Storytelling, and three basics of this critically generous craft

Storytelling, especially short-form storytelling, remains ever on the mind these days. I’m getting excited about preparations for a new community-wide open mic night starting in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood this spring (more to follow as logistics solidify).
In the interim, these preparatory efforts cause reflection for how storytelling often takes such a hold on people’s attention and emotional terrain.
There are so many horizons of answers and resources to that question depending on the types of listeners a storyteller wants to engage. But what stands out to me about telling stories (and listening to them too) is how inherently generous the experience can be.
Storytelling at its most fundamental root is an unconditional act of hospitality; and there are three structural pieces to story creation that really flesh this premise out.
Whether you plan to tell a story in an in-person dynamic, or via audio or video, this crafting approach can really strengthen the vitality, and inclusive, giving nature, of what you create for (and with) your audience.
Step 1:
Creating story context, and unconditional comfort at the start
Perceive the beginning few seconds of your story as a gift of invitation to your audience; this gift will come packaged in the form of basic context for your story. A simple yet distinct few sentences constructs a mental starting point for your listeners.
This starting point, consciously or not, orients the brains of your listeners to the mental journal that you will take them on. This orientation is structurally comforting (again this usually transpires on an unconscious level of experience for your listeners). But this structural comfort is very much an act of welcome to the audience. It makes the listening brain more willing to be vulnerable, and to travel the unknown territory of your story.
This step forms a relatable foundation from which to launch your journey of meaning (and overall sense of progression) as storyteller.
Without this initial structural decision, audience attention can easily get disoriented (and not stay in tune with your unfolding progression).
Samples of context:
A — You could assert an emotion or mention an action or location that is apart of the specific scene that you want to ultimately share – sample:
“I love playing piano at choir practice….”
B — Or you could start with asserting a mindset or personal value – sample as:
“It means everything to feel accepted and to be myself in the community…”
C — Another option is to express a simple curiosity on your mind that leads-up to your particular, meaningful scene – sample as:
“I was leery to admit I was headed to the protest march, but decided to share with my friend on the bus just to see what would happen.…”
Setting this context can involve just a few sentences.
A tip for this initial step:
Consider how you would start sharing a story with a friend at a coffee shop…. conversational, intentional, with a desire to simply take your friend mentally along with you on a storytelling journey.
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Step 2:
Taking your audience to a specific scene of action
Perceive this next component of your story as a chance to shape for your listeners a new but relevant environment.
Your mindset in crafting this next piece is still one based in unconditional sense of welcome.  As in, your listeners can bring any and all unique skills of imagining detail and interpretation — even with not having lived through your personal experience (and your personal visions of it). Do not fret about imparting every single visual element about this scene to your audience. This scene simply needs get them to the next level of action which your brief context opened the door to.
In this structural organizing of your story — take your audience mentally to a particular arena where you can both evolve visual placement for them, but also evolve meaning too. They don’t need to receive and consider every single detail that you have the ability to offer them. The goal with this scene is to directly make the story relatable and useful in your journey of perspective that you’re taking folks on.
You are placing your audience — together with your unique perspective — in a well-articulated scene (but one that’s not suffocated with excessive trivia). Begin to get clear to yourself as storyteller why this scene has unique meaning for you.
A sample scene:
Remember your starting point of context that you are building from:
“I love playing piano at choir practice” — per the above first-step sample.
Then progress to your core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we then prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Step 3:
Progressing your audience to an arrival point of meaning
Perceive this concluding step as the chance to create new perspective for the audience; this is the chance for you to thread your entire storytelling journey together by making clear what your previous scenic moment or moments mean to you.
Consider this ending structural piece like it was an Easter morning sunrise just for your audience: your story’s fresh arrival point to a new and generous truth, meaning, or insight.
Reflect on what potentially affected you or surprised you or what you were grateful for or relieved by from the scene you just walked your listening guests through.
A sample arrival point of meaning:
Let us continue with the sample story-building exercise from the previous steps.
First, your context i.e. remember your starting point:
“I love playing piano at our choir practice.”
Then progress to the next step of citing core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Then make your unique perspective known — your ‘why’ of this storytelling journey – and progress to your third, final step. Reveal as storyteller your slice of meaning, your teachable insight:
“When I learned the tumor was smaller, the academic side of me was doubtful that our prayers were completely responsible. But then I realized that knowing that ‘for certain’ was not the main point for me from this whole experience. It was really how this community came together through an intimate and pretty vulnerable connection for a new friend. It was how we all bonded to a very healing, unexpected invitation to relate to God and extend authentic care.”
Photo, top, “Sunrise-Easter 2006” by Matt and Polly Freer licensed under Creative Commons.
Photo, right-middle, Easter Morning Fog by Jason Mrachina licensed under Creative Commons.

