Brother Blue says, "My father used to tell stories to God, tears pouring down his face."
Brother Blue is a storyteller of some fame, a jazz-riffing peacock of a performer, a first class wordconjuror and a fine harmonica player. Brother Blue is a slight man, not a young man. When he performs he is topped by a sky-blue beret, and the palms of his hands reveal painted blue butterflies. I have seen him perform several times, and to tell you the truth, it took me a while to warm up to him. His style is wide-ranging and changes abruptly, movement verging on dance, voice verging on song, a kind of spoken jazz. Nevertheless, by the time I saw him talk at the Media Lab, I was a fan.
Brother Blue is a black man whose family suffered cruelly from racism; he speaks with a clear voice from a deep place. I had seen him tell stories, usually at the Bookcellar in Cambridge, but I had never heard him talk about the subject of storytelling itself. That was what I came to hear. Storytelling is in fashion these days, and Blue had been invited to talk to the clever technologists of the Media Lab, the idea being that this might lead to insights about computer interfaces. What was I then? I suppose I was a clever technologist hoping that this might lead to insights about computer interfaces. That’s how I came to be in the audience the day Brother Blue told his secret.
Okay, stop. Just what is storytelling, really? A long time ago in a land far far away? That’s not what I’m talking about. What I want to know is this: what is it that a storyteller does? Yarnspinner, troubadour, raconteur, bard… whatever the label, the storyteller can only move you inasmuch as he can talk about you. The storyteller can only move you inasmuch as he can tickle forth a resonance in your middlemost middle. A good one can drive you like a truck.
Words alone, sidewinding soundwaves entering ears, have no power to move flesh to move mountains. The magic part of storytelling is in the storyhearing, in the fact that that which is told becomes real. The word becomes flesh. The Word becomes Flesh, and the heretics and mountains tremble. Storytelling depends on that exquisite sound-to-meat transducer called sympathy. Perception is reality. I hear and understand. I listen and obey. Mohammed could run circles around the mountain when it came to storytelling, and as a result the mountain ran circles around Mohammed. Stories matter.
Brother Blue says, "Religion is this: somebody told a story and they bought it." To which he added, "we need a new story."
The goal of the storyteller is to get invited across your threshold and into your middlemost middle. There are many strategies for getting across the threshold, since the listener can always try to bar the door. He can tap dance across it or to storm it with passionate fireworks. The best approach is to remember Brother Blue’s secret. It never fails.
I think Brother Blue felt a little uncomfortable talking to a crowd of MIT heavies. He got his doctorate from Harvard in the 40s doing research on the therapeutic value of storytelling for prisoners. He was ahead of his time, and to hear him describe it, I believe he preferred the company of prisoners to that of skeptical unwelcoming Harvard professors. He can talk the academic talk, but he is quick to deflate it with a smile and a joke. This was an academic audience, and he seemed a little torn between simply performing and talking about it in theoretical terms. In the end, he told us a story, a quirky little story about an opening flower in which he involved various members of the audience. It would sound corny if I were to relate it here, but believe me, he made it work, leaving the crowd of MIT heavies wide-eyed and smiling.
At the very end, there was time for some questions, and he finally opened up. He was asked what is it that makes a story work. I don’t think he intended to tell his secret in such simple words, because when he did he seemed uncharacteristically awkward and small. It’s not that he was trying to hide the secret, but I got the distinct feeling he preferred to live it rather than say it.
Brother Blue said, "There’s a question that everybody’s asking: Do you love me?"
This is the one that went right through me. This is Brother Blue’s secret. Everything he said had the ring of truth, but this was truth itself. Everywhere you go, for the rest of your life, remember there’s a question that everybody’s asking. That’s why audiences listen in open-mouthed wonder and that’s why they applaud. Tear down the scenery, throw away the costumes, burn the Media Lab to the ground, but remember this and you cannot fail. There is no new paradigm! There is no new millennium. This is it. This is it. This is it: do you love me?
Silent upturned faces, like flowers, wait. Brother Blue begins, "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"