As mentioned in a previous post, I have written for online indie zine Pennyblackmusic for the better part of a couple of decades. One of my recent projects was a series of interviews about my fellow writers, which concluded with one of my fellow writers interviewing me. As my editor, John Clarkson, put it:
“For the last two years in her ‘A Life in Music’ column Cila Warncke has talked to several of our writers and photographers about how music has affected and influenced them. We were interested in finding out in ‘A Life in Music’ what ignited a bunch of obsessives’ passion for music, and discovered that much of our team had lead lives that were just as fascinating as many of the bands. Now that column is coming to an end, and in the last in the series we have turned the tables on Cila and Nick Dent-Robinson has spoken to her about her ‘Life in Music’.”
This may well be the first time I’ve been interviewed in print so thought I’d share.
Cila Warncke: A Life in Music by Nick Dent-Robinson
Cila Warncke is one of the earliest contributors to Penny Black Music magazine, having started writing for them more than two decades ago. Penny Black founder and editor John Clarkson recalls that Cila’s first interview for the magazine was with Cinerama about their “Disco Volante” album. She was the magazine’s first female writer and, as John Clarkson says, he is proud that Cila paved the way for many more excellent female music writers in Penny Black Music over the coming years – as rock music writing was notorious for being too much of a “boys’ club”.
As a professional journalist, Cila says she was attracted by the scope for originality and independence (and lack of male chauvinism) at PBM – and she has produced a fascinating range of articles over her time there. Although she left Penny Black Music in the early 2000s and worked on the glossy London-based music magazine, ‘Q” she was welcomed back in 2012 and has been a regular contributor since then. She has written about the impact of the pandemic on those working behind the scenes in the world of live music, about the eventual demise of ‘Q’ magazine and she wrote a very thoughtful piece about Marilyn Manson. Plus she has produced excellent articles on so many other diverse topics.
Cila also originated the ‘A Life In Music’ series where she probed fellow contributors to PBM about their musical tastes, background and aspirations. – All done with great tact, sensitivity and diplomacy plus insight – key hallmarks of Cila’s style. That series is now drawing towards its conclusion – but not before we turn the tables and seize the opportunity to ask Cila about her own ‘Life In Music”’
Born in 1980 and raised in a small town in Oregon over on the West side of the USA, in her late teens Cila moved to the East Coast to study English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia – an esteemed Ivy League institution. Subsequently she moved to London to undertake further studies at King’s College before becoming a journalist. She thrived in the UK, enjoying all the many cultural opportunities available just after the turn of the millennium as well as the proximity to Europe. She and her fellow-American husband Chris Hall, a production audio technician in the world of live music, have travelled widely and have now made their permanent base in Valencia, Spain. Cila was at her home in Valencia when I started to ask about her ‘Life in Music’.
What are some of her earliest musical memories?
“Well, my parents weren’t musicians and because my mother was an Evangelical Christian, anything that wasn’t a hymn or soft God-rock was not too popular. It was a cool, rebellious thing to listen to anything other than that. My sister and I would listen to local radio, though and so I got some of the sound of late 80s/early 90s rock and pop culture through that. But my brother – who is around 6 years older than I – loved The Smiths, The Cure and some of the other British post-punk/new wave bands. I enjoyed that sound and I recall some of the record sleeves up on my brother’s wall – brilliant images which made a lasting impression.
The first (non-Christian!) record I remember buying when I was 13 or 14 was Sting’s “Fields of Gold…Best of: 1984-94” and my sister (who was 8 years older and much cooler, always) bought me Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ – which I still think is a great record!”
My students and I are about to start a unit studying people and movement. Every new course and group is a fresh challenge in curriculum development: identifying and sourcing appropriate texts, deciding on writing exercises, linking new material to previous learning.
People and movement is a tough remit for its sheer breadth. From the wanderings that brought homo sapiens from its ancestral home in Africa to the current heartbreak and chaos that reign at ultra-militarized human-made borders, there is much to absorb, understand, reflect on and debate.
And of course, movement is more than just physical displacement. People and movement must consider emotional and spiritual journeys, economic trajectories, the currents that flow between lovers or haters, the passage from ignorance to enlightenment. Movement is life: heart blood nerve impulse digestive contraction sperm meets egg infant traverses birth canal. We only stop moving when we’re dead.
Looking back at my reading list of the past few months, almost every book could be profitably analyzed through the lens of movement. The following 10 books — a mix of fiction, memoir, verse and biography — give particular insight into human dynamics, visible and invisible. Without further ado, the people and movement reading list.
