Oral Storytelling Keeps Memoir Alive

Hosted another great Santa Fe Speakeasy last night. This is a monthly show where local folks get on a stage (a little stage in a pizza parlor, mind you, not some big deal place) and tell true stories live, without notes. The idea is to keep the art of oral storytelling alive, and i think our four speakers yesterday really did do that. In fact, one of them worked with me prior to the show to really hone down her story. We keep them to ten minutes, which can be surprisingly difficult. The trick to keeping an oral story interesting is to really focus on which details serve the story’s ultimate intent.

When this speaker and I worked on the story, we did the same thing I do when writing chapters of any memoir or novel. Basically, we asked “what is this story really about? What change did it bring about in me?” A lot of memoirs are essentially a series of linked short stories, but such short stories won’t serve the ultimate intent of the book if each story doesn’t show progress in the character, demonstrating the character changing or growing in some way that results in an ending (at the end of the book as a whole) where there is a revelation, a plot twist, or an insight. Once you figure out how the character grew or changed in the story, then the trick is to go through and remove all the details that aren’t about that particular change, no matter how cool they may be.

Is the character descending into madness? Is the character learning to stand up for herself? Is the character taking one more step in some particular direction that ultimate leads him or her to make a major life decision? Even if the character change represented by the story is small, it is still important to making the overall book (if it’s a book) or the story itself be worthy of the telling. Having found the point of the story, the speaker or writer can then filter out details that may be amusing and interesting and shocking and memorable but simply don’t help make the story’s point.

Don’t worry, you can still use those story details in another story, or another version of the same story, where you tell it with a completely different endpoint in mind. Another one of our speakers last night provided an example of this technique. He also made this great graphic to advertise his few minutes on our stage. His was a story gleaning details from several different events, over the years, and putting them together into a single story about how he found his own spiritual path–a great way to utilze interesting details that might otherwise have to be cut from other stories.

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