A couple hundred people sit in the dark and wait for you to start. All that’s missing is the campfire and a star-studded night sky. You have ten minutes. Go! Tell me a story.
The pressure of those ten minutes, those people, provide focus. “Give me your wallet,” the masked man demands as he points the muzzle of a gun at you. At that moment, I guarantee, you will be thinking of nothing but finding your wallet.
Storytelling gives you that kind of focus.
In a writing critique group, the sharp red pencils poised over your pages is a low-level threat compared to a couple hundred people sitting in the dark waiting for your story. In a critique group, the gun’s not real, just a bar of soap carved into the shape of a gun and blackened with shoe polish.
But those people don’t want to hold you up, they want your story. They want something else, too – intimacy. They long for it. For when you tell a story in a darkened room, a barrier has been removed – the written page – nothing between you and the audience, just you reaching out with your voice, your hands, your eyes, your heart – inviting the audience – listen, I’m telling you my story.
Ten minutes. Take a breath and make your offering.
Later, when you’re alone in your room, pen in hand and the blank page before you, you will bring something to that page you didn’t have before. The eagerness of those listeners who lived with you in your story has become a voice inside you, encouraging you – yes, please, tell me your story.
You’ll have something else, too. The pressure of ten minutes to tell your story has turned you into an accomplished editor. Ten minutes! To tell my whole story! Just what is my story? Have I started yet? I’m already three minutes in and I’m still clearing my throat.
What tipped me over the edge and made me sign up for this storytelling workshop was that I did not have to write my story. Banished were the lame excuses – I need to clean my stovetop with a toothpick before I can start to write – I need to take a class on how to write a novel before I start one – I need to read all of Merwin’s poems before I write one myself – all these excuses rendered unnecessary with the directive: do not write your story.
At last, a class where I am ordered not to write, warned that if I do write, it will be the ruin of my story. The goal of the workshop is to discover your story. Just what I wanted as a writer, permission not to write, and at the same time tackle the hardest part of writing – discovering the story – with five listeners and two teachers dedicated to helping me do just that.
And, guess what – it works. Ten minutes – you have ten minutes. That’s the gun pointing at your head. Find your story. Start it. Make it real. Take your listener into your world. Ten minutes. What does your world smell like, feel like, what’s the heart of your story? Leave out the part about your uncle – it’s not the story – you only have ten minutes – that day your mother wouldn’t look at you – that day in the park when you hung onto the cold chain of the swing and your mother turned her back, there, that’s your story, not your uncle’s 1954 Buick and the way the sun glinted off the silver frames of his glasses, but that morning in the park when the sun was so bright it hurt your eyes and you were filled with joy at the very idea of being taken to the park with your mother, just you, no brother, no sister, and when your hand went around the cold chain of the swing and you settled into the curve of the seat and you called to your mother, “push me, push me,” but she turned her back on you and walked away, toward the man in the green shirt, the tall stranger whom your mother seemed to know – that’s your story.