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class edited by Michelle Tea
As culture gets less equal, movement between social classes becomes as fetishized as it is remote. An antidote to the reams written about the poor — Without A Net, edited by Michelle Tea — is by the poor, or the formerly poor. Though one of the key features of the essays in this book is the disabuse of the notion that someone can transcend deprivation simply by making a bit of money. Lack (of cash, of security, of stability, of self-confidence) is a persistent challenge and the writers in this anthology challenge the notion that there is a quick fix for what Richard Sennett memorably termed ‘the hidden injuries of class’.
Brief yet lacerating, Kincaid’s dissection of colonialism ancient and modern demands an analysis of the privilege of movement. People of certain countries, cultures and backgrounds can move freely, either as conquerors or (almost as problematically) consumers of less-privileged places. The use of the second-person pushes the reader to question their identification and position in the hierarchy of movement.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
This anthology includes the longform pieces written as part of the New York Times 1619 Project, plus new essays. It examines the way catastrophic, criminal displacements of people underlie and shape United States’ culture. Kidnapping, transporting and enslaving Africans plus genocidal clearances of Native peoples created a nation that has yet to come to terms with the implications and outcomes of its past.
Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass by Frank Close
Some people look outwards to understand the world, but the movement towards greater understanding often requires turning in. In the case of Peter Higgs and scores of scientists across decades, the journey was ever-deeper into the realm of subatomic particles, resulting in the eventual discovery of the Higgs boson — a particle whose movement is fundamental to the shape of our universe.
Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson
Another intense exploration of the potential and limitations of moving between social classes. Hudson was the English equivalent of poor white trash, a circumstance which meant she spent her childhood moving from one precarious, uncomfortable, humiliating physical and social environment to another. Revisiting old haunts as a successful adult, she is confronted by how little some things have moved on.
This novel in verse is aimed at middle-grade readers but it made me weep. Told in the first-person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted, after the war, by a couple from the United States, it gets to broken heart of violent displacement and alienation from home and culture. It also (ambitiously, deftly) addresses the emotional and physical trauma of returning veterans.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gurnah is always writing about movement; his characters roam, seek, sometimes return, are rarely satisfied. This richly textured story follows a seemingly successful immigrant who cannot outrun the pain of a mysterious childhood separation or the complexities of a family where movement failed to heal deep fissures.
From scuttling frantically through the subterranean corridors of a posh Paris hotel to tramping the dusty byways of the Home Counties in search of a place to sleep and a spare meal, Orwell’s foray into poverty is marked by movement. Though distinct from his working-class counterparts by education, the young writer genuinely struggled, which — although he couldn’t help but see himself as in the world but not of it — still stands as an honest and compassionate account of poverty.
This novel was recommended by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, who praised its intensity and clarity. The story of lives split and twisted by tribal violence on Cyprus, it explores the penalties of flight, what it means to be rooted, and the long arc of coming to terms with the things that cannot be eluded.
For a final Nobel Prize name drop, this slightly surreal and unsentimental story of Nils the goose boy who accidentally gets turned into a tiny elf. Lagerlof won the literature prize in 1909, the crowning achievement of a career that included poetry, adult fiction and this classic children’s story. Bold and vivid, the tale of Nils illustrates the critical role movement can play in self-discovery and insight. At home, Nils was cruel, spoiled and selfish; after traversing the skies with a flock of migrant geese, he comes to understand kindness and survival in a new way.
Should story-time, like nursing, be confined to the earliest stages of life, or should it continue beyond the point kids can autonomously digest texts?
If primary function of reading aloud is to support literacy, research shows that reading to older learners “boosts their reading comprehension, increases their vocabularies, and helps them become better writers. In fact, students who are read to are more motivated to read themselves” (Blessing, 2005).
Zehr (2010) reported that, “teachers found by trial and error that reading aloud worked for adding interesting content or making literature come alive for students. And some educators say they read to their classes to model good reading, such as by asking comprehension questions as they go along.”
It is always gratifying when research supports my predilections, but I’ve been reading to older students — including adult learners — for as long as I’ve been teaching. Partly, it’s a failure of imagination: I loved being read to, cannot imagine anyone disliking it.
To be clear: my childhood pleasure in hearing books aloud had nothing to do with lack of independent reading skills. I could read by age four and would compete with myself to see how many pages I could read in a day. My record was 1,000. It was a 1,000 pages of the Paddington Bear series — not War and Peace — but the point is I read like a my life depended on it.
The pleasure of being read to was something else. Books I could (and did) read myself were still a joy to hear being read by my older sister, or one of my parents. We also tuned in to read-aloud radio programs, memorably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Jeeves and Wooster.
What makes reading aloud so marvelous? And why should it be part of every literature and language teacher’s repertoire?
To get another perspective, I interviewed Andie Yellott, a lifetime English teacher, former Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Writing Program supervisor and parent of a child with dyslexia.
