Today I’d like to write a little bit about the art of storytelling. While my career took off when I started performing at The Moth or for This American Life, I began telling stories in elementary school. I was a chubby kid and I had a hard time making friends. Until one day when I told a story to a girl in my class and she actually laughed. Next thing I knew I was pimping out this gift, telling stories to every person I met in exchange for friendship.
It wasn’t until I met Elizabeth Swados [The One and Only Human Galaxy, My Depression, At Play] that it occurred to me that I should do something with these stories. During my senior year at NYU, Elizabeth Swados, or Liz, was brought in to write and workshop a show with twelve students. I was one of the lucky twelve.
Our first assignment was to tell a story about a sexual experience from the perspective of our parents. While the other students were sharing crass or explicit stories, I sat in my seat wondering how I was going to pull this off. I wanted to complete the assignment, but I didn’t want to disrespect my lovely Mormon parents. When it was my turn to share, I, in my mother’s voice, told a story about the most romantic thing my father had ever done for her.
“It’s not your typical romantic story,” I began, using my mother’s softer voice. “But here goes: I was in the hospital and I’d just given birth to your sister Julia. It was a very hard and a very messy labor and soon as the baby was born the doctor and nurses rushed her out of the room. Gary followed close behind, leaving me completely alone.
Once they were gone, I looked down at my body. I was physically exhausted and my lower half was covered in blood and fluids. All I could think was, I don’t want Gary to see me this way, I look awful. Just as I thought this, your father walked into the room. He took one look at me, scooped me up in his arms and carried me down the hallway to the nearest shower. The nurses were yelling at him to stop, but he ignored them. Fully clothed, he walked into the shower and he bathed me.”
Any way, I shared this (one of my parent’s more private moments) with the entire class. After class Liz pulled me aside, “You have a gift for telling stories,” she said, “Have you ever thought of making a show out of your stories?”
From that day forward, I’d get out of class early on Fridays, go to Liz’s house, sit on her giant blue couch and tell her stories. During this time, and over the course of an eight year mentorship, Liz taught me a great deal about storytelling. These are the two lines from Liz that I find myself repeating the most: “Just tell the story,” and “Don’t be coy.”
As I transitioned from being a storyteller to a writer I discovered how much patience and discipline it takes to put your thoughts on paper. And while the writer’s medium took a lot of adjusting to, it’s still about the basic art of storytelling. To quote the host of a Moth Storyslam, (The Moth is a storytelling series based in New York, I highly recommend their free podcast [themoth.org]) “Start on the action, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and show a character who fundamentally changes from start to finish.”
In addition to this basic outline and Liz’s advice, the following quotes have inspired me as I write:
“First Thought, Best Thought” – Chogyam Trungpa, Rimpoche
“Notice what you notice.” Allen Ginsberg
“The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” – Ezra Pound
“The Mind must be loose.” – John Adams
“Maximum information, minimum number of syllables.” – Allen Ginsberg
“The unspeakable visions of the individual.” - Jack Kerouac
“Subject is known by what she sees.” – Allen Ginsberg
I also love the Essays [Politics and the English Language and Why I Write by George Orwell]. And while it’s straight out of Hollywood, I actually really like the book [Story by Robert McKee].
If you have any favorite quotes on writing please feel to post them below.
“How do we talk to ourselves at night in the dark? Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” – Charles Reznikoff