All right. As my bio mentioned, I teach classes through Minneapolis Community Ed and sometimes elsewhere on writing memoir, creating original performance, using humor in a story, story structure, and basic storytelling. I don’t want to just regurgitate stuff I teach in classes here, cuz that’d make this blog feel like a class, and dude, it’s SUMMER! School’s OUT! (Ooh! Could that be, serendipitously, the title of a Rockstar Storytellers show that’s coming up in just two days, on Sunday, June 1st at the Bryant-Lake Bowl? Mayyyyybeeeee!) Ergo, I’m going to spew thoughts that are less academic and more, I dunno…warm and encouraging? Turgid and useless? Probably that.
1.) The stories you should tell are the ones you NEED to tell. The ones that you keep thinking about, the events in your life that you find yourself circling back to and trying to understand, trying to look at differently because you feel like maybe if you could just see them differently, other things would be different too. Or the ones that are so funny or absurd you want to use them to cheer the whole world up. Or the ones that still scare you, because how did you not totally fucking DIE that one time? Or the ones that leave you hanging your head in shame and remorse, because how could you have ever been that person?, and is it possible that part of you still is?, and if so, what if talking about it could exorcise that version of yourself, and how is it that we’re so malleable, that we can go through so many incarnations and still stand there answering to our name? OR the ones that are wretched and haunting…or shoved with rage and grief into the junk drawers of your memory…and you feel like if you tell people, you’ll be so raw and exposed…but you don’t want to hold that silence anymore.
We tell stories (or write them, or build plays out of them) because we’re trying to figure something out. Under every story is a question we’re trying to answer. We don’t tell stories about things we’ve got totally sorted into neat categories and happy, complete knowledge. Those aren’t interesting to us anymore because they’re done. We tell stories about what isn’t finished, what’s messy, what doesn’t make sense yet.
Tell the stories that feel like a burning or spark or fizzing or ache inside you. Because those are the ones that are going to be really good.
2.) An anecdote is not the same as a story.
A joke is not the same as a story.
A standup routine is not the same as a story.
A story has to have a who, what and where; a character who WANTS something (an objective) but is impeded by an OBSTACLE (in other words, CONFLICT), and a set of things that HAPPEN that cause the character to either get what he or she wants, or NOT get what he or she wants. A story has to have something that CHANGES.
The Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey way of saying this: At the bare minimum, a story needs a beginning balance (here’s how things usually are!), an event that tips the balance (whoa, what the! things have changed!), rising/escalating conflict (oh no! I am on this up escalator and there’s a conflict!), a climax (oh my GOD!!!!!), and then the falling action and denoument (and that my friends, is why Macy’s went out of business forever). That’s not necessarily the structure you have to use OR the order in which events have to be told – not at all – but it’s the most basic list of ingredients.
SO, think about what is simmering in your mind that has some of those elements. Moments of change. Transformation. Struggle.
3.) One more thing to think about: As someone wise once said, “There’s the story…and then there’s the story UNDER the story.” Good stories have what’s going on on the surface, tangibly, and then what’s going on underneath, simmering emotionally and psychologically below the tangible action. Think about times in your life when what was ACTUALLY happening was colored and given meaning by the unspoken, unexpressed emotional life underneath.
Amy, you say, What are ways of generating story material? How do I even start?
1.) One way: The blurt. Let’s say you just announced to the whole world – especially the Minnesota Fringe Festival – that you were going to produce a one-person play about, oh, the time you were sent to Jewish summer camp, at age 15, against your will. And that is literally as far as you’ve gotten with planning what the Blazing Menorahs you want to say onstage. You would sit down at the computer and open a document and VOMIT upon that white space every single thing you remember from that summer at camp. Every scene, every moment, every counselor, every letter you wrote back home, how oppressive your parents were being at that time in your life, who you had a crush on, how futile that crush was, how disgusting the dining hall smelled, what songs you sang, why you hated being Jewish, what graffiti was scrawled all over the cabin walls from campers gone by, how you felt like you were a cell in a petri dish to the other girls who were all cooler than you and seemed to have everything figured out including S-E-X, how everyone was coupled up except you, how this one girl demonstrated French kissing and you realized you’d had no idea what French kissing actually was… Blurt and blurt and vomit and blurt until you feel like you can't possibly write anymore.
