David Novak – Storyteller’s Compass Using Narrative as Guide.

Press Play to hear David Novak who was interviewed by Eric Wolf on storyteller's compass using narrative as guide on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf.

Press Play to hear David Novak who was interviewed by Eric Wolf on storyteller’s compass using narrative as guide on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf.

Storyteller - David Novak spoke about the storyteller’s compass using narrative as guide on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf podcast.

The Scattered Brain

by David Novak

“I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there”
David Bowie, Five Years

I’m dreaming about a legless blind man when the radio alarm wakes me. In the short time it takes me to crawl to the bureau to turn off the radio (an arrangement designed to get me out of bed) I hear the DeeJay tell me that 5% of men surveyed admitted to wearing women’s underwear. I drift to the kitchen to feed the cat and dog and pour the coffee and juice. I go to the front door to collect the morning paper which informs me of the multimillion dollar judgement against O.J. and of an area magnet school which teaches children how to play the bagpipes. By the time I step back inside, my son is awake and Darkwing Duck is “getting dangerous” on the TV. I’ve been awake for less than 30 minutes and already I’m drowning in a sea of information, images and stories.

The day is far from finished. Everything is far from finished. I feel like my life is in the hands of an insomniac
channel-surfer: unfinished stories in constant collision with one another adding up to one story: life today. It is all so scatterbrained. I worry: what am I adding to the noise as a voice telling stories in the thick of all this? Who am I to enter the fight for everyone’s attention? What is the point of storytelling in the technologically determined culture of today?


Technology enhances us: clothes enhance skin, glasses enhance eyes, wheels enhance walking. Such enhancements extend our physical bodies outward. Our techno-bodies can “see,” “hear,” and “reach” farther than our bio-bodies. We technologically express our bodies outward, forming an exoskeleton of clothing, cars, and houses. Inasmuch as our communication media express images, ideas, and information, we express our minds outward too, forming an exo-brain. The exo-brain is the scattered brain.

In The Global Village (1989) Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers discuss the way technology affects cultural change. New technology, they suggest, begins as a distinct figure set against the current cultural ground. Eventually that technology becomes the new cultural ground. As our new technologies become assimilated they reform the ground which determines our culture. McLuhan and Powers:

“Media determinism, the imposition willy-nilly of new cultural grounds by the action of new technologies, is only possible when the users are well-adjusted, i.e. sound asleep.”

To be “well-adjusted” in this sense, is to be accepting yet unthinking; to be an open receiver like a well-adjusted antenna. For such media determinism to be possible, it helps to have a populace that is illiterate, anti-intellectual, inarticulate, and emotionally reactive. The well-adjusted user is hungry (literally and figuratively); dissatisfied with what he has (”been there, done that”); afraid of the unknown (”brand x”); afraid of the outside (the only safe places, we are told, are the places where you find an approved point-of-sale that accepts the right credit card); accepting without thinking (uncritical and thereby open to shallow rhetoric and “sound bites”); has a short attention span (being therefore less likely to scrutinize merchandise or ideas very closely); and is impulsive (reacting to ersatz emergencies from headline news to one-day-only sales.) In short, the well-adjusted user lets the scattered brain do its thinking. The scattered brain directs our attention to what it considers important, leaving what does not interest it to be forgotten.

If this is the culture we live in, it is also the culture that welcomed a revival of story- telling. Why?

A Gentle Reminder

I have just finished a story program for a family night at a local school. The occasion is a combination of book fair and turn-off-the- tube week. During the program I presented some cats cradle figures and used them to tell Jack & The Beanstalk (see Storytelling World vol. 2, no. 1, Winter/Spring 1993.) Children come up to me, chiming the giant’s refrain and asking how they can learn more about string figures. Adults come up to me with a slightly different response. For the children, this is new information. For the adults, this is old information that was lost until they were reminded of it. I will call these two responses: minding and reminding.

First of all, minding. The telling experience brings a wealth of stimulation to the young listener in the form of images,
rhythms, patterns, sequences, emotions, and ideas. The aural stroking between real-time-and-place teller and real- time-and-place listener is something that our sciences have begun to verify as essential to brain growth in early childhood. The recognition of this importance is bringing a new validation to the storytelling art in a culture obsessed with technology.


AP-Washington – In a day of “talking about baby talk” and how brains grow, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton offered parents simple child-rearing advice: Songs and storytelling fire up infants’ brainpower.

