Exquisite silence

When I first took the stage as a storyteller, I didn’t know what to do with silence at the end of a tale. Americans are uneasy about silence. We like to fill the spaces. We get squirmy without words. We aren’t sure what the quiet means.

One of many audiences that taught me to love the unfilled space at the end of a story had gathered to hear a Jungian psychologist talk about his work. I can’t remember who gave the talk, but I do recall the session was part of a series of talks exploring the facets of Jungianism.

Because of Jung’s focus on archetypes, the organizer felt it would be appropriate to introduce each session with a story. I read dozens of myths and folktales, looking for one that illustrated the theme of the evening when I was to be the storyteller.

Black Angus

Black Angus by Dustin Ginetz, on Flickr

I chose a story new to me. “Black Bull of Norroway” is one of the many variations of the search for the lost husband. As in other versions, the beauty who goes off with the beast learns to care for the brute. She must endure trials before her love breaks the spell and the beast returns to his true form, as a handsome man.

Because I was only telling one tale, I wanted something to focus audience attention so composed a short round. The 500-seat auditorium was filled. I divided the audience into three groups. One group sang, “Black Bull of Norroway”. The next chimed in with, “Bridegroom, I come”. The third wove in their line, “Trials await”.

They started softly, swelled as each line came in, then gradually faded away. It was as if they were telling the story, the minor notes weaving over and under each other, all with the same question: How will it end?

The telling that followed was one of those timeless spaces when cranky bosses, bad backs, and unhappy relationships recede into the background. In the space that’s cleared, the story plays out in the theatre of the mind. Five hundred minds seeing five hundred different bulls, five hundred different heroines, yet somehow all traveling the same path.

When I fell silent at the end of the story, so did the audience. No one wanted to break the spell. Then from one side of the room, the first phrase of the round poured a river of music into the silence. Then the second phrase, the third.

The singing was spontaneous, a perfect period at the end of the story. A moment of pure magic for which I will always be grateful.

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DazyDayWriter - May 11, 2011

Ah, the many roles of silence — nearly always powerful and profound. And many say that silence is God’s presence in the world. So good for you, Cathryn. Drawing silence into your story at the end may have had more impact and meaning than we can even imagine. Best always, Daisy

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storyroute admin - May 14, 2011

You always manage to capture the essence of what you read – and write – and then convey it back to us. That’s what makes Sunny Room Studio such an inviting space. Thanks for dropping by Story Route.

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Limor Shiponi - May 28, 2011

I love that story! re-met it when I found a book of tales in my parent’s home some years ago. I never knew I was told that story when I was a kid. The idea of bringing the audience through singing in is lovely. When I tell the story, I sing the little song she sings for him at night – figured it would go well with something that sounds like an old English tune. This act too creates ‘magic’. People are surprised when I start to sing suddenly, but they never break the spell and they are not afraid of their inner silence.

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storyroute admin - May 28, 2011

Singing the night story – wonderful! Gives me ideas for other stories in that motif. I can envision the audience’s reaction when you begin to sing.

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Charles R. Hale - June 1, 2011

Great artists and storytellers like you, Cathryn, have the ability to create with less, allowing their audiences their own empty space to develop their story.
Miles Davis is quoted as saying, “‘It’s not about the space you play, but the space you leave.” Allowing for empty space and silence may be one of the keys to effective creative expression, not only for the artist but the artist’s audience as well.
I recently wrote a story called “The Expressiveness of Silence.” You capture the essence of that beautifully, Cathryn. I am amazed at how similarly you and I experience story. Brava.

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storyroute admin - June 1, 2011

Sometimes I think we’re on parallel paths. Playing around the silence, speaking around the pause, painting around the empty space – so many ways to find the essence of our work.

You used that eloquent expression, “the expressiveness of silence”, in a paragraph from the post on your family’s leaving Ireland. It’s a paragraph I find haunting: “Now, fifteen years after our trip to Castleblayney, I can still see my mother standing in front of the fireplace in communion with her father and grandfather and those who came before them. The expressiveness of her silence was more powerful than any words I can write or speak. But in that moment, in her silence, I knew–the story had changed forever. Our need, the human need for connection had become the story.”

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