Saturday, April 27, 2013

A short, heartfelt, frustrated rant about personal narrative

I have yet to write something on this blog that I thought might get me in trouble, but I think I've just arrived at that point.

I have spent the last couple of months listening to an endless string of personal narrative.  That seems to be the prevailing trend in storytelling.

Hey, did something horrible happen to you?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did you ever go to third grade?  Clearly you need to tell it on stage.
Hey, did you ever get your heart broken?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did your uncle ever say something inane?  Tell it on stage.
Hey, did (take your pick) ever happen?  Tell it on stage.

Hey, guess what?  Personal narrative is without question one of the absolute hardest types of telling to master or even do well.

Guess what?

Most of the ones I hear aren't crafted well.
Most of the ones I hear are really self indulgent.
Most of the ones I hear have nothing to do with the audience, they are about the teller.
Most of the ones I hear don't have a good story arc.
Most of the ones I hear have terrible phrasing.
Most of the ones I hear don't produce lasting images.
Most of the ones I hear mean a great deal to the people telling them and little or nothing to the members of the audience.
Most of the ones I hear need some serious editing.

Not everything that happens to you or your uncle or your grandmother is worth putting on the stage.  That seems to be something we have forgotten.  There is a serious quality control thing going on with stories.  There are always some lovely ones in the midst of the ones that are bewildering, boring, overly self indulgent, confusing, or just run of the mill.

We have become a nation of people who put our whole lives on facebook and twitter and every single thing that happens to us seems like something we should broadcast to the whole world.   We seem to have lost the line between private and public.  Stories that belong around our kitchen table and at the family reunion are on stages all over the country.

This seems to encourage others who think any random event in their life is worthy of a story.  It is not, unless you find a way to take it to the universal.  Unless you make it a story about us instead of a story about you, we don't care.  Sadly, that is true of most of the personal narrative we encounter.

There can be magic and wonder in stories.  There can be joy and discovery in stories.  There can be laughter and hope in stories.  There can be ironic twists and turns.  There are so many things we can find in stories.  They ought to fly.  They ought to sing.  They ought to....

Wait.  Have I lost my mind?  Who am I to say what a story has to be?  Who am I to say what we all should be doing?  There has to be a place for this type of random, windblown story in our society, since this is what people want.  Plus, how much research do you really have to do to tell your own story.  A few literary allusions here and there, and bam, instant story out of having breakfast.  Why not?  The short story on stage.  We are all just actors in our own play, why not put it on stage?

There is a place for personal narrative, just as there is a place for traditional stories.  This has always been true.  Perhaps those of us who follow the path of crafting and honing and working a story until it's bones are our bones, are threatened.  Perhaps we feel our extinction.  Perhaps we feel that the world holds nothing but the end for us.

Well, that is as it may be.  Still, I don't think I would mind personal narrative so much if the people who told them worked as hard to craft them and make them sing as they do trying to find random events in their life to put on stage.

End of rant.


  1. Well said Donna! I heartily agree! I am not opposed to personal narrative, I even produced a Story Slam for about a year. I agree that many personal stories serve only the teller and not the audience, or are crafted more as a comedy routine than a "story". When coaching a teller for a personal tale, I always emphasize the need for UNIVERSAL themes...far beyond just, "Everyone went to third grade."

  2. I just discovered your blog through Karen Chace posting in on facebook. I am a storyteller in Canada where the personal tale is not yet king (at least in the "mainstream" storytelling community.) I suppose because we haven't reached that level of saturation with every Tom, Dick and whoever telling badly composed personal stories, we aren't sick of it yet. There are a very few tellers up here who do some very finely crafted personal stories that are to a purpose. One teller here in Ottawa, Kim Kilpatrick, is totally blind and yet her stories about growing up are completely relatable to sighted folks.

    That said, personal stories are catching on, especially with younger audiences. In fact, that seems to be all they are interested in and as an event organizer, I plant to cater to that interest to bring them out to storytelling events. I have certainly detected a measure of disdain for personal stories from the traditional storytelling crowd, nothing to do with the quality, as far as I can see. The divide is interesting to me. This younger crowd who are into personal narrative seem less concerned with how finely crafted the story is and more with how it touches them, makes them feel, and yes, laugh.

