Chaos Attraction

National Storytelling Summit 2019--Day 1

2019-07-25, 10:26 p.m.

In the morning, I did my registration stuff and then headed off to my master class with George Dawes Green, creator of “The Moth” storytelling events/podcast. I saw a few folks I’ve seen at other events (Jeff and Brandon), there were around 24 people or so in the class. We were supposed to tell a three minute story and only about 3/4 of the people there had prepared one...and the class still went so long that he had it go an hour longer than intended. Very nice of him on that one, but fortunately they didn’t have anything going on in the afternoon on the first day.

He also showed “one minute stories” he’d recorded of various people. I think this marshmallow story would make a good one minute one, myself.
* There’s one about a guy who wonders if he’ll actually have to eat monkey because he said while visiting his family in another country he’d technically stop being vegetarian and would eat anything...
* A guy watched someone have a heart attack and die. The doctor said, “I knew the moment I walked in, but you gotta try.”
* A kid losing her loose tooth during first communion at Easter and wrestling the preacher to get it out of the cup. After eating the bread, she needed a drink, so she reached for the cup learn a lot about her from that story.
* A story of a homeless woman named Brenda talking about how the chick her boyfriend cheated on her with when she was in prison--”Big Titty Sharon” --burned down their improvised home. GDG’s commentary on this was to (a) validate that Big Titty Sharon lives up to the name and (b) “Shadow” (the boyfriend) “is screwing up everything. Shadow is just a disaster.”
* Another one featured a guy talking about getting a gun as a kid and how that made him decide he wanted to become a cop.

Notes from the class:
* People doing the Story Slams don’t take their score too much to heart. Everyone does judge each other constantly though.
* He has learned a lot from judging-it’s very consistent. He figures out what kinds of stories the judges like.
* A weakness of The Moth is that it can feel like group therapy.
* The listener has their own window seat to a story.
* To be a great storyteller, one has to go into oneself and do only what you can do.
* “The first Moth was just terrible! People were telling stories with morals....”
* If you’re in the right environment where everyone will listen, and you want, and you draw them in with your silence, it creates a profound effect. --Frank McCourt does this.
* Presentation of vulnerability. The best Moth stories are ones of vulnerability. They present that they are clowns, which we all are. We don’t like to do that in America. When you show you are a loser, we fall in love with them, trust them, the truth they speak is really profound.
* Stories that start out with “I blew this, I blew that...”
* He showed a commercial from an incumbent mayor named John Lindsay being honest about his mistakes when running for reelection in 1964. He won reelection and was even worse in the second term.
* American tradition of recognizing that we’re a loser. Politicians lose and go through a crucible and people respond to it. (He has no idea how Trump won.)
* “Find that moment early on when you say, I’m not very good at life.”

The most important thing he mentioned was that stories are about a decision. They’re not about what happened to you, but a decision that someone makes--or a decision of God/the universe. Sometimes stories are about things that happen, but it’s about the decisions you make.
Now your story is about a decision that you are making. That turns on a response. We are listening now to a story. What decision would you make? (This is why Judge Judy makes all the money...)

* It’s your agency that puts the question in the listener’s mind.
* He has banned the phrase “and then I realized....” because people think they can’t have a story without an epiphany. Just let everyone else realize it.
* The power of the Moth is that we see people bake the story right in front of us.
* So how does that work with coaching someone? He said to be good, it has to be rehearsed, so they compromise--be rehearsed but not too rehearsed.
* In a short story, keep the location in one place.

Essential ideas behind storytelling:
* details-telling ones
* unspoken epiphany- have it a little disguised, rather than saying “and then I realized.”

I have this note in here: “You won’t know the ripple effects of what you do in this world, so just do the work.” (On a related note, Matthew Dicks has some cool blog entries on this sort of thing written later here and here.)

You can leave out a whole paragraph of “this is who I am” and just give a few details.
How much information do you give when behind a mike? “You are giving out so much more information than you know.” Things are instantly evident when you stand behind a mike--- you can frequently cut the first three minutes from a story a lot. I got a gold star (metaphorically) for saying that I’ll leave out material if I have to for time.
Also, “fast forward” is overdone, so be careful about using it. His pet peeve is “Long story short....”

Personal stories have to be about you. Audiences demand a personal one about you.
“Being yourself on stage is the hardest thing in the world.”
You can backfill back story and start in media res if you want to.
Telling in present vs. past tense is a debate. Past tense is more natural, present is more immediate but can seem rehearsed. He goes back and forth about it.
About what you share: it’s up to you but you should probably get consent from others if you put it online.

At some point I asked about the speed of stories vs. the issue of being timed scrupulously, which the Moth and similar events do. I get bitched out for being “too fast” usually (though not today!) but if they are reiterating to you TIME TIME TIME DON’T GO OVER TIME NOOOOOOOOOO YOU WILL BE BEHEADED (I hear jokes about beheading a lot), what are you supposed to do? So he said he likes slow storytellers and brought up Edgar Oliver, a guy who talks like a slow funeral home director naturally, and GDG can imitate him very well. “What took me 30 seconds took him 12 minutes” (to tell) “while drunk.” I asked if he times Edgar and he said no to that.
He said it was also good to tell a story fast with details and then stop, varying it up. Audiences are quicker than you think to pick things up. One guy suggested being economical with your words.

