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.

What I learned in 2017 from exhaustion and related inelegance

#1 What 2017 taught about boundaries and working at a large urban church:

Stress can still affect your health even when God is technically your boss.

Many structural and cultural shifts were underworks at my employer and personal church community Foundry UMC, a thriving Methodist church a few blocks from the White House. The staff and congregation were in what felt like a perpetual all-hands-on-deck mode especially since the outcomes of the 2016 presidential race (…the sermon Pastor Ginger preached a few days after that election gives incredible insight and encouragement…if your journey craves it!).

The work was a purposeful, spiritual dream, especially in hospitality. We’d work together in community to support disadvantaged and homeless neighbors or offer adult discipleship classes about many social justice topics, inclusive Christian beliefs, or fragile political culture. We’d share strong solidarity with LGBTQI neighbors and immigrants. So much more.

“God as boss is a noble thing!” the thought would float my mind sometimes during particularly stressful deadlines, or when passionate (well meaning) folks would approach me on my days off to help on work-related matters. My boundary setting skill wasn’t the most clear, at all.

The nobility began to transform into weariness but I didn’t fully recognize it. My husband started to comment that he would hear me say “I’m so tired” almost daily. Effects from physical and mental depletion continued (but without a vigilant, self-caring response from myself): lack of focus, ongoing frustration, ongoing anxiety, lack of restfulness from sleep, indifference, general irritation at professional hospitality projects and colleagues that were once held dear.

Then…

The turning point:

In a moment of raging dramatic angst-filled release – I screamed at my boss through various expletives and explosive (CRANKY) critique. It would be now a hilarious story if my exhausted viciousness wasn’t quite so uncontrolled, let alone unloving.

The next day, the exhausted anxious (humbling! awkward!) episode occurred again offsite when en route to work. It was the most vulnerable, strained episode of head pain, harsh breathing, dizziness, and the shakes. After an ambulance ride to the ER, it became clear that vast exhaustion was in the driver’s seat and mounting anxious depression was on the rise.

Outcome:

It was time to transition off church staff, rest up, heal up, and start anew in hospitality and storytelling work in a different dynamic.

Holy Cow 2017 taught my ego that working for a religious organization still demands vigilant self-care, better boundary setting, and moderation of pace.  Just because God’s the boss doesn’t mean ignoring one’s capacity to set healthy boundaries!

#2  What the year taught about creative avoidance:

Procrastination on personal projects (that you aren’t paid for except by passion for creative journey) causes as much fatigue and anxiety as procrastinating on work you get paid for.

It seems more obvious now that work which espouses one’s commitment warrants …committed attention. It does not matter whether that commitment stems from our heartfelt self-will and passion or from a boss that pays one’s salary. Once the commitment is self-administered — then action should simply commence; production should simply begin; …all the “don’t hold back” attitude should ideally ignite as a natural response to said commitment.

Argh to the wise “should” mentality!

Even still with hindsight – after outlining an on-the-bucket-list dream storytelling project recently, I sat on it for at least a month. As in, there was zero movement forward on it!

I’d rebel against the very project my heart had longed to do. Any and all randomness became the priority (vs actually asserting head on this storytelling work). Literally far less timely research projects would capture my focus, or a new yoga routine or meet ups with people that could’ve been easily postponed.

The turning point:

After about five weeks of this – sleeping patterns got rocky and inconsistent. A general internal hum made of both tiredness and an angst-ridden edge set in. Then an article found its way to my eyeballs about the negative effects of procrastination: it increases sleep debt and thus anxiety and fatigue (pausing to gulp that truth down).

Outcome:

After eventually asserting the project head on and finishing it – a distinct, more regulated steadiness returned in sleep patterns and inner contentment.

The work, tackled head on without restraint, will set the soul (and healthy sleeping habits!) free.

#3  What the year taught overall about fatigue:

Habitual tiredness does not equate to winning an award in workplace martyrdom.

Gently closing thoughts here with a neighborly reminder:  Beware of work martyr culture and mentality.

Here’s to you and an awesome, “all in” 2018 with lots of blessings and purpose, results, renewal, constant self-care, and patience.

Photo: “Napping” by Paula Gimeno 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.