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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

A Weekend of Story

At Master Class with George Dawes Green

The National Storytelling Network Summit, which was held in Fremont this year, was a wonderful way to pass the weekend. I headed down early so I could attend the Master Class with George Dawes Green, the founder of The Moth, and it was worth the Thursday morning traffic. The class featured clips of one-minute stories George had recorded from some of his best and most poignant storytellers, and many of them were absolutely riveting even though they were one minute long. The most memorable was told by a homeless woman who was in a shelter her boyfriend had built. Suddenly there was smoke, and when they ran outside, they discovered it had been lit on fire by "Big Titty Sharon." The teller revealed that when she had been in jail, her boyfriend had had an affair with Sharon, and then when the teller was released, her boyfriend had thrown Sharon out. The story ended with the teller stating something along the lines of "Guess she didn't leave." But it was the facial expression that really brought it home. Somehow the teller expressed remorse for her decision to move in with her boyfriend, and frustration with his lack of fidelity, and acceptance that life is always going to be difficult. 

George's main point was that all stories... at least all good ones... feature a decision. He used the example of a story that was told to him about a car accident. The teller described how the car swerved all over the road, nearly missing a Nissan, then crossing over the line, then nearly missing a Honda. Basically up to a certain point, the story was a list of things that happened to the teller, but then it changed, and George suddenly became interested. The car plunged into a river, and the teller, who was also the driver had to decide what to do. There was air in the car as it plunged to the bottom of the river so staying inside made sense. But, in order to escape, the teller had to open the door releasing all the air. Stay in? Try to get out? This is the kind of decision that a riveting story should have because the audience inevitably asks themselves, "What would I do?"

George also gave the keynote address, in which he touched on this principle and shared some of the same one-minute videos. It was in the keynote address that he pointed out that stories generally fall into two patterns. The first is when the teller is surrounded by crazy people who force them into crazy situations which the teller somehow survives. The second, and this is the pattern that George finds to be more compelling, is when the narrator is in a normal situation surrounded by normal people, but they somehow "fuck everything up." George pointed out that tellers who share this pattern of story are making themselves vulnerable, and thus become more sympathetic to their audience. 

Of course, I had to reflect on my own storytelling. I tend to fall into the first pattern. Whether my adventures in Sumatra or Bali or the Marshall Islands, I have strange things happening to me. The woman on the bus who vomits on me, the grandmother who hijacks my wedding, or Konsuma who invades the grocery store wielding his machete -- these all fit into the first pattern quite nicely. The last Moth GrandSLAM found me in this situation with the story about Konsuma and Isha. The master teacher, Larry Rosen, spent two phone conversations with me trying to get me to present myself quaking with fear contemplating leaving the island. The story, he said, had to be about me and not just about the wild man who ended up in a showdown with Isha. I compromised by highlighting my own encounters with Konsuma, and I ended the story by mentioning how I brought Konsuma food after he was shot full of tranquilizers by authorities. This clearly wasn't enough for the Moth judges, as I came in nearly last. 

I had left the Moth GrandSLAM really wondering if I was a good fit for the Moth events anymore. And I am still wondering. I am still wondering if personal stories featuring a decision is the best way to tell a personal story, or just one of many effective ways. It seems the Moth audience and the judging has really begun to want and honor the "decision story." At least the workshop and the presentation George gave helped me understand the expectations for "personal, true story" as a genre. 

I was quite honored to have been able to tell a fifteen minute story with George in the front row. I was part of a Showcase lineup that featured Nancy Donoval, whom George had come to see. At least the story I told, "Hello, I love you," featured a decision... a decision that I made while "holding my heart, and holding my ass, and holding my sack of opened letters." This was, of course, after I found out my girlfriend had left Indonesia without telling me. I decided to stay, and return to the post in the jungle... the post that had no students to teach, but where an old man lived. 

I volunteered quite a bit to help the Storytelling Association of California support the National Storytelling Network put on the Summit. So, I sat behind a table quite a bit (not nearly as much as Rick Roberts, though), but I certainly made it to some wonderful events as well. I caught the beginning of Jennifer Munro's workshop on developing "five second flashes of insight" into stories. I attended the first two and a half hours of Andy Irwin's workshop on finding storytelling material in personal experience. And I attended several fringe performances, the best of which were five-minute stories by Mary Hamilton, who is from Kentucky and can tell hilarious and touching personal stories. 

All in all it was a great balance of story and workshop. I was lucky my school counted this as professional development this year, and it certainly left me empowered and quite brimming with story. I sure hope I can go again next year. The Summit will be held in Atlanta

National Storytelling Network Summit, July 25-28, 2019, Fremont Marriott


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