“Writing Out Loud: Sean Carney Explains the Art of Storytelling”

This month, 5Writers is pleased to feature guest blogger Sean Carney, who shares his experience in storytelling competitions.

Sean Carney is a writer living in Philadelphia. He’s currently working on an essay collection and his second novel, but also tries to provide a distraction from daily life by writing funny stories (about daily life) on his website, www.TheWittyGritty.com. To get in touch with Sean, please visit The Witty Gritty on Facebook, or email him at: SeanCarney@yahoo.com.

“Writing Out Loud: Sean Carney Explains the Art of Storytelling”

I don’t go outside very often.

Sometimes I open a window on a nice day, but once a bug flew in and I spent the better part of the morning trying to track it down and kill it. One broken lamp and dozens of paper towels later, I mounted the carcass on the windowsill, leaving just enough of the blinds open so that the bug’s family might fly by for a viewing. I wanted them to grieve, but I also wanted word to get back to the other bugs that this particular window, equaled death. Now I sit and wait, assured the vengeful younger bug brother of my victim is tracking me, seeking satisfaction.

I prefer living in a large city where it’s less necessary to go outside, warm in my stacked cocoon of strangers. You don’t bump into people you know in a large city and if you do, the improbable shock of the encounter is usually the topic of conversation. When you run into someone you know in the suburbs, the other person is already in mid-sentence before you have the chance to say you don’t care. And somehow always laden with bags, they proceed to simply relate their previous forty-eight hours.

“…so ya know, out running errands, picking up dry cleaning, Janie has her soccer practice. The team is so good this year!”

Though I limit my exposure to people, once engaged I hope they at least have a good tale to relate – adventure, drama, erotica…something. It’s impossible for certain people to tell a story. We know these people. Often dismissed as a minor character flaw, it should instead be on par with a vice, a disgusting habit that needs to be shamed by the general public and/or taxed until the action lessens. Like smoking, if you need to tell a boring story, go outside and stand in the cold.

History has always favored good storytellers. Do you think if Jesus approached some fishermen and started talking about his cat’s upcoming surgery he would’ve gotten anywhere? As writers, it’s our job to tell good stories, to entertain, evoke emotion, create thought – to do something.

But writing is lonely; a solitary pursuit and it should be. After all, being alone forces you to be with yourself. With your thoughts. Coffee shops are for exhibitionists, posers, those with an image of themselves as a writer. Writing, like masturbation, is best done without a crowd.

My problem is that I need immediate gratification – a Facebook status of a person, seeking likes. And writing does not lend itself to that. It must not. It should be toiled over, tinkered with, torn apart and slowly rebuilt. However, I’ve found a loophole.

Storytelling competitions.

Those who have lived in New York City or listen to public radio are likely familiar with the art of storytelling – they’ve heard of “The Moth” (the elder statesman that started it all) and they may have even waited in the lines with scarfed NYU students to see a show downtown. The concept is simple – get up and tell a five-minute story (a true story) around a certain theme.

Sound easy? Wait.

You can’t use notes – no script, no props, just you. We’re going to judge you – both in our heads, later to our friends, and out loud in front of you.  We’re going to rate you, give you scores out of ten like gymnast judges – for content, and performance. We’re going to pick you at random – you won’t know when you’ll be called, if at all, and when you are, you’re hustled up on a stage in front of dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers. The spotlight hits you and you’re on – entertain us.

Oh, and we’re also going to videotape you.

When I first heard of these shows, like any writer, I reveled in the chance to share my scribblings aloud. It wasn’t a question of “if” there was an agent sipping coffee in the back shadows waiting to “discover” me, it was a question of how humble I should pretend to be once he approached. And what to wear?!

I live in Philadelphia, where the storytelling events are run by First Person Arts, a fantastic non-profit that puts on “Story Slams” twice a month and organizes them into seasons, culminating in an eleven-person championship where they crown “The Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” – a title I was fortunate enough to win a week ago.

Your first time on stage is jarring, unfamiliar, invigorating. All clichés become realities – you even say them afterwards. You can’t help yourself. The lights just really are that bright. Your mind just really does erase. You laugh nervously, want to be closer to the people in front of you and at the same time, farther away. You vaguely remember being funny at a dinner party once, but what did you say? What was that casual allegory about a squirrel and communism that had evoked so much laughter?

Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “The number one fear of Americans is public speaking. Number two? Death. So that means the majority of the country would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”

You find out a lot about yourself on stage. The five minutes end in an instant and with a sideways smile, a quick wave, a damp back. And you can’t wait to do it all over again, better.

Because you’re a writer and you can always do better. Storytelling is a way to work things out, to share your insights, build a five-minute world. You become part of a community and realize there are a lot of really talented people where you live, and maybe you should go outside more often. A microphone is as much a pen or keyboard – and likewise can be used to create, to entertain, evoke emotion – to do something.

Try it.

If only so that if I ever bump into you when I’m writing in a coffee shop, we can talk about how it went.

Here’s a link to the performance that led to my award of “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHRnDitBBzU

 

 

 

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