Should reading aloud be continued beyond reading competence? Yes. Absolutely. When my son was in fourth grade, I would go in for one hour during lunchtime and read to his class. It was the highlight of the week, they told me. They loved it. They always wanted one more chapter.
How did reading aloud support your son with dyslexia? He could not have gotten through school without me reading to him. I read everything, even the godawful high school health book. One of the advantages to reading aloud is you can stop and springboard off into other paths, other conversations, which you wouldn’t do if the kid was reading alone. And if you want a kid to do well on a standardized test, read, read, read.
How did reading to your dyslexic son facilitate his communicative abilities? He’s got a huge vocabulary. I’d read to him, stop, ask what a word meant, try to figure it out contextually. Reading aloud to him made a difference. He thought he couldn’t write; now, he’s one of the best writers I know.
Like Yellott, I’ve had lots of student enthusiasm for reading aloud. It is more than just fun, though. Reading aloud supports specific skills, depending on whether the teacher or learner is reading aloud. Here are six benefits observed in my classrooms.
Native and non-native speakers alike struggle with the whimsy of English pronunciation. In extreme cases, this can lead to students understanding spoken words but not being able to identify them in print, or vice versa. Reading aloud while students follow along in a text is a straightforward way to ensure that kids are matching the right groupings of letters to the sounds they hear. This is especially important for those who struggle with reading and/or are learning English as an additional language.
When students are reading independently it is difficult to gauge how well they comprehend individual words. Students may grasp the main idea of a text but miss important vocabulary. As Yellott said, reading aloud is an opportunity to identify and define unfamiliar words in context. While reading to my students, I pause frequently to check comprehension. If they don’t know a word, we search for context clues, then look up the definition to verify our deduction. This is also a great opportunity to reinforce knowledge of parts of speech, e.g. ‘this is the noun fly; what does it mean when we use it as a verb?’
Reading is too often solitary and functional, the vegetable kids have to eat before dessert. We need to remember: independently reading printed texts is a novelty. For most of homo sapiens‘ time on the planet, stories were oral. People gathered around fires, or beneath fearfully and wonderfully made cathedral ceilings, to listen to a bard/priest/storyteller. Being read to was the only way most people could experience books until the advent of mass public education, which wasn’t all that long ago.
Reading aloud in the classroom reclaims the power of the story to articulate fears, hopes and desires; to delve and reveal. Students who have a chance to respond verbally to a book: express how they feel, ask clarification questions and debate it with their peers, are axiomatically more engaged than those who skim it in lonely silence.
Correct decoding errors
Even competent readers often make decoding errors such as ‘stared’ for ‘started’. If a student is reading silently, there is no chance to identify and correct these slips that, as they accumulate, affect comprehension. Younger and/or less able readers are more likely to make these mistakes, so reading aloud is an ideal tool to support their literacy.
If Emily Dickenson was right and “a word is dead./When it is said” then spare a thought for punctuation. Students can learn the function of commas, colons, etc. through direct instruction but that doesn’t automatically translate to competent — much less creative — usage in their writing. One of the best (only?) ways to understand the delicious possibilities of punctuation is to read aloud. By treating the punctuation as a kind of score — lift the voice here, pause, slow down, shout! — students develop the ear for punctuation that every good writer must have.
Improve verbal fluency and confidence
We tend to think of fluency in the context of learning an additional language, but it isn’t just language learners who need to practice this skill. Learning difficulties, lack of a richly verbal home life and shyness are a few of the reasons native speakers may struggle to express themselves fluently in their language. For students who struggle to articulate, whether because they are acquiring the language or for some other reason, reading aloud takes the pressure off of deciding what to say, and allows them to focus on how to say. Reading well-written texts gives students a chance to see how successful communication sounds; they can practice pronunciation, enunciation and tone without the risk of error. Ideally, they can inhabit the voice of the text and, in bringing it to life, experience the possibilities of their own voice.
In Sense and Sensibility the ‘sensible’ (i.e. sensitive) sister Marianne falls in love with Willoughby in part because “he read with all the sensibility and spirit” his rival lacked. In Jane Austen’s time, to read aloud well and fluently was a mark of refinement and good taste. As our world becomes more digitized, text-driven and fragmented, reading aloud is due a renaissance. Anyone can jab out a text; to read a book with eloquence and feeling, though? That’s magic.
How do you feel about reading aloud to older students? What benefits/challenges have you observed? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke
Great books help develop strong readers. And strong readers are capable of learning just about anything.
One of the joys and challenges of my job as a literature teacher is to continuously find exciting, engaging stories that will resonate with teen readers. To that end I read A LOT and am always on the look out for recommendations (if you have any, please jump to the comments and share!)
