Story Slams Making Waves – What’s the Story, Anyway?! (Part 1)

“Like moths to a flame: People flock to hear personal sagas” – Denver Post, October 17, 2014.

It was exciting to see a nice, big feature article in the Denver newspaper about storytelling!

I read it eagerly… But…but…but…I confess to you: Eagerness gave way to puzzlement, puzzlement gave way to discomfort, discomfort ebbed into irritation, irritation blossomed into indignation…  And frustration. And sadness. And fatigue.

Why?  [*Grab a cup of coffee or tea – this is a long post!]

That question leads me to write this exploratory 3-part series (possibly 4, we’ll see) reflecting on personal-narrative story slams, storytelling concerts, the art of storytelling, storytelling as social experience – comparing and contrasting, and trying to understand my reactions, those of others, etc. Disclaimer: Be advised that these will no doubt be relatively surface/introductory reflections rather than in-depth analyses (they’re blog postings and not monographs, after all) – beginning musings on my experiences, rather than the drawing of firm conclusions based on exhaustive research. And I’d love for you to leave any comments and join in on the conversation along the way.

I’m not preaching any conclusions or rigid positions here – I’m writing this blog to mull and reflect in a social medium, to stimulate thought and invite conversation, and hopefully swim a little toward some clarity.

Blog Series:
Story Slams Making Waves – What’s the Story, Anyway?!

  • Part 1 – Standing on the Shore of 2nd-Hand Reports, Publicity, and Imagination (Oct. 17 Denver Post article)
  • Part 2 – A Bit of Toe-in-the-Water Training (Oct. 18 workshop)
  • Part 3 – Diving In Head First (Oct. 19 story slam)
  • (Probable Part 4 – Thoughts Rippling Outward & Onward)

Today:

Part 1 – Standing on the Shore of 2nd-Hand Reports, Publicity, and Imagination (Oct. 17 Denver Post article)

Some background: For YEARS I’ve tried to get publicity in the paper about storytelling events, performances, workshops and conferences sponsored/produced by the Colorado storytellers organization, Rocky Mountain Storytelling. Have also sent press releases about performances/workshops that I personally offer, get booked for, etc. The most I’ve ever seen appear has been something like 3 lines of microscopic print in a weekend arts calendar. I’ve heard people who are apparently “in the know” talk about “forming a relationship” with a media person in order to “get some press”…but that’s not something I’ve ever managed to do, so…not much of any storytelling endeavors I’ve been involved with over my near-27-year-career has appeared in newsprint (or other media…broadcast, online).

Okay, we fly/tell under the radar. A lot.

Oct 17, 2015 Denver Post

Oct 17, 2015 Denver Post

So the nice big Feature Article on storytelling was wonderful to behold (Note: the online headline is different from the one that appeared in print, quoted at the top of this blog post)… and it’s all about hot’n’popular “storytelling” shows in the Denver area that I’ve not even been aware of! – And I’ve been a professional storyteller in the area for 26 years! What gives??!!

Am I just an out-of-touch old fogey??!!?

Well…maybe…?…!

In recent years I’ve been aware of the growing proliferation and popularity of story slams (modeled on performance poetry slams), and other formats inviting and celebrating short, punchy, personal narratives – though from a distance, not having experienced a slam in person. (Perhaps you’ve heard of The Moth in New York and other cities, or have heard The Moth Radio Hour weekly broadcast, or of MassMouth story slams in Boston – all exciting, engaging, successful.) In 2012 I attended a teleseminar offered by LANES (League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling) on producing story slams, and encouraged my fellow RMS board members to consider giving it a try. (What we did instead was produce the World Premier “Story Slurp – Like a Slam, but Softer” [more on that in a future post].)

As I read the Denver Post article it became clear that the shows featured in it are primarily “personal narrative” (also variously called “personal storytelling,” “autobiographical storytelling” [the preferred term in the UK – definitely more on this in Part 2 or 3 of this series], “first-person narrative,” “true-life storytelling”). The “Stories on Stage”  series, however, is really interpretive reading of literature by an actor (they strive to get “names”)…in my opinion, appropriating the term “storytelling” inappropriately.

A percentage of my own repertoire and experience through my career has focused on personal/true-life stories.  Another “subset” of my practice is biblical storytelling; but the majority of my storytelling work has been with traditional/multicultural/folk tales. And the large majority of the storytelling performances, workshops, trainings, retreats, and story recordings I have experienced or participated in over these 26+ years has been in the genre of traditional tales, at times creatively interwoven with true-life/contemporary stories.

