September 29, 2010

Doug Elliott: Stories In Our Blood and Bones


video

Last October as the poplars were turning golden and the days getting shorter, I interviewed Doug Elliott at his home in Union Mills, NC. Doug has to be one of the most interesting people I know (and certainly the only groundhogologist I've ever met). We spent the day talking, mostly, taking breaks to wander the garden, feed the chickens, haul fire wood, tell stories, and play songs. As Doug reflected on his personal history, a life full of twists and turns and wonderful details, I was drawn in like a moth to flame. He inspired me in ways I still think about daily: to learn the language of the forest, to be still and patient and ready for the unexpected, to live deep and suck the marrow out of life. But he also showed me how important it is to know my own story, and to know how to tell it. As he shares in our interview below, a story isn't simply about narrating a particular event, but about recognizing relationships and making deep connections that allow us to reimagine the world around us.

Kirkland: Why stories, Doug? What is it about art and stories that is so compelling to you?
Elliott: We all live in a narrative. When I ask you, 'What did you do today,' you tell me a story. You explain your experience of this day and this world through narrative. For this reason, stories allow us to make sense of the chaos of our lives. And I think we humans have a natural hook for narrative. That’s why some people watch four hours of TV a day--it’s just one story after another. The problem with television is that we're being told a corporate story, a story that drives an agenda narrowly focused on profit.
          When I teach storytelling it is really about turning one’s learning experience into a narrative journey. I tend to learn from specific to general. A lot of times traditional curricula focuses on the general and barely gets to the specific. To to me it’s like, “I was out in the woods one day and I saw this thing and you know what it did? It did this. Now why would it do that?” And that’s how the journey begins. You have to start asking other people about it. You have to start researching it. It's then that you start seeing how this thing relates to all the other things around it. You start making connections on much larger levels. You begin to see how it relates to larger mythologies.   
          That’s how a lot of my stories come about: from an incident, an encounter, a problem, or a question. Just explaining the incident doesn’t quite make a story. You have to see how that incident ties into other stories, or how it relates to someone or something else’s relationship to the world. It’s about connecting the dots.  Ideally you would be able to relate it to the big picture and it becomes part of a larger world mythology. Asking questions is one of the best places to start.

(video: http://www.unctv.org)

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