The Center for Digital Storytelling – An Appreciation

cdslogo_250x250I spent much of last week in Chicago co-teaching a workshop for the Center for Digital Storytelling hosted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve co-taught workshops for CDS before, and they never fail to surprise me. I think that’s what I like most about the workshops. Surprise. Discovery. It’s not that CDS re-invents the format every time they teach a workshop. In fact, most of CDS’s workshops are organized in much the same way they were more than ten years ago. Participants begin by learning a few simple rhetorical and narrative elements of storytelling. Discussions mostly draw from oral and literary traditions, but are also informed by visual and musical storytelling techniques. (i.e. setting, conflict, character development, resolution, juxtaposition, silence, timing, description, desire, etc.) These terms form a sort of baseline vocabulary for talking about the particular stories that each participant brings to the workshop.

But the heart of the workshop, usually in the 2nd half of the 1st day, is the “Story Circle.” Participants tell their stories to each other. And they listen to each other. It’s not magic, but it’s incredibly powerful. In fact, it’s remarkably simple. Just a small group of people sitting around telling stories and listening. And I think the most important part of the story circle, the source of its intimacy, is the listening. Without listening, storytelling is just noise. Without listening, storytelling takes on a certain desperation. There is a risk in telling one’s story. And risk is at the heart of intimacy. The story circle is an astonishing and rare experience for most participants. Stories. Tellers. Listeners listening. Honesty. Risk. Intimacy. And surprisingly, feedback. Not only do people tell their stories, not only do people listen, but they share in conversations about them. People rarely arrive at the story circle with the story they will end up telling for the workshop. They might think they know the story they’re going to tell, but listening to others tell their stories and pay attention to the feedback they exchange with one another almost always affects what participants end up producing. Other participants arrive at the story circle with more questions than stories. Maybe they’ve identified a moment in their life they know is important, but they haven’t yet articulated that importance. Maybe they have a person in their life, or someone who used to be in their life, about whom they want tell a story. Maybe they want to explain something about themselves but don’t know how to do it. All of these approaches to participating in the story circle, in one way or another, are about discovery and articulation. Figuring out what one’s story is about, then learning to tell it.

This isn’t to say that a successful story circle is inevitable when you get 8-10 people in a room ready to tell stories. There is an art to facilitating the story circle. Modeling effective types of feedback. Tactfully challenging participants to pare down their stories to the heart of what they’re trying to say. Keeping discussions focused on emotional resonance and desire while keeping stories firmly rooted in a tactile, physical world. Smiling. Laughing. Looking people in the eye. Listening generously. Facing emotional and often difficult stories with honesty and patience. Talking less and listening more.

The workshop’s first day is always fascinating, surprising, and exhausting. It’s also the most important. Watching the work that other participants have produced, discussing various storytelling techniques, working through the story circle. These are the elements of a CDS workshop that don’t translate well into textbooks or online instructional videos. You could certainly pick up Joe Lambert’s textbook and or the official CDS cookbook. You could watch dozens of digital stories all over the web. You could take some online training courses to learn the basics of some video editing software. But none of those things are at the center of the Center for Digital storytelling. What is at the center is a group of people telling stories and a group of people listening.