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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stand-up storytelling

A bunch of us went to the "Stoop Storytelling" production in Baltimore last night, and it's very cool; I think we'd all recommend it as a night of good entertainment that doesn't cost a fortune, even if the YDR isn't buying the ticket.

As I drove home I kept trying to come up with a one-word description of what I'd seen. One word felt right: Authentic.

The night's storytellers were not performers. And they were not "sources" as we sometimes label the people we talk to. They were regular people -- a former crime-scene investigator, a boxer, a woman with ongoing health problems, a man wrongly convicted of murder -- to whom interesting things had happened. And for seven minutes (or a little more) each, they stood in front of a packed theater and told their stories to laughter and spirited applause.

When we pursue and publish those kinds of stories in our newspaper, we've really done something.

I invite those who went last night to comment here and try to capture their thought about the event in one word, and a brief explanation.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A 1A treatment

For those of you who might have missed Sunday's 1A treatment of Melissa Burke's story, "Inside, wanting out," make sure you check it out.

For starters, we began this passage with a sentence 23 words long. As the passage continues, the sentences become shorter and shorter until there is a one-word sentence followed by a four-word sentence.

This was on purpose. Our intent was to have the reader feel as though their world, too, was getting smaller and smaller through using shorter and shorter sentences, ending with the one-word sentence "Alone." Notice, too, that this single-word sentence is followed by a four-word one indicating hope and change.

We also achieved this feeling by design. Notice how the sentences, while descending in word length, are laid out in such a way that they create an arrow of sorts, pointing to the word "alone." Below is the passage written without the typographical treatment to show you how each sentence was written with fewer words than the one before.

We also were very cognizant of the rhythm in this passage, and I think the end result was amazing!

So, if you haven't seen this, please check it out.

For nearly five years, Melissa Straub didn't go a mile beyond her tidy, cocoa-brown home in the suburban hills of North Codorus Township.
Gripped by panic attacks, she'd stopped working and traveling, grocery shopping and driving by herself.
She avoided appointments, dropped out of the Bible study down her block.
Her world got smaller, the attacks more terrifying.
Family and friends were bewildered.
They came, they went.
And she stayed.
At home.
Hoping for a way out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Persistence, luck, danger and good reporting

Remember Earl Swift's narrative whodunit on the Norfolk mayor shot to death 35 years ago (see this post)? Here's a great tale from Lon Wagner, who edited the piece, on how Earl got the story.

I'm going to get with Earl to ask him a few things about the story to put here on the blog. If anyone has any questions they want to ask of Earl, let me know with a comment to this post.

Meanwhile, cue Lon:

"Background is this: We aim for one of these local history narratives every summer, due to the popularity of the Fever two years ago.

Last year, Diane wrote the pirate serial. We thought we were not going to have one this year, but Earl was looking into this and we thought, "well, just maybe." Key was getting access to the actual police file, or so we thought.

We thought the mayor was going to arm twist the police chief there for a while, but due to various political things around town, the mayor decided not to do battle over this and the file was out of the question. But somehow, Earl arranged to be in the room with the file and ask specific questions.

He gets a lead that the cops had actually pursued this case as recently as 2004, and we thought, "hey, that makes it current, maybe it's a two or three parter." Then Earl found out that one of the only living people in the story was a guy named Eddie "Boo" Creedle, who lived in South Hill, about two and a half hours from here.

They arranged to meet one night in South Hill, and since Eddie Boo had been convicted of various crimes involving guns and people dying, Earl said, "I'm calling you on the way IN to the interview; I'm calling you as soon as I get out. Here's where I'll be....."

So after about three hours, it was 9 p.m. and I still hadn't heard, so us couple of old guys texted each other: "You OK?" (it took me 10 minutes to find the question mark)

A few minutes later, Earl shot back: "Still at it."

Next day, Earl unloaded what he had learned: Creedle had tried to rat out his friend, Johnny Ozlin, decades earlier. Creedle told a long yarn about the supposed killer, how they knew each other, etc. We knew we had a serial, with a story that could end in 2007."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Finding stories to tell

We all run dry sometimes.

Nicki's brown bagger yesterday, on internet research, included a list of web sites that Poynter's Al Tompkins said he uses to find ideas (and if you're familiar w/Tompkins' "Morning Meeting" on Poynter's web site, you know he comes up with some pretty good stuff).

Some of the more unusual or interesting: -- firefighter/EMT site, industry news, etc. -- includes topics ranging from rural suicides to crop reports -- as Tompkins says, it's a quick way to stay up on pop culture even when you're not into pop culture -- you can search for news by zip code -- most searched-for words on the web -- The website,, says it "turns advertising on its head by focusing on an ad’s asterisked fine print footnote rather than the headline." it has an attitude. -- cool stuff about bad diseases. the 'mm' stands for 'morbidity and mortality.' enough said.

If you want Al Tompkins' whole list, I can run you a copy or Nicki probably has more copies.

Tompkins also suggested using RSS feeds to put multiple sites you might use to troll for story ideas in one place -- on your Yahoo! page, or Google page, or whatever. If you're interested but not familiar with RSS or how to use it, holler.

Also, Nicki e-mailed those at the bagger a story-finding list Ted Sickler had sent out some time ago. It's here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Special guests

Hey all, we have two really cool speakers coming in over the next couple months -- a stand-up comedian and a national-level author/commentator.
Mark these dates on your calendar and try to work with your supervisor to make sure you can spare an hour, because these two brown-baggers will be entertaining as well as offering us insight into different kinds of storytelling.

Earl David Reed -- a standup comedian who also does a morning radio show (can be heard on 105.7 the X) and is a bodybuilder to boot. From his web site: "Earl David Reed's dynamic presence combined with his hard-driving wit, and improvisational style delivers a performance that leaves radio and comedy audiences breathless and always wanting more." He's here Oct. 3 at 4:30.

Marion Winik -- an author and National Public Radio commentator whose book "First Comes Love" was a New York Times notable book in 1996. From her Web site:
“Winik’s voice is so true and clear and compassionate, we’re happy to listen to any story she wants to tell.” -- L.A. Times Book Review.
“God, what a story, what a writer! Marion Winik blew me away.” -- Anne Lamott.
Marion is here Nov. 13 at 4:30.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"I am a storyteller"

The Times-Picayune has posted a 25-minute video on its photographers and their work post-Katrina.

In the first few seconds one of the photographers says, "Deep down, I am a storyteller. And the skill set that I have to tell those stories is a camera. That's why I do what I do."

I'll bet that line hits home with our photographers. And it's a great reminder to all of us about what we're here to do -- tell our community's stories. And that we're best at telling those stories when the words and the visuals come together in full force.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Great visual storytelling

If you have not seen Jason's video on Shawna Weil, the brain-damaged girl whose family hopes a new stem-cell treatment will help her in some way, take five minutes for this excellent piece of visual storytelling.

Of note: The video opens with the mother's words, "Shawna was coming home from work ..." And she (and the visuals) begin to tell a story. If you didn't know the story ahead of time and/or had not read the accompanying story, you wouldn't know right away what's going to happen. But I think the mother's re-telling compels you to stick around to find out. And once you do, you're in until the end, I think.

The video ends plaintively, and open-endedly, which is entirely appropriate for this story.

Great work, Jason.

Worth your time

The YDR's own books blog reports that Edward P. Jones, author of "The Known World" among other things, will be speaking at Goucher College in Baltimore Oct. 15 (and it's free).

This guy is a brilliant writer, in my opinion. When I read "The Known World" I remember feeling like he had crafted each sentence for months before moving on to the next one. It's just great stuff and I'm sure it would be cool to hear him do a reading.