In 2022, I read more than 120 books. These 10 stood out as great novels for teenagers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Somehow, I missed this classic coming of age story when I was a kid. Shame. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a startling, unsentimental portrait of growing up poor in Brooklyn in the first years of the 20th century (the book ends with rumors of war). It doesn’t gloss the ugliness of abject poverty, alcoholism, sexual violence and ethnic conflicts yet it neither preachy nor maudlin. The characters are given the dignity of being complex, alive and changeable. Unmissable.
Cool for the Summer
by Dahlia Adler
This contemporary novel about a teenager girl exploring her sexuality is the best of a whole bunch I read on said theme. Middle schoolers desperately need affirmative, healthy messages about sex and sexual identity. The protagonist of Cool for the Summer is awkward, confused, obnoxious and authentic. She drinks, she swears, she screws up. She starts to figure out how to figure it out. When she finally kisses her new girlfriend at the end, there is a satisfying sense of hard-won self-awareness and acceptance.
The Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X.R. Pan
Apparently, this novel about a girl coping with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide is ‘magical realism’, a genre I would cross the road in front of a speeding semitruck to avoid, in most instances. In this instance, the fantastic and surreal are an effective (perhaps essential) means for communicating the displacement of grief. The protagonist’s gradual immersion in her mother’s language (Mandarin) and birthplace (Taiwan) offers hope and challenge, and, for the reader, insight into the complexities of biracial identity.
Long Way Down
by Jason Reynolds
This novel-in-verse won all the awards, and rightly so. It follows the 15-year-old protagonist as he takes a long, slow elevator ride towards destiny. Will he use the gun tucked in the back of his trousers to avenge his brother’s violent death? Or will he break The Rules? The pacing is taut, the use of language superb, and the voices unforgettable.
A Single Shard
by Linda Sue Park
This was officially my first foray into historical fiction about 12th century Korea. Let it be yours. The amount of research packed into every page makes me quiver with admiration for its author. Middle school kids probably won’t notice or care about all the work behind the scenes, though, they’ll be too busy chewing through the crisp, lovely prose about a young orphan’s apprenticeship to a master potter and the tough choices he has to make.
by Mieko Kawakami
I’m not sure if this is properly an adult novel with YA characters, or a YA novel. In any case, it’s fantastic for 8th graders, as it is a tough, unsparing exploration of issues that many kids face: bullying, divorce, parental absence, social awkwardness, sexual frustration and suicidal ideation. Don’t be misled though; it is anything but grim. There is life, and hope, which feels all the more authentic for being complicated.
All the Broken Pieces
by Ann E. Burg
Another novel-in-verse, told in the first person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a couple in the United States after the war. The struggles with traumatic memories, guilt, racism and alienation are predictable. What is not is the heart-rending yet uplifting way he learns to cope, with a little help from his parents, a disabled baseball coach and a room full of veterans.
Frankly in Love
by David Yoon
This is just your typical hyper-ambitious YA novel that deals with racism, immigration, generational conflict, sex, friendship, LGBTQ+ identity and academic pressures. Just kidding. There is nothing typical about this fast, funny but also totally serious novel about a boy leading a double life: calculus-conquering son of Korean immigrants by day and kinda clueless, hopped-on-hormones American teenager who just wants to have fun.
by Libba Bray
To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, when the going gets weird, the weird go bovine. I stumbled across this while looking for postmodernist teen fiction and boy, is it that. A fast-and-loose riff on Don Quixote, it is packed with drugs, sex, bad decisions, talking garden gnomes, fatal neurological conditions, magical jazz artists and… really, just read it. Preferably in one sitting. It’s louche, loud and OTT: perfect for older teens.
The Story that Cannot be Told
by J. Kasper Kramer
Inspired by Romanian history and folklore, this ode to the power of words follows a girl growing up in the insane reality of the late days of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Peril is always close to hand, often due to her innocent mistakes, but stories have a way of helping make sense of things. And of changing the endings of real-life situations. This is a perfect book for kids who like historical fiction, folktales and fantasy.
Recommend a great book for middle schoolers in the comments, or Tweet @CilaWarncke
Picture a quiet Friday night in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Most of its 60,000 citizens are unwinding in familiar ways: having a drink with friends, going on a date, playing with their kids, or catching a movie. They’ll gossip, kiss, laugh, or maybe get tipsy before they fall into bed and when they wake up on Saturday life will continue as it always has. Tonight, though, 99 people have set aside their usual end-of-the-week rituals to go to the Comedy & Magic Society’s monthly show at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Founded in 2005 the Comedy & Magic Society is the joint project of four hard-working professionals: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood. They have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each of them could (if he weren’t too modest) justifiably claim to be one of the world’s finest magicians. But this is only part of the reason why one Friday of every month 99 people turn up at the Arts Barn, eyes popping with anticipation.
