i started this blog last night, and by started i mean that i wrote what kind of storyteller are you? at the top of an otherwise blank word document and then went to sleep. i think i was hoping that while i dreamed, a tale would manifest itself and inspiration would pelt me like an ice storm on a foul winter’s day in new jersey. it sort of did, because when i woke up and took a stroll on facebook, my former company had posted something about it being national storytelling week. it began on february 1, apparently, and i am going to guess that in the shuffle of freelancing four books in a week, working on my story and ghostwriting someone else’s, i was too busy copyediting and proofreading and writing stories to realize i was supposed to be celebrating them. so yay, stories, and all that.
a story is nothing without words, so in honor of the sum and its parts, i’m going to attempt to use the past three days’ worth of words of the day (merriam-webster sends me an e-mail with a new word daily) in this blog. usually i try to memorize and use the word i’m sent on the day of its delivery, but i’ve been really bad about completing this self-appointed task, so this is my punishment. therefore, when you read and suddenly start to think, why the fuck is she talking like that? you’ll realize, ah, she’s using one of those “words of the day.”
there was a guy in my eighth-grade english class who used to do just this sort of thing, except that he committed the same four or five words to memory and then used them all the time, in an abnormally loud voice, as a joke. the words were savvy, myriad, and a few others, and he tried to incorporate them into a sentence every time he was called on, even if the words made no sense in context. it was actually really funny, and although our teacher was probably growing tired of the gag by the end of the year, we all found our peer to be quite simpatico.
without my knowledge, i was in the perfect place last night to bask in the refulgence of national storytelling week. i went to my first toastmasters meeting in the cafeteria of riverview medical center, and if you don’t know (and i didn’t, until last week), toastmasters is a nonprofit organization that helps individuals improve their speaking, communication, and leadership skills. there’s a timekeeper, then someone who counts the number of ahs, ums uhs, likes, you knows, and all those other shitty filler words we all use, and even a grammarian, who picks apart speeches for, well, what else—grammar. i am already envisioning 1). becoming her minion or 2). stealing her job. there’s no right or wrong answer when asked why you’ve decided to join toastmasters, and you don’t have to be in any particular industry to attend a meeting or become a member. i checked it out for a variety of reasons, and i’ll be going back in two weeks.
a few people were scheduled to give speeches to work on various skills, to make them more soigné, if you please, and while we all wrote down our thoughts on tiny perforated slips of paper, one person in particular was assigned to each speaker to serve as an evaluator, i.e. someone who thoroughly critiques and gives feedback post-speech (mid-speech would be kind of cruel). toward the end of the meeting, each evaluator does his or her own five-minute set, essentially, about his or her assigned speech-giver’s speech.
my favorite speech of the night, unequivocally (not a word of the day; i just like this one), was given by an evaluator, a woman who, i believe, isn’t much older than i am and seems to be italian, used emphatic hand gestures, and kept speaking even when the timekeeper raised the red piece of paper indicating that she’d reached the five-minute mark. a few people made jokes about her long-windedness, though i had been more captivated by her speech, “too long” or not, than by any of the others, and i have to believe that everyone else had been too.
when she evaluated her speaker’s speech, she first pointed out the things she liked. the speaker had been comfortable taking the floor, his voice had been loud and clear, and he hadn’t appeared to be nervous. she admitted, however, that to be honest, she didn’t know the speaker and, if she had to give her opinion about him as a person based solely on his speech, she wouldn’t like him very much. she went on to say that his message wasn’t clear; it should be made clear at the beginning, then woven into the story, and then—clap—hammered home at the end. she essentially called his phrasing clichéd (that’s my word, not hers) and at one point she said, “that’s not how people really talk when they’re telling a story. they don’t say, she squeezed my hand and there were tears streaming down her face.”
there are two types of storytellers, she said. there’s the bedtime storyteller. the one who sounds like he or she is reading to a child from a picture book. the words are printed and there for the reciting, the story is theatrical and rehearsed. the listener is conscious of the fact that a story is being told. the story itself is technically sound, topically interesting even, flawless on paper. i’ve read books like this. ones that try so hard, they make spectacles of themselves. they use words like soigné in utter seriousness. i picture these writers sitting in hipster coffee shops on purpose, begging for inspiration, a pocket thesaurus on hand that they consult for every other word.
“gross,” she said.
no, no! backspace, backspace, backspace. let’s dress up that natural dialogue with alliteration and superfluous adverbs!
“that’s positively putrid,” she expounded.
but then there are the storytellers in whose words you lose yourself. if someone taps you on the shoulder in the middle of the story, you act as if you’re being attacked with a tire iron. you fall into rabbit holes, stumble through wardrobes, and pass out, drugged in a field of poppies. you can actually taste an everlasting gobstopper and you think frobscottle and butterbeer are real. you cry when sirius black and dumbledore die, and you cry even more when you find out that snape was a double agent all along because he loved, loved, loved harry’s mother.
when i was a kid, instead of reading to me from a picture book, my dad made up stories ad-lib about lightning bugs who fall in love, frogs who escape swamps and frolic around new york city with a little curly-haired girl named kaitlin, bears called pookies who live in trees, and talking pigs who have adventures around the world and who also, crazily enough, let that same kaitlin girl drive their car at the age of five. instead of a human imaginary friend (or no imaginary friends for those of you who had “real” companions, those of the fleshy variety), my friendship circle consisted of insects, amphibians, and both fuzzy and furless mammals.
in improv comedy, you’re given a word or a topic to say yes to. one of the biggest mistakes you can make in this type of comedy is not to accept the premise (or “reality” of the scene) or to try to be funny.
if someone says, “hey, you can’t come into my store wearing no pants!” you don’t say, “but i am wearing pants. can’t you see my blue jeans?”
you say, “yes, i can. i’m a member of the sanspants denomination of nudism and today is our sabbath.”
and the other person doesn’t respond, “there’s no such thing as sanspants.” he or she says, “oh, you guys again. you’re worse than jehovah’s witnesses.”
and so on.
one of my good friends, who is a comedian and a truly great storyteller, once told me that when he reads my writing, he feels as though he’s sitting next to me and we’re just talking. so i hope that in my book, when i’m drunk, you’re drunk. when i’m alone, you’re alone. when i’m inspired, you’re inspired. and when i’m in love, and i am, so much so, you’re in love too. but if you tell me i’m a bedtime storyteller, i’ll say “yes, and” and accept it. right after i feed your hand to a crocodile and drop a house on your sister. and your little dog, too.
*charles dickens in great expectations