And THEN, spread out all your writing, and look for what it’s saying to you. Within that blurting, what’s the crux of the story that wants to be told? Is there a dominant through line that emerges? Is what you THOUGHT the through line would be actually NOT as dominant as a different through line that you can see now, but hadn’t realized was there? Is there an interesting parallel between one set of things you blurted out, and a different batch of things? Is there a type of moment or person or object or scene that keeps resurfacing, that you realize is sort of a touchstone, or…totem, in your life? Is there an image that keeps cropping up that you realize has emotional resonance?
Use that blurted material sort of like index cards – play with arranging those ideas you found into sequences of scenes, plot lines, images, and when you feel like you have a story, use the blurt as the very rough rough draft to work off of.
3.) A third way (and this is part of the Matt Smith Check-in Workshop): Make a very fast list of everything you did in your day today. Just list the activities – where you went, what you accomplished, what happened. Look at the list and sit with each item on it, and see if you feel that “juice” or “buzz” or “electricity” around one of the events…what gives you a little twinge of emotion? Take the item that you realize you have some emotion or feeling about, and put that at the top of a sheet of paper, and write, quickly, the sub-events of THAT event until you figure out where that juice or twinge is coming from. What created emotion in you, even if you don’t right now understand why? Take THAT item that you wrote down (for example, “Everyone saw me break the wooden chair”), and put it in a circle in the middle of another sheet of paper, and “mind map” it. Draw spokes from that phrase outward, writing down everything it makes you think of – every association, memory, incident, things you worry about right now, smells, tastes, visual images, crimes you committed, let memories spiral off of other memories into a huge collage of brain contents that all grew off of that one moment of juice…and then, look at the map and see what it tells you. Where is there a story emerging? Where are there parallel stories, between different places, and times…different people, but similar patterns? What, on that map, wants to be told? “Ohhhh yeah. I felt this incredible stab of guilt when I broke that chair, at the party, because when the leg snapped, that crack of wood…it made me cringe. I immediately thought of my dad’s woodshop in our basement. It smelled so distinct, and that smell of dry wood became his smell, but he was really possessive of the space, and I started thinking that he didn’t just go down there to work, but to escape from our family. And I remember as a kid, feeling angry at that. And so this one time, when he wasn’t home…”
(Sidebar: I really want this example to end with, “…and my dad just shook his head slowly at my legless body and said ‘Well, Pinocchio, it serves you right.’”)
Okay. Three methods, there. You can mix and match them as much as you want.
What are resources to help me develop, like, “my style”?
1.) Take classes and workshops on writing and storytelling, and even improv. I teach them. So do the awesome and fabulous likes of Nancy Donoval, Loren Niemi, Taylor Tower, Allison Broeren, Heidi Arneson, Jen Tuder (at St. Cloud State), many many others. There are classes offered at the U, MCTC, Metro State, Community Ed, throught Story Arts Minnesota, and the Loft Literary Center, just for starters.
2.) Read books. Read memoir and creative non-fiction, and also read books on writing and creativity. (At the risk of driving people nuts, because I talk about her all the time, I love Lynda Barry, and her creativity-harnessing guides “100 Demons” and “What It Is”.)
3.) Listen to podcasts. See solo plays. Go to storytelling shows that you’re not performing in. And when you hear podcast stories, or live stories, if you find yourself in a swoon of ecstasy, saying “OMG, that was fantastic!”, ask yourself: Why? What was working for you about that story? Analyze what worked – because clearly, something was working. If you listen to a story and find yourself grimacing and thinking, “Ugh, this is awful! This story is a piece of stinking crap!”, ask yourself why you feel THAT way. What ISN’T working for you? How are you being pushed away or disenfranchised instead of being drawn in? What do you want to feel that you’re not feeling – what’s creating that void?
4.) Have a director or coach (I’m just going to use the term “director” for the rest of this paragraph). It can be hard to find a good director. It can be hard to find a director that “gets” you and your goals. You might need to shop around. But if you’re a solo storyteller or monologist, you can get really caught up in the same monovision and evaluation of your work that’s self-critical but goes nowhere because you’re so glued to the inside of your own brain. Like, “I know there’s something missing in this part, but I can’t figure out what!” or “I have to cut 10 minutes out of this piece, but I don’t know what to cut, and it won’t work if I cut anything!” or “I have no perspective on this piece anymore”, or the ever-popular underachieving, “Oh, I can pull this out of my ass at the last minute. I’m sure I can make it funny and literate and all that good stuff…why push myself.” Having a director to work with can be such a breath of fresh air because he or she does NOT share a brain with you, and will see totally different things in your work than you do.
