Songs for the Struggling Artist

This Is Not a Good Story

Like most humans, I’m a sucker for a good story. I like them on stage, in books, on screen, in magazines, on the radio, in podcasts, in songs and so on. I also like them over dinner or drinks at the bar. I like to tell them, too. I’m telling one right now about stories.

We are in the golden age of stories. We can get them in so many forms. In addition to the plays, movies, books, radio dramas, news and such, storytelling events and podcasts and shows have exploded onto the scene. Many of these storytelling groups run storytelling workshops where you, too, can learn to frame your experiences in a story form.

“We’ve reached Peak Story!” I shouted as the last storyteller of the evening brought his story back around to his opening teaser.

Let me back up. I did not actually shout this at a storytelling event. I did attend a storytelling event and I did think it but I did not shout it. Because I didn’t want any of those storytellers turning me into a story.

At the same time this popularization of storytelling is happening, stories are also turning up on every product. Check your bag of chips. Does it have a story on it? How about your coffee? Your toothbrush?

Branding and marketing have leapt upon storytelling with great relish. Stories sell now. When you make a product, you don’t just make a product, you also learn how to sell its story. Branding and storytelling start to blend into each other, intertwining until they become indistinguishable.

Because of this overlap with advertising, I have become increasingly suspicious of stories. Every time I hear one I think: What are they selling? And if they’re not explicitly selling something, I wonder about it metaphorically. What version of self is this person selling? What are they trying to accomplish with this story?

At a party, it’s usually pretty clear what the stories are for. It’s all interpersonal. We all have our standards that we play. Whether the story makes us look good or look bad, in a social context, they’re all an attempt to connect, to establish or affirm our place in our relationships to each other.

As soon as there is a stage and or audience involved, a different set of questions emerges for me. Why is this person telling us this? What are they revealing or hiding about themselves and sometimes even, what are they selling?

I started to think about this at that storytelling event I went to last year. I’d listened to dozens of stories over the years on podcasts like The Moth or Risk or Story Collider but watching a storytelling event live – with several professional storytellers in the line up – made me suddenly see things differently. I was struck by the disconnect between the words coming out of the storytellers and what their bodies were doing. While the words came out so self-assured, their bodies twitched and wavered. They adjusted shirts, hats and jeans. Their words were polished, their bodies told the truth.

I found the experience un-nerving. As a theatre maker, I am very concerned with the body and seeing it left out like that made me understand that storytelling, while theatre-ish, was not theatre. It sat in a kind of middle space. And I found I did not like it. I felt bad about not liking it. I felt I SHOULD like it. I felt the noble aspiration of listening to people from all walks of life, regardless of their expertise or training in stories was all good. What kind of jerk didn’t want to listen to “real people tell real stories” as a lot of these things bill themselves?

This made me think about realness. So many of the stories in a storytelling event are polished within an inch of their lives. There’s almost always the teaser, the beginning, the middle, the end, the button. “Real” people don’t often tell stories this way. They ramble. They start somewhere illogical, wind back and forth, go on tangents. They can fail. They can talk for ten minutes and when they stop talking, the story can fall flat. That’s the point at the party that many a “real” person will awkwardly say,”Welp! That’s my story!”

The trend of live storytelling events has led to a formulaic and predictable way of telling stories. Everyone has a story to tell but somehow they all seem to tell it in exactly the same way. I have come to love the awkwardly told story. It is so much realer than “real people” stories on story shows.

I think the “realness” is one of the things that troubles me about this trend. There’s a fetishization of the “real person” – and I think what is often meant by this is someone who is not an actor. The “real person” is not an actor and tells a “true” story. As someone who IS an actor and deals in stories, both true and made up, I find the realness confusing. It’s like Reality TV – which has writers, directors and editors, all of whom create the stories of the “real” people. Reality TV featured a “successful” businessman whose businesses in real life, were failing. The Apprentice Reality show led to some very real consequences out in real life. But Reality TV has very little to do with truth.

