Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Radio Stereotype

I spent last weekend at the Rocky Mountain Storytelling Conference.  I was looking forward to one keynote speaker whom I admired as a humorist and as a top-earning story coach.

This speaker shared a story about being interviewed on the air with a jock I've known since the 1990's. While this jock and I aren't tight friends, he's the kind of guy who even back then wanted to give other people a chance in broadcasting; he's generous.  He's very famous, very humble and very authentic.  He's a consummate pro.  He's also got that radio growl of rock and roll authority which some people immediately stereotype, including the illustrious speaker at the conference.

The speaker talked about being astonished by the jock's intelligence and graciousness, and then described being led to the slaughter by the jock's charm. "So we go live and the DJ says, after all that nice stuff, 'So you wrote a book and it's all stories about yourself? Well, what makes you so goddamn interesting?'"

Shock from the audience at the conference, but none more than me.  We don't say "goddamn" on the air.  And leading people into interview situations to skewer them isn't something this jock would do, because it makes for a bad interview.

But at least the speaker learned something. "I learned that the story you're telling is not about you!  It's about your audience!"

This was presented as a great revelation.

I was choking down a cold rage as I approached after the speech and tried to smile around a few friendly corrections; there was more than hyperbole at work here. By the way the speaker stammered I knew I'd revealed how I felt.  And, the speaker probably hadn't expected to be busted.

Radio people are widely perceived as stupid, immoral and lazy.  We're imagined as unwashed louts with our feet up, just spewing any old thing we happen to feel like saying into the innocent microphone.  In fact, we work in a very painstaking way.  We're acutely aware that audiences listen to the radio and assume that it's correct and real and true, so we work very hard to be correct and real, and to give our audiences the truths they need.  The great majority of us are not out to destroy anyone and we don't cuss on the air, because we respect our audiences.  In fact, respect for the audience is what it all comes down to.

Radio professionals are constantly guided by the question, "Why should people listen to me?" and we work very hard to make sure we are worth listening to.

If I learned anything from that keynote speaker, it wasn't about storytelling.  It was about radio: that we're the ones who are really the pros.

*Tazmanian Devil character as DJ.   All rights belong to Warner Brothers.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Connector

This machine is not a recorder.  It's not a passive instrument. This machine is a connector, and its terminals are story-shaped.

A study by Dan Johnson showed that reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people initially perceived as "outsiders".  The more absorbed in the story the readers were, "...the more empathetic they behaved in real life."

Story is the high-speed connection to empathy. When the brain expands that all-important understanding of other brains, especially through story, the heart must follow.

So beware; the study and practice of storytelling will change you. It will plug you in to realities beyond your own, and the information will go viral within you.  It will make life more rewarding, more heart-rending, and more complicated.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fallen Warrior

I found this husk of a magnificent being on my walk today.  Her wings were without tear or crumble, legs and antennae folded neatly against her body in a position of dignity resembling last rites.

Of course I suspected pollution was to blame, or lack of habitat or nutrition, but possibly not. Turns out Monarch butterflies proceed through generations pretty quickly.  One generation is now dying while the other is just alighting from the milkweed pods.

I like to think this is an older butterfly, colors faded from exhaustion and mating and procreating, who died after falling from a tenuous perch on a tulip, hanging on until her legs would no longer obey and then drifting down like a kite on a windless day.  I like to think she landed without pain on the pre-dawn concrete walkway; a cool, quiet death after so much striving, so much work in the heat.

I was brought up on the idea that animals don't feel pain, don't think, don't have emotions. That old idea is clearly false, and I always knew that.  But it does make it easier, on us, to say it to ourselves.

Empathy-it's one of the great human dilemmas.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Well, now I can say I'm submitting.  I've got that message-in-a-bottle-feeling...

"Robbie Knight,
Thank you for your submission.
An email containing your ticket number (*****) for this submission has been sent to (your email). You can use that number to check the status of your story through the online tracking feature of our submission system. I...Occasionally, an email provider may classify our email as spam. Please check your spam folder before contacting us, especially if you are using Yahoo for your email. (They've been problematic.)
At present, our average response time is five weeks with a range covering five weeks to three months. You should expect a quick response."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

All In Writing Is Not Vanity

All is Vanity by Charles Allen Gilbert

There are two phases of writing, according to Stephen King: door shut and door open.  When the door is shut it's just you spewing forth your first draft. That first draft is pure self-indulgence, and should be; it's whatever your imagination and subconscious and conscious and ego and vanity and id want to spew. It's as pure as both a daydream and a tantrum. 

The second phase, door open, is when the work begins. That's when you have to consider who you are writing for. That is when you step outside yourself, away from your reflection and your own preciousness, and begin to tear down and pare down, to kill paragraphs and paragraphs of darlings, to ask yourself questions that could dissolve the whole structure of your cherished idea like hot tea poured on a kingdom of sugar.  

But that's not all a writer deals with when the door is open. We also get criticism, rejection, support from important people whipped out from under us like a tablecloth trick, leaving us tipped over and shattered, and endless microaggressions like shards of crystal to crawl over on our way back to the table to start again.

