I’m a writer. And in about eight weeks, I’ll be in a storytelling show, down here in Tacoma. And having signed up for this show, I am now cursed (or blessed) with abundant irony. I am terrified that I don’t know how to tell a story.
See, I’m a writer, but I’m not a natural public speaker, and I don’t think of myself as a natural storyteller. Some writers are both, like the novelist Pat Conroy. Conroy’s books, although a tad unwieldy at times, take on the grandeur and allure of storytelling at its best. Take Beach Music for example; it’s not just one family saga, but several families in a miniseries; not just a high school reunion, but a digression on saving baby sea turtles; not just a suicide’s aftermath, but a Holocaust narrative as well. His novels blast you away with the sheer joy and satisfaction of telling you a story.
You probably have natural storytellers in your life, the ones who keep you enthralled for minutes over minutiae. The ones who can have you laughing about the time they tried to put lemon juice in their eye when they were a teenager, to see if it cleared up their allergies. (That’s my friend John.) They will grab our attention, and they won’t let go, even if all that happens is that someone puts away their laundry. Those are the storytellers. We’ll follow them anywhere, asking breathlessly, “And then…the socks? Did you pair them up, or did you leave them scattered on the bed?”
Me, I write. I love the time it takes for me to compose a thought, the extra few minutes it takes for me to Tweet a one-liner…there, on the page or the screen, is where I tell stories. I love the luxury of being able to edit. If I wander for a time, if I skip over important details, your reading eyes will pardon me, to a certain extent. (You can always go back and reread the paragraph.) Your watching eyes will not.
It’s true that I was a teacher for almost ten years, and so I’m used to speaking in public. And I was a theater kid, way back in high school, and I loved it. I loved all the messy (sometimes dysfunctional) family-ness of rehearsals, the rush of pre-performance itself, the highs that followed the shows. I knew that I was painfully shy, but I wanted to teach, so I put my closet introvert self in high school drama for four years. As an actor, I got to be someone or something else. I wasn’t speaking my own words.
I’m used to being in front of an audience. But over the last two years I’ve been making the transition from being a teacher to a writer. Now I want to be able to give readings and talks with the energy that I had from the theater. I’ve done a couple of readings, and—how else do I say this?—they rocked my world. We could explain my terror by saying that the difference is that this storytelling show is being in front of an audience, without any notes or readings.
The difference, really, though, is that storytelling is learning how to communicate with an audience as myself. I’m not sure that all writers (reclusive bunch that we are) love to do that, or know how to do that. I’m not reading my material; for those five to ten minutes, I am the material.
Over the next eight weeks, I’m going to work on taking a story—the story of my first headstand—from page to stage. I’ll be writing about the journey here. I am excited and scared, which, as I used to tell my students, is a great mental space to learn a new skill.
Already, my overachiever neuroses are firing on all cylinders: if a writer’s telling the story, it better be GOOD, right? What else do writers do all day but tell stories?
What else do writers do? We write to exorcise the fear.
And the show must go on. Cue Freddie Mercury, please.
Next week: Starting to write the story of a first time.