Leading workshops, teaching storytelling courses, and coaching pushed me -- and continues to push me-- to identify and articulate what and why something works in the crafting and/or the performance of a story. That process of articulating so I could teach others made me much better at diagnosing what was going in my own storytelling if something was feeling off. I was a good storyteller before I began teaching. Coaching others contributed mightily to my becoming an excellent one. In turn, the heightened awareness of what was working or not in my own stories and performances made me a better teacher and coach. There is not a note I've given or a question I've asked of someone else that I haven't struggled with myself.
As a coach I think of myself as an advocate for each of primary players in the storytelling experience: teller, story and audience. My main goal for each is to help find clarity and give permission.
Sometimes in advocating for the teller, my task is to give them permission to step out into new territory. Right now a lot of storytelling is focused on autobiographical tales. When I first started, people did tell stories from their lives but folk tales and myths were a large part of many professionals' repertoires. I am very grateful that I was steeped in traditional tales during my formation. It gave me a foundation of story structure and metaphor that deeply informs my autobiographical work.
In fact, when I first started, I was determined NOT to tell stories from my life. I'd seen it done well and had no idea how they were doing that. I saw it done dreadfully and was terrified that I would fall into that category. So I was little Miss Folk Tale for the first three years I told stories. Then I was in a week long workshop where one of the assignments was to tell a family story. The day we would be telling them was the 15th anniversary of my father's death the summer I was 15 years old. I was given permission--pushed--to do something out of my comfort zone and the story that came out is still a cornerstone of my repertoire and became the anchor story for my Fringe show Monster Movies with My Undead Dad. That story about my dad is one of my best teachers I've had; it is one of the stories that helped me move from being a person who told stories to becoming a storyteller.
Conversely, I had a student in one of the first university courses I taught who was furious that one of their assignments was to tell a folk tale. She'd come in with a very clear idea of what stories she wanted to tell from her life, who she wanted to tell them to, and why they needed to be told. Which was fantastic. However her stories were all over the map structurely and emotionally. Once I had an idea of what was going on thematically in her stories, I suggested some collections of stories I thought might resonate for her. She came to class the night she had to tell her folk tale on fire with passion and discovery for how the story of Bluebeard mirrored the emotional reality of growing up with an abusive father. She eventually went on to take five courses with me at Northwestern and do a one-woman show that combined stories from her childhood and adult relationship with her father with folk tales that illuminated metaphorically those experiences. It was brilliant.
So advocating for the teller means keeping them safe and also giving permission to explore territory that may be dangerous or difficult for them for a wide variety of reasons from content to structure to a new kind of audience or telling stories for a particular purpose that is new to them.
Quite often I end up giving notes like, "Don't know that moment is funny" and "Don't know that moment is moving" or "Stop judging that character even if it's is you." We are most prone to do these things in autobiographical stories (myself very much included) when we confuse who we are standing in the room telling the story with the character of who we were in the moment(s) that the story recounts. Something that I realize is funny now mostly likely was not funny at all to me when I was 5 or 20 or 35 or last week when the event(s) occurred. A good deal of the humor is actually lost if I play something as funny instead of staying true to the emotional reality I experienced back in that moment.
Our job is to take the audience on a journey where they can discover insights and meaning in the story along with us rather than giving them a summary of what we think they should think (or feel or understand) while hearing the story. Also, if we are judging a character (even ourselves) and an audience member has said or done or thought a similar thing, then we are in essence judging them too. That does not mean pulling back from describing actions, thoughts, emotions that we can see as problematic. It means always finding and playing the emotional truth of the moment. That is usually where the richest humor and insight abide. Narrative-based stand-up comic Rick Reynolds had a show years ago called Only the Truth is Funny that was dark and rich and hysterically funny because of how very true it was. I desperately want to steal that title from him because it states so perfectly how I feel about my work finding humor in the hard stuff.
Depending on the audience and purpose of a storytelling event I will leave meaning and insight implicit without naming it or I may be a bit more explicit. For example, when I am performing "The Road to Shameless" for college students, I have very particular rape myths, deeply embedded in our culture, that I am striving to deconstruct and replace with understanding of what sexual assault really is and how it impacts survivors.
For example, survivors of trauma often make choices that can be perceived as unhealthy, foolish or just plain WTF. I used to feel a lot of judgment for myself when I would describe those moments in my own life in the story. Once I separated out the character of me then from the storyteller me now, I found I could have compassion for her and see how everything she did was a coping mechanism. She was drowning and grabbed at any driftwood floating past without doing an analysis of whether this was wood that would hold her weight or if there might be a poison snake in the wood that would endanger her more. She was drowning and she grabbed that wood and I am forever grateful to her because her job was to stay alive and she did.
That is how I talk about it in the story. I don't tell the audience how they should think or feel about anything I have done (or they have done). But I do let them in on my own journey of discovering new insights and understanding of my own behavior as a survivor. They are free to take from that what they will without me shoving it down their throats. But because those insights are so counterintuitive and fly in the face of so many myths about sexual assault--I am more explicit than I might be in a story that I consider purely be told as art rather than artistic activism. Purpose and audience drive many of my choices when shaping a story.
I also have to find a way to remain free of judgment of other people in the story while being very clear about the impact their choices had on my healing process. Otherwise, people in the audience who have responded in similar unhelpful ways will feel judged and shamed and they will shut down and stop listening which is the last thing I want them to do. So I have to look for the emotional truth of that character in that moment and play that in the story along with the truth of its impact on me.