This is why writers need each other, like the good friend who catches you talking to yourself in the mirror and does not think you strange at all, does not mock, is not critical or embarrassed for you or by you.  Instead this friend sits beside you and looks at herself in the same mirror, speaking from her reflection to yours, playfully, gently, with shared joy in that most delicate of moments.

Other writers, like that rare friend, understand.  

In that mirror, as we play and imagine, it is not all vanity.  In that mirror we create worlds.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Inevitable


I've had this book since before I could read it.

My mother is a brilliant reader and actress (which she would deny).  She gave a different voice to each character when she read these stories to me, building the tension as the story progressed, working in the subtext, looking deep into the characters.  She used dynamics, pacing, emotional beats, so many intuitive gifts I later could label from my theater experience. I caught on quickly in theater; I already knew the territory.

The Dick and Jane books left the house because my mother was disgusted by them.  She was fine with Rudyard Kipling and Ray Bradbury, and didn't bat an eyelash when, still in grammar school, I absconded with her college copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre ( the editions with the amazing woodcuts), The Arabian Nights, and The Complete Shakespeare.  Those were fine.  But no Dick and Jane.  Those stories were not only sexist, but simplistic and "dumbed down".  They would not be in the house.

To my mother, stories did not serve to tell us how to live.  They were expression for the sake of the beauty of it, but also vehicles for questions.  If I found something scary, she encouraged me to ask myself exactly what I found scary.  To look at my fears very closely, with an inquisitive and almost scientific eye.  If I found something funny, we laughed at it together and enjoyed it, without reserve. If I found wonder in something, she shared my feeling.  My mother has always had a profound and unhesitating sense of wonder.

In the same way I nabbed her books for my own, I stole the practice of reading stories as my own-and fancied that I had come up with the aptitude all by myself.  For many years I thought of this obsession as uniquely mine.  And then, like every other grandiose and ungrateful child, I began to look back.

Of course I had to inhale words like they were oxygen. Of course I had to write.  Of course I had to spend my life telling stories; I even made telling stories on the radio my bread and butter.  Looking back, I saw the trail of bread crumbs. And finally saw the point of the story.

This was inevitable.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pain and Presence

I had a molar ripped out 3 days ago.

I could have zoned out in my Valium haze for the procedure, but I chose to remain as present as I could for every jab, grind and splintering yank.

Pain becomes very interesting when you play with it.  I lean heavily on metta phrases in everyday life and in meditation, so I used them during the oral surgery and discovered that the pain, while real in the instant, took on an oily quality, an inability to cling or echo, when I applied self-compassion in the worst moments.

I'm no masochist (nod to Bill Murray, though I have a creeping feeling that was actually pretty unrealistic).  I'm just discovering that with every passing year I want, more and more, to be present for all of it.  Not just the cherry blossoms and the perfect cuppa, but for the dark regrets at 4AM, the smashing of dreams, the ripping of bone from bone.

Plus, it feeds writing like a crazy sonofabitch.  And what's better, at the end of the day in front of a blank screen, than THAT?

Metta is incredibly useful, by the way.  You can read more about it here.

Photo "Planet Explosion" artist unknown.  Please contact me if you know the artist for attribution.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Authentic Appreciation: The Birth of Story

Photo by PhotoClub

I was lucky enough to take Laura Packer's masterclass on Storytelling as part of the Storylights Fairy Tale Festival.  This was weeks ago, but one set of practices I learned, that is still evolving in me, is the practice of authentic appreciation.

Authentic appreciation wasn't a new idea for me.  I tend to be a "gusher", because for me appreciation is the art of reinforcing the positive and I kind of get off on it.  It gives me a happy to authentically reflect to someone that they've worked hard, or they've been kind, or they're being inventive.  But Laura Packer teaches this skill at a level I had never known.

In the workshop we storytellers paired off and practiced listening to each other tell versions of a familiar fairy tale, with appreciation. This entailed very mindful listening with a focus on noting all the positives we could find: creativity, expression, voice modulation, and anything else that struck us as positive as we listened to each other.

A magical thing happens when you listen with this attitude: you witness creativity itself.  You can see the thoughts forming and filtering, see the slightest hint of the words in the speaker's eyes before they leave her lips, sense the oncoming emotion in her body language.  It was an entirely new level of getting sucked right in to the stories, and for the tellers it was a new level of flow, of creating in the moment.  It was so safe, so nurturing, that many of us were startled at how creative we could be, and how gratifying it was as listeners to create the conditions for that creativity-just by the practice of appreciation.

There's a sacredness to creating safe space, but to create an even more nurturing space through authentic appreciation takes storytelling up a notch.  It feels a little like a birth.  Every story, no matter how old, is told by every teller for the first time in that moment.  You as the listener are the witness and with only your mindfulness and willingness to appreciate, you have the honor of catching the freshly created story.

It's a practice I will be committed to now for life.  It has already done much more for me than just improve my relationships or my telling and writing.  It has opened up new sacred spaces in listening, which I'm only beginning to explore.

Want to explore what you could learn from Laura Packer?  Here.