A Storytelling Weekend (And I Only Listened)

This weekend was a weekend of stories for me.  I didn’t spend much time on my own fiction, but I was certainly involved in the storytelling scene.  On Saturday, at a friend’s suggestion, I sat in on a writer’s group.  There were some established local writers, who varied from poets to essayists, from non-fiction to memoir.  The first speaker of the day was none of these; instead, he was a letter writer, and shared some letters he had written in exchange with some sort of public figure.  Dan White, the keynote speaker for this gathering and the writer behind Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping shared a tale of how he encountered some young campers in Florida (if I recall correctly, the Everglades).  He then asked us all to share our bad experiences with camping, as bad camping stories are immeasurably more entertaining than good camping stories.

Considering that I don’t know these writers, and that I don’t know of the protection, if any, that these writers have on their work, I will refrain from anything specific about the writers.  What I can say is that there was an interesting dichotomy.  Not all men shared poetry, but everyone who shared works that were clearly poetry was male.  Women writers predominantly shared personal essays, although some of them ventured more towards memoir or journal writing.  There was one woman whose content could have been poetry, but it sounded far more like prose, and particularly like journal writing.  I guess it depends on what the writer intended, as well as how the reader interpreted it.  These original works reminded me of the many expressions that come in writing.  Several of these writers expressed humor, and a few expressed piety.  Interestingly enough, with many of the writers being of the same era of Kesey and Cassady, many of the poems were visceral and made mention of sex or nudity.  It wasn’t something I expected when a good portion of those in attendance were SSI-eligible.

Later that afternoon, that same friend sold us some spare tickets to the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which highlights the best films that discuss sports and the wilderness.  This event shared some remarkable films.  I can’t name all of the films that we saw at once, as it is a bit of an overload, and I wasn’t even considering discussing the visual storytelling until I started this post.  My favorite was a documentary of young ultra-marathoner Mira Rai, a trail running champion who hails from the remote Bhojpur region of Nepal.  However, there were also compelling stories of Falconer Shawn Hayes, who was there in the crowd; the “Four Mums in a Boat” who were the oldest female rowers to cross the Atlantic; and the entirely visual storytelling of trial rider Danny MacAskill.  Another piece that tugged at the heart strings was a short piece about climber Paul Pritchard, whose accident on Tasmania’s Totem Pole sea stack left him partially paralyzed.  His ability to overcome that disability with ingenuity and friendship in order to clime the Totem Pole again was nothing short of an inspiration.

Through these interactions and taking in this story, I am reminded of three basic elemtns of storytelling:

  1. a. Be mindful of setting.  There’s nothing worse than a novel that is completely devoid of setting, where the characters could live in a vacuum, or in places that are so ill defined that they could be anywhere from Beverly Hills, CA to Calgary, AB.
    b. Sometimes the setting is part of the narrative (i.e., the setting can form a character, or a plot point, or just something more than a point on a map.)
  2. Comedy.  It’s not exactly the “Make ’em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain, but every story needs a little bit of levity.  The humor doesn’t need to be overt, and probably shouldn’t if you’re writing about such terrible things as the Holocaust or the Inquisition (though Mel Brooks may beg to differ).
  3. Emotions – What tears at your characters’ heartstrings?  What do you expect will tear at your readers’ heartstrings?  When I was writing the end of my first manuscript, I was choking up.  If you don’t have an emotional reaction to your own work, work it over until you do.

Curious about anything you’ve read here?

Dan White,  Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

Banff Mountain Film Festival: Banff

Mira Rai, Ultra-marathoner: Mira Rai

Shawn Hayes: Shawn Hayes

Four Mums in a Boat: Four Mums

Danny MacAskill: Danny’s Wee Day Out

Paul Pritchard: Pritchard Climbs Totem Pole

Paul Pritchard’s book: Totem Pole


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