Back on The Writer’s Life

(Originally published Aug. 3, 2011, on Her Circle Ezine’s The Writer’s Life blog.)

There’s no better editor than a live audience.

Of course, I realized this while on stage, waiting for a laugh that wasn’t going to come. I hadn’t earned it. That line that looked so good on paper just didn’t translate to the group of people fanning themselves, waiting for me to get on with it.

Storytelling piqued my interest early this year, when I saw my friend Diane perform with her storytelling group. Her tales of awkward adolescence rang true for me, and I liked the idea of sharing the ridiculous stories I’ve foisted upon friends with a captive and attentive audience. It was like This American Life, but happening right in front of you. I wanted in.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Writing about myself has never been my strong suit, and storytelling, when it’s done well, isn’t getting in front of a mic and rambling. You have to write. You have to plan. And it has to sound like you’re speaking off the cuff. It’s a different kind of writing—more conversational, a little more real.

My first few auditions weren’t great. The stories I shared were pretty funny, I thought, and I had shared them with my friends a thousand times. Telling a story at a bar or a friend’s house, though, is completely different from telling a story onstage. Those people don’t know you, so they don’t have the benefit of understanding your weirdo personality or the context of “oh yes, I remember the stories about that dude you dated who we called The Drive Bi Trucker; his nickname makes perfect sense.” Moreover, not every damn thing is a story, and other storytellers might be nice enough to gently break it to you that some things are best left to your LiveJournal (now defunct after a pretty decent nine-year run).

But I finally got into a show, and with that came some story workshopping. Like a group edit, other storytellers gather, swap their tales and give each other tips on what they liked and what might need some work. It’s where I got the best advice, at least for humorous stories. “Listen to the audience as you tell your story in a workshop. Then cut everything that didn’t get a laugh.” Done. I can do that!

Getting over stage fright is another hurdle. The “OH NO” moment that reminds you that you’re telling, at least in my experience, an embarrassing story to strangers isn’t great, and it’s coupled with everything else that comes with a live performance or reading. For me, that included a panic of “What if nobody laughs?” and also “Why did I wear a tank top; my arms look fat!” Never really have to worry about that with a story in a magazine or newspaper.

There’s something both brave and incredibly vulnerable about sharing a story live. It’s not like looking at a bylined piece in print or online, and it’s not like being on the radio. It’s scarier. After all, if a reader doesn’t like a story you wrote about a city council meeting, she’s probably ticked off about the council’s decision to close a park or raise water rates. If an audience doesn’t like your storytelling piece, it feels like maybe they don’t like YOU. And they might not. But it’s over faster, and for the few minutes you’re up on stage, you and the audience have a back-and-forth that might not be verbal, but it’s the best feedback you’ll ever receive, and it’ll make you want to try it again—immediately.

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