Like most people, I can never pass up a good story. I’m sure that you are no different. Stories have always been able to captivate the human psyche– whether spoken, written, or edited together. Even that Super Bowl commercial that made you laugh is telling a story (albeit one 30 seconds long and created for the purpose of selling beef jerky). Those postcards from your grandma are telling a story with succinct words and elaborate Palmer-method swoops that many in our generation could only hope to recreate. Upon first seeing a close friend, if they mention something crazy that happened over the weekend your first response is generally to ask, “Wait – what’s the story?”
I started telling my own stories at a very early age. It was part attention seeking and partly inspired by an innate urge to share my experiences. As a toddler, I listened to audiobooks with my younger brother (including one that my parents rented from the library every time they needed to reinstate some behavioral margins. It was called Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and it was about an elderly woman who retrains naughty children with housework). I was captivated by the way that a voice could turn a stream of words into a story.
I was homeschooled throughout my middle school years and it was common for all of the homeschooled kids in my town to go hiking together. Homeschooled kids, generally speaking, do not often get the chance to spend time with other children their own age. Therefore, us homeschoolers craved social stimulation (the one downside in an otherwise fantastic journey through education that included the gory parts of ancient history and my parents’ class-participation scores). The instructors for our hike, a team of earthy and imaginative graduate students, kept us moving throughout the whole excursion with both activities and challenges. However, I fondly remember my favorite part of the day was when we would set-up camp and begin to tell stories.
When the guides first initiated these nighttime performances, I was always quick to volunteer. I would begin to tell my own stories, inventing characters as I went. Eventually, my protagonist “Grandma Pincushion” was born. Sometimes, other kids would join me in helping to reenact her latest misfortune. Soon, the instructors were so delighted by my character that they would let me entertain the group during lunchtimes. By the end of the trip I was receiving requests for what I should do with Grandma Pincushion next. Maybe, I thought, storytelling could be a career option that would be worth pursuing.
High school came around, then college. During this time period I decided to involve myself casually in the local standup scene. I spent a lot of time in the comedy world trying to figure out the formula to success in this difficult art form. I would often draw the same conclusion about the importance of both story and voice in creating an engaging performance.
That’s not all. Some of my clearest memories of teachers and professors include the following stories: how a high school history teacher once threw his cat at a potted plant; how a track coach used to sunburn himself as a kid in the Bronx in the ‘70s; how a creative-writing professor earned her undergraduate degree by drinking beer and reading poetry in the woods (sometimes simultaneously). Without these stories, my connection with these mentors might not have been as strong.
What about you? There’s probably a story that you’re deeply invested in: sports, someone’s life in jail, or maybe even a zombie apocalypse. You have definitely experienced stories that you could not get away from, even when the train or the plane reaches your destination.
You’re hooked on these stories because their production teams have something figured out: human beings, when they’re bored or even when they have a 12-page paper to finish, can be captivated by a good story.
So, why do we continue to experience this magic in the 21st century, when stories are told in all manner of formats that can make a voice seem overly simple, inarticulate even? Why even bother with the voice? What does the voice offer to a writer that all of those other mediums don’t?
To answer this question, I have a test for you: listen to Johnny Cash’s song “Ragged Old Flag”. Now imagine that Cash had a Cockney accent. The overall effect would be very different, no? The voice within the song is telling its own story. That story gives the context of age, culture, region, and health, even addiction for the song. In the same vein, the way in which one types a piece has an expressive power.
For writers of any genre to really appreciate the language with which a piece is produced, I recommend that they set down both the pen and the security of the word processor and try taking to the stage. I don’t advise that you join an improv group because, in the event a college student is reading this, you probably already have. Instead, try stand-up comedy, spoken word poetry, or volunteer to present in a class when there’s a group slideshow to explain. It can grow with you too: for every new situation and place you enter, new book you read, or person you meet, immerse yourself in their speech and let it enrich your own.
Want to keep telling your story in the digital era? Podcasts are continuing to grow in popularity, as well as voice-over and film. Learn to love the opportunities that a great voice provides that words alone cannot. We say the same word differently when we’re excited than when we’re ashamed. The question then becomes: is it truly the same word if the connotative meaning has shifted? To make words truly yours, it will need your voice to add context.
That’s the real reason we tell stories: our need to connect and to feel connected. If you’re looking to get into the story business, even as a side-hustle, you’ll need to use the first ever storytelling method to unearth the basics of the craft. In times of constant virtual connection, building a story from the ground-up with your own voice has never been easier. If you’re a little squeamish about approaching this type of work in this way, there’s a chance to see writers read several different genres on campus with the ROAR reading series in Storrs center this spring.
So, the next time your coworker asks about your camping trip, don’t just say: “It was good, man. Catskills are pretty chill.” Take a sip of water, crack your back and clear a space for your gesture if needed. Surely something went wrong during that trip – maybe a strange noise outside your tent turned out to be an inebriated undergrad whizzing into a Folger’s can. Prepare them for the worst, and then tell them the story. When you’re finished, you’ll find that they will be itching to tell their own.