    I suppose as personal story catches on up here, we will be more frequently subjected to the type of story you are talking about here. I heartily echo you frustration, but to my mind it isn't JUST personal narrative that deserves more scrutiny, although I suppose the bad personal ones are more obviously egregious that other types. Anybody can hang out a shingle as a storyteller and scoot merrily along without anyone doing them the service of telling them their material needs more work. Always a hard thing to do when someone gets up and spills their guts. Perhaps that is one of the causes? We hesitate to critique a story when we know it is someone's loved experience. As is critiquing the STORY is also somehow critiquing the PERSON.

    Anyway, kudos for speaking up about something in the community that frustrates you. I am of the opinion that we need more voices to stir up a little controversy once in a while. It is good for our health.


    1. I talk a little about the divide in a blog of mine - - and how I think it is like music: there are fans of classical music and there are fans of death metal, and sometimes, but rarely they meet or cross over. This is a little bit extreme as an analogy, but goes a little way to think about it!
      Simon Brooks

  3. I like what you have said. I agree with a lot of it, heck, most of it! I have told personal tales but only two or three and I know they need more honing, but in a way when I have worked on a folk tale, I find, telling it in front of an audience it still needs work. But I agree that most of these tales one hears could be shorter and better, my 3 included. I find people telling me I need to do personal stories for the national circuit, so look for things that 'happened to me' to tell! Not what happened at the coffee shop, but real things and how to make them into a crafted story. It is not easy.
    Anyway, thanks for your post.

  4. Donna, this is a refreshing "devil's advocate" to the story slam rage. I have ventured into the personal narrative, even the slam, but DEFINITELY feel that it is only successful if you 1) engage your audience, therefore now what kind of audience to expect 2) center your personal experience around universal values, themes, fears, loves, etc. and 3) tell it, NOT for yourself, but to help build community. I work within an urban, high poverty, high English as a second language urban environment and believe that if this community shared their stories around themes such as "Application" or "Crossroads" they may see similarities that help them work together. For this purpose, it matters that the story have structure, theme, but it can be very raw in the telling.

  5. I wanna co-write a book about it. "A Thin Line... between storytelling and therapy" /
    let the reader decide.

    But, I admit, some of the time, after hearing some of the stories... that are category personal narrative.. I wanted to give the teller... a bill, for therapy fees. Not being mean, its just how I felt... (for a moment). But then I clapped my hands so I too am an enabler (dun dun dah!)

  6. Thank you for a refreshing look at personal narrative. I worked with a group of 5th graders this year in crafting storeis to give back to their families as a holiday gift. They practiced with each other and were given feedback to help make the stories more intersting to outsiders and thus to their family.

  7. Dear Donna and Friends,
    This conversation has so many facets and threads. Each one is worthy of a master class. I recognize that the current phenomenon of personal narratives in the American culture, media and festival circuit can be sometimes enthralling and sometimes YIKES, THINK ABOUT IT AND PUT THAT BEER DOWN WHILE YOU ARE TELLING A STORY! It is frustrating to witness an art form that we love be mangled in the mouths of narcissists and neurotics. I can dismiss the story. What I don't want to dismiss but draw upon is this person's (and everyone's) need to witness their own lives.

    There is a story about the great Spanish cellist,listening to a beginner cellist, who apologizes for his mistakes. Casal's goes on to say, "Oh, but you did this and this and this. Brilliant! The way you struck that note, incredible!" He didn't lie or condescend but did find something genuine to connect to and compliment. This is an excellent model for any artist and I believe a necessary component of fostering excellence between storyteller's. Note however, that there is a give and take between the pupil and Casal's which is missing from the current experience of listener and slam teller.

    One of the problems we face as professional tellers is the non-existent delineation between master and mangler. We know the master when we hear their story. It's obvious. We have that "Oh! This is what it is suppose to be." understanding. In our storytelling culture, anyone who gets up to a microphone is a master. For someone who agonizes over each line and utilizes image driven language, vocal choices, and gestural and physical considerations in my stories I feel frustrated and confused when someone gets up there for the sake of being up there and holding people captive to their undeveloped piece. On the other hand, like Casal's, I try to be a student and wonder why is this going wrong? What is this person trying to say? How could this be improved? What are they doing right? One of the missing components is a widespread understanding that there is a qualifying standard that is quantifiable and teachable. it's a measurable skill set.