I understand the hunger for realness. I watched ALL of the San Francisco season of the Real World when it came out. It felt just like being on tour, but from my living room. At the time, it felt like a window into the lives of some real people. But I now understand that the realness of TV is about as real as many “real” stories people tell. More so now than ever before. A lot of people would rather watch “real” people on YouTube or Instagram than actors in made up stories on TV or in movies and in plays. But while Lil Tay, for example, seemed real to people, she was mostly the brainchild of her older brother. (Lil Tay was a child social media phenom last year.) In other words, Lil Tay is a character. She’s acting. She’s about as real as Luke Skywalker.

And I suppose that’s why I get so flummoxed by storytelling. Is it acting or is it just talking? Is it a performance or a presentation, like a TED talk? Is it Stand Up? I don’t know how to relate to the “real” story told on stage – which is a place of invention, of performance, of heightened or imagined reality. It is also a place for truth.

Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” I think sometimes “real people” telling stories are telling truths that are really lies.

I’m not saying there is no truth and there are no facts, as many nihilistic storytellers and politicians would have you believe. There are facts. Some things are true and some things are false, just as some stories are true and some stories are false. But context is everything. I expect a journalist to tell me true things and to acknowledge when they make a mistake in that arena. I expect a fiction writer to tell me things that they made up – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be truths woven throughout. The truth can be emotional, situational, metaphorical. And it can be featured in all the stories in between. The spectrum of truth is wide and mysterious.

There’s a TED talk by Tyler Cowen about stories. I find it refreshing to watch in the midst of this moment of peak story. He is very skeptical of stories and suggests we should all be. He points out that, when asked, over 50% of people described their lives as a journey – that is, as a particular kind of story. He notes that no one declared their life “a mess” – which is probably a much more accurate metaphor for most of us. It’s just that “a mess” doesn’t easily translate into a story the way a journey does. A mess is a mess. It’s like a story “badly” told – like a story with tangents and dead ends, with extraneous facts and unnecessarily details. A real real story is like that. So is a real real life. It just goes for a while and then stops and then maybe you think, “Welp. That’s my story! That’s the end.”

But to get real with you for a second, I’m not entirely sure why I needed to tell you THIS story about stories. I don’t really have beef with the storytellers. I like stories. I like real people. But…I suppose my fear is that a cultural shift toward “realness” and stories that anyone can tell means fewer and fewer resources for the people who make art out of stories. When everyone is a storyteller, sometimes stories become devalued. When the storyteller comes to the village, the villagers won’t pay him because the baker told a good one last week. With stories multiplying in every direction, people become loathe to pay for the deeper stories, the more careful stories, because they can get simpler ones for free. Maybe I’m paranoid and there’s room in the tent for all of us. But…authors are making less money than ever before, actors are making less money than ever before, songwriters, screenwriters, poets, filmmakers, etc, are all struggling. With a handful of exceptions, artists – storytelling artists – are finding it harder and harder to get paid sufficiently for their work.

We have no national arts council. The theatres, dance companies and opera companies are shuttering – but the National Endowment for the Arts funds storytelling organizations like The Moth. It won’t fund individual artists but it will fund real people telling true stories. We have the barest of bare minimum in funding for the arts and a slice of both the state and federal pie is going to storytelling organizations. Is this a problem? I don’t know. Storytelling is cheap, comparatively, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. I understand why it’s easier to fund a storytelling event than it is to fund the ballet. I’m not trying to start a rumble between ballet dancers and storytellers, I’m just worried. I hope I’m wrong and I hope that there’s space for everyone – but I have concerns, which is why, I suppose, I needed to tell you this story.

Welp. That’s it.

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2 Comments so far
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Years ago, I went to a playwriting workshop which was designed, I believe, to teach us the value of “reality”-based stories. One of those tell a true story and a make-believe story. Everyone believed my make-believe story was the true one. Because I gave it all the details and the passion that people associate with “truth.” And I told the true story flat and simple. What does this prove? I dunno. But it’s my story and I’m sticking to it – as my Texas sister-in-law always say.

Comment by Carol S. Lashof

Wow. Right?! I think that shows us a LOT right there.

Comment by erainbowd

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