Creation - Before The Story Starts

Kelly Swanson

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A journey from the page to the stage

I promised as President of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, that I would do a monthly article on a topic of interest to storytellers. If I didn’t promise, then I meant to. And please don’t rope and tie me if I forget a month. But I will do my best to ramble on a somewhat regular basis on the lessons that I have learned as a professional storyteller. I do not claim to be a master by your definition. I do claim to have made a lot of mistakes along the way and feel it my duty to keep others from making them too. So look at this article (not too closely, good grief, I can’t be the grammar expert too) as encouragement, advice, and mutterings from a fellow storyteller. Sometimes you will already know everything in the article and more, and sometimes it may seem overwhelming. Just read it and email me if you have any questions or glowing compliments. If you have any complaints send them to Sylvia Payne. (Just kidding. Get over it. I do that a lot when I write. And I never can remember whether the period goes in or out of the parenthesis. Don’t tell me, I’ll only forget. ) Today’s topic is creation.

Stop fanning yourself. I’m not going to start off with a religious discussion. We’ll save that for next month. I mean creation in the artistic sense. We are artists. We create. We tell a story. Whether we dance, paint, sing, or play Beethoven’s Fifth on the jaw harp, we tell a story. A story about life. And when we tell this story we evoke an emotion from our audience. We take them to places in their own life or to distant lands where cultures are different but the emotions are the same. We are given our gifts for a reason. Our voices were meant to tell a story. And as artists, we spend our lives finding out what stories are in us to tell. It is important that you find YOUR story, YOUR message to the world, YOUR voice. So for this article I will talk about that stage that happens before you learn the story. The part where you decide what story you want to tell.

Many beginning storytellers already have the passion and the courage to dip their toe into this exciting art form. But they don’t know what stories to tell. Where should they look? What stories are they supposed to tell? What are the rules of being a storyteller? Do they have to tell a Jack tale? And I think that many storytellers jump over a step in this process. They look at what others are doing. They pick stories, memorize them, and start telling. I know, because that’s exactly what I did. I’m a writer so I happened to pick stories that I wrote so I wouldn’t have to worry about legal issues. But I jumped in and started telling.

I think that there’s an important step you need to go through that doesn’t require great skill or manual dexterity. You must search inside yourself (an ongoing process by the way) to find out what messages you have to share with the world. What stories your heart speaks.

Professional speakers are taught to speak about what they know, what life has taught them. I encourage you as artists to do the same. And to do so, we must at least wonder what our lives have taught us. What lessons have we learned? What sage wisdom have we stored up? What do we have to share with the world?

If you’re like me, upon hearing this, you went “huh?” and wondered if maybe you should have filled out that Wal-Mart application after all. I went so far as to get out a piece of paper and write across the top, “Things I have learned in my life…. ” And I stared at it for like fifteen minutes and then went to get some chocolate and an aspirin for my brain cramp. But I came back to it and decided, oh what the heck, just start writing. And my list was started. I gave myself no rules, no limits, no boundaries. I told myself it could be serious, funny, religious, earth shattering or silly. The point was just to write and keep writing without thinking. To write about what my life has taught me. And I knew (I was right of course) that in this process some things would start to take birth.

I came up with four pages of things I have learned in my life. Number one: Life is too short to eat okra. Number two: Big hair will make your thighs look smaller. Number nineteen: Ten years from now I will not remember who headed up the hospitality committee at church, but I will never forget that group of ladies who brought me a prayer shawl when I had a miscarriage. Number thirty-two: You can’t always change the road you’re on, but you always change the way you see that road. I can go on, but I’m sure you’re already thinking of your own life lessons.

When you have finished your list (which you never will) you will see the messages (i. e. the morals) that you have to share with the world. These are the things that life has taught you and now have become your passions. These are the things your stories should be about. I have heard so many stories where plenty of things happened, but the story was not really about anything. Does that make sense? If not, email me and I’ll explain further.

But to make sure you understand this I’m going to say it again. In your search for the perfect story to tell, start with the message YOU want to tell. Then find the story that has that message. Or write one! It’s easier than you think.

And when you tell the story, make sure that the listener knows the message. I am surprised at how often the teller isn’t even clear on the message, much less the audience. I know it sounds weird and maybe hard to understand. But nobody said creation was going to be easy. But you will be glad you went to the trouble because this is how you begin to find your voice, your attitude, the kinds of stories you want to tell. Shoot, you may even have the courage to start writing your own stories.

I want you to get a journal. Today. By journal, I mean a notebook with paper in it that can not be used for grocery lists or notes to yourself. Call it your life journal. This is not a diary. I repeat, this is not a diary. This is a place to start recording stuff. By stuff, I mean anything that gets your attention. I mean scenes that touch your heart, descriptions of people on the subway, funny ways to describe a drooling dog with three legs, what it feels like to get older, rants about voice mail and customer service, whatever you want to write. You don’t even have to write in complete sentences.

Keep the journal with you at all times. If you’re like me, you’ll have several in different places - your car, by your bed, in your purse. And I’m warning you to write this stuff down as soon as you think of it. You will not remember it tomorrow. What we’re doing here is recording the details in life so that when we sit down to write a story, we’re not trying to think of things off the top of our head. We can refer to our notebooks which over time will grow to be grand collections of material to use in our art.

This is not going to make sense to you right away. It didn’t to me. And sometimes I will write things down wondering where in the world I will ever use that. But that’s not the point. The point is to write. The point is to get used to looking around you for you material. Life is filled with more material than you could ever hope to make up.

On some of the pages of the journal, give yourself a topic and write about it. Here are some of the topics I have used in mine:

  • Funny names of people and towns (internet and phone book is a great place to look)
  • Funny names of businesses
  • Places I remember growing up
  • My first love
  • What it felt like to be a teenager
  • If I had a week left to live
  • Ways to describe a man with a long neck
  • Things you don’t see in church
  • The dinner table at a our family reunions

    You may be saying, “But I don’t want to write stories. I want to take a story and learn it and tell it. That’s all. ” That’s fine. You don’t have to do this. But I do think it will help you with any story you tell. This journal will not only fill up with ideas for stories, it will fill up with details that you record about life around you - as you see it.

    Your main goal in storytelling is to tell the story in your own voice. To be different than the twenty-five other people who may be telling that same story. To be different than the storyteller they just saw who told the same story. The key lies in what makes you different. And the details will be what make you different. The way you describe things, the funny voices you use, the way you have of seeing the world from where you sit. This will give flavor to your storytelling. When you tell a story you are telling it in your own way. Whether you ever put it on paper, like it or not, you’re writing. You’re creating. You are taking the words and making them your own.

    So don’t miss this important step. Before you ever write or learn a story, make sure you know what that story is about - the moral - what touches your heart. When you know, you’re audience will feel it. And that, my friends, will make all the difference.

    Again, if you have any questions, please email me ( and I will be happy to respond. I suggest that you start your journal first, get used to it for a little while, and then if you still have questions let me know.

    I’m excited to walk along this journey with you - the journey to discover your unique voice. Trust me, you have a gift. You were given this gift for a reason. We need your voice. Until we meet again, happy creating!

    Kelly Swanson
    It's all fun and games ‘til the hair gets messed up

  • (1978)

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