of flour but was only using 64 grams.

When we corrected the measuring and added the missing flour, the cookies turned out just fine.

Daughter now makes many batches of cookies, experimenting upon the foundational recipe to get great results.

* * *

If I were in-person with you now telling you this story instead of writing this story, we would pause and I would ask you to make some conclusions about Daughter’s cookie experience. Why am I telling you this story as we discuss using the odds and ends or measures of stories to make complete stories?

Here is why:

1. When a cookie recipe is out of balance, the results are unpleasant and inedible.

2. If you do not understand how fractions of ingredients are used or combined in baking, you get slurried cookies.

3. When you understand the genuine core recipe for cookies, you can use that as a base to experiment and make new exciting cookies.

4. When you have new cookies, you can bring them upstairs to my home office and let me taste them.

So:

1. When your storytelling is undefined, the results are unpleasant and people do not want to listen to them.

2. If you do not understand how fractions or measures of stories become useful and completely-formed stories, you get shoulder-shrugging listeners, viewers or readers.

3. When you understand what stories are made of, you can use that as a base to create many various-sized, audience-specific stories from the master stories.

4. When you have great new stories, you can take them out to eagerly awaiting audiences at work, school or home.

Now, let us bake some stories, shall we?

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