Monday, August 9, 2010

The Art of Storytelling!

Today I’d like to write a little bit about the art of storytelling. While my career took off when I started performing at The Moth or for This American Life, I began telling stories in elementary school. I was a chubby kid and I had a hard time making friends. Until one day when I told a story to a girl in my class and she actually laughed. Next thing I knew I was pimping out this gift, telling stories to every person I met in exchange for friendship.
It wasn’t until I met Elizabeth Swados [The One and Only Human Galaxy, My Depression, At Play] that it occurred to me that I should do something with these stories. During my senior year at NYU, Elizabeth Swados, or Liz, was brought in to write and workshop a show with twelve students. I was one of the lucky twelve.
Our first assignment was to tell a story about a sexual experience from the perspective of our parents. While the other students were sharing crass or explicit stories, I sat in my seat wondering how I was going to pull this off. I wanted to complete the assignment, but I didn’t want to disrespect my lovely Mormon parents. When it was my turn to share, I, in my mother’s voice, told a story about the most romantic thing my father had ever done for her.
“It’s not your typical romantic story,” I began, using my mother’s softer voice. “But here goes: I was in the hospital and I’d just given birth to your sister Julia. It was a very hard and a very messy labor and soon as the baby was born the doctor and nurses rushed her out of the room. Gary followed close behind, leaving me completely alone.
Once they were gone, I looked down at my body. I was physically exhausted and my lower half was covered in blood and fluids. All I could think was, I don’t want Gary to see me this way, I look awful. Just as I thought this, your father walked into the room. He took one look at me, scooped me up in his arms and carried me down the hallway to the nearest shower. The nurses were yelling at him to stop, but he ignored them. Fully clothed, he walked into the shower and he bathed me.”
Any way, I shared this (one of my parent’s more private moments) with the entire class. After class Liz pulled me aside, “You have a gift for telling stories,” she said, “Have you ever thought of making a show out of your stories?”
From that day forward, I’d get out of class early on Fridays, go to Liz’s house, sit on her giant blue couch and tell her stories. During this time, and over the course of an eight year mentorship, Liz taught me a great deal about storytelling. These are the two lines from Liz that I find myself repeating the most: “Just tell the story,” and “Don’t be coy.”
As I transitioned from being a storyteller to a writer I discovered how much patience and discipline it takes to put your thoughts on paper. And while the writer’s medium took a lot of adjusting to, it’s still about the basic art of storytelling. To quote the host of a Moth Storyslam, (The Moth is a storytelling series based in New York, I highly recommend their free podcast []) “Start on the action, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and show a character who fundamentally changes from start to finish.”
In addition to this basic outline and Liz’s advice, the following quotes have inspired me as I write:
“First Thought, Best Thought” – Chogyam Trungpa, Rimpoche
“Notice what you notice.” Allen Ginsberg
“The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” – Ezra Pound
“The Mind must be loose.” – John Adams
“Maximum information, minimum number of syllables.” – Allen Ginsberg
“The unspeakable visions of the individual.” - Jack Kerouac
“Subject is known by what she sees.” – Allen Ginsberg

I also love the Essays [Politics and the English Language and Why I Write by George Orwell]. And while it’s straight out of Hollywood, I actually really like the book [Story by Robert McKee].
If you have any favorite quotes on writing please feel to post them below.

“How do we talk to ourselves at night in the dark? Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” – Charles Reznikoff


  1. Well, I know that this quote isn't really about *how* to storytell, but it's always inspired me to write and storytell and just let the words live a life of their own. I write a blog (, and I found your book The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance to be insanely inspirational. You truly do have a gift for storytelling, and I just want to thank you so much for sharing it with the world like this. I'm a freshman in college is currently taking a medical leave because I'm severely depressed. I don't know if I've laughed as much as I ever have before for any other book. Your book gives me hope, humor, and inspiration, and I want to thank you for that.
    (I would love to chat with you. If you have a Facebook, could you please send me a message through my online journal?...actually, you may be under the impression that I may very well be a major creeper/perv, so it's okay if you don't hahahaha. Thanks anyways!)

  2. “I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.”
    -Oscar Wilde

  3. I finished your book this morning; a friend from my ward handed it to me and told me she knew that I was just about the only person in our, okay, REGION, that she could give it to. She was right, I'm sure, but the point is, I want to thank you. It was wonderfully, painfully relate-able, and I only wish I'd read it a decade ago. Thank you. I needed that just now. You're amazing.

  4. You couldn't complete the assignment! Why? Because you know nothing about sex and I can safely say you'd be very bad at it anyway. Sheeeesh.

  5. Loved your stories here and also your 'Mormon stories' presentation.

    Welcome to the Real World.

  6. Last night I saw my local high school's production of RUNAWAYS. I detected a through line from Elizabeth Swados to Allen Ginsberg, a poet I know fairly well. Researching the connection, I ended up HERE. I love your love story about your mom and dad. Reminds me of another bathing story, Mary Magdalene washing Jesus' feet with her hair. And Elizabeth Bishop's poem THE SHAMPOO. Mormon, huh? I'm fascinated with Mormons - very closely following the online community of Mormon Cystic Fibrosis bloggers. Yes, such a community exists! Fascinating to read how their faith shapes their struggle with the disease. Polygamy has been implicated in some genetic disorders that have surfaced among isolated knots of Mormon population, but I haven't found anything definitive concerning Cystic Fibrosis. Why EVER get off the net - it's all there! Off to scour this blog to find out more about you...

  7. Yiddish saying that once got me in big trouble at work: "Don't let the bastards shit on your head. You got a mouth." I foolishly put this as a signature on a work email account as a joke. Three days later I offended my notoriously egomaniacal boss in a meeting and then sent him a forced apology with the quote inadvertently left on at the bottom. Oops. Anyhoo, I think this quote relates to writing because writers navigate a sticky line between truth and fiction that can often result in public relations issues. Occupational hazard of sorts and all that.

    Here's a simple and sweet quote to end with:

    "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas." - George Bernard Shaw

  8. This Won't Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond is awesome- he has a lot of clear, concise points and a great way of explaining things!