Harnessing Serendipity as a Creative Force
The SerenA Project has been gathering Stories of Serendipity for our research, we regularly present and talk about this work and encourage submissions of stories to the website. This post is from Ron Berti, the Artistic Producer/Executive Director of an Indigenous Storytelling company in Canada, who has a core team of artists who have been working together for 20 years. It is the only professional arts organization on an Indian Reserve, located on an Island in the heart of the Great Lakes.
Ron writes ‘In our art form of oral storytelling based on The Traditional Anishnaabeg Teachings, we work very consciously with serendipity, as you can imagine, storytelling in the wilderness at night around a fire is full of ‘serendipitous offers’ or ‘gifts’ from the natural environment. The skilled storyteller orchestrates these, decides which ones to respond to, and weaves them into the story/experience of the listener.
In our processes we talk about ‘preparing environments that will enhance the likelihood of serendipitous gifts’, ‘learning which ones to accept and advance’, and ‘how serendipity enhances an understanding of an Anishnaabeg World View – distinct from that of the mainstream Western Worldview’.
Since we are based on an oral tradition, we have only recently started to create relationships with Academics and Researchers, and there is little published about our process. We have developed a week long ‘workshop’ that brings together Academics and Anishnaabeg, call The Many Day Talk.
We decided to publish his contribution as a guest blog instead of ‘Serendipity Story’ as it discusses methods and process of a distinct oral storytelling tradition.
Many thanks Ron (some pictures of you all in action would be wonderful!)
I live and work with a group of friends and family on Manitoulin Island, Lake Huron, Canada. Over the last 20 years, we have collaboratively developed a process that intentionally tries to create the ’conditions’ in which serendipity is most likely to occur. We call it ’The Four Directions Creation Process’ or 4D.
In our context of traditional Anishnaabeg Storytelling (the Anishnaabeg are the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes of North America), we will find ourselves sharing a story/performance with a group of people in the following manner: outdoors under the open skies, around a fire, sharing cedar tea, in contact with the earth, comfortable and secure, but vulnerable to the weather, the night sounds, the insects and wildlife, and the daylight fading into darkness. It has been a journey to get to this place. There is anticipation, and the people who have gathered are alert and sensitized.
And so we have engaged the ’physical’.
The lead storyteller begins to speak. He/she is setting the parameters of the experience, and can do so because those listening are not of this place, and must therefore listen to what is being told, for their own security. The storyteller takes the listeners to a place of receptivity. They are guided to let go of as much as possible of their lives and responsibilities, and eventually, even of their knowledge. They are asked to open up and let the story in.
And so we have engaged the ’intellectual’ (Ironically, to free the mind).
As the stories unfold, the listeners come to realize they are a part of the story. They begin to create relationships to the story and to the storytellers, and draw personal connections. All the elements referred to by the storytellers, are elements that the listener is simultaneously experiencing. This is like painting a surface red and then shining a red light on it. The ’intent’ is ’intensified’. The listeners are now fully engaged in the experience and at their most vulnerable.
And so we have engaged the ’emotional’.
The storyteller understands where the audience is at – he has taken them there. They have been preparing. And now, the storyteller – the really experienced storyteller – can perform their magic and share their gifts. He begins by asking for silence. Perfect silence. All creation stories begin with silence. The storyteller knows the silence will be broken sooner or later. And he is prepared to respond to whatever that might be. As he continues sharing his story, he now incorporates as many of these ’natural interventions’ as is feasible.
After a while, he need barely draw attention to them, as the listeners are now making all kinds of connections on their own.
A bird in the night. A dog barking. A cough in the group. An airplane flying overhead. A cellphone ringing. A baby suddenly laughing. Something falling from a tree. The crackle of the fire. A wolf howl. A car driving by.
But it’s not just auditory. A shooting star. A rising moon. An approaching storm. A sudden breeze. A sudden calm. The smell of a wild animal. The smell of the wood burning. The smell of a sneaker burning. Raindrops. Clearing skies. An eagle. Bats. The fire goes dim. The fire becomes bright. A spark flies up. Fireflies appear. The tea is ready. The tea is finished. The mosquitoes arrive. Someone returns to the fire from the toilet.
The skillful traditional storyteller in his ’element’ – i.e. a natural environment full of variables – is now orchestrating a very ’authentic’ experience for the listeners. He is responding to all that is going on in the present moment, and nothing else, as he continues to tell his story. No theatrical or multimedia production with all the greatest computerized special effects audio visual equipment in the world can come close to creating such an ’authentic’ experience because the very nature of that form requires certainty, standardization, and replication.
And so we have engaged the ’spiritual’. The realm of possibilities, of magic, of deep connection, and of realizing we do not need to know all the answers.
By consciously considering the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual, we are able create conditions for a wholistic experience that engages all of our human capacities. It is when we do not take the time to do so, that people reduce the magic of serendipity to the logic of coincidence.
While we have hundreds of specific examples of serendipity at work – and not just in the wilderness – in the streets, in the subways, during public interventions etc. – I will leave those for now and instead focus on a couple of key ingredients we feel are vital to working with serendipity.
From the discipline of theatre improvisation, we have learned that everything that happens can be considered an ’offer’ or a ’gift’. The skill is to accept the offer, and to advance it meaningfully.
From the discipline of Neuro Linguistic Programming, we have learned that the ’meaning’ of our communication is in the ’response’ that it elicits, and that the ’map’ is not the ’territory’.
From the discipline of professional clown, we have learned that it is all about following the impulse – an honesty.
And from the traditional Anishnaabeg Teachings, we have learned that all things have a spirit, and that all things are connected. And if we ever start thinking we are wiser or more powerful than any other other part of nature, we go and stand beside a Great White Pine.
We hope this short explanation of our story provides a window of insight into another world view regarding the power and relevance of serendipity. There are many other directions this could go as well – for example, Nanabozho the Trickster!
Debajehmujig – The Storytellers
Submitted by Ron”
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