Chaos Attraction

Sierra Storytelling Festival 2018, Day 1

2018-07-20, 10:06 p.m.

(I am a month behind on writing entries, because it took me forever to finish writing up the first day of Sierra and everything else I wrote relatively "in the moment" has to wait to post until this is done.)

I need to talk about this year’s Sierra Storytelling Festival. I have written tons of journal entries taking place after this, it’s a month later by my accounting and this still isn’t done yet. Grr, argh.

I need to discuss the mental crisis I was having during this thing this year. I have been listening to the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, which is done by Matthew Dicks, a guy who has won something like 30+ Moth events (and also his wife, who as far as I can tell is not hitting the stage yet? Unsure). He wrote a book called Storyworthy, which I managed to find IRL a few days before the festival.

I think I first heard of him when he was on The Gist with Mike Pesca, who billed him as the most interesting man in the world. Dude has Been Through Some Shit. Bad parent situation, horrible car accident, falsely being arrested (and I guess nearly convicted?) for a crime he didn’t commit, a few near death experiences, stuff like that. However, according to him, most people don’t relate to say, surviving a horrible car accident, so I guess he doesn’t prefer the shocking stories. No, he likes stories of small changes, of how your life became better or changed from a revelation, of hanging out with your dog in the rain.

And after finishing that right before the festival I was all “oh fuuuuuuuuuuck, I got nothing like that.” My storytelling is pretty much Wacky Shock Value. It’s me being ridiculous. It’s when my chaos magnet light was on and shit happened and I met weird people. It’s lists of ridiculous things happening for realz. I don’t do like, meaningful.

This combined with the following issues:

The stories I’ve been working on in the last few years are:

* the dead bird story, which I already did at Sierra last year,
* my jury duty story that I kind of want to redo and also takes longer than 5 minutes if I redo it, and the limit is 5 minutes
* the humping cat story, which according to the rules of Sierra, is forbidden because it’s not “family friendly.” Even if I don’t swear in it, even I don’t want some 5 year old to get the idea that they can or should stick a Q-tip up a cat’s ass.

I have some lists of other story ideas, but so far they are either short anecdotes or just don’t come together as easily as say, stories involving animals do.

I reaaaaaaaaaaaally wanted to do the dead cat story again since I just got that done, but I couldn’t do it there and I wasn’t feeling like I had much else to tell. They also announced the Story Slam theme ahead of time--Bon Voyage--and I don’t have any trip or travel stories to tell other than the last time I saw my dementia-addled grandma and she was chasing me around trying to grab my boobs like I was in Sixteen Candles. Again, this violates the “family friendly” issue. DAMMIT. This left me with the story of crashing my ex’s car, which I eventually committed to doing (see two days later), but otherwise I didn’t feel like I had shit to tell in a Matthew Dicks style, the one that according to him, wins Story Slams. Dawn tried to help me brainstorm but there was just nothing that memorable I could think of.

So yeah, I was inwardly whiny as fuck going in.

I did enjoy the hell out of the workshop, though. I liked this one even better than last year’s, which felt more on point to the sort of things I do even if I am not a fictional storyteller. It was done by Clare Murphy, who ended up being my favorite storyteller this year. Quote from her: “Generally I’m the most ridiculous person in the room and I’m okay with that.” ME TOO.

The main focus of this workshop was that she told a short story (usually known as “Fairy Ointment”) about an Irish midwife who gets called on by a large fairy man to help his wife deliver a child. He has her get on his horse, the horse flies them into Underhill, she gets the baby out. The man asks her to put this ointment on the baby but DON’T get any on yourself and wash up real good after. Unfortunately, the midwife forgets, rubs her eye, and then forgets again. The fairy man brings her home, gives her a ton of gold, and flies off. A while later she spots him at the market and waves hi and asks how the wife and son are doing, and he’s all “you can see me?” “Sure.” “With which eye?” and when she figures that out, he blinds her in that one. She never saw him again.

So after she told us that story, we’re supposed to get into various pairings and then tell the story shorter and shorter durations. You’re supposed to do it in three minutes, in 1.5 minutes, in 45 seconds. Summarize, summarize, summarize! I was really good at this, other folks I was with, not so much. I wanted to say, prune the details! Focus on the important stuff! Distill it to the essence. Boil down the story to its bones--what makes the story make sense.

The bones of the story:
* midwife
* fairy husband
* journey
* baby
* ointment
* warning
* rubs eye
* go home
* sees him
* consequences-eye

Identify the structure and then mess with it.

Other things you can do:
* stay present
* improvisation
* body language
* eye contact
* don’t tell a story you don’t like
* enthusiasm, energy
* transmission
* don’t copy someone else, it doesn’t work
* be mesmeric
* comfortable
* knowledge
* courage
* make it their own
* cadence
* language play

She talked about the contract between the storyteller and the audience:

* attention
* imagination
* curiosity
* money to get in
* response
* time

* love their story
* love the job
* enthusiasm
* time
* respect
* work

Then she had us retell the story again from the POV of one of the characters in it. I did it from the POV of the horse, which amusingly turned into a Valley Girl horse because I saw the horse as being pretty snooty and shallow and not caring too much about what went on as long as he got to go home and eat his oats. This amused me. “The horse took over, totally different attitude,” someone else said about doing the horse. There was one girl in the class who I guess understood English but only spoke Spanish (which I guess must have been a challenge at times if she was paired with anyone but Clare, or the guy she came in with), but whoever was partnered with her for this said she got who she was telling right away despite the different language. I’ll bet.

