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Have You Been Throwing Away Your Story Seeds?

Everyone can make up stories. If you think you can’t, it may be due to the “seed and the tree” problem.

When you are faced with the seed of a story, you may not recognize it. This is in part because story seeds can vary so much from each other.

But it’s mostly because, until you’ve made up a lot of successful stories, you probably haven’t had many chances to connect story seeds with the stories they grow into.

The Unrecognized Seed

Think about it: you hear finished, fully-grown stories and you love them. Then one day you get a simple image. Do you think, “Boy, I bet that image could grow into a great story?” Probably not!

Instead, you think, “I’ve seen stories. They don’t look much like this image.” So you ignore the image. You don’t “plant” it.

Given that our society talks so often about “artistic talent” as a rare thing that most people weren’t born with, you may even conclude that your baby image “proves” that you could never create a finished story.

So you abandon the image before it can grow. It’s understandable that you might do that. But it makes no sense!

To help you connect a seed of an image with the tree of a story, let me give you an example of a very simple image, which grew into a story that I perform and have even recorded.

Noticing the Image

Years ago, Jay O’Callahan and I gave a series of workshops together. In them, we helped people notice and respect the images in their stories.

Our last workshop was in Pennsylvania. On the morning of its final day, I said to Jay, “Let’s try out a new exercise. Let’s ask people to just wait for an image to come to them.” It was a risky exercise, because I had never done this myself! Still, it seemed worth trying.

Joining in as a listening partner, I got a ten-minute turn to try the exercise. During that turn, I sat in silence and waited for an image. As I waited, I felt a slight pain in my side. I thought, “I have to ignore this pain. I’m waiting for an image.”

But something about it made me think, “No, this feeling is part of the story. Go with it.”

So I said to my listening partner, a little apologetically, “Well, I’m feeling this kind of pain in my side.” Soon after I said that, the pain got more specific.

I said, “I think there is an old man having this pain.”

A minute or so after I said THAT, I had an image of a particular old man. “I think it’s a rabbi,” I said. “He’s holding his side, and he’s bending over in pain.”

I waited a minute or two. More clarity came; I said, “A sound is causing that pain. Someone is singing, and that sound is going right to that place in his side.”

That was the end of my turn.

Planting the Sprout

A few days later, I had a fifteen-minute turn to be listened to by a partner. I said to my partner, “I want to get more images from the story about the rabbi with the pain in his side.”

Nothing came to me right away. But after a few minutes of waiting silently, I saw the rabbi again. Now I heard someone singing coarsely. Then I realized that the singing was a prayer. After a couple more images came, my turn was over.

The third turn I devoted to this series of images was 40 minutes long. I told my partner the images that I had seen, heard, and felt so far. I tried to let the images come anew, even if they had changed since last time. I just imagined the images, describing and experiencing them.

I did not tell the images in “performance style.” Rather, I sat with my partner, waiting for images to come. When the next image came, I said, “Okay, now he’s doing this. Okay, here’s what I see.”

By the end of this third turn, I understood that the singer was an old man who had been a cantor but couldn’t sing anymore. When he tried to sing, though, the rabbi heard, in the cantor’s unmusical singing, the exquisitely painful and beautiful music of God. That was the bones of the story as I had received it.

In the coming weeks, I repeated the process two or three more times, until the story felt like it was wasn’t changing much anymore. At that point, I felt that I knew what happens in the story.

But How Do I Tell It?

But knowing what happens isn’t the same as knowing where to begin telling it. So I devoted a turn with a listener to “asking” where the story began. I waited for an image.

In a few minutes, I saw the rabbi walking back and forth in front of his congregation, gesticulating and muttering. He wasn’t talking to the congregation; he was talking to God. I could tell that the congregation was waiting for him impatiently.

So now I knew what happened, and also where to begin the telling. At this point I stopped “riding the images” and began my usual process of getting playful about the language and deciding how to tell the story. In time, I gave this story the title, “Hearing the Music.”

(You can read the story online at http://hasidicstories.com/music ; I have also recorded it on the CD, “Can You Hear the Silence?” – http://www.storydynamics.com/cyhs )

The Sprouting Process

This story began with an image so subtle that I nearly ignored it. It was a kinesthetic image, not a visual one.

But when I paid attention to it and described it aloud, the image began to come into focus and to grow. I merely kept describing, to willing listeners, the images that came to me – until it seemed that I had uncovered all the images of the story.

Later, I began the process of deciding in what order and with what language to tell those images. In other words, I decided how to decorate my story. But by then, that first seed – of a pain in my side – had already grown up.

So, the next time an image comes to you – in any sensory mode – you can try to treat it as a potential story. You can water it with your attention, and wait, patiently and attentively, for it to grow.

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