My approach to storytelling

This morning on the literary website The Millions I have a review of a live performance of The Moth, the popular first-person storytelling series out of New York City, that I attended recently in Ann Arbor.  The night featured five storytellers who’d been chosen based on their performances at previous Moth storytelling events (which often take the form of open-mic nights at bars).  I had high expectations for the event and they weren’t met.  I decided to share my review here because I think the reasons I found the performance underwhelming shed some light on the way I approach storytelling on this blog.

That night, three of the five participants told stories that fell under the category of “The Worst Thing that Ever Happened to Me.”  One woman told about her mom cheating on her dad and getting pregnant; a man told about staffing a suicide hotline and hearing a college girl kill herself over the phone; and another man described the tumult of being married to a woman with epilepsy.  In my review I explain why I think people so often choose to tell these kinds of stories:

After Erin finished I started to think about why it is that people gravitate to the most tragic or dramatic moments of their lives when given a chance to tell a story. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that the storyteller feels an obligation to give his audience something novel — a story we’ve never heard before — which leads him to alight on the most singular experiences in his life. The second is that the worst moments in our lives are precisely the ones we want to be able to capture in a narrative, to master through the process of sharing them with other people.

I go on to explain why I think that very dramatic, tragic stories are hard to tell well.  The reasons I cite have to do with the difficulty of turning these kinds of experiences into stories, and with the disruption that sensational content creates between the storyteller and the audience:

The more sensational the content of the story, the less attention, I’ve noticed, storytellers pay to the actual craft of storytelling. If you’re telling a story about walking your dog it’s plainly obvious that you’re going to need to spin it well in order to keep anyone’s interest. But when the content of your story is on its face interesting, it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is “lay it out there” and people will be gripped, which isn’t true at all.

The second pitfall is even more damning: Intensely personal stories have a tendency to crowd out the audience. The best storytellers meet their audiences halfway, engaging them, pushing them, and calibrating their emotions while also leaving room for listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences into the act of listening. But I guarantee you that no one in the audience was thinking about their own marriages when Peter finished his story. He’d monopolized the emotional energy in the room, which made it hard to think about anything but him.

On Growing Sideways I usually tell stories about the small moments that make up our life together as a family, rather than focusing on more obviously headline-worthy events.  This isn’t entirely a deliberate choice- it’s just that the small moments are the ones that grab my attention.  Most of my posts are inspired by a sudden spike in feeling or a moment that impels a double-take and makes me want to figure out: What just happened there?  For example, my last post about eating popsicles with Jay and Wally on the hill behind our house.  As I was watching Jay share his popsicle with Wally I felt this surge of warmth; later, I wanted to write a post exploring that surge and trying to figure out where the energy in that moment came from.

I also seek to be very conscious of my readers as I’m writing my posts.  I want to share moments from my life in a way that opens the door for readers to think about moments from their lives.  Raising kids is a great topic through which to facilitate this type of exchange because it is such a widely shared experience.

But at the same time that parenthood is a widely shared experience, the way parents actually live it it is so particular.  We may know that at 6:30pm on a weekday night families up and down the block are sitting down to dinner, but dinnertime still feels like such a unique thing in the way we live it in our house: There’s the particular way that Jay asks for more milk, or Wally throws his food on the floor, or the particular emotions that Caroline and I carry over from our days right up to that moment when we sit down across the table from each other.  Family life is universal but each of us experiences it in a way that is deeply unique and intensely private.

So when I tell stories on this blog I try to strike a balance between the universal and the particular.  I want to provide enough color to make the scenes vivid and recognizable, but not so much detail that the emotions or ideas I want to evoke start to feel locked inside my family’s experience of them.

You can read the rest of my review of The Moth here.

2 thoughts on “My approach to storytelling

  1. Kind of like traveling to a new destination and relying on a GPS. Sure, you make it from Point A to Point B, but what did you realize from the journey? Did you spend it anxiously awaiting the next set of directions from that annoying disembodied voice – how many miles, what exit sign, right or left? Or did you notice the landmarks along the way? Were you able to appreciate the sun playing in the field of corn; the everchanging skyline; the smell of cut hay; the glimpse of someone’s outdoor retreat; or that glorious part of the sky at the horizon that is blue, but amazingly tinged with pinks and yellows that defies naming? Ah, or the drips of strawberry popsicle that dot the nose and cheeks of a one-year old? Life, career, family or a new destination – true appreciation can be had in the journey itself, not just the punch line. You engage and craft opportunities for your readers to embark on a journey. By the way, I vote for picture #2 in the last blog as the embodiment of the perfect summer day. No popsicles necessary.

    • I like that very much, Sheila. Thank you! Hope you’ve had a couple perfect summer days yourself (and maybe even a drink or two from a sprinkler!).

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