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A Class on Storytelling

May 12, 2020

A few weeks ago, Darlene and I decided to take a virtual class.  Given the shelter-in-place, and the fact we were both distance learning instructors, we thought we’d use the time to actually learn something ourselves.  Best of all, it was something we could do together.  Darlene found a class offered by the Hudson Valley Story Workshops on the fine art of performance storytelling–the sort of thing you experience listening to The Moth.

We both enjoy this type of storytelling, and even attended a storytelling event in Hartford a couple of years back wherein our friend Anne Stuart was one of the performers/storytellers.  We also thought it would be a fun way to deepen our writing skills.  It was three weeks long, and the price was right, so we went for it.

It turns out we were the only two in the class, which means we had instructors Christina (the literary one) and Caitlin (the theatrical one) all to ourselves.  We quickly learned that this type of storytelling is a very different from the writing to which we are both accustomed.

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One of the things you become very adept at as an author is the selection of words.  A great deal of time and energy is spent ensuring that each word, each description, each phrase, and every line of dialogue is carefully and precisely chosen.  Not so for this form of writing, because you aren’t writing something, and then reading it.  You are also not memorizing it.  You are telling it.  And that difference is crucial.

Like most stories, those that are performed have three basic elements:  theme, stakes, and an arc for the main character (thanks, Aristotle!).  When you settle on a story from your life you want to tell (and they are always from your life)  you figure out the elements.  If it doesn’t have one of those elements, it’s probably not a story–or at least, not a good one.

The next thing you find are your story points–you decide on a first line, your last line, and approximately five key story points that comprise the spine of your story.  Once you have that, you start practicing telling it.  Though this process, you discover what is essential and what is not. What merits more explanation, and what needs to be scaled down. That is essentially the extent of the writing process.  We were taught that if you know the elements, and your five points, you don’t need to memorize, or write your story out thoroughly.  Know your spine inside and out, then tell your story.

Darlene and I did write out our first assignments as if they were writing prompts–it felt like a good way to find the spine of our story if all of it was on the table  That did work, but I also found it difficult to trust the spine of my story–I was still attached to my word choices.  For our second assignment, we both focused on the spine, and didn’t write out our stores.  Sure enough, our stories, and our ability to tell them kicked up a notch.  This Friday, we will both be participating in our very first story slams!

For the next two blog posts, I will be adapting my stories into written form in order to share the experience with my readers.  Perhaps after public gatherings become a thing again, we will participate in non-virtual story slams, and there will be video to post.  But not just yet.

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