    Does anybody remember Ted Mack Amateur Hour? The people at the mic were amateurs and received feedback from professionals. I wish that model was still in effect but now it seems like most people don't get it. And that's their right and mine too to walk away. I can only control my work but I have come to some conclusions for my own sanity and desire to elevate our art form:
    1. tell kick ass incredible stories.
    2. teach others how to tell above mentioned.
    3. encourage success.
    4. recognize effort.
    5. go to events that are quality proven.
    6. Cultivating the beginner's mind of "what can I learn?" is my coping mechanism when listening to underdeveloped work. I go that route because I believe most people have a desire to find the universal but absolutely no clue on how to do so in our culture.

    Thanks for listening to MY rant.

    Regi Carpenter

  8. I really appreciated what Regi said. Regi, you referenced the Ted Mack Amateur hour. Long before I read your comment, I was thinking of The Gong Show for many of these efforts and sorts of events. It seems some of these folks are getting up there simply so they can be seen, in the same way others go on the reality shows and willingly embrace the opportunity to make fools of themselves, merely to be seen. They pour out a meandering mess of personal information with no structure, that goes in no direction, that might have some interesting language and a couple of good laughs, but no story and not even a point. Not even good oral essay, like some of the digital storytelling I've viewed lately.

    Because I believe that traditional tales are a form of personal story in a structured, at-a-distance sort of way, archetypal, if you please, I think they can be told for all audiences. Do I want to see storytelling do away with personal narrative? Nope. I love a good Elizabeth Ellis personal story and learn a lot from it. But she cut her teeth, I think, on those traditional tales and she rocks those. Now, I'm just starting to think outloud, so it's time to hush up. But it's a timely topic and gets to the heart of the definition of story.

  9. There was an interesting segment on Stephen Colbert some time ago. I'll see if I can find it, about how Youtube was destroying the arts. The guest's assertion was that because anyone can videotape themselves doing anything and put it on the internet, people no longer have any sense of quality control. Then, there is the added, 'well, if that guy can do it, I can', without concerning ourselves with whether that guy is doing it well. I believe that there is a place for personal narrative.

    What I would love to see, but I don't hold my breath about this, is more tellers tackling the traditional narrative so they get a feel for how stories work, what makes them universal, what gives them power, before they start putting personal narrative together. I would love that.

    there is a difference between telling a story and telling a story well. There is a difference between tell a good story and telling a story that is not good. Those are four completely different things.

    There are moments of joy in personal narrative…but if we have to wade through twenty minutes just to get one, that's asking too much of someone who paid to see you perform.

  10. I ran across this by chance. I'm sorry I did. I found it disheartening and discouraging. Sometimes it takes the smallest thing to discourage someone but I believe that was your intent. I notice so many agree with you. And that, too, is disheartening. I tell personal narrative stories and what I wish is that I could call myself something other than 'storyteller.' Leave that term to tellers of strictly traditional tales.

    1. Ms. Kirk,

      The point of this entry was not to be discouraging. The point of this entry was to start a discussion about what is happening in the art and craft of storytelling. At no point did I say that nobody should be telling personal narrative. At no point did I say that it should be banned. The single and prevailing point I was trying to get across was that there is art, craft, and work that goes into telling a good story, and that in many of the personal tales I've encountered it is lacking. This does not mean I have not ever heard personal narratives that were really good. I have.

      The problem with this type of story is that the teller is often so deep into the tale they don't actually know what is driving the tale. Possibly they are telling it because it had some deep meaning for them...great, but what about the audience? Why are you telling it to them?

      Personal narrative is extremely hard to do well. It is one of the hardest types of telling. For starters, you have to write it. Then, you have to bring a whole group of strangers into a very specific world. Then, you have to figure out whether or not there are any universal themes in the work. Then, you have to present it in such a way that we - the audience- get something out of telling it. Then, you have to leave us with something worthwhile.

      While we might be interested in hearing the story of how your great grandmother immigrated during the potato famine, or your grandfather's days as a moonshiner during prohibition, are we interested in whether or not you like pickles? Why are you doing a whole story about choosing pickles if that's all the story is about?

      There are plenty of people who do not agree with my assessment about stories and storytelling. I am hardly the first, last, or even a powerful word on anything.

      I am truly sorry you found this disheartening, because that was hardly my intent. If anything, I would like it to light a fire beneath those who want to do this work well. Find someone who works with personal narrative, and learn about how to craft this type of material. Connie Regan Blake comes to mind. Get a good story partner or good story coach, and work on your narratives. Attend some workshops with people who are really good at getting into the heart of a story.

      Work your material until you have created something that is wonderful to hear, interesting to watch, and a boon to those who give you their attention. Don't be discouraged, work to make what you do better.

      You owe your audience that much. Work to make what you do better.