Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Story About The Story

The theme of the story I was to tell was "ugly."

I had one really good story that I'd have to shoehorn into the theme, and one story that fit the theme really well, but wasn't as good of a story.

Story A is about a crazy lady I lived with in Germany, a paranoid schizophrenic host mother who was convinced the neighbors were out to get her.  It's by far the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me, very funny and entertaining.  But to fit with the theme, I'd have to talk about this "ugly" experience, or how "ugly" mental illness can get.  

A fancy silver shoehorn
Story B is about an ex-girlfriend who was convinced I thought she was ugly.  Not very entertaining and definitely not funny, but fit the theme perfectly.    

Which story to tell?


So I've become involved in a storytelling troupe.  Since I moved to Chicagoland, this is the only social thing I've done that doesn't involve Katherine or tennis.

Every month they host storytelling shows centered around a certain theme.  It's all very low-key and casual.  There are no workshops or discussions on how to tell a story, they just hold events and invite people to tell stories. They had no idea if I was any good or not when they invited me to tell a story for their October show.  Neither did I.

But I thought it would be a good way to keep in touch with my creative side.  So I volunteered to do some public speaking.  For fun.  They say that public speaking is the #1 fear people have, and here I am giving speeches in my free time.

As I was obsessively preparing my story, Katherine kept asking me, "Is this fun?"  I didn't look like I was having fun, but sometimes fun isn't just about fun, you know?  Sometimes you do things that terrify you a little bit in order to feel alive.


I had three weeks to prepare my story.  I decided to go with Story A, the crazy German host mother shoehorned into the "ugly"  theme.  It's a story I'd had in written form for many years, but had never found a formal audience for.  It's called "32 Short Stories About Frau Steiner."  What makes the story so good is that, although I only lived with this nutbag for three days, I accumulated 32 (at least) anecdotes about how crazy she was.

This has nothing to do with Frau Steiner, other than it came up during a Google image search for "nuts."
So I edited the manuscript for brevity and started memorizing and practicing parts of it.  After two weeks, I was about halfway through the memorization process and making good progress.  Then a week before the performance the organizers sent out an email with the guidelines for our stories.  The first line devastated me:  "Story must be no longer than 7 minutes..."  I'd been planning for a 15-to-20-minute story.  Seven minutes?  Who can tell a story in 7 minutes?

I rehearsed the Frau Steiner story with a stopwatch, and when I hit 22 minutes and still had about 5 sections to go, I lost all hope.  I'd already cut out a lot of details, and I thought about trying to take a hacksaw to it to get into the time limit, but then I gave up.  There's no way to tell this kind of story in 7 minutes.  What makes the story so good is the sheer volume of crazy things she did.

So with a week before my performance, and two weeks of preparation down the drain, I started over completely.  I decided to tell Story B about my ex-girlfriend who one day read my journal, misinterpreted it, and decided that I thought she was ugly.

First I had to write the story.  I'd had parts of it written down from other sources: the story of how we met, emails, and the journal in question.  I just had to put it all together.

After a few days of writing it and mostly memorizing it, I delivered it and timed myself.  It was 12 minutes.  Fuck!  How the hell am I supposed to tell a story in seven minutes!?!?   This was the short story, the one that wasn't even that long or interesting.               

I started cutting things out, but that just seemed to make the story even less interesting.  It was like a bullet list of boring events.  "Just the facts, ma'am."

As I was struggling with this, I went back to the email the organizers had sent out that had guidelines for the stories.  It also included storytelling tips, and links to storytelling how-tos from other organizations.  What I realized was that my story didn't really show, it only told. I've known for a long time that good writing doesn't just tell you what happened, it shows you.  It illustrates.  It makes you see and feel what the people in the story are seeing and feeling.

So I scrapped the whole story (again!)  and re-wrote it, starting with a very pivotal scene-- the moment when I discover that my girlfriend has read my journal, and how terrifying that was.

I wrote, practiced, re-wrote, and re-practiced.  I'd thoroughly worked and memorized every section of the story, which was now only 3 pages long.  The day before the performance, I practiced the whole thing from beginning to end with a stopwatch.  It was 8:10 (eight minutes and ten seconds.)  That was good enough.  I decided to practice it once an hour.

Over the next two days I practiced it six times.  I kept a log of the day, time, and how long each performance was.  The times were 8:10, 7:50, 8:12, 8:47, 8:12, and 8:35.  Clearly it looked to be a little over eight minutes long.  Most of the times I practiced it in front of the bay window in our living room, staring out into the street.  (People walking by must have wondered what the crazy guy was doing talking to the window.)

The last time I practiced it in our basement, to an audience of a sleeping cat, two trophies, and two stuffed animals.

My enthralled practice audience
 (I had planned to practice it in front of my wife, but she was unavoidably detained that day and couldn't make it home in time. Which was just as well, I was ambivalent about sharing a story about my ex-girlfriend with her.)                


I showed up way early at the coffee house where we were supposed to perform.  They told me that my story would be third.

As I listened to the first two stories, I realized that mine wasn't nearly as funny as theirs.  The first guy told a wacky story about a horrible date he'd had, and the second lady told a story about being a bully in junior high (but in a funny way.)  I thought about my own story and what lines might get laughs, but it wasn't really that kind of story.  It was ultimately about how my ex obsessed about her appearance, and what I really found ugly about her was not her body, but her insecurity.  Insightful?  Possibly.  But not funny.

I went ahead and told the story, and it did get some laughs.  There were some funny parts in the first half where I talk about how we met.  I only flubbed one or two lines, but for the most part I delivered it as I'd rehearsed it.   

Incidentally, I timed some of the other stories, and many of them were way too long.  One was even 15 minutes. Whatever. At least I know how to follow rules. So I've got that going for me.   

People were gracious and told me afterward what a great job I did, but I don't know if they meant it or were just being nice.  Anyway, it was a fun, terrifying experience, and I probably will do it again some time.


Anonymous said...


I loved your old (old, old) website with "Stories I Could Tell" including the Frau, a customer service interaction involving your computer (speakers, maybe?), a wrestling tale, and what I recollect as your version of Charlie Brown's Little Red-Haired Girl. I think your Schlep story was on there, too. Any chance of seeing those stories posted again somewhere?

If nothing else, you gotta give up the Frau Steiner story now that you've teased it; it's too good not to share it.


An acquaintance from long ago who found those stories funny enough to continue following your blogs

Tim said...

Wow, I'm surprised you remember my stories from so long ago! In preparing for my story, I did dust off "Stories I Could Tell" to see if there was anything good to tell.

I'll have to think about what I can do anything with them.

Thanks for your comment!