Many of them have been before because live magic performed at this level is strangely addictive. You get hooked on the thrill of anticipation and the little adrenaline bursts of surprise. It isn’t something you can DVR, download or Google, so people come back – and bring their friends. First time visitors to the sturdy red-brick former stable building enter a little more cautiously. Some are excited, others are skeptical; some of them want to be entertained, others have notebooks tucked in their pockets. All are curious.
The magic begins as the audience mingles and makes its way to the alternating bright purple and lime green seats. Nick DeCuites and George Woo, the Comedy & Magic Society’s resident close-up men, circulate through the theater picking pockets, popping cards or conjuring the unexpected. Grown-ups laugh and gasp. Kids crane their necks to follow the flying fingers but their eyes can’t move fast enough. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises and the Producer arrives on stage. CMS’s four co-producers take it in turn to host and emcee the shows. Tonight let’s say it is Bob Sheets, the avuncular comedian with a grin as big as the Ritz.
If you want to know anything about magic or, indeed, the history of American popular entertainment in the 20th century, Bob is your man. He was born in California, the land of prospectors, dreamers, and professional make-believers. One of these was Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who also patented the first artificial heart. Inspired by Winchell’s TV show, Bob taught himself ventriloquism. But when his dad bought him a magic kit he gave up voice-throwing because, at the ripe old age of 10, he thought it was “kid stuff”. Magic, on the other hand, merited study.
The wisecracking schoolboy (“I always had to have the last word,” he chuckles) used to rush home after class to practice new tricks. Unlike most kids, he didn’t mind getting sent to his room because it meant more time to perfect his craft. Bob joined the San Diego Junior Magic Society. At 13 he was performing at parties and clubs; at 15 he was a seasoned performer – as well as being America’s youngest Fuller Brush Man. Door-to-door sales and magic require many similar skills: you have to engage with strangers, win them over, put them at ease, and convince them you have something they need. Bob, with his effervescent enthusiasm, was darn good at it. Academics were a different matter. “I was a D+ student,” he says. “They only let me graduate because they knew there was no point in keeping me.”
Bob finished high school in 1968 when the military was snapping up men to send to Vietnam. He joined the Navy but was discharged 17 days later when they found he was allergic to the regulation wool blankets. Instead, he went down a path trod by many legendary entertainers: he joined the circus. Between pounding tent stakes, driving trucks, and packing down, he polished his performance skills in the main ring and his close-up skills as a sideshow act. Working with the circus was more than a chance to perfect tricks. It was Bob’s initiation into a centuries-old fraternity of itinerant entertainers whose heritage runs from medieval minstrels and court jesters to vaudevillians and, of course, illusionists.
All four of the Comedy & Magic Society co-producers are enmeshed in the traditions and history of magic. This enthusiasm shapes and spurs their careers, and is integral to the CMS ethos. Brian Curry, the youngest member (Mark describes him the D’Artengean of their troupe of magic musketeers) began his education at the renowned Denny & Lee Studio in Baltimore, and was tutored by card wizard Peter Galinskis. “He’d make me rehearse one little move over and over,” Brian says. “He wouldn’t let me start a new one till I learned the last one.” Brian was a young teenager at the time, but magic was already more than a hobby. “It helped me break out of my shell,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at talking to people and it was a way for me to communicate.”
The son of an IBM executive, Brian spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and Paris. Moving between countries on a regular basis fostered independence and resilience – traits that stand him in good stead as a professional magician. As soon as he learned his first trick in sixth grade he was hooked, and regularly spent two or three hours a day practicing. “It was luck,” Brian says of his career. “So much luck.” But, like his co-producers, Brian works ferociously hard for his good luck. When he was 15 he contacted Mark Phillips at a magic convention and asked if he could show him a competition routine. It was a memorable meeting. Mark turned up with a handful of other famous magicians and the youngster promptly bombed. “His act was a disaster,” Mark laughs. “He had problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Still, they took him to dinner afterwards.
Years later that friendship would help form the Comedy & Magic Society but first Brian had to perfect his craft. Luckily (this time it really was luck) Clyde’s, a local restaurant, booked a magician who also happened to be a conman. The conman/magician got busted and his prison sentence was Brian’s big break. The shy 15- year-old went to work doing close-up magic for diners waiting to eat. Seventeen years later Brian still works there, delighting Clyde’s hungry customers. He credits the gig with helping pay his way through college – and honing his skills so he’d never have to use his degree.