As I said, it is a very tricky line to walk and one that I spend a lot of time on as a coach, especially if someone is telling a difficult personal story. Advocating for the audience's perspective has probably inspired the largest number of I consider my tricks of the trade.
ADVOCATING FOR THE STORY is the most essential (and mysterious) job I have as a coach/teacher. Each story has a life of its own, distinct from the teller, although it can be difficult to separate the two, particularly with autobiography. I listen deeply and intentionally for what the story is saying that the teller may be too close to hear. I listen for connections, metaphors, images, echoes, gaps, hidden hurts and joys.
I ask lots of questions and question assumptions. I look for what the story is really about: key moments, turning points, spots that are glossed over quickly because they are the most vulnerable. I can't tell you how often the moment that is at the heart of story whips past in one sentence when we've spent 10 minutes on expositional detail in the beginning, most of which isn't really needed. Again, I do this too when I am working on new stories particularly vulnerable ones. The teller is always in charge of the story but, when given permission, I am gently relentless in helping dig down to the emotional truth at the heart of the story.
That means also listening for what is NOT being said. Hence all the questions. I need to understand the context in which the events happened if I am to understand the events themselves. Before we can be clear about the meaning or insight we want to shape a story to reveal for an audience, we have to understand what those events actually mean to us. This is why I often end up having to give my "I'm not a therapist but I sure may sound like one" disclaimer. Many of the questions I ask sound very much like what a counselor might ask. The difference is I am asking them to help the teller understand the place these events have in their life so they can shape those events into good art. My goal is always about the making of art and understanding any obstacles that may be in the way of that. I negotiate this territory carefully and always with permission from the person with whom I'm working.
When I'm asking all those questions to understand the context, I very frequently hear clients say a phrase such as, "Okay, I'm going to tell you something but it's not part of the story (or it doesn't go in the story or it's not what the story is about)." Whenever I hear that, my ears perk up because 98% of the time, whatever follows is EXACTLY what the story is about -- at least in the teller's life whether or not they want it to be part of what they reveal to an audience. We are sooooooo good at avoiding looking at the deeper, often darker (or at least more complex) truths in our lives and our stories.
I was in writing group reworking a story I'd told 10 years before to reconsititute it for an upcoming performance. Because I was on a tight deadline, I wanted to just tell it pretty closely to how I had when I first wrote it. The problem was that in those 10 years I had changed, my relationship with the other person in the story had changed, and events had taken place that shifted the meaning of the events to me. My group (who had not heard the original story) started asking me questions. I answered them but I could feel myself getting a little defensive as we went along. They kept digging, gently but insistently.
Then it happened. I opened my mouth and said, "Okay, I'm going to tell you about this phone call that happened a year after I last told this story but it is NOT part of the ... oh, f***!!!"
I heard myself saying what I knew was a great big red flag that I was making an important, though not necessarily comfortable, realization about the story. I told my group all about the phone call, hoped desperately that this was one of the 2% when it really wasn't what the story was about. They very kindly and compassionately told me that indeed it was absolutely the moment that made them understand what the other events meant to me now rather than 10 years ago.
Then I had a decision to make whether I was going to: 1.) recraft the story with that phone call as the core of its emotional truth; 2.) pick a different story and let this one percolate longer; or 3.) recraft the story leaving that moment out because it was too vulnerable right now for me to share publicly, but with an awareness of its impact on the story so I could shape a story for the audience that explored a truth compatible with the meaning it had for me now rather than one totally unrelated as I had been.
Which is how it works with coaching clients. Once we achieve some clarity about what the story is really about for the teller, the teller is able to make choices about what they want it to be about for the audience. Doesn't have be exactly the same thing but they usually need to closely related. Be conscious of what our stories mean to us, is absolutely essential, for if we do not understand what the story means to us when we are shaping it for the audience, the unnamed truth of the story will keep poking out in all sorts of ways, insistent to be seen and understood.
When we listen and give feedback as experienced, insightful audience members, we mostly ask questions or share back with the teller what images resonated most with us, what universals we heard in the story, how we felt during the story, what confused us or something we wanted to hear more about, and what we are taking away from it. All of that is very useful information for the teller about how different audience members perceive the story and then the teller can make decisions about what to do with that information.
Of course, as a coach, part of my job is to help a client glean insights from feedback and responses to a story (my own and those of others) and come up with ideas for how to solve issues in the story. I strive to be very transparent when I am making suggestions that they are likely to be solutions that I would try if I were telling the story. The teller is free to try them or ignore them. In fact if a client has a strong reaction that a suggestion is absolutely the wrong one, it (mostly) makes me happy because it means they have more information to help figure out what is the right solution that will work for them. The longer I work with a particular client, the better I get at being able to make suggestions that fit with their style and ethos as a storyteller rather than mine.
In the end, all three forms of advocacy overlap - for the teller, the audience, the story. My task as a coach is to create a safe space for the teller to be comfortable with the discomfort of the creative process. Only then can the truth of the story be discovered and ultimately crafted into a gift for the audience. One of my favorite testimonials from a client comes from Megan Hicks with whom I worked as she was preparing to be a featured performer at the 2011 National Storytelling Festival.
“All the while Nancy was challenging assumptions and asking hard questions, she kept me and my fledgling work safe from the withering effects of self-doubt. A delicate balance.”
I have folks who do this for me and I consider it a privilege to do so for others.