Rome Storytelling Festival 2010

At Rome Storytelling Festival 2010

Early on I realized that, even though I was not primarily drawn to crafting personal stories to offer in public/professional performance myself, when I do hear well-crafted/well-told personal stories, or tell them myself, they often carry wonderfully deep impact and connections to listeners. As do well-crafted/well-told traditional tales. I rejoice in the wide variety and mix of stories throughout the ancient and contemporary and global practice of storytelling!

And…I personally, and Rocky Mountain Storytelling (I’m a past board member) as an event-producing organization, have often struggled over the years with the truly puzzling conundrum of offering vibrant experiences of

  • connection and
  • joy and
  • meaning and
  • participation and
  • depth and
  • fun

through this most-ancient and most-engaging art of storytelling…yet so often only reaching small audiences.  And – conundrum abounds! – though the audiences are seemingly always deeply touched and enthusiastically appreciative, they remain small. What to do, what to do?…

And then I read the Post article on the “recent proliferation” and popularity of “storytelling shows” in our region…

[A reminder: this was before I had ever personally experienced a story slam – which I did 2 days later, which will be the subject of Part 3 of this “Making Waves” series…]

And I admit: I wanted to grab someone by the lapels and shake ‘em!  I was seething over what either wasn’t storytelling (“Stories on Stage”), or was this “confessional, vulnerable” stuff (a direct quote – read the article) popping up and being lauded as what storytelling is

home-mini-4-newWhat is what traditional-tale-tellers, professional or otherwise, do and have been doing all these years – chopped liver? (- Such a great phrase.) And how does THIS get near-full-page treatment in the paper? – Oh yeah, the reach and influence of The Moth, rather than locals who have been slogging away for decades…? (Yes, I got emotional…and this blog, after all, is sometimes confessional, vulnerable stuff. 😉 ).  And then there was the headline, too: “personal sagas”…for 5-minute speed-stories! (Definition of “saga” here.)  Ooh, I was on a tear!

I know – I’ll write a letter! And…catching flies with honey rather than vinegar is a thing, right? So…

I decided to be positive, casting the whole letter as (primarily, anyway) an expression of thanks for having an article about storytelling. Which I AM happy about.

With a maximum limit of 150 words (yikes!), I attempted to:

  • Be positive.
  • Establish my credential as a practicing professional storyteller, but without tooting my horn much or making a blatant marketing ploy (gauche…not to mention perhaps would keep it from being published).
  • Inform them I’m not alone – there are many of us doing this!
  • Refer to the “experts” quoted in the article…but without praising or naming any! (It’s true: I actually resent some of them being officially quoted/identified/anointed(!) as “storytellers” when professionally they are stand-up comedians or actors – I wish the Post would have contacted someone who actually fills out the “Occupation” blank on forms with the word “Storyteller”…Is that petty? Or is it expressing integrity for my overlooked profession?)
  • Mention the Big Issue of using “storytelling” as a high (seemingly ultimate!) compliment for every other art form, while simultaneously ignoring the art form of storytelling itself. (Click here to read an earlier blog post about this. [Plus you’ll see a great photo of my dog…but I digress.] It is one of my favorite posts…)
  • Educate that storytelling has been around a long time, plus get in a mention of the 1970s storytelling revival in the US…that traditional storytelling “is a thing,” and that a swath of the population experiences and has valued it for a long time.
  • Highlight characteristics of storytelling (interactive, immediate, adaptive, universal, powerful, etc.)
  • Expand the notion of storytelling beyond personal narrative, while not wishing to discount it.
  • End positively – didn’t want it to be a rant.
  • Keep it to 150 words.
My letter to the editor

My letter to the editor

I’m happy to report that the Denver Post published my letter on Sunday, October 26. You can read it here.

I’ve received a number of personal emails of appreciation for the letter. My favorite goes:
“We met maybe 20 years ago at a storytelling workshop. I wanted to write and let you know how much I appreciated your letter in the paper today. I, too, was a little irritated that the Denver Post didn’t acknowledge the rich history of storytelling in Colorado in its story. I’m so glad to see that you are still practicing the art.”

And…I had a big uptick in hits on my website for a couple days. Nice result!

I welcome any comments/thoughts you may have on any of this.

Like I said: I’m not preaching any conclusions or rigid positions here – I’m writing this blog to muse and reflect in a social medium, to stimulate thought and invite conversation, and perhaps swim a little toward some clarity.

Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 of this series, “Story Slams Making Waves – What’s the Story, Anyway?!”

  • Part 2 – A Bit of Toe-in-the-Water Training (Oct. 18 workshop)
  • Part 3 – Diving In Head First (Oct. 19 story slam)
  • (Probable Part 4 – Thoughts Rippling Outward & Onward)

Thanks for reading – Pam