Storytelling lessons for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

The tiny town of Bethlehem in Southeastern Pennsylvania has a lot going on. It was the birthplace of Bethlehem Steel, it sports an 81 foot high Christmas star, hosts the annual regional music bash called Musikfest, is home of Lehigh University and Moravian College, and has its own public radio station, WDIY where I’m being interviewed today. It also happens to be the home of Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild. Storytelling interests me, not because I’m an expert but because I’m human, which is the chief prerequisite for interest in stories. We start learning stories from the time we’re babies, and we become attuned to them through a life time of exposure. In fact, they are everywhere, and form the basis for the way we look at the world, learn about people, and let people learn about us.

When I started to explore life-writing, I realized that while I’m an expert story listener, I have a lot to learn about story telling. Since stories are everywhere, you would think that learning about telling them should be simple. Many successful writers recommend that you learn the art of writing stories by emulating the books you enjoy reading. My problem with this method is that once I dive into the story I stop thinking about writing. In a trance, I turn the key on the door of his apartment, put my briefcase on the table by the door, and recoil in fear at the sound I heard in the other room. It’s hard for me to break out of this trance and analyze the writer’s technique.

It’s easier for me to draw lessons from memoirs. When I read a memoir, a significant proportion of my attention is already focused on learning lessons from the protagonist’s life. I want to understand what makes his or her world work, what’s special about it, what I can see that will help me live in my world. So since I’m already learning, it turns out to be natural for me to learn lessons about storytelling. And I can learn from first time authors, as well as from the masters. I find many lessons about storytellers from beginners, such as Margaret George’s Never Use your Dim Lights, or George Brummell’s Shades of Darkness or Harry Bernstein’s Invisible Wall.

Another place I learn about story telling is from people who teach writing. One comprehensive book for storytellers is a 400 page classic called simply Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Since good screenwriting is good storytelling, don’t worry about the fact that your life may not be made into a movie. If you’re serious about representing your life as a story, I recommend you dig into such material, and learn more about how stories are told. Not only will you be learning to tell your own story. You’ll learn to see more perceptively into the stories you read, watch, or hear.

I love trying to understand what makes a story tick, so it was with great delight that I spoke with storyteller Charles Kiernan, from Bethlehem’s Storytelling Guild. If you want to learn how to tell stories, it makes sense to ask a storyteller. All you have to do is find one. Since I knew about Kiernan’s guild, I turned to him to ask him his ideas about stories. It turns out he was just getting ready to teach a workshop he’ll be presenting at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia. July 8-13, 2007. This was a perfect time to have that conversation, because he told me about the lesson he is preparing to give at the Folkarts Festival. It is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard for turning life into story.

So what was the simple powerful advice Charles Kiernan offered? The gist is, “Break down the code, and spell it out.” Stories are like space ships and time travel machines. So even though I learned about this storytelling trick in a tiny town, I can use it to tell stories that transport me around the world.

I’m going to explain it in more detail in my next blog entry.

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