Story Slams Making Waves, Part 2 (Or, Does Anybody Read a Blog Published on a Friday Afternoon?)

“What if we recognized that all stories, regardless of traditional, personal, or other, have value when they are well told, when there is room for the audience and when we remember that stories are about human experience, whether true or metaphorical?” – Laura Packer

Could not have said it better myself, nope. Thank you, Laura!

Two days ago I was about to hit “Publish” on this Part 2 of the 3-part blog series “Story Slams Making Waves” I began last month (delayed from last week when I felt compelled to write this one on “People Just Want More Booty” [seriously] instead), when I suddenly learned through Facebook that storyteller Laura Packer had published a wonderful reflection on “personal” and “traditional” stories in her “True Stories, Honest Lies” blog. There was instantly the screeching of brakes in my head – what I was about to send out covered much of the same material and shared many of the same thoughts – and probably not as articulately or succinctly as hers!

And I’m so glad she wrote this!!

Because what she wrote is a really thoughtful and beautifully-written exploration, comparing and contrasting personal and traditional stories. And it contributes deeply to my own reflections that I’m attempting to grow and to share through these postings in the aftermath of my October 17-19 weekend immersion in the topic.

Please be sure to read her beautiful reflection here – go ahead, click on over there now and then come back to this! – and I’m going to now throw out most of what I wrote a couple days ago and make this re-write more specifically about my personal experience (in keeping with the overall theme? – Ha!) from that October weekend that was so intensely about “traditional vs. personal” storytelling for me, and some developing musings…(find my first installment here)

And so:

I attended Allison Downey’s workshop on “Crafting Personal Narratives for the Dinner Party or the Stage” that Saturday

– at Swallow Hill (a longtime Denver center for folk music and other arts performance and teaching – and the venue for the new Denver Moth which just started October 17).

Allison DowneyI met Allison at last summer’s National Storytelling Conference in Phoenix. Someone (I don’t remember who) grabbed us each in the lobby and shoved us toward each other and said “You two need to meet!” – I was immediately and powerfully drawn to her vibrant personality and delight in/for storytelling, and was thrilled to learn that she was contemplating a move to the Denver area! We found ourselves exclaiming to each other there in the hotel lobby that we had just each found “our new best friend!” and began hatching hopeful plans on the spot for magnificent storytelling stuff together in Colorado.

So I was excited to learn she was going to be in Denver and giving a workshop at Swallow Hill the day after the Denver Post article on storytelling shows (mostly slams).

Her workshop was fun, informative, engaging, clearly organized, and filled with plenty of thought-provoking activities. She provided each participant with a great handout detailing a clear process for developing a story from a personal life experience. Great resource to have.

Though not emphasized in the online description of the workshop, it became clear that the process she was teaching was very much aimed at the story slam format: specifically, crafting a personal story that would fit within a 5-minute time limit, and consciously connect to a theme.  Main points of the workshop content were:

  • Generating/finding ideas for personal experience stories to tell
  • Introduction to story structure and how to apply it to a personal experience
  • Specifically attending to story slam format requirements: time limit (typically 5 minutes) and adhering to a given theme.

Being immersed this past month in experiences and conversations around personal “vs.” traditional stories/storytelling, and looking back over my own, ahem, personal experience of a 27-year professional career as a storyteller, I see a wonderful, possible, let’s-develop-and-celebrate-more-of-it, give-and-take relationship between the two:

  • (1) Personal narrative can be a “way into” telling traditional tales, AND

  • (2) Experience with traditional folktales can contribute to one’s ability to craft and tell an effective personal story.

In her blog comparing and contrasting personal and traditional storytelling, Laura Packer writes about the problem of “segregation,” of the perceived “divide” between the events & genres of personal vs. traditional stories. And from most angles (some of which I hope to explore in Part 3) I think she’s absolutely right.  But this of course doesn’t need to be – and certainly hasn’t always been – the case…

From the beginning of my storytelling career (late ‘80s) I encountered plenty of personal-narrative stories salted throughout the festivals, conferences, performances I eagerly sought out and attended – traditional/folk tales were predominant, true, but other genres such as literary tales, and historical as well as contemporary/personal stories were all commonly experienced as well. I remember thinking a lot in my first couple of years in this profession about different genres of stories, and seeking my own voice and strengths – I discovered that I didn’t feel strongly drawn at the time to tell personal stories myself.