None of the Comedy & Magic Society men took for granted that they would be successful as professional magicians. Mark Phillips, a corporate magician who spends most of his time performing at industry trade shows and events, holds a degree in microbiology. “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he explains. By the time Mark went to university, though, he’d already laid the foundation for a future far from microscopes and laboratories. His father was a career Army officer and Mark was raised in military outposts like Fort Hood, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS and Fort Huachuca, AZ. As the smallest kid in the class, Mark was a self-professed class clown and discovered that doing magic was a way to get noticed and make people laugh.
Also, you had to make your own entertainment on remote military bases. Fort Huachuca, where they moved when Mark was in eighth grade, is in arid high-plains country 15 miles north of the Mexican border. There isn’t much to do there, or in neighboring Sierra Vista where Mark went to high school. One of his activities was playing trumpet and trombone in the school band, which often performed on base. Mark, ever the over-achiever, would perform magic on stage while the band was taking its break, thus earning his stripes in front of a tough military audience.
By the time he earned his degree Mark knew he wanted to pursue magic full-time and moved to New York to make his way as a corporate entertainer. It was the boom years of Wall Street and Mark dove into his profession with the same gusto as the traders and bankers around him. The dizzy world of high finance has long since spun itself out while Mark, by contrast, has honed his craft and career with discipline that must make his dad proud. He attributes his perfectionism to a lifetime of playing classical and orchestral music (he now plays the French horn, which has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master). “I have very high expectations of skill level,” he says. “A performance has to be well-rehearsed.”
These expectations infuse every Comedy & Magic Society show. Ask any of the coproducers what their biggest challenge is, as a magician, and they’ll tell you it is trying to change an audience’s expectations. Most people’s experience of live magic is limited a performer at a kid’s birthday or a friend showing off card tricks. “People don’t see much good magic so winning them over can be an uphill battle,” Bob says. As a result, CMS is incredibly protective of its audience’s experience: “We don’t lower the bar. Our guests are professional magicians and they have to hit a certain level before we let them in front of our audience,” he adds. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn shows usually feature one or two guest performers, in addition to Mark, Barry, Brian or Bob, and these guests are culled from the co-producers extensive contact books.
“Bob’s been a big name in the magic world for a long time and has a lot of friends,” Mark says. “If anyone is passing through he’ll buttonhole them and say ‘come do our show, it’s a lot of fun’.” Fun is one word to describe the CMS shows. Others are: exciting, social, electric, family-friendly and, above all, funny. Most magic shows are about highlighting the dexterity and skill the magicians. Add comedy, though, and the whole dynamic changes. The relationship between audience and performer shifts. Barriers melt away. As a magician, it is tempting to treat the audience like the enemy: you want to fool them, put them on the wrong foot. Mixing comedy and magic, however, requires a different mind-set. “It’s easier when the audience goes with you willingly,” Mark explains. “You need charm and personality. You need to be a good communicator.”
Communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, though – not even magicians. Barry Wood, the group’s resident actor and improv expert, says he was “kind of a loner at school. Magic was a hobby I could retreat into.” He’d go off to the library and read about the history of magic and the lives of famous performers. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the art,” he recalls. This fascination drew him out of his shell and into Barry Taylor’s legendary magic shop. The elder Barry became his mentor, and Wood credits him with taking an introverted kid and putting him on the path to being a world-class performer. Young Barry learned that communication could help smooth out a less-than-perfect trick. “At first, I was just trying to fool people, but once I learned about presentation the challenge was to weave a story and connect with my audience.”
The best magic is about making connections and a gifted performer with enough tricks up his or her sleeve can weave a spell anywhere. After an apprenticeship that included working weekends at Barry Taylor’s shop, Barry Wood filled in for a friend doing magic at a pizza restaurant. He left his first paying gig “on cloud nine,” with a bellyful of pizza and cash in his pocket. The die was cast. Barry went to college and majored in marketing but he funded his degree by performing magic. “I always enjoyed giving class presentations – maybe in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do magic,” he recalls. Still, the penny didn’t drop until Barry began looking for a marketing job after graduation. When interviewers found out he did magic they were intrigued; they wanted to talk about shows they’d seen, or tricks they knew. Many asked why he wasn’t doing magic, since it was clearly his passion. “I thought, ‘maybe they’re right.’” To his relief his parents were supportive, and Barry began his professional career in earnest.
One of his formative experiences was working with Bob Sheets at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a restaurant/magic haunt in Maryland run by Bob Sheets and partner Steve Spills. At first, Bob and Barry seem like polar opposites: Bob is the bluff, ebullient journeyman firmly rooted in the great American tradition of life on the road. Barry is reserved, thoughtful and precise; he likes bookstores and wineries with nice views. But they have a lot in common when it comes to magic. Both cite street magic as the ultimate challenge. “If people don’t like you, they walk away,” says Bob. “It doesn’t get any tougher, or more honest, than that.” Barry, who taught himself fire-juggling to avoid dead time while doing street performances at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, agrees. Always eager to develop his skills, Barry began to study acting and improv. He joined an improv group then helped found comedy sketch troupe Dropping The Cow.
