The Show Must Go On, Part 4: Off the Page

circle of spoons

Brief series recap: I’m preparing for a storytelling show, taking my work from page to stage. In the first post, I talked about my fear of verbal storytelling. In the second post, I talked about the research process. And last week’s post was about the structure and the stakes. This week, I met with my producer for a dry run, to workshop the story.

I know, I was going to talk about a draft with time limits, page limits. My plan was to write a draft of the story in about 6 pages (10 minutes, oral storytelling time) and then cut and adapt the scenes. But all things work together for good, at least in this case. Before I spiral much further into angst or research or other forms of writerly avoidance and overthink-age, my producer asked if we could meet to run through the story and workshop it.

I’m still getting used to critique sessions, and am half-worried that she will tell me that the story will not work at all, and that my story will just need to be rescheduled maybe for the next show, at which point I will need to redo the story because it will be a different theme….(All useless writer neuroses–neuroses so neurotic that I start to develop special Prufrock meta-neuroses about sounding so neurotic and needy, just for the occasion. Sheesh.)

I agree to meet. We meet at a coffee shop.

First surprise: there’s a tape machine. (Aaaah!)

Second surprise: she’s brought her co-producer (Aaaah!)—who is, I should say, a very nice guy.

But that’s all okay. I think I know what I want to say in my story, but I’m not all the way sure. I’ve jotted down an outline of the story, or the key scenes that I want to talk about.

The espresso roaster’s beginning to roar. Coffee spoons are clinking against saucers. The cafe’s pleasantly full. I tell them the story.


Then I stop talking, and we stop the tape. When we look at the timer, I’ve managed to include most of what I want to say, just under 10 minutes. I find myself enjoying certain moments, and laughing at myself. After I tell the story I realize that there’s more I’d wanted to include, but try not to beat myself up about it. I chat nervously, talking about some of the parts that I’d wanted to include.

While I’m telling the story, some part of me recognizes that what I’ve written so far, including the posts for this series, have helped me, because there is a lot to process. And there may be more that I write, in a different essay, a different version of telling the story. But because there is only so much I can choose for the oral version, I need to refine and hone and shape.

After I tell the story, there’s an incredibly useful and informative workshop session. The three of us talk through what will be the best way to shape the story for an audience. My producer shows me a story circle structure with several plot points along the way. We talk about the moments from my story that work, the moments that don’t work as well or just aren’t needed. We talk about the moments and the details that are the most compelling.

The discussion helps me clarify the main events or scenes of the story, the stakes. At stake is body image, as I’d mentioned in the last post, but that may be for another story or another version of this story. At stake in this oral version is the way I have learned how to learn and how it affected my identity: my competitive instincts, my fear of failure, my sense of who I am, and what I was before I lost my job.

My producers also help me clarify the story’s “takeaway” at the end. In this initial run-through I listed two insights that I wanted to give the listeners. “Out of those two, which one is more important to you?” my producer asks me. I liked the first one, “any story about the body is a story about the mind.” But that’s a line that works better in prose, really, and my producer says that the story already shows that theme. She says that she’s actually more into the second insight: really, that the narrative arc that pulled at her the most is the arc about my sense of moving out of my hyper-competitive academic instincts into an acceptance of repeated failure. (That’s the necessary failure in the creative process that Ira Glass was talking about, I think.)

Together we agree that within the story of my headstand is a sense of what had to happen mentally for me to learn how to begin again. We agree that this insight is something like the moment where the story will end: that it was only when my life had turned upside down that I learned to become comfortable being upside down.

Our discussion has given me a good sense of comfort, of atmosphere, of tone. I’m looking forward to our next meeting in a couple of weeks, when I’ll have figured out just which bullet points I want to describe, which scenes I want to select, and how I want to phrase the takeaway.

But maybe most importantly, the discussion has nudged my story into baby steps off the page and onto the stage. As I told the story, I could feel myself trusting the story and my storytelling instincts. The description and details that I love to use in my writing can also emerge in an oral version of the story. And somehow storytelling doesn’t feel so unfamiliar, after all. So many of us tell so many stories every day, even if it’s “just” about how our day went.

That reminder comforts me more than I would have imagined. At its best, this kind of storytelling is the frame that makes everyday life shimmer, just a bit: the motion of light on water just enough to refract some of the truth.

Next week: Bullet points, practice, and “earning the insight”

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