DOES STORYTELLING WORK?
Yes. Yes, it does.
For years now, I’ve advocated for creative people telling their stories. I believe the “why” of what we do is far more powerful than just the “how”.
I also know that some artists have fought long and hard for their credentials—their education, the shows they’ve been juried into, the awards they’ve won. Anything else seems, well, unprofessional. Perhaps even fluffy.
I get it. I do. When I first started my art career, I methodically entered all kinds of juried exhibits. I’m proud of the awards I’ve won. I’m especially delighted when my professional peers—other artists, galleries, etc.—sing my praises. After all, they see a lot of work. When they choose mine for their own homes, it’s a major thumbs-up for me.
I also know how extremely uncomfortable some people feel about sharing what’s in their heart and soul. They feel safe sticking to the tried-and-true. What they do is working for them, so I won’t ask them to change that.
I spent a weekend at a state-wide storytelling workshop, a collaboration between our Sonoma County Library, Creative Sonoma (of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board), the California State Library and StoryCenter.org. The project’s goal was to gather 100 stories that represent the ‘voices’ of California.
You can read more at http://www.storycenter.org/.
Ten people from Sonoma County were selected to share their stories, which would be transformed into ‘digital stories’—recorded in our own voices, with images, and music—no more than two or three minutes in length.
As a matter of full disclosure, I was NOT one of the original ten people selected. Someone else dropped out, and I was offered their place.
Also, when we first told our stories to the group, I said I had no trouble telling stories. Keeping it to 300 words? Almost impossible.
Two huge things happened during the class.
First, I was overwhelmed with technical difficulties. My laptop crashed, my internet connection wouldn’t take, I had trouble working with the video production software (WeVideo.com). I was the absolute last person to create a video, and it’s really not even finished yet. (I’ll be putting the last details on it in the upcoming week—I hope!) That was hard. There’s a steep learning curve to any video editing process, my husband reassures me, and at least I’ve discovered SoundCloud and CreativeCommons.com, social sharing sites for images and music. A challenge, but it’s good to challenge ourselves.
The second thing is wonderful. I was astonished and amazed by the stories people brought to share.
Every single person had a story. Each was very different from the other (although most people were involved in the creative arts.) Some were funny, some were hard. Some weren’t resolved yet. Some had no ‘answer’. But each one was intriguing.
And these are only our first stories. I realized there will be many more to come.
Here was another powerful aspect of these stories:
I remembered everyone’s name in the class, something that’s usually problematic for me.
I remembered everyone’s story.
And everyone’s story was powerful beyond words.
Not all the stories sounded like winners during our first ‘sharing’. This was probably due to the fact that some folks hadn’t actually shared them before. They rambled, they had trouble finding the ‘point’. Some stories were so new, people were was still working through them.
But in the composition and editing process (and our teachers’ experience guiding us), we learned to find the ‘hooks’. We were strongly encouraged to not tell several stories at once, something I struggle with. (Hence, my 1,000-word articles!) We found our strong beginnings, and our thoughtful endings.
Images were powerful. Music helped connect.
And our voices? Oh, our voices…..
We each created a ‘script’ of our stories, and read and recorded them.
And every single one of us nailed it on the first reading.
One instructor marveled at this. “Even the people who insisted on a second take? Their first version was better!” she said. “And everyone read it with such power…it’s astonishing!”
At the end of the class, we watched the (mostly) finished videos. Each one was a winner.
You don’t have to rush out and create a video (although I’m definitely going to explore this further.) You don’t have to have a full-media story telling experience to connect with an audience. Although I hope it’s not lost on you that, as artists, we already have our visuals. In fact, I used images of my artwork, as my story was about how I became an artist in mid-life.)
I do hope you’ll consider telling your story to your audience.
A thousand people here in Northern California paint the ocean, the vineyards, the rolling hills. Every artist captures the light, a moment in time, or a glimpse of something hidden. Many are beautiful, and most are at least competent.
