Friday, November 26, 2010


I know the lululemon bag says to do one thing a day that scares you. (It's such a good sentiment that I'm really annoyed at its ubiquitousness in mainstream platitude-culture.) I did that last weekend. Twice.

The Ottawa Storytellers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, had a really stellar lineup of workshops. Instead of packing in a ton of short workshops, which it would be easy to be tempted to do, they went with a single indepth workshop each day. I hang out with storytellers - so I had been talked into/nudged toward/skootched into signing up for the workshop on Saturday afternoon: How to Tell A Story In Five Minutes. The idea of the workshop was to get you prepared for the Story Slam the next afternoon. So, with no previous (formal) storytelling experience and only a day between workshop and performance, I was pretty much leaping into the deep end without a lifejacket. I mean, I already know that shorter doesn't always mean easier. Getting a story down to five minutes is a challenge for experienced storytellers. But, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The workshop was held in the foyer area in the basement of Saint Brigid's, with about 20 people there to start with. Most of them, like me, had no storytelling experience, and all came with different reasons for being there, from plain curiosity to wanting to be able to do movie pitches, to literary or mythological interest. Me, I was there for the challenge.

Ruthanne Edward and Kim Kilpatrick tag-teamed the workshop really well: they started with a story told by Kim, and a discussion of what constituted a 'story,' as opposed to an anecdote, monologue, or rant. They got us to think about the elements of a story, and did some practice with visualizing all the details of the story - even if you aren't going to tell all the details, they said, it helps to know your setting and characters and themes intimately, so that you can be more vivid in your telling.

There were a couple of exercises that pushed me a little way out of my comfort zone: One involved telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in first five minutes, then three, then one, then ten words, to get down to the bare bones of the story. It was a lot harder than I thought: I had the advantage, though, of being paired up with a more experienced storyteller, so I could watch what he did in the exercises and try to learn from him.

The other exercise that kicked my ass was to try and speak continuously without using any filler words like "um," "er," "so..." or "well..." I lasted a grand total of sixteen glorious seconds.

But I did walk out of the workshop with a sense that maybe I could do this. And, more importantly, I walked out with an idea of the story I wanted to tell: something that had been triggered by one of the exercises. It was, surprisingly, a completely different story than the one I'd thought I was going to work up. But I thought it would work.

So, I went home. (Well, I didn't. I went to a friend's place for the last half of a Doctor Who marathon. Then I went home.) And I sort of thought about my story, but I didn't really work on it much till the next morning. And I kept thinking: am I really going to do this? I imagined myself stopping on stage with the words just trickling to a stop, getting lost, forgetting whole chunks of the story, finding myself in one of those wandering aimless sentences that you suddenly discover you can't bring to anything like a satisfactory end. But I wrote out the story once, and recited it back to myself a few times (what with this, and my rehearsals for the Chasing Boudicca show in January, I hope my neighbours are starting to get used to me talking away to myself in my living room.)

The story I chose worked well, I thought: it was about getting yourself into something that you're not really prepared or qualified for, and soldiering on through it even if you know you're going to lose. It was about doing a thing being more important than winning a competition. And it was about a humiliating moment in my junior high career when I momentarily, deludedly, thought that signing up for track and field was a Good Idea for a pudgy, bookish seventh grader like myself.

Whatever I did, I couldn't get the story under 7 minutes. I ran it through a few times but nothing I did would get it down. And I started worrying about whether I'd be able to pull it off. But, I had promised a bunch of people that I was going to slam. So I talked to myself on the bus most of the way downtown, and got to the venue early enough to do a quick pre-slam interview with a guy from CBC Radio who was interested in doing a piece following a hapless newbie like myself through the workshop and slam process.

The audience wasn't huge - there were more audience members than competitors at least - but they were keen, which was good. I put my name in, and took my seat in the front row. Then, I proceeded to wait in agony as storyteller after storyteller was drawn from the hat. I kept thinking to myself, "Come on, John, pick me, get it over with... won't it suck if I'm the absolute last name drawn?"

Guess what.

So it was kind of hard to pay close attention to the other stories, since I was still occasionally being pulled off by my brain, which was busy trying to remember everything I wanted to say, all the points that were in the story, the bits I could cut to try and shave down my time... but I did still manage to relax and listen to a few of the stories - personal stories, folktales, tall tales, literary stories, a caper. I was impressed at the variety of stories, and tellers. And then I'd find myself thinking, Come on, me next, please... 

But yes, I went last. I got up on the stage. I took a moment, like Kim and Ruthanne had suggested, to set up the mike and take a breath and look out and realize I couldn't see the audience at all through the lights. And then the first sentence came out of me. "No one would have accused me, when I was in seventh grade, of being an athletic kid. . . "

Seven minutes later it was over. I hadn't forgotten anything, my sentences hadn't wandered away from me, I hadn't stopped and realized I didn't know where I was going. I'd told the story, got a few laughs, choked a couple of people up, bowed, and gotten my relieved ass off the stage.

After the show a couple of people came over to give me spontaneous hugs and tell me how much they enjoyed it. I got some really nice compliments on my telling, from people I really respect. And I was told to keep doing it. (The ever prolific Faye Estrella even posted a poem mentioning my story on Facebook that afternoon: I was pretty chuffed about that.) I got a six point time penalty - I missed going the longest by one second exactly - and I kind of crowed about that: hey, half the point of the story was that it doesn't really matter if you come in dead last, if just doing it in the first place is the challenge. Once Upon a Slam is tonight... I think I may have to sign up!

Oh yes. The winning story was a rollicking sort of tale about thieves in love (and what happens when the world's greatest thieves have a baby.) And the prize?


  1. Hey, I recognize those lips!

  2. Hey, I recognize that face sporting those lips!

    Do you mind if I post this pic on my Facebook page (JD Hobbes)?

  3. BTW, I have a storytelling site/blogcast, if you're interested:

  4. Hey, sorry to take a while to get back, but nope, don't mind you using the pic at all! And I'll check out the blog too!