Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Story Lab Experience

In inclement weather the people are fey,
Three thousand years' stories as the night slips away,
Remembering Fingal feels not far away,
The giant will rise with the moon.

The wind's in the north, there'll be new moon tonight,
And we have no Circle to dance in her sight,
Light a torch, bring a bottle, and build the fire bright,
The giant will rise with the moon.
—"Giant," Stan Rogers

This week I had the great opportunity to participate in Story Lab Chicago, which is a monthly storytelling event here in the city that I love. It's something I found out about in August; I went to one, saw six people telling their stories (several of whom had never done anything of the kind before), had a great time, and signed up to do it myself. Before I tell you about what it was like to tell my story, I want to share some lessons I learned in the process.

When you sign up to do Story Lab, you write your story, and then you bring it to a little workshop with the guy in charge of the event and the other storytellers. You share your stories and give each other feedback. Here is some advice I was given at that session.

Specificity is Great: If the people have names, if the places have succinct but accurate descriptions, that's good--just about any chance to be specific rather than general makes a story better.

Kill Your Babies*: Often, the things you most love about the story you're telling are just getting in the way of clarity and effectiveness. If something doesn't directly serve the point of the story, it's in the way. Kill it.

No "Lord of the Rings" Endings: Remember the last Lord of the Rings movie, and how it faded to black at the end around four or five times? Confusing, right? When you're telling a story, it can be tempting to make multiple little stopping points at the end, where you try to add another meaning to the story, explain another idea, communicate another facet. Don't. End it once and keep the ending.

Make sure any threads left for picking up later actually get picked up: This is self-explanatory. It can be tempting to leave little "but I'll come back to that"s in your story, but only do it if you can actually come back to them.

Keep only the best detail: For me, at least, writing/storytelling with lots of detail makes things more fun; the key is to not let it bog things down. Too much detail throughout a story can make it drag and can cause people to get confused or lost. Save details for moments that need to be especially vivid.

* * *

Story Lab itself was amazing. I had more than a dozen friends show up, many after only having been invited at the last minute, which was a really cool feeling. I knew I could count on them to enjoy the story and support me (read: laugh at my jokes).

In addition to that, the performance space (which is this really cool back room of a pub on the north side of Chicago, complete with fireplaces, couches, wooden tables and chairs, and a generally cozy atmosphere) was full to bursting--fuller than I've seen at any Story Lab before. If I had to guess, I'd say well over 50 people, possibly 75.

I had a few other great things going for me even before I stood up on stage: (1) the stories told before me were lots of fun, all of them, so the crowd was in a good mood (2) the Story Lab crowd is known for being welcoming, accepting, and game for just about anything (3) I was dressed as fly as I could get away with, which always ups my confidence level (no joke, in college I would put on a suit to take final exams) and (4) I was up just after intermission, so people were all refreshed and ready for more when I stood up.

When it came time for me to do my thing, I stood up, put my story--all typed out and neat--on the music stand in front of me, and got talking. I'm a fairly animated story teller: I use lots of gestures, tone variations, and dramatic pauses when I'm telling a story, and this story was no exception. The story starts with a dramatic cliff-hanger: the disappearance of everyone in the story but myself and one other. Once I got everyone's attention with that, I kept it by being my usual animated, fun self.

The audience really seemed to understand and enjoy what I had to say. I wrote a three-page story, and I took about three times longer than I did in my rehearsal by myself just getting through page one. I had to stop for people to laugh at things I didn't write to be funny. As a friend pointed out afterwards, it wasn't even primarily people who knew me who got it, or who started laughing first--it was everybody! Needless to say, this was all extremely flattering. I might have drawn things out a little with some extra-enthusiastic line readings, some off-the-cuff additions, just to see what I could get away with. For the most part, I got away with them pretty completely.

In short, Story Lab is great, but it was particularly great for me. I was extremely honored that people listened so closely to what I had to say and that they enjoyed it as much as they did. I can't wait to do some more sometime soon!

*I did not make this phrasing up.

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