I’m not going to attempt to recap all the 3 minute stories others did (though GDG did say “what you guys are doing is absolutely impossible”), but I will mention a few:

* Ron, a SoCal guy I’ve seen around Sierra, did a story about how he had a hard time learning to read and can’t explain how suddenly it kicked in for him. I’m not doing it justice, but it was well done and he did it several times over the weekend (made it into the final Story Slam competition, even).
* A lady named Sue started out with “I knew I had lost control when I found myself pushing my mattress out the bedroom window” because her husband slept with her best friend’s identical twin sister.
* Someone named Diane said, “It’s going to take nine generations of mild mannered women to breed Grandpa Edgecomb out, and we’re not there yet.”
* Jeff Gere talked about doing an Easter show where everyone could see the costume changes. “The entire story is sheer irony,” said GDG, as well as “everything in this story is supposed to be sweet and it’s awful.”
* A lady named Angie nicely chose to square dance and thus hold hands with the class nosepicker. “I took his right hand and I survived.”
* Conversation between a lady and her dying mom. Mom: “I’m dying.” Daughter: “I don’t want to have this conversation.” Mom: “I’m dying for a soda.”
* There was a cool story about a dad, his kid who wanted to get a tattoo, vision boards, and how she basically got tattoos as vision boards on herself. She got a tattoo of scissors on her neck and became a hairstylist.
* A guy loses his job and asks for a sign from God that they’re going to be okay. Of course his wife gets pregnant, which he takes as the sign.

“Amazing naturalness, I’m moved,” GDG said at the end. Apparently this workshop was such a hit that it was talked up a lot for the rest of the conference.

For my three minute story, I did the “Fifty Shades of Stealing” one I came up with in class. I did it in two minutes and GDG liked it and said it was a lovely story. I made myself vulnerable, I set the scene, people are interested in hoarding.

In other news, there was another knitter in the class. Huzzah.

So after that was over, I went looking for food. There was a convenience store nearby I got snacks at, but I skipped the expensive hotel restaurant and crossed the street to find the nearest food complex with a McDonald’s (that seemed to attract crime...there were a ton of cop cars there one day) and a bunch of Asian restaurants. A guy I crossed the street with who worked in the area recommended the pho restaurant, which I did not go to that day because I wanted the sushi lunch special. I enjoyed it. I had a few hours to kill before the conference really kicked off at night, so I reported the lack of Internet and the toilet issue. I was told they’d send an “engineer” right away for the toilet, which never happened, of course. I decided I did not have the energy any more to nag and nag and nag about yet another toilet in the end. I was told to call tech support to get the Internet set up, which was tedious, but at least worked. So one out of two....

In the later part of the afternoon, there was a networking workshop that I figured I should go to, and actually it was pretty good. It was billed as “often, it’s not until the last day of a conference that everyone feels relaxed and part of the group. But why wait until then?” You were supposed to bring business cards to the session (check, already got those). At one point we told stories about our names, and as a Jennifer I always have very good ones about being one of the many Jennifers in literally any room. You ended up in groups of three and doing a game called “Queen Bee” in which everyone has to come up with a problem to ask others for help for on an index card, and then someone else walks around with your card going out to get “honey”, i.e. contact info for others who could solve it. While I can’t say that worked for its intended purpose as nobody contacted me and I didn’t contact anybody (I asked where to get singing lessons and was told “YouTube,” basically). it was fun enough.

For dinner, I got crunchy noodles. I wanted to go to the pho place but they are only open for lunch on Monday through Friday, so I would have to go tomorrow.

As for the nighttime session, GDG was back again to give the keynote, “The Essence of Personal Storytelling,” which was great. I spotted two other yarnies in the audience.

Notes I have from the keynote (note: he also showed more one minute stories and showed some of the same ones I already mentioned):
What’s the essence of good stories?
He has an analytical tool about this topic, and said that everything essential should be in a one minute story.
All stories should be about decisions that someone makes. The ones that are the most beautiful has a surprise decision. Stories about decisions make him interested. There’s decisions that we make and that others make. Or it’s the decision of God/the universe, and sometimes the universe gives us nothing but coldness.

A one minute story that was new: a lady taking the census was asked for her kidney. “Heck no! I’m not gonna do that for someone I just met on the census!”

He said this was the first time he’s talked to a conference of storytelling and said it’s scary because we may know more than he does.
The secret of the Moth is that people reveal something about themselves.

Another one minute story: a mom with dementia having a good day and then telling the daughter, to her face, that she wished her daughter was here. He said the decision here was that she keeps going back anyway.

He said that the Moth was founded in 1997 and the first one was terrible and pretentious, and “God, there’s video of it. I won’t tell you how to access it.” (I found it.) Every story had a moral. If the story is really good, we’ll know why. The stories went on and on and he thought, “I’ll never do this again.” There was some big Hollywood agent a friend of his brought over and the agent said they’d “never, ever, ever have anything to do with these people ever again.”

