APPLIED STORYTELLING: I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it's only recently that I renewed my (long-lapsed) membership in the National Storytelling Network. NSN has an old-fashioned charm. While many of the organizations I write about here traffic in new media, or tell stories about pressing political issues, or take edgy post-modern approaches to narrative, or even use the word "narrative" at all (instead of just "storytelling"), NSN tends to be more traditional. They co-sponsor a big annual festival in Tennessee, organize a bi-annual conference, publish Storytelling Magazine, and host various discussion and special interest groups (such as in higher education, the environment, interfaith dialogue, etc.). There's a "once upon a time" quality to their work. What I like about NSN and member storytellers I've seen is an attention to craft. They're also a practical bunch, and they say, "From classrooms to boardrooms to operating rooms, storytelling is being used as an effective communications tool around the world." To wit, they have assembled a list of over 380 newspaper and magazine articles published since June 2003 that describe some of the many uses of storytelling. Check it out!
COMPASSION FOR THE CRIMINAL: In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes (subscription or purchase required) about how Texas lawyer Danalynn Recer, director of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE), aims to tell the life stories of criminal defendants during the penalty phase of a trial, so as to mitigate their punishment. Even people who have committed terrible crimes, such as rape or particularly gruesome murders, have a back-story: maybe they were abandoned or abused as children, or had injuries that caused brain damage, or suffered some other trauma that does not excuse but at least helps explain their actions. When juries hear those stories, they appear to be less likely to impose a death sentence on the defendant, and more likely to opt for life in prison. As Recer says in the article, "This is not some unknowable thing. This is not curing cancer. We know how to do this. It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone's life." It would seem that her clients' life stories affect not only jurors, but also Recer herself, who is quoted in the article as saying, "I don't apologize for saying I love my clients in all their complexity. We insist on seeing their humanity, despite what they've done. That's what mitigation is all about. I'm not motivated just to make the system fair. I'm motivated to help these broken and despised people. I'm in it to stand up for them."