Recounting melancholy, and what it led to spiritually

 

I recall when air-quote dares hid tight behind the basics:
Pant legs drawn; floss used-tossed-n-gone…a drab routined mosaic.
One day Freedom accused Life: “Hey you’re numb & twisted!”
Life yelled back: “Oh Yeah?! Well you breathe like it’s fleeced & fisted!”
See Melancholic angst had trapped their debate like collaborative balloons crammed with fudge:
Their capacity for color could complement eachother but only thru dunes of loaded grudge.
Then one day these writhing pains sought restoration,
and caused Life n Freedom to lock arms toward healthy transformation.
They embraced psyche’s sandy sinks of vulnerable festoons;
they clutched & forgave bewildered pasts
none too soon.
Now Freedom spoke new prayer: “God …God…I’m yours for safe keeping,”
And God rekindled Life’s … sustained joys for the breathing.

How reflections on truth-listening & truth-telling showed up in prayer

What does it take to build authentic relationships and thus, authentic ministry?
It’s a hefty question to grapple with that last week’s sermon took on without restraint.  I gained a lot from it. Pastor T.C. Morrow gave a fantastic sermon answering this question of building authentic relationship through key messages like:
  • “Don’t hold back in authentic truth telling – or truth listening – in your relationships.”
  • “Don’t hold back in remembering God loves you, even if you are telling a truth that’s uneasy to say (or listening to someone else’s raw but truthful viewpoint).
She worked thoroughly with the story from 1 Samuel 3: 8 about mentor Eli insisting with his young pupil and future prophet Samuel — to not hold back telling the truth.
This particular story was new to me (ha, much of the Bible still is!). But she made her “Don’t hold back” words of empowerment resonate in different, very accessible, ways based on this particular story:
  • Don’t hold back from seeing Christ in the unhoused neighbor, the sick, or the hungry;
  • Don’t hold back in seeking God’s voice; it is all around us but often we do not recognize it;
  • Don’t hold back to transformation ourselves through ministry with others (it’s not just ministering TO others; greater authenticity is enabled by our openness to be transformed when we are engaged in ministry truly WITH others);
  • Don’t hold back your pain, your peace or joy, your torment, or your experience of resisting evils.
Authentic relationship and works toward justice take all of the above and even more of regularly not holding back. The sermon continues to reverberate in reflections.
As an initial don’t-hold-back response to T.C.’s sermon, out came this prayer and some sense of play.

Have a great weekend!

Written version of the video-prayer is just below:

I pray for strength to grow your justice 

for neighbors hungry and denied… Oh God trust us /

we need you, we need your liberating hand

to free our minds from self-addicted strands /

 

Oh God pride, it’s our pride high-5ing in endless selfie thumps

Lord transform, God transform our ego-echoes with your Holy Fist Bump /

And expand our doubting squints toward our lost, lone neighbor

to a wide-eyed willingness to lift her labor /

 

Now compel oh compel any privileged toward acts of sacrifice

so deprived neighbors thrive on — more than beggar’s lice / 

Please freeze our greed & melt it away with merciful justness

God seam anew all ego-separations to grow your justice /

I pray for strength to grow your justice. 

Amen.

A spiritual jolt of lopsided proportions

All the so-familiar-they-are-like-wallpaper features of my morning neighborhood scene were, I thought at the time, about to appear as expected:

-the neighborhood coffee shop was on the left…yes.

-the two clothing stores on the right…yes.

-that little jewelry place up a few meters past the coffee shop…there.

-tons of honking northbound traffic on the east side….yes, honks abound.

It’s all there.

Then I turn the corner, and there stand twogigantic twenty-foot reindeer made out of metallic twigs. 

The artistic splash; that zing of larger than life magic; the towering delight of height all gurgled up in an instant. In my belly there swirled a freshly carved capacity to be energized by surprise!

The sight evoked such a special air of odd and twiggy beauty. And my internal radar went from the normal moderating hum to what felt like pure spiritual aliveness. What an awesome inner charge. Then an existential question did a mental jumping jack:

Why after this encounter does my heart somehow feel more open to God and strangely…feel more awake and in the moment?

A theory:  the huge-a-mongo proportions of the reindeer themselves really struck a cord. I think that’s a key factor to what felt like a distinct inner clearing in which God seemed to say: “Hi!” The visual contrast of simply seeing wee little humans engulfed by soaring mythic reindeer was super stimulating. But that proportional thrill stimulated something else. It emerged a form of inner sensitivity (alertness?) to expecting what was not previously visible to appear — and not only appear but expect it to be knowable. This inner sensitivity lasted for a good few minutes.

This all brings to mind a time when I spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually did not expect God to exist. I held no conscious expectation that a relationship with God was viable or knowable. It just wasn’t apart of understood possibilities in my heart or mind.

But then different experiences and conversations and “what ifs” shaped a new spiritual curiosity. Eventually a changed inner life made way for a capacity to not only expect God, but relate to God. Even as my intellectual cues still expressed doubt …my transformed spiritual terrain had already opened up to fellowship with a higher power. It was so proportionally different than previous reality. The heft of which remains so beautiful and strange. Even with persisting doubt, this new reality could not be ignored.

Thanks to the creators of these towering reindeer! …and this chance to encounter fruits of lopsided proportions for things visible and unseen.

“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”

Edgar Allan Poe