Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why & how storytelling works

Hey all, I e-mailed a couple questions about Stoop Storytelling in Baltimore to one of its creators/organizers, Laura Wexler. (She teaches writing at Johns Hopkins and Goucher, is a senior editor at Style Magazine and published a non-fiction narrative, "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America.") She has some great thoughts on how and why that format works, and we can apply a lot of what she says -- for example, listening for authentic voices, bringing out a character that people will 'root for,' telling a personal story -- to what we do.

I asked her why she thought people respond to this kind of narrative storytelling. What is it about us as human beings that makes us want to hear (and in our case, read) these stories? Is it simply the suspense of wanting to know what happened? Or is there something deeper?

"I think what happens when one of the storytellers steps out onto the stage is that you have an instant protagonist: someone the audience can root for, plain and simple. As simple as that is, it's also a huge thing--writers have to create sympathy or empathy for the folks they're writing about through the language itself--and that pretty much happens instantly at The Stoop (largely, I think, because the audience is aware that the storytellers are not professionals-and that it takes a lot of courage to stand up there so nakedly).
So it's not just that the audience wants to know what happened next, it's that they want to know what happened next to the person who's standing onstage. It's personal (and actually one of our few "rules" is that the storytellers' stories have to be about them; they have to be taking action or not taking action, but they have to be the main character) and immediate. And, well, real. I mean, the person is standing before you. It's intimate and honest...and, actually, we've found that the storytellers who tell less polished stories--who tell a story as though it's the first time they're telling it--are the ones who win the most audience support.
To stand onstage and tell something you've never told before--that's a risk. That's exciting...and the audience responds to that. Not necessarily in a voyeuristic way, though that's part of it, but with the feeling that "this has never been heard before and will never be heard again." It's almost a deal that's struck: the audience offers its attention (which is often rapt, as you heard last night) and the storyteller offers a window into his life.
Along those lines, what I've heard today are that many, many people loved "the boxer"--Mike Paschall--because he talked so honestly about his fear, and because it was clear that it was costing him something to stand up there."

I asked her what thoughts do you have on how a storyteller -- in our case, a writer -- can find the form, the voice, the devices, the structure that are right for each tale? What have you seen work and not work in your Stoop steries?

"Early on, I had very definite ideas about what made a good story--basically a beginning, middle, and end with a conflict and resolution, an epiphany of sorts, etc.--but we've really moved away from counseling storytellers that way. Our one dictum now: tell the truest story you can.
Even so, people are interested in, and capable of, varying levels of truth and complexity, and so the depth of the stories varies. Last night Walter Lomax told the story he could tell at this point. Was it entirely satisfying? No. He wasn't able to offer the specifics that could get us to the place he'd been. But it was the only story he could tell at this moment. And we're fine with that--we try to meet people where they are. And we believe that our goal is less to provide 7 perfectly satisfying stories than to offer a window into 7 very different people's lives. So I guess we've evolved to being less interested in shapely stories than in catching a glimpse of who people are at this moment in time. (That may sound woo-woo, but it's true.)
Do I think all memoir/storytelling should be approached this way? No...I certainly don't approach my graduate students in creative nonfiction at Goucher in this way. But they're writing books...they're creating art. They're doing something different. With the Stoop, it's just a seven-minute short story about someone's life. I'm not sure what it is--is it theater? Is it art? Is it therapy? I don't know. Maybe it's all three...
Personally, one of my favorite things is the sound of all the different voices--how everyone is from Baltimore and yet they sound so different. They sound like who they are. I love that. I love the orality of it..."

I asked her what newspaper stories she has read that are satisfying, what she looks for in a newspaper story.

"Oh dear, this is a doozie....don't think I can do it justice. Suffice to say that I'm a huge reader of the NYT and one of my favorite stories I can think of from the past few years is the NYT Magazine cover story Barry Bearak did on the Asian tsunami (which he modeled on John Hersey's book, Hiroshima.) I also really like the work Wil Haygood is doing at the Post.