Why I do this

(“This” being writing and performing stories.)

Here are my reasons, in no particular order:

1. When you create something from nothing, you are in the company of the gods. First drafts are occasionally easy for me. Usually they aren’t easy. Revising is always utter Hell; that’s where discipline and patience are required the most. I performed a story earlier this month that went through 15 drafts. It’s all I worked on, writing-wise, for about six weeks. There were weeks during which I thought the whole thing was such a mess that I’d have to throw it out and give up. But then it started to come together. Which brings me to my next reason…

2. Writing feels like magic sometimes. I believe in the unconscious, not because of Freud of Jung — because of my experiences as a writer. My brain has solved writing problems independent of conscious effort on my part. It’s for this reason that, while I like having a deadline to work toward, I also know that I can’t force a story. Sometimes it needs to gestate in my unconscious, the solutions to problems revealing themselves over time and in a random way. Then, one day, I become aware of how the solutions all have begun to gracefully flow together into a cohesive whole, seemingly on their own. That is the magic. It’s coming from me, but from a part of me that I don’t control. Side note: you must always carry a notebook, because these solutions will invariably come to you when you’re not sitting down to write.

3. I like uncovering big meanings in small events. What I love most about writing about true events is the opportunity to examine and communicate how I’ve evolved by choosing to amplify certain aspects of an experience. In my last storytelling class, one problem came up again and again with most people’s work (including mine): stories got bogged down by our impulses to include everything: to educate the audience with lots of pre-story background; to keep everyone who was there in real life as part of the final story; to try to explain what everyone was thinking and feeling and doing and why; to make room for entertaining anecdotes, dialog and other extraneous details. What happens, though, is that a story can begin to resemble minutes of a meeting rather than a product of interpretation, reflection and point of view. There’s no arc, line or composition; there’s no emphasis; no clear foreground and background. It’s an amorphous mess when everything is included. Usually the problem is too much information, too much concern about fidelity. Writing is editing. The more you remove, the stronger the story’s impact and clarity are, usually.

4. Playing with form feels both dangerous and thrilling. I’ve been experimenting lately with pushing up against the boundaries of the story form “rules” — my two most recent stories (neither of which I’ve posted yet) violate the typical guidelines for distribution between “scene” and “summary” — namely, having a balanced presentation of both. One story is almost 17 minutes long when I tell it and it only contains two real scenes in terms of my interacting with other people. This is deliberate, because the story is largely about isolation. The other one is nine minutes long and only has one scene, and it’s at over six minutes in. The one or two scenes in these stories take on much greater significance in these cases. The rest is summary — it’s highly visual summary (so I’m still “showing”), but it’s description nonetheless. (That second story also does not have a happy ending. Sorry, audience!) Yet both stories seemed to work for the people who heard them. Now I’m emboldened to try other experiments with form, content and pacing.

5. Audience “energy” is a real thing. To say that I am a reluctant performer is an extreme understatement. Doing anything in front of other people was once the most terrifying thing I could think of to do. I got into storytelling as a challenge to myself. Once I realized I wouldn’t die up there, I eventually began to get something out of the experience of performing. For one thing, there is no feedback equal to what you’ll get by telling your story to a roomful of strangers. Every time I perform a story, something that I didn’t expect happens. Usually people find something funny that wasn’t supposed to be funny — and vice versa. This throws me every time. Then I get flustered and lost and I apologize. The audience forgives me. I don’t die. I move on. It’s all fine. Performing remains very difficult for me but it’s getting easier, partly because of these payoffs. Whatever happens, I get valuable information that I can use next time, in the next story, in the next performance.

When the story and the performance are both going very well and the audience is engaged and with you the whole way…well, it’s like fucking someone with whom you’re very much in love. Or it’s pretty close to that. I mean. Wow. Meaning there’s a powerful emotional, spiritual and intellectual exchange coupled with a more primal sort of human connection — maybe it’s an “acceptance of the tribe” vibe. I don’t want to overanalyze this aspect. I’ll just conclude by saying it’s wonderful, and I don’t know where else to get that feeling.

 

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