“If we tell people I’m a screwup, we’ll be triumphant.”

He talked about Brenda/Big Titty Sharon/Shadow again, saying that Shadow is “the worst person in the world” and “He doesn’t really seem like a good bet.” Also that “Big Titty Sharon maintains her innocence.”

He mentioned having Christopher Hitchens come to a Moth event. “We were afraid he would come drunk, and he did. And he refused to rehearse.”

Also, “we’ve never had a Moth that wasn’t sold out.” It was the first event to do all unscripted personal stories. When they did one in Ireland, someone said, “Thank you for bringing storytelling to Ireland. I think he was taking the piss, but...” He also did a roaming tour in which they rode around on a bus and told stories in indie bookstores.When Neil Gaiman showed up unannounced on tour, people followed them around. We saw Neil’s 1 minute story about his dad showing up to an event of his and he never knew about it.

“Great Moth storytellers fucked everything up but somehow survived.”

He talked about a big name philosopher (Bernard-Henri) who ditched Scarlett Johansson so he could do the Moth. However, the guy only wanted to talk about his successes (“I had to fly the plane”) so he could not be on the Moth.

We saw a one minute story by Brenda’s next boyfriend after Shadow, who is now deceased, talking about how he shot up his friend and then the friend died. Ow.

GDG is married to a neuroscientist, who’s very good at analyzing stories. What defines us as humans is our storytelling. Why did our brains grow so much? We developed episodic memory, autonoetic consciousness to remember stories, and then we share them. Vicarious consciousness = we experience it. A guy scanned people’s brains when they listened to Moth stories, and GDG showed a word cloud of words like “Chuck E. Cheese” and “Abercrombie.” He called it a “semantic atlas of the brain.” Also, the study was “one million times more popular.” GDG says he wants to find out emotional fulcrums.

He showed two one minute videos of a mother and daughter talking about her husband/dad, 50 years apart. The mom talked about how when she met the guy he was a skindiver on a boat having trouble with his wetsuit and she was all, “I have just met the man I’m going to marry.” 50 years later, the daughter told about his burial at sea and 2000+ dolphins showed up.

Cool talk, bro! I really like that GDG, he’s a quality guy. He comes off as very low key but I enjoy his thoughts. Would take class from again.

To finally finish off the night, I went to one of the qualifying story slams. I had zero interest or intention of actually winning the darn thing (which is fine, I did not!) but I just wanted to be able to say that I’ve told at this conference, which otherwise doesn’t have open tell like Sierra does (presumably because the entire conference would want to). I got drawn first and did the unmentioned story for a third and final time, after which I am now retiring it forever because it was very Of The Moment and The Situation Has Changed Unexpectedly From What I Predicted Would Happen Since Then. (Yes, that’s ominous foreshadowing for later, y’all.) I think it got the worst reception at the slam actually compared to say, the class I was in, probably because this was a professional audience who knew I was breaking all the rules. But some folks told me they liked it later. Again, I checked the room (around 35 again) and who I knew in it, hah. I may run into one or two of them in the future, we’ll see if they ask what happened, because god knows that will be...awkward.

Other story slam stories involved:
(a) dealing with a crazy lady on a bus (came in third) as a kid
(b) “The guru has been waiting for you!” but then the guy would not say what the guru wanted to know
(c) I think this one’s name was Sarah? “Babies put shit in their mouths all the time.” This lady’s kid ate cat shit and she had to call Poison Control to ask about the situation. “How old is the cat feces? Fresh is better.” Also, “Is this guy making a shit list joke?” The guy on the phone recommended that both she and the kid eat some ice cream. “I was extremely satisfied because I heard my kid was not going to eat shit and die.” She came in first.
(d) Juliet Pokorny (I’ve seen her in Woodland...months ago?) started out with “I think I should know better than to put myself in awkward situations. Juliet apparently has been known to claim she knows how to do things she doesn’t know, like play piano or cut hair.
(e) One guy told “the secrets of retirement “ about how if you sit in a rocking chair, you die, so he tries to figure out what else to do--which was storytelling.
(f) A lady talked about the time she thought she was going to die in a plane crash when the plane lost an engine.
(g) “Have you ever been yelled at by the universe?” “I kept calling it coincidence.” This guy got the only job he could get-at a prison, because of his martial arts skills. He heard the universe speaking in his head, “Everything’s going to be okay, Christopher.” He was in some movie a while back and it came on the TV in the prison and everyone was impressed, even the contract killer. So he was more or less fine in the job for five years until the universe spoke again, when he heard someone say, “If you had control over your life, would you be in this shithole?” So he quit.
(h) Ron told his “day he learned to read” story from the morning again and came in second.
(i) A lady named Claire told the story about caring for the guitarist from Green Day’s cat and getting to go to a concert of theirs. She came in fourth.

Last year’s story slam winner, Jamie Brickhouse, was dragged up to tell an extra story while the scores were being compiled and he told a story about his dad’s funeral and having no idea what his brother would say at it because you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth, like both of their dead mom’s husbands would now swing with her in heaven.

So that was day one....

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