“Barry can do anything,” Brian says. “You would never pick him out in a crowd as a professional entertainer. He’s so quiet and humble. Then he gets on stage and destroys. It’s awesome.” Brian jokes that he’d like for Barry to suck at something “because it would make me feel better” but they are more alike than different. Both have a passion for working with kids – which is probably only slightly less demanding than street performing. Brian does school assembly shows, including a magical mathematics review and a book club, while Barry works with a professional counselor doing an anti-bullying show that tours schools in the greater Washington DC region. He is also a long-standing member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. To Barry, cheering up sick children is the apotheosis of his magical art: “I’ve found an audience for all the skills I learned that were inner-focused, that I learned for myself. I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but now I have an opportunity to use my abilities in a positive way, whether it’s helping school kids dealing with tough situations, or making a child laugh in his hospital bed and seeing the relief on his parents’ faces. I’m lucky to be able to use my abilities in a positive way.”
Ask any of Barry’s colleagues and you’ll hear similar sentiments, in different terms. Brian, along with Mark and Bob, does regular gigs on cruise ships, and delights in the way magic transcends culture and nationality, helping him unify a room full of strangers who don’t even speak the same language. Mark gets a buzz out of magic’s ability to transform the ordinary: “When an audience sees magic, they think about things they don’t usually think about. They have a chance to think about the everyday things they take for granted.”
This passion for making the impossible real fuels all of the Comedy & Magic Society members. Make no mistake: magic is hard work. They travel a lot and pulling together their beloved Arts Barn shows requires commitment and sacrifice. “We work so much we’re rarely in town at the same time,” Bob says. “But when we are it’s a killer show.” In addition to long stints on the road they face the physical and mental rigor of regular performance. One of Mark’s corporate trade-shows, for example, involves eight-hour days of repeat performances to an ice-cold audience that has to be won over; over and over again. And anyone who knows kids can imagine how tough it is to convince school kids to take an interest in math.
In addition to the challenges of the work itself, is the challenge of finding or creating work. “You have to be really self-motivated,” says Brian. “There is no manual telling you how to make a living. You have to constantly evaluate how you run your business, your show, your website….” They each have their own way of thriving: Mark taught himself German so he could work trade shows there; Brian has a crop of entrepreneurial side projects; Bob spent 15 years mixing drinks and conjuring surprises as a bar-tending magician; Barry does everything from one-man shows, to toddler’s birthdays to Presidential inaugurations.
To some it might seem like a hard way to earn a living but Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. That is what lends the air inside the Arts Barn its sprinkle of magic dust one Friday a month. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realizes it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.”
Children and adults alike leave the Arts Barn wide-eyed and flushed with laughter not just because of the flawless routines and peerless patter, but because Brian, Bob, Barry and Mark are walking, talking, juggling proof that you can fulfill your dreams and that the world is alive with possibilities. “Magic reminds us there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted,” Mark says. “If we experience a moment of magic and wonder in a performance we start paying attention to the wonder in other parts of our lives.”
Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.
Element 20: Suspense
If you want to keep an audience hooked, don’t tell them how the story ends.
Case study: Relocating C Warncke Writer
What it is:
After fifteen years in the UK and Europe, C Warncke is moving to the American South, and there is absolutely no telling how things will turn out.
Why it matters:
Successful stories combine action with unforeseen consequences. In this case the action is a person — me — leaving behind her entire life (country, cat, cutlery) to move thousands of miles away and live with someone she met on Tinder.
As for consequences, who knows?
Romance, disaster, or reinvention are all distinct possibilities.
In typical damn the torpedoes fashion I charged into this with minimal consideration for what happens if it goes, as the Brits say, tits up. I’m as curious as anyone to see how things turn out.
If nothing else, it will make a great story. And the perfect conclusion to the Elements of Storytelling series. Thanks for following and stay tuned for more storytelling adventures.
In other words:
“Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the peoploe we might have been life a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
~Cheryl Strayed Tiny, Beautiful Things
Practice: “Create characters that live and breathe on the page… I realised I had come to know some of these people so well that the idea that something bad was going to happen to them had become almost unbearable. I was turning each page with a sense of dread and it dawned on me that here was the most satisfying way to create suspense.”
~Mark Billingham via The Guardian
Remember: “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” ~Mary McCarthy
Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.
Element 19: Framing
What a story is about, and the conclusion it reaches, depends on how you frame it.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Who they are:
Respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 American presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Trump won the majority of Electors and is slated to become the next President of the United States.
