I’ve signed up to do a storytelling show, though I’m not a natural storyteller. I pitched my story because being in a show sounds like fun. Because oral storytelling is a skill that I want to learn as a writer. Because I used to be a theater kid. And because as much as being in front of an audience terrifies me, I still love to perform.
There will be four or five of us in the show. We’ll be in front of a small, intimate crowd, perhaps at a cafe in downtown Tacoma. We’ll each have a mic, and we’ll tell a story, one after another. The organizers hope that this show will be the first in a series of shows, so the theme is “Feels Like the First Time.” According to the Facebook page, it will be about “tales of new beginnings, starting something and venturing into foreign territory.” Part of the trick will be to set the right tone, my producer cautions: it’s not supposed to be therapy , and it’s not supposed to be scripted monologue. It is, she says, more like the stories you tell over coffee or a drink. I take all that to mean that it’s about the satisfaction of a community gathering and listening to a story.
Then, predictably, stage fright sets in.
In the throes of the “I’m-not-an-oral-storyteller” panic, I do two things. First, I write about the fear.
The next week, like any recovering academic, I retreat into research. There are storytelling shows all over the place, including a series in Seattle. I find some sample shows, and I assign myself some homework: listen to the examples, figure out how the genre works.
Then I decide to look at what makes a good story. A storytelling show with a theme sounds like “This American Life” to me, and I turn to its host Ira Glass first. There’s a fun series of YouTube videos that he’s done about storytelling. I listen, and watch, and take notes.
According to Glass, there are three main elements that the storyteller can use: the anecdote, the question (or the bait), and the analysis. I was more familiar with the most quoted part of the series, where he talks about the need to push towards the harder work of the creative process: getting to meet the demands of one’s own good artistic taste. But one of the best parts of the series, really, is where he plays a what-not-to-do example of his own storytelling. It’s sort of like a Mystery Science Theater-version of Ira Glass commenting on Ira Glass.
The most important lesson that I take away from the series, though, is that the oral storyteller must depend on a very simple sequence of events. First this happened, then this, then this. And there’s a question that must be answered before the story’s finished, or something that establishes the stakes of answering the question. And here’s where I run into some logistical problems.
In my story, the actual sequence of events is short, and repetitive, and perhaps not very interesting: I tried, and tried again, and eventually I did it. This could be a story about the body, just about trying to do a headstand. The headline would be Onion-worthy: Woman in Late 30s Figures Out How To Stand On Her Head.
But of course, there’s more. Because this story involves yoga, it’s about the mind and the body. For most of my life, I’d hated being upside down. If you asked me, I’d go on a rollercoaster with you, maybe, if it didn’t go upside down. As a lifelong bookworm, and then a professional academic, I lived in my mind more than almost anywhere else. During one of the most difficult times of my life, yoga saved me because it made my mind focus on my body: it was so challenging that I could not think about anything else but what my body was trying to do.
More research. I conducted an unscientific Facebook poll. Friends, can you do a headstand?
The answers seemed to fall into one of three categories:
Sure, no problem.
I used to be able to do them….
No way, no how, HELL no.
After asking the question, I figured out that I was less interested in the “Sure, no problem” responses and much more interested in the “whys” of the “No way” responses. In an un-yogic pang of jealousy, I still envied those who could do a headstand effortlessly. One person (a yoga friend, actually) responded, “Maybe. Still working on it.” Is doing a headstand really a big deal?
The point, though, is that it was a big deal for me. I moved from Category 3 to Category 1. Here are the questions to structure my story, at least for now: Why was it a big deal? How did I do it? And why does it matter?
Though I’m not a hiker, the story of Cheryl Strayed‘s recently published memoir Wild is incredibly compelling. Just reading about her weighty backpack, “Monster,” I found my hips aching in sympathy. She hikes over 1,000 miles by herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Early in the book she says that “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”
Doing the headstand, then, is a story about fear. I want to know: what’s the story I’ve been telling myself?