And yes, there are people who, unsure of their decision, will be reassured you are as good as you say you are, by reading your list of accomplishments and awards, or checking the well-known galleries that carry your work..
But a good story, a story that connects your experience to those of your customers, will make you stand out from the crowd.
Create that powerful connection. Make your mark.
If you build a feeder, they will come.
I know. Birds. Bird feeders. Blogging. Where the heck am I going with this?? Bear with me….
I write for an online art marketing blog called Fine Art Views. A few days ago, artist Mark Brockman wrote an article about artists blogging that generated a rush of comments.
Mark shared the other reasons artists should blog, besides just generating an audience for our work. He uses it as a sort of professional journal of his process, his intention, his progress with his art–a record of his artistic journey. And he also mentioned that, to help gather those thoughts, he actually ‘interviews’ himself in his mind. This helps him pull his thoughts together for his posts.
The comments were many, and filled with gratitude for the insights Mark shared. Almost everyone starts out struggling with their blog–what to write about? Who is it for? Where do I start? And will anyone ever read it?
Which brings up a funny story about me that became a metaphor for this.
I have a confession to make: When I first started blogging, I felt the same way. WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON, my very first blog post, appeared on December 1, 2002. Actually, it holds up well. (Oops. Actually, that was my second blog post. My first was HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK. It’s pretty good, too. In fact, I should reread them both, daily.)
Radio Userland was an early blog-hosting site. It was clunky in some ways–it’s tricky to search for specific articles, there were no categories or tags (that I know of), and the only way to read them is to start at the beginning and follow the little calendar markers through to my first post on WordPress on May 25, 2007.
I had very few readers when I started out, and it was rare for a reader to leave a comment. But I’m still proud of the writing I did, and, as Mark said, it was mostly for me. I’m a writer, and I have to write. Even if it’s just for myself.
Years ago, before the 21st century began, my husband and I moved into a little apartment on the Old West Side in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was our first little home, in a family neighborhood, a rag-tag little house supposedly made from lumber salvaged from a defunct railroad car. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it definitely had its share of odd construction details.)
We even had a little backyard. And so, of course, I fulfilled a life-long dream of putting out a bird feeder.
It’s embarrassing to even write this, but it consisted of a bag of random, cheap, generic bird seed from the grocery store, poured into the empty lid of a garbage can. “Maybe the ground feeders will like it,” I chirped cheerfully.
I then went back inside to our enclosed porch, perched myself on a chair looking out the window, and waited for the birds to come.
Twenty minutes later, I slumped into the living room and wailed to Jon, “There aren’t any birds at my feeder!! What’s the use?!”
He didn’t laugh. He just gently explained to me that it can take days, even weeks for a new feeder to attract birds. (He forebear to tell me that a garbage can lid wouldn’t even necessarily ‘read’ as a feeder to the birds.) “They’re creatures of habit,” he said. “They have a set route they follow. It will take awhile for them to notice. But if you keep it up, eventually a few will find it, and they’ll tell their friends.” He added that it was a responsibility, too. Once they discover what you have to offer, they count on you to come through for them.
I realized it takes time to build a bird audience. The responsibility thing…well, we weren’t quite ready for that, either. Plus, it rained the next day, and my “bird feeder” turned into a lid of porridge.
But Jon’s remarks stayed with me. They became a powerful metaphor for how to blog.
You write for yourself first. You write because it helps you get your art out into the world–not the art itself, but your intention for your art. You can express that by sharing your technical process (if that’s important to you). But you can also share your creative process–how you select your subject matter, how you prepare to create something, how you feel about it, how you explain yourself. You do it because you now have a written record of your journey.
And you do it because there are plenty of birds out there who are happy to find what you share. Birds are always grateful for those who provide nourishment, for those who are kind, for those who care.
You just have to wait for the birds to find you.
And then they will come.
P.S. This also is reminds me of that old joke from Alice in Wonderland, “How is a raven like a writing desk?”, but my answer isn’t as funny.