Why it matters:
The bitter, split decision presidential election highlighted the fact that there is no single “story”. What we think a thing means and what we believe about people and events, is drawn from a rich mass (or mess) of facts, ideas, information and preconception.
After last week’s storytelling post a reader rebutted my assertion that Hillary Clinton is “a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician”:
Surely this must be qualified as “by comparison?” Isn’t it a fact that Hillary Clinton:
1) Supported the Iraq War forcefully and was a key proponent as an opposition pol from NY
2) Supported overthrow of Libya forcefully
3) Supported overthrow of Syria forcefully
4) Was endorsed by entire Bush family and most of GWB cabinet officials
5) Received 100s of millions from wall street banks and multi-national corporations
So, if Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned against Trump and you judged her by her policies she would be a rightwing neo-con Republican.
I think perhaps you should also consider the story telling of the Clinton campaign which would argue that perceived racism and sexism are more important than real policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.
This is a perfect example of framing. My narrative frames Hillary’s experience and views as a positive; my reader highlights different, but equally legitimate, information that casts her in a different light. Trump can, likewise, be any number of things depending on how you frame him. He is either a robust example of American iconoclasm or a racist shit. He went bankrupt and made billions; the story depends on what facts you put in the picture.
In other words:
“While reality itself does partly determine the meaning we assign to it, it doesn’t insist on any one specific meaning. So, while we all live in the same reality, we interpret it differently. Most of the time, the differences are negligible: at the day-to-day level, we agree sufficiently about most things. But some differences are radical. And that’s what politics is about.
Politics is a colossal magnification of the differences in how we perceive the world around us. And an election is a simplified, brief magnification of that. In an election, time stops, and a complex, gradually evolving jumble of differences of opinion is frozen in a single statistical figure.” Rob Wijnberg via The Correspondent
Practice: “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.” Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Remember:“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.” ~ Tim Burton
Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.
Element 18: Lying
Stories don’t have to be true. Sometimes the most powerful ones are pure fiction.
Case study: Donald Trump
Who he is:
Pathological liar who used exaggeration, hyperbole and outright 24k lies to concoct a shady business empire then successfully campaign for President of the United States.
Why it matters:
Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobic goon with an ego the size of the wall he promised to build between Mexico and the United States. He is a self-professed business guru who has gone bankrupt four times. He is a self-professed sexual abuser who has said on record he’d like to date his own daughter. He claims to represent the common man but rarely pays taxes.
Despite all this, Trump beat won the electoral vote from under the nose of Hillary Clinton, a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician.
The only explanation? He told a better story. Because he made it up as he went along.
This discrepancy is noteworthy, since Trump’s financial success – he put his fortune at exactly $8,737,540,000 — is core to his candidacy. “I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job,” said Trump at his circus-like announcement, before referencing his autobiography. “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'”
In fact, Trump even lied about that. The Art of the Deal was written by journalist Tony Schwartz. Howard Kaminsky, former head of the book’s publisher Random House said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”
Practice: “Counterattack. The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar’s favor. “You’ll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression,” says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. “What they’ll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they’re forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage.” Jeff Wise via Psychology Today
Remember:“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” ― Adolf Hitler
An umbrella brand for the professional activities of London-based yoga teacher, masseuse and former professional dancer Paul Dobson.
Why it matters:
Yoga teachers are two pence a dozen in London and students typically cram sessions into hectic schedules. In this environment convenience, rather than affinity for a teacher, is often the deciding factor in choosing a yoga class.
Yoga With Paul was created to buck this trend by sharing founder Paul Dobson’s character. Instead of saying why he’s a great teacher it shares what he believes and cares about. Through a blog and social media, Yoga With Paul (#YWP) has built a network of like-minded yogis who share Paul’s interest in yoga, meditation, clean eating, mindfulness, fashion, urban life, and more. The proof is in the success: Paul now teaches several styles of yoga across London, and his annual Yoga Holiday With Paul summer retreats sell out well in advance.
In his own words:
“My life changed radically when I became a Bikram yoga teacher and it made me realise how easy to get locked into a “ladder” mind-set in our careers, relationships, or even hobbies. What I strive to share with my students is the awareness that you grow and become more yourself by challenging your preconceptions and being open to new experiences. It’s never too late for Bikram and never too late to change your life.” Read more
Practice: “Your readers will live in a house made of their own mental pictures while reading your fiction. Those pictures are based on your words, of course, and you will curate that mental gallery quite closely. And yet the infinite details that your readers will conjure up around the mental pictures suggested by your words are all their own.” via Michael Alexander Chaney
Remember:“Desire is the crucible that forges character.“ ~Kristen Lamb
Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.
After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.
from ‘What I’ve Got’
Why it matters:
Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.
That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.
If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.
In his own words:
“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.
The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more
Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones
Remember:“As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White