When we tell stories to children we are truly minding them.

Next, reminding. Adult listeners at storytelling events are often surprised by the recognition that storytelling evokes. Listeners tell us, “Gee, I haven’t thought about that in ages…” “I’d forgotten what it was like to…” “I remember when…” and so on. A wealth of dormant memories and experiences are invited up from the deep past to the surface of our present minds. Such storytelling reminds us, literally re-minding: giving us back our minds. It is as though we have lost cognizance of who we are amidst our scatter-brained lives.

What’s going on? Why are people having little epiphanies in the company of storytellers? I believe that there is something missing in our modern media saturation that the storytelling revival is providing us. Something primary to who we are. Something that our daily distraction has lead us away from.

In a prophetic essay for Harper’s in 1938, E. B. White wrote:

“Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images – distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar than their originals.”

These days we are enchanted by the Elsewhere and attend to matters “distant and concocted” at every turning. Admittedly, storytelling itself advertises the Elsewhere: “Once upon a time, long ago and far away.” But there is a difference. The medium is the message and the very medium of the told story carries a message distinct from other media. There is a different kind of Elsewhere being advertised by storytelling. We are urged to look away from that which distracts us to that which has become the most remote: the primary and the near.

Version x.x.x

Each new software package is incrementally defined as version x.x.x of an incomplete and never-finished idea-set. Are we cracking the silly idea that a thing is made and maintains its shape immutably? That meaning is constant? All things change. All things are in some state of iteration, always shifting. Set in stone? It is the property of stone to diminish. Organic? Living? If so, then growing and evolving. We live between the last version and the next version. Storytellers have always known this. But the market place has a vested interest in keeping things unfinished in order to keep the customer. “Keep the customers satisfied” becomes “dissatisfy the customers in order to satisfy them.” This is how Scheherazade survived: with perpetually unfinished stories. We are sold software and systems that are not ready and then charged for the more complete (but still unfinished) version, paying for the privilege of beta-testing someone else’s product. While we rush ahead to get the latest version, all new and improved, we are littering our lives with all the old, obsolete versions. Our lives are cluttered with the hard and soft wares we abandon on impulse as our scattered brains chase the latest hot item. The more we neglect the past, the more we will be burdened by it. How did grandma get to be sick and alone in a wolf-infested woods, anyway?

Story Technology

Stories, as technology, enhance memory and understanding. Storytellers are a sensual, human medium. Modern electronic media pretends to respond to its users, but is hopelessly remote and uninvolved. The user who stays too long at the hearth of such media may suffer a kind of sensory deprivation. The storyteller brings touch in the form of aural stroking and warmth in the form of being truly present. Neuroscience now confirms what ancient voices have always known: storytelling is important emotive and cognitive technology. Storytelling as true virtual reality, transfers experience while massaging the listener and influencing growth.

Storytelling is re-minding the user at the center of the scattered brain; directing attention back to the primary and the near. Storytellers are strengthening our ability to endure long, considered thinking: to listen, to reflect, to discern, and to feel deeply and knowingly. McLuhan and Powers continue: “There is no inevitability where there is a willingness to pay attention.”

Within our scattered brains we seek something, hungrily, in the bright distracting lights around us. Yet we are perpetually dissatisfied. We are like Nasruddin searching in the sunlight for the gold coin he knows he lost in the dark.


So busy were we
moving papers around the room
we failed to see the East
and the dawning of the day.
So worried were we
at the tallying of doom
we failed to see the South
and the brightening of the bay.
So certain were we
at the importance of our task
we forgot to note the West
and the fading of the light.
So lost were we
we forgot to ask
the sirens of the North
the meaning of the night.

Storyteller - David Novak spoke about the storyteller's compass using narrative as guide on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf podcast.

Light & Dark

There is a house in Mailbu, halfway up a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I was a guest in this house when I was in Malibu to tell stories. The evening of my performance, my hosts had left early to prepare for the event and I was leaving the house to join them. Out of habit, I checked to be sure I was turning off the lights as I left the empty house. I noticed a bright light coming from the bathroom and reached in to flick the light switch off. The switch was already off and I was momentarily confused as I tried to determine the source of light in the room. Then I realized that the light I was seeing was coming from the late sun shining low over the ocean and through the bathroom window. I was trying to turn off the sun. I had somehow forgotten that a room in a house can be lit by sunlight.

