03 March, 2014

The Problem of Shrub: The Story of a Failed Tale

I've never been good at expectations. Expectations are those binds other people place on you. They are the price you pay in exchange for them deigning to allow you in their world. Expectations are rules of behavior.

Keep off the Grass. 
No shirt, no shoes, no service. 
No cussing, spitting, or gum chewing. 
No alcohol allowed beyond this point.
Do your homework.

People who know me, or who have known me for a long time, know that if there is an expectation levied on me that chances are good I'll find a way to not live up to it. If there's a silent understanding among members of any community, I will, in some way or another contradict it. I unintentionally and permanently offended little old Lutheran Church Matrons* by going a little too blue at an open mic series in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

But I am finding that there's a difference between the art and craft of storytelling and the art and craft of poetry.

As some of you may know, I've been polishing my storytelling at the monthly Moth StorySlam held at Headliner's Music Hall in Louisville. The format is ideal for culling the non-essential from a story and for working on other tidbits like stage presence and tone. The judging is, shall we say, not precise.  The rules are simple: 
  1. The story must be true.** 
  2. The story must have the teller as a central character. 
  3. The story should not be longer than 5 minutes. (Or 6, if you're feeling really froggy.)
Then there's the topic, which is different every month. January's topic was VICES. Now, this is something I have a little experience with. Vice can mean a lot, though. And so I've made it my habit to go into the monthly slam with two stories in the bag. I find it's a good way to ensure that I don't end up telling a similar story to the entrant before me. And I also try to have two stories that are different tones and timbers. Last month for example, when the topic was LOVE HURTS, I had a story prepared about my first grade unrequited crush, Tonya Tolin -- and I had a story I call The Midas Girl, about a first (and last) date gone horribly awry.

Amanda and I talk through our stories with one another before The Moth. It's nice to be able to get honest feedback from someone who is both competitive enough to push me but supportive enough to give honest and useful tips. When it comes to VICES we both have plenty of source material to draw from, and it becomes not so much a matter of figuring out a story to tell, but figuring out a story that both meets all the requirements and manages not to simultaneously  and unfairly incriminate us for the mistakes of our youth. (In my case, this may extend to middle age.) 

My first story idea -- the one I told -- is a riff about getting drunk in Aberdeen, Ohio, in the trailer park home of a guy named Treetop and Treetop's Old Lady Katie. (She would only respond to the entire moniker, 'Treetop's Old Lady Katie.' Anyone making the mistake of NOT referring to her, either conversationally or behind her back, by her full title, was subject to a wrath that ensured any man's ego the same fate as Humpty Dumpty. (Women were afforded slightly more mercy and were merely deeply and psychologically wounded with a public airing of all their deficiencies intellectual, physical, and sexual.)

A crucial player in this particular tale is Treetop's Old Lady Katie's son from a previous tangle. I call him Shrub. This was in part because I couldn't remember his name, but also because it seemed to fit in the telling.

I'm not going to pound out the story here, though I am going to be posting audio clips soon*** and Shrub's Story may well be one of them. But since telling that story on stage, it's become sort of a mental puzzle for me to ponder, and transform into what I call The Problem of Shrub. The story ends with me puking my guts out off the front steps after rejecting hangover cure-all advice from Shrub. The Problem begins shortly thereafter, because in the telling I did at the January Moth, I did nothing to ennoble myself or tack on a lesson. 

I've struggled with that aspect of storytelling -- what a much more experienced teller than me, Buck Creasy, calls the "Amen" moment. As a poet, short story scribbler, and novelist (There is one out there, floating in the deep muck of amazon ebooks.) I have furiously avoided tacking on a lesson. I have also avoided making myself -- or the "fiction" voices that I have hidden behind in the past -- anything resembling noble. I have long been the butt of my own literary joke. This has been especially true in short and long fiction. My last ex-wife would beg me to stop. This is not who you are, she'd say. No one cares who I am, I told her. All they care about is the story.

As a storyteller, I've found out though, that people really DO care who I am. Moreover, I've discovered that I care who I am -- a distinction that matters as much or more. Where my first telling of Shrub's Story failed was not so much in making Shrub the sympathetic center. That was my intention from the beginning.  In spite of the Moth "rule" about the teller being a primary character in the story (no Once Upon a Times or This is one I heard from... for the umbilicus pondering NPR crowd that frequents The Moth) I have been trying to focus on something other than myself -- in poetry, and in storytelling. Generally, I'm more interested in other people's stories and in the stories that never seem to get told -- those histories and myths that have been partially or entirely homogenized out of the cultural conscious. 

I made no attempt to paint my 20-something year old self as someone who felt guilty, or who saw the tragedy of a 6 year old who knew more about hangovers than I did because I did not see myself as the point of the story.

But I did forget something fundamental. And while it may not be fundamental to poetry, or short stories, or novels, it is fundamental to the craft of storytelling -- and it goes far beyond the admittedly egocentric nature of personal stories. That is certainly a part of storytelling, and there are plenty of stories worth remembering and sharing if, for no other reason, than that they are personal stories. Sharing personal stories and doing it well means coming to grips with who you are. It also means caring about the person you are and the person you aspire to be. 

Beyond even that, though -- and that's a lot -- there's the larger craft of storytelling at stake in all this. Stories are entertaining, yes. But they are also part of our cultural heritage, part of our human experience. A storytelling is cultural journalism of the highest calibre. Storytellers hear, learn, and tell stories because the stories embody some part of all of us. 

And in the telling, the storyteller becomes part of the story, whether he or she is a participant in it or not. The storyteller provides the context within which the story can unfold and make sense. This can mean brandishing our faults under stage lights. But it also means that sometimes we have to embrace redemption. Not just because people like neat and tidy endings -- but because sometimes people need context that only storytellers can provide so that they then take that story and put it in a context of their own.
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* Little Old Lutheran Church Matrons are a force to be reckoned with in any northern small town. They hold the keys to potluck / casserole heaven and are the unofficial moral arbiters of all questions ranging from sex outside the confines of marriage (READ: sex with the lights on), to whether a certain pair of shoes are worship service appropriate, to whether or not Good Christian (Lutheran) Men drive Fords or Chevys (Rarely Toyotas and NEVER, EVER a Subaru.)
**The truth in a story is not in the facts. Veracity lies in the telling.
*** I've had some technical difficulties, one of which is that I don't have a working microphone to make a decent recording. that will soon be fixed.

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