You don’t get tired of a story if you do different perspectives. I have down a quote from who knows who, saying “I just wanted to keep talking to the character.”

Then we did a partner exercise where we were supposed to be making offers to someone. At first you’re told to say no to whatever they offer (I suggested touring Porta Potties and doing a pole dance at the fire station), then you’re supposed to say yes, but... (wanna go to a concert? I said I was half deaf. Want to see free jugglers? I’m part deaf because I got hit by a juggling club....), and then finally you say yes to the offer. So we turned that into doing a website that did a combination of restaurant and bathroom reviews in Europe. This was pretty improv-y, and was to point out that it’s easier to be creative when you get yesses.

In the Q&A, she said:
* Bill Lepp and Donald Davis do workshops
* She picks stories that move her/call to her
* Find everywhere you can to tell stories
* Pick what moves you
* Stories are living things.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that this year we weren’t in a hotel. Last year Dawn made friends with another library person, Mary, who works at the festival running the combination raffle booth and tapestry project. Dawn spent more time over at the tapestry project than I did--I listened to everyone dutifully, she’d skip out at times to go work on the tapestry and hang out with Mary. Anyway, Mary said we could stay with her next time we came, and we did, and it was delightful. We had fun hanging out with her, her husband Paul, and their three dogs. Paul found funny Internet videos and we checked out Mary’s quilting and tapestries.

This year’s storytellers (other than Clare, who you’ve already met and specializes in Irish stories) were:

* Charlotte Blake Alston: African-American storyteller who mostly did folk tales but also occasionally did other things, most notably singing and even a capella rapping at one point.
* Charlie Chin, a deadpan dude who did Chinese folk tales. He always looked Very Serious, was usually wearing all black and carrying a fan, but would have some sneaky deadpan humor. I also liked how virtually all the women in his stories were smarter than the men.
* Larry Littlebird: Native American storyteller. Now last year, neither Dawn nor I were particularly into last year’s Native American storyteller, who tended to literally interrupt himself after every sentence to make sure we were still listening. I give props to Larry for not doing that, but in all honesty, both of us kept zoning out (or in her case, falling asleep) a lot. Maybe we are just not into Native American storytelling, which yes, probably makes us horrible people.
* Izzy Tooinsky, the master of ceremonies and a local dude, who told funny real life stories that I enjoyed--more on that later.
* Vicki Juditz, who I believe is a Moth storyteller person and also specialized in real life stories.

On the first night there was also local guest storyteller Tom Wade, a Story Slam winner who I have taken the workshops with. Nice dude, one of those “crazy shit happens to me” people too. He told a story about working in a mental institution and coming up with crazy things for the inmates to do, like yoga, and by yoga I mean wrestling.

I will see if I can translate the notes I made in the dark on my gadget for you as to what was told on opening night:

From Charlie:
* He tells a story about three prince brothers who were sent on a quest. The youngest, instead of hunting around the world, makes friends with a family, including a girl named Mei Ling with a slightly crooked nose who knows a lot of stuff, including what the guy is supposed to be looking for. He’s supposed to find the strangest thing? Mei Ling says it’s that everyone knows they’re going to die but they think it won’t happen to them. He’s supposed to find the biggest lie? Mei Ling says it’s “I understand women.” And when he’s supposed to bring back the most beautiful woman in the world, he marries Mei Ling and brings her back to prove his point-- and who’s going to tell a man to his face that his wife is not the most beautiful woman in the world?

Izzy told a story about being a substitute teacher and mentoring a fiery redheaded kid named Luke and how the kid liked to climb trees. He taught Luke the three rules for communication: appreciate a person, state what you want, and build a bridge. So Luke used those tools on Izzy to let him climb a tree.

Vicki told a story about moving to LA and trying to find a weird museum, and later trying to get some formal picture taken for some college alumni thing and then ending up using a photo of herself volunteering. Moral of the stories: she had what she was looking for all along.

Clare finished off the night with a story about ...fairy gods, I think? Anyway, the current king got deposed for becoming scarred, so the next prettiest guy was elected king and he put in draconian new rules like making all the fairies work for a living. Then there’s the professional storyteller who travels all around and gets the (next best to the king, anyway) treatment of everything. But when the storyteller shows up to meet the new king, he’s shown to the shittiest of rooms and ignored and not lauded. So the next morning the storyteller invents satire to insult/make fun of the king, and that leads to an overthrow. Clare’s final line of the night brought down the house: “That’s how a storyteller can overthrow a king.”

(Note: I bought a CD of hers that had the same story on it, but that time the last line was “Don’t piss off a storyteller.”)

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