When I worked with Kevin Allison recently, on my piece for “Risk!”, it totally snapped me out of the apathy rut I’d been in. It was wonderful. He made me answer questions I didn’t realize a listener would have. He made me dig for the story under the story. He made me cut sentences, and instead convey the content of those sentence through my voice – through acting (what?!? You want me to act?!).
He truly bumped my creative process up several notches, and got me all excited about re-editing a bunch of my stories. It was really valuable.
Okay, Amy, now I feel all insecure and stuff. Please say affirming things!! Also, I need a hug!
Aw. First of all, I loved Mimi’s sentence, “You do you”. I completely believe that also. If you’re not, for example, a slam storyteller, good. Don't be a slam storyteller then. Slam is one kind of storytelling. There are lots of others. Yes, competitive storytelling is in its heyday, and has been discovered by the hipsters and comedians, and happens to be in a format that lends itself easily to podcasts and radio, so yeah, it’s going to have that built-in popularity and ubiquitousness for a while, I’m sure, BUT -- if you gravitate towards writing longer stories, write those! If you gravitate towards quiet folk tales, write those! If you gravitate towards re-imagining epic mythology, like the utterly amazing Charlie Bethel does, do that! Just do it! Do it and bring that to the world! We want your voice, and your voice is valid.
Second, it’s okay to marinate. It’s okay to not know what to do with a story and set it aside and let your post-frontal cortex…pre-backal cortex?...rear-wayback cortex? Whatever – the wayback of your brain simmer your story ideas while you do other things. You would be AMAZED at how you will figure out how to say/write/create/express something that’s been a conundrum when you’re not focusing on it exclusively. Let it simmer.
3.) You, like me, are entitled to rewrite entire shows several times over, even after they’ve been produced. (I’ve done this with both “Circumference” and “Entwined”.) You can write multiple versions of the same story (the slam version, the 10 min version, the literary, on-the-page verison). You can swap sections in and out of a story or play. Rik Reppe, who was one of the founding members of Rockstar Storytellers, and is an absolutely brilliant storyteller, wrote a one-man show called “Staggering Toward America”, about taking a cross country road trip to interview people in all different places after 9/11. He wrote it modularly, so that scenes could be swapped in and out depending on where he was performing it and what length it needed to be. Very clever.
It’s your work. If you decide it’s not ever really done…that’s fine. You get to say that. If you decide you never want to touch it again, that’s fine too. If you grow out of it and pass it on to someone else to perform, also fine. If you return to it with a new perspective and that changes how you perform it and it’s kind of exciting because you realize that you wrote a piece that you could grow into and around, that’s also marvelous.
5.) Finally, regarding the hug…yes. ((hug)) And with that let me add a final thought. One of the whole points of storytelling and spoken word is that it creates community, and takes PLACE in community. By its nature, a community that springs up around that kind of truthful art is filled with people who are choosing at least to SOME degree to be self-revealing and vulnerable. Maybe they’ve gravitated to storytelling, spoken word or monologue because they just plain love the art form, but maybe they’re also there because that art form is healing to them; this is where they can finally find a voice after being silenced, or acceptance after feeling isolated, or kindness after something really painful.
If YOU want to feel safe learning, growing, and developing your very personal, authentic art form in that community, then you have to make it safe for the other people there as well.
Let’s all do that. Make it part of our goal as artists to be good, kind, compassionate people. Make it a goal to create a really solid safe space, and, if it seems like it’s not, to do something about it.
Some really horrible, terrifying shit went down in the world the week that I’ve been writing this blog…events that are entirely about our innate value to each other as human beings.
Let’s respect each other.
Let’s take care of each other.
Let’s choose to value each other a whole lot.
Otherwise…why do this? ☺
“Two or three things I know
Two or three things I know for sure,
And one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other,
We cannot know beauty in any form.”
-- Dorothy Allison