Today our manipulation of light puts the day/night cycle into our hands – or perhaps more correctly – the illusion of the day/night cycle into our hands. Lights are on at all hours and there are many times when we begin our artificial days long after the sun has set. The time to turn out the light is the time of cessation: bedtime, sleep-time, end-time, death-time. “Turn out the light, then turn out the light” remarks Othello before extinguishing the candles and then extinguishing Desdemona.

So what does this have to do with a storyteller turning off the sun on his way to tell stories? In his introduction to the Pantheon collection of Grimms Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes: “The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages. And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation. Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumination. Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened.” The prolongation of light has pushed back the shadows of the hearth where, once upon a time, stories were told. Further, the prolongation of light has weakened the “rhythm that gave them meaning.” That rhythm, simply stated, is the time for light, the time for dark, the time for work and the time to tell stories.

We have prolonged the light: we can work whenever we want (and more than we wish) and we have prolonged the seasons: I can buy fresh corn in February. We have changed the ancient rhythm. Is there only cacophony? Or is there a new rhythm?

“Today, while raking the front lawn, Todd said, “Wouldn’t it be scary if our internal clocks weren’t set to the rhythms of waves and sunrise – or even the industrial whistle toot – but to product cycles, instead?”

“We got nostalgic about the old days, back when September meant the unveiling of new car models and TV shows. Now, carmakers and TV people put them on whenever. Not the same.”

Douglas Coupland, Microserfs

The Hearth

The tradition of the hearth is still among us and played out regularly in many technologies. When we go to the cinema, popcorn in hand, to watch shadows flicker on the wall, we are practicing a human behavior as ancient as the first domestic fire. (As an aside, it is interesting that popcorn is so intimately linked with the cinema ritual. Certainly, on the American continent, popcorn has been enjoyed by fireside story listeners for a long time!) There is something soothing about sitting in a dark theatre. The cinema is a communal hearth creating adhoc communities that exist for a few hours and then are scattered. The television set and the computer screen provide the hearth of the modern home. This hearth is available at all hours. We can bathe in its stories and images, from waking to sleeping, whether the sun is shining or the moon is full.

For a long time now, the modern hearth has maintained the broken rhythms of the scattered brain.


McLuhan and Powers describe the cycles of technology as moving through four phases: Enhancement, Obsolescence, Retrieval and Reversal. For example, the automobile en-hances travel, obsolesces the horse and buggy, retrieves walking as recreation, and reverses into the inefficiencies of the traffic jam.

The modern hearth brought the Elsewhere into the home and rendered the need to be out there obsolete: we could stay home and still be in the Elsewhere. We could, as The Firesign Theatre told us, be in two places at once and not anywhere at all. We were brought indoors to look out of doors. The hearth still functioned as a hearth: it was the organizing principle of the home. But the rhythm of this hearth belongs to the scattered brain. The technology that enhanced information and cultural unity is reversing into insanity.

The insanity of the scattered brain is driven by an insatiable appetite. If storytellers are not careful, they stand to be consumed by that same appetite.


In the storytelling revival we are fond of drawing sharp distinctions between “our kind of storytelling” and other story media. The thing we don’t often admit is that we all serve the same appetite.

Our bodies have certain basic appetites. Today we are able to satisfy those appetites to excess. We suffer illnesses from our over consumption of fats, sugars, and salts, and have learned the importance of a balanced diet and exercise in order to maintain our health. Similarly, we have an appetite for images. Today we are able to satisfy that appetite to excess.

Stories are rich in images. When we tell stories we are feeding that same insatiable appetite that consumes T.V. radio, cinema, billboards, magazines, etc..

Are there consequences to a surfeit of images? Are there illnesses of the mind and the soul that can result from too many images, all cluttered and confused?

Less is More

It is easy to say that what the world needs now is more storytelling. But what if what the world needs now is less storytelling?

Traditional storytelling was often restricted to certain seasons and certain times in balance with the life of the community. Taboos against telling stories out of season were (and still are) common. If we are genuinely concerned about the health of our storytelling culture we will have to come to terms with the notion that there is a time to tell and a time to be silent. In a way, we try to do that with efforts like “turn-off-the-tube-week.”