I also realized that some of the deepest, most powerful story listening experiences I had were with others’ personal stories, stories that came straight from the tellers’ personal experiences and which they had explored, marinated in, carefully crafted, and delivered with authenticity and artistry. Very powerful.

Faeroy route ccThough not primarily drawn to developing personal stories for my own performance repertoire (although, interestingly, my FAVORITE story to tell is indeed a personal-experience story, “Looking for Grandpa’s Island”-!), I have always encouraged people to find and tell the stories in their lives. Sometimes that’s the very focus of specific workshops.  And –

  • (1) Telling personal experience stories can serve as an introductory exercise in workshops otherwise focused on telling folktales.

I’ve found that when/if people are intimidated by the thought of telling a story to someone, or it feels foreign or out-of-reach for them to learn a folktale or other story for telling, they can find through the act of sharing personal memories with a workshop partner that they do have storytelling capabilities already, and they gain confidence to then proceed with learning to tell a folktale. (Using a “cinema of your mind” exercise, and “direct a biographical film of your life” ideas gained from Heather Forest, an early model and mentor for me, have often been wonderfully fun and effective in workshops.)

There have long been great resource books (see short list of some favorites below) to help develop ideas and abilities – and workshop exercises! – for the telling of personal experience stories.  I was re-reading some portions of some of them this past week…

Donald Davis, of course, is a master of the engaging, beautifully-crafted, masterfully-told personal story, and I came across a very telling passage in his wonderful 1993 book, Telling Your Own Stories.. He wrote: “Once we can ‘see’ place, time, and character…we have a mental container in which to visually carry the plot of the story…Give attention to carefully laying out the place, the time, and the people in your stories before anything starts to happen, and begin to notice…how much more attentive your listeners are…” (p.17).

Contrast that advice with this excerpt from Allison Downey’s personal narrative workshop outline: “Structure: Point of entry – where does your story begin? Give little backstory at the top – start in the middle of the story.”     

! (…the underlining is added by me…)  !

I am reminded of a lesson from my high school Creative Writing class: In the unit on Short Story, our teacher told us that when writing a short story one should “begin the story at the last possible moment.” Advice very similar to Allison’s.

Beyond that, both Allison and Donald give similar/compatible guidance on story structure itself, though using some different terminology (Davis’ “crisis” vs Downey’s “turning point,” etc.).  Allison’s advice and outline on creating and applying story structure to your 5-minute personal experience story was clear and very good.

Is it a “sign of our times” that the short, snappy 5-minute personal stories are key to the attraction of story slams?  Might it be an attention-span thing?! Partly? Donald Davis’ powerfully-crafted-and-told personal stories can be 30 minutes long…  Just thinking “out loud” through my computer keyboard here…

65313_443326539203_5492600_aBut – whatever the comparable and contrasting characteristics may be between a 5-minute slam story and a 25-minute more-fleshed-out personal story – my belief has been strengthened and my experience affirmed: that it can be a wise and effective practice to use folktales as teaching/modeling tools, even when the goal is personal narrative. Narrative structure must be imposed on the lived experience to transform it into a story beyond just an anecdote or reminiscence…and throughout Allison’s taking us through her helpful story structure process, I kept thinking about so many folktales…

  • (2) Narrative structure must and can be learned – and traditional tales can be a highly effective tool for that.

I think of the common and sound advice to

  • “read in order to learn to write;”
  • and for student artists to copy masters as part of their learning process;
  • and my poetry class teacher urging us to learn by plugging our own imagery and word choices into established patterns of published poets…

In this whole conversation about “personal vs. traditional storytelling” – and the attendant reactions, thoughts and emotions – I find myself looking now more at the form and format of the currently-popular story slam events and the short stories that are the norm there, rather than the contrast between subject matter or story genre of personal vs. traditional tales.

More thinking, and experiencing, and conversing to be done. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Allison’s workshop was great. I look forward to implementing what I learned there.

I’m even planning to use her guidelines to re-craft a familiar story I’ve long told…and putting my name in the hat for tonight’s Denver Moth, theme: “Scars.”

I let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading these musings – Pam


3 Favorite Resources on Developing Personal Stories (though not specifically for a short 5-minute time slot):

Telling Your Own Stories: For Family and Classroom Storytelling, Public Speaking, and Personal Journaling by Donald Davis

The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect With Others by Jack Maguire

Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story by Christina Baldwin