This is a post about trusting the process, more than about story itself. But, we’ll, you’ll see. For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about how powerful story is. Yes, I know that others have gone before me in this thinking, and much more deeply, but you know how it is, that until you hav the thought yourself, it’s all hearsay?
I’m also thinking about stories with vague points, rather than those that have an obvious lesson. When stories are both vague and interesting, we can find a personal point of connection to them. Vague becomes universal, right?
So, anyway. That’s not the story I want to tell; that’s merely the preamble. Here’s the story. No matter how new you are to story telling, stories work. And stories have a shape, a bell curve like shape. If you can keep that in mind your story will move better. My stories have a long initial entry, where I establish a lot of background. Then they have a punch line with a quick end, a very short tail. So when I look at the plot diagram, like this one
it might have a different shape for me. And I wonder what that means to my listeners.
So, what was my Rwandan experience with story? The program that I’m working with teaches community members to become self-sufficient, to build small/micro businesses based on their passions and strengths. We just did a pretty big rework of the train the trainer content. During the rework, we incorporated a lot of story. Story for instruction; story for demonstration of proficiency; storytelling techniques for advocacy. And we ask the trainers to tell their own stories of their future — to imagine it and then to craft it into a series of stories.
Story is as old as Africa itself. It might be because it is part of ancient fabric, it’s invisible. It seemed rare that people told stories, although Henry had some great ones. I hope he shares a few of them here. We’ll see. Or it might be because many of the people whom I met in Rwanda were young and stories are something that you grow in to. I don’t know. All I know is that when I hear a story, there’s a stop in me. Stories call me to attention.
I’m interested in the stories that leaders tell; I’m interested in improvisational stories. My father told wonderful, imaginary stories when we were growing up. I’ve tried my hand at it, but from what I can tell, mine have seemed shallow stories. Now I’m not so sure.
This is a very long lead in, see?
So, I was talking through the story telling exercise and someone asked me to demonstrate how the plot diagram worked. Hmmm. I needed a story to do it. And I didn’t pick a story that I knew, which might have been easier. I started from, “Once upon a time, there was a boy who walked 10 steps. . . ” It wasn’t a particularly good story, but from the first words, “once upon a time. . . .” The room became quiet; still. In the silence you could hear the centuries roll back, time suspended.
When I stopped in the middle, my demonstration complete, people asked, “Then what happened?”
Try it. The sense of stillness and silence, of anticipation, of total attention is entirely captivating. And frightening. You hold the fate of your characters in your hands before an audience that already cares about them. It’s a rarefied thing, to have a group ready and willing to listen to you, to whatever you are able to create. Don’t test their patience.
The next time someone says, “Tell me a story,” do it. How many chances like these do you get?