The idea of less storytelling is a heresy, perhaps. My intention is to challenge some of my own assumptions about the relationship between our current storytelling revival and modern technology. I think there is a need for more of certain kinds of storytelling. Yet even as we are serving that need we are in danger of losing our direction and succumbing to the rising confusion around us.

The point is: the appetite for image is insatiable and it is being served at a feverish pace throughout our culture. Storytellers such as myself, who are on the verge of the entertainment industry, are in danger of being consumed by the scattered brain. Doing so we may become famous for 15 minutes, but we may also cease to be true storytellers and render ourselves obsolete.

What is the relationship of the storyteller to the other storytelling media? Is it simply that of the story-producer? (I’ve got a story to tell and a story to sell.) When you put a storyteller in front of a camera and broadcast that storyteller, you turn that storyteller into another TV program. The entertainment industry looks at the storyteller and sees one of two things: a writer or an actor. The media looks at the storyteller as a kind of product. If storytellers wish to get involved in the entertainment industry (and why shouldn’t they, considering the celebrity and the remuneration) they will have to come to terms with the voracious appetite for story that drives the industry. If the storyteller becomes merely a story-product, something essential will be lost. For the real art of telling stories is concerned not so much with being the producer of the unique story as with understanding when to tell and when to be silent and how to match the right story with the right listener at the right time. In short: the art of telling stories requires a good sense of rhythm.

To tell, we know, means to report; but we must remember that it also means to discern.


“The Spider Woman taught us all these designs as a way of helping us think. You learn to think when you make these.”

-Navajo teenager speaking to folklorist Barre Toelken regarding string figures.

Consider the metaphors which abound in the new technology: Net Web Mosaic Link String. These are the first technologies. They describe pattern and complexity. These are the constants of the human experience, still alive within the mutable modern media. We are finding our way in complexity like Theseus in the Labyrinth. Many of the current video games concern themselves with wayfinding in mazes and worlds where the rules are unknown and waiting to be discovered. Does the mind get stronger from the exercise? Or lost, in Spiderwoman’s web?

“Wayfinding is a set of principles.
An art. And at the center of the circle of sea and sky is the wayfinder practicing the art, trusting mind and senses within a cogni- tive structure to read and interpret nature’s signs along the way as the means of maintaining continuous orientation to a remote, intended destination.”

Will Kilselka, An Ocean In Mind

The new cultural ground now brings the center back to the user. The home video recorder breaks the broadcast schedule cartel and allows viewers to determine when they watch. The personal computer takes the next step: allowing us to watch when we want and to broadcast what we want. Control of the technological hearth is coming back into our hands. With it comes all the confusion and chaos of “the second Tower of Babel” that Victor Hugo describes. In response to this chaos we are developing more and more powerful “search engines” to help us navigate the madness.

The same need that brought about the search engine has brought about the storyteller. The art of the storyteller is the art of the wayfinder. The teller gives us the cognitive strength and the story constellations that we need to find our way. In keeping the ancient rhythm, the storyteller is here now to help us stand once again at the center and reorient ourselves to ourselves as well as to one another. The storyteller is minding and reminding the scattered brain.


An Ocean In Mind by Will Kilselka University of Hawaii Press. 1987.

Introduction to The Complete Grimms Fairy Tales by Padraic Colum. Pantheon Books. 1944/1972.

The Dynamics of Folklore by Barre Toelken. Houghton Mifflin. 1979.

The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century byMarshall McLuhan & Bruce R. Powers. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. HarperCollins. 1996.

Notre Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo. English translation by John Sturrock. Penguin Books USA, Inc. NY, NY. 1978.

One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. Harpers Magazine, vol. 177. October, 1938.

Spiders and Spinsters by Marta Weigle. University of New Mexico Press. 1982.

Teleliteracy by David Bianculli. The Continuum Publishing Company. 1992

David Novak

A Telling Experience
“Finding ourselves together telling stories.”

PO Box 15122
Asheville, NC 28813
(828) 280-2718

1 Comment

  • By Glenda Bonin, August 30, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    David Novak has provided a thoughtful,informed and challenging article. He has clearly put into perspective the discomfort many of us feel about the growing demands of technology on audiences, storytelling, the storyteller. “The scattered brain” is an apt description of how technology has altered our attention over the yea. I appreciate how David clearly points out why discerning storytellers need to recognize when it is time to tell and when it is time to be silent.

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