DYSAUTONOMIA AND APOPHENIA
- Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller
I'd say that I fell backwards into storytelling if that wasn't blindingly obvious -- just about everybody does. There's not a lot of kids who say "I want to be a storyteller when I grow up," though I did go through a rather embarrassing period as a teenager when I planned to study storytelling among African tribes. (I've since seen enough tribal storytelling to have both a healthy admiration for it, and to realize that context is everything. I couldn't entertain their audiences and they couldn't entertain mine. We're overspecialized, and I gave up on the myth of universal art a long time ago.)
In any case, some approach it from stand-up, others from slam poetry; some from acting, others from improv. My way in was as a playwright, and in retrospect all of the signs of a frustrated storyteller were there: the scripts are thick with long, dense, rambling monologues.
I spent a good chunk of my teen years as a frustrated poet, like everyone else. I recall skipping a number of classes because I found a copy of Geoffrey Chaucer's complete works in Middle English in the library of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School (which may be at least partly responsible for why I ultimately flunked out). I was all about the exotic language, both like and unlike our own if you squinted:
Many men seyn that in sweveninges
Ther nis but fables and lesinges;
But men may somme swevenes seen,
Which hardely ne false been,
But afterward ben apparaunte.
I fell in love with the word sweven (meaning, "dream") and mourned its loss from the English lexicon. I began incorporating it into everything I wrote, out of some distant hope of bringing it back. I retain my fondness all out of measure for heightened, archaic language.
I spent hours forcing myself to write in every poetic form -- Spenserian sonnet, terza rima, trochaic tetrameter -- until I could do so comfortably. I was pointing myself at becoming the Poet Laureate of the United States, because I thought that I needed government sanction to validate my work and I couldn't have been more of a Chinese stereotype if I tried.
I followed my sisters into community theatre, and was lucky enough to find one locally that both took creative discipline very seriously and provided nearly limitless opportunities. I learned to do everything from scrubbing toilets to writing press releases to building puppets, and while in many respects it was a hopelessly dysfunctional environment I'm still indebted to the broad background it gave me.
They also had a strong movement program, which I studied aggressively and eventually ended up running. From this I was able to leverage a year-long apprenticeship under a Marceau-trained mime. I suspect I was drawn to mime because it represented a concrete physical discipline, whereas most of the introspective acting training I received seemed to revolve around what I was feeling at any given moment.
I've done everything from street entertainment to full-length shows, and the irony of the fact that I'm a spoken-word artist whose actual training is almost entirely in movement is not lost in me. I wave my hands a lot when I'm telling and tell myself that the years weren't wasted.
The plan was to continue on that path -- I was looking at a number of physical theatre schools in France when I was blindsided by an autonomic disorder that laid me out flat. With time and training, I've since recovered most of my mobility, but I suspect that that kind of intense, sustained physical discipline will always be beyond me.
I turned to playwriting, which seemed to be the natural culmination of my existing skill set, and devoted myself to bulk mailouts. I received a lot of responses that expressed both their appreciation for the verbal pyrotechnics and their concern that they wouldn't be able to find an audience for them. This would become a recurring refrain in my career.
Despairing, I impulsively wrote a newsgroup post that changed my life (hey, remember when newsgroups were a thing?). Another artist mentioned the possibility of Fringe Festivals, I applied, called up a bunch of friends, and while our maiden voyage could generously be called a flop I was hooked.
I floundered for years with physically and visually extravagant shows. Meanwhile, I'd ended up traveling around the planet with my father to research our family history. Somewhere along the way, I discovered blogging.
I took to it immediately. I've always struggled with journal-keeping, because after spending all day writing for audiences, I found it difficult to sit down and find motivation to write for myself. Likewise, I was too much of a perfectionist to produce anything quickly. Blogging seemed to be the perfect compromise: transient enough to keep me from obsessing over content, with just enough of an audience to keep me churning out material. I still do it actively to this day.
I started blogging my travels, and eventually I was told I was crazy for not turning it into a show. At that point I was certainly aware of the storytelling scene -- I'd been reviewing Fringe shows for years, and Allegra Lingo was a significant influence, enough so that I actually hired her to offer notes on the script.
Ultimately, asking "when you became a storyteller" is, I suspect, like asking someone "when did you become a lesbian." The latter (depending on the case, of course) might respond "It wasn't women at first, it started with a woman," and I would respond "It wasn't storytelling, it was one show." That show was Descendant of Dragons, my first hit, and the one that established my reputation as a storyteller. (To this day, I'll confess to being bewildered that my colorful ensemble extravaganzas flop, while audiences are more than willing to pay to have me stand onstage and talk at them for an hour.)
It's tempting (I suspect, for all of us writing these) to look back and claim a kind of inevitability to this course of events, but that's groping after a kind of metaphysical comfort that I've never found deeply convincing. Apophenia is the tendency to find patterns in random data by unconsciously rejecting material that contradicts it, and I suspect that we're all guilty of it. But that's pretty much what storytelling is, isn't it? Discovering (or imposing, depending on your perspective) a narrative in existing events.
Any story of being a storyteller is only complete when the storyteller's dead. And I hope, in my case, that that's not for a while yet.