I am someone who always seeks to open up new avenues for creativity and wonder. Those avenues are everywhere, of course, in music and dance and painting and photography and writing. Can a writer stand in front of an audience of strangers and tell a story about himself? I wanted to explore the answer for myself, because I believed a different skill set would be involved when it comes to “performing” a story rather than crafting it. As a writer, I’m usually hunched over a keyboard, typing, scratching my head, sipping iced coffee, looking out the window, and typing again. It’s an intimate thing, even as I write in this crowded downtown Boston cafe surrounded by people eating lunch. Would performing a story feel different, be scarier or require a different approach?
According to the rules, I’d have 5 minutes to tell a personal story about “Liberation” on stage (the dreaded theme night) -- no notes; just me, a microphone, and an audience of strangers (actually, my wife was there, as were my friends Anna and Mary). Of course I wrote my story out on paper that morning and then typed it into a word document. Then I extrapolated the structure of the story, and put its 4 major “chunks” on a small note card. I put this notecard in my pocket and walked around until 3pm, thinking about one thing -- “what is my story really about and how can I connect with an audience?”
Having “incubated” all day (just as an incubator nurtures eggs and helps baby chickens hatch), I sat down at 4pm with my voice recorder iPhone app and told the full story from beginning to end. The structure was there, and the main 4 “chunks” were covered, but it sounded awful upon playback. Halting and lifeless and lacking emotion, as if told by some nervous robot.
None of it mattered, I told myself. I wasn’t a story performer, but a writer, and I had nothing at stake if I failed as a “performer.” And yet it mattered a lot to me, because stories are all (ultimately) about connection. Writer, performer, videographer, actor, musician, singer, whatever. We all want to connect with others and, in that connection, transcend our own experiences to create art that others connect with.
In front of an appreciative audience of about thirty at the storytelling event, my name was called and I walked up to a wooden stage. I looked out at the faces, looking back at me expectantly in the dark. It made me smile to see them, to inhabit this moment with them, as we both sought to understand what was about to happen here and now. And it was that unspoken connection, that curiosity and possibility, that made the experience different and strangely intimate.
I’d had the story with me all day, and it had taken the shape it needed to take. The moments of humor and darkness were there, organized and ready to be shared. I had my beginning, my middle, and my end, so the story wanted to emerge, but I hadn’t expected to have them too, the faces looking up at me, adding this sense of human connection and mysterious longing. Before I turned and spoke into the microphone, I thought of nothing else but crossing that distance between us, breaking the silence in the room to find a place where we all might belong.
And so the story came, as if unbidden, as if emerging for the first time from the brittle egg of my mind. And they laughed and they listened, and I saw what the story did to their faces, their mouths, their eyes. I’d never experienced that before, and it was wonderful in a way that writing a story had never quite been. “Only connect,” urged novelist E.M. Forster, and now I knew what he’d meant.
I thought I’d be nervous and have difficulties remembering the story, but it took on its own life and I was just there watching people’s faces become immersed in the words of the story. It wasn’t what I expected, especially the sense of calm and the urgency around connection that was in that room, filling the space with possibility. I think I’ll be doing more of this sort of “live storytelling,” because it helps me better understand what stories do, the way they help us find and share meaning with others who are looking to find and share meaning. We are not alone, and stories offer the promise of community. In the end, stories are all we have for each other but they’re also all we ever need.