Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The high wire act of personal storytelling

I don't think of myself as a personal storyteller. That is, I don't think of myself as a person who tells many stories directly out of my own life. It's quite fashionable in the storytelling world (especially amongst storytellers who tell for grown-ups) to tell personal stories - think of The Moth and This American Life for two prominent examples.

In part because I don't think of myself as a personal storyteller I find I am somewhat hard to market, I don't quite have a niche. Sure, I tell a few personal stories (like when I was a little girl and made myself a penis, or the time I farted in an elevator, or the more serious stories about longing and hope), I tell some myths and folktales, but mostly I tell original fiction which isn't fashionable or easily quantifiable. My elevator speech is sometimes a little complicated. It would be easier in so many ways (easier to market, promote, explain) if I just succumbed and told mostly stories mined from my own life. But I don't.

So why don't I tell more personal material? It's not like my life is boring or devoid of stories. No one's life is.

I'm not sure of all the reasons, but I know this reason: the risk.

1. When you tell a personal story you are potentially revealing a great deal about yourself in a very short span of time. I'd rather reveal myself through metaphor and suggestion as I can through fiction. I can talk about truly intimate things in the third person or in a fictional voice and everyone suspects I'm talking about myself, but they're not quite sure. That's okay with me.

2. By telling fictional stories I don't require my audiences to wonder about me; all they have to do is insert themselves into the narrative and they're ready to go. That difficult thing didn't happen to the person in front of them, so I don't have to be brave/damaged/etc, I can be a blank slate. I can just be the storyteller. Yes, audiences very easily identify with personal stories too, but then sometimes they wonder about the teller as well.

3. I don't have to risk lying about my own life, I can lie about other things instead.

4. I don't have to risk revealing something about someone else that they'd really prefer I didn't. Many personal storytellers talk about their families, for instance.

5. I'm less likely to stray into therapy storytelling, where I tell a story because I need to, not because it's a good story.

All of that being said, personal stories can be remarkably powerful and I do sometimes tell personal stories. That's when it becomes a high wire act. Balancing the truth (more or less) with the need to not make the audience worry about me with the need to not dishonor those whom I may reference in my story with my need to tell a good story can be tricky. It's a lot to manage.

When it works it's exquisite. I admire those who can live in that territory all the time. I don't. It's both the risk and that I like having all of these options.

I like my storytelling world to be wide, even if that means I can't always sum it up inside an elevator ride, even if that means I'm not quite so fashionable.

(c) Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License


  1. I think when we tell personal stories and try to go deep down and be honest (tell the truth but of course not all the truth) then others can connect with things deep in themselves.

    Our common humanities and worries connect and we can tell it in a way to give courage, self confidence and the others to feel less alone.

    I do not succeed every day, but in my blogs I try (and more personal in my French one then in the English one)


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