Elements of Storytelling 10: Magic

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 10: Magic

Every great story needs a touch of magic: a perfectly conjured sentence or feat of illusion.

Case study: Comedy & Magic Society

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What it is:

Four hard-working professional magicians: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Woods. Together they have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each, if modesty allowed, could claim to be one of the world’s finest prestidigitators.

Why it matters:

My acquaintance with Comedy Magic Society began when Mark Phillips commissioned me to write a profile of the quartet. Interviewing and writing about the four magicians was an eye-opener. Dexterity is the smallest fraction of illusion, it turns out. The real magic lies in storytelling.

Magic relies on hooking the audience into a narrative. The story distracts then, holding their attention while the magician does his work. A great magician can tell stories to anyone: Mark uses magic as a tool to help corporate clients communicate and sell; Brian honed his skills doing close-up tricks for restaurant patrons; Bob is a former circus clown who perfected the art of magic bartending; and Barry educates and entertains kids in schools and hospitals.

In their own words:

Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realises it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.” Read more…

Practice: To retain all the “juice” of being in the moment, a writer needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – to use sleight of hand that moves the reader from a second-hand recounting to feeling present in the scene.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is shot, for instance, Nick Carroway, his narrator, is off-stage. Yet he allows Nick to surmise not merely what happened, but also what Gatsby must have felt during those last few minutes of life:

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

via Writer’s Circle Workshops

Remember: “We are all magicians. What we see will never coincide with absolute reality. As a result, the human brain must make a narrative.” ~ Frederick Reiken

 

Elements of Storytelling 8: Voice

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 8: Voice

A clear, unique, personable voice hooks audiences every time.

Case study: No Meat Athlete

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What it is:

No Meat Athlete was a blog that became a brand that became a thriving business for Matt Frazier, an applied mathematics PhD student and amateur marathoner. It began as a chronicle of Matt’s quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon after switching to a plant-based diet.

Why it matters:

Nutrition and fitness blogs are rarely sustainable businesses. The sector is over-crowded, trend-driven and audiences are fickle. No Meat Athlete succeeded where most fail thanks to Matt’s inimitable voice. He tells readers everything they need to know in just three sentences:You’re not here to be preached to. And I’m not here to preach. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that a plant-based diet might not be for you. But I’ll also say this: You won’t know until you try.”

The tone is frank, warm, equable, and non-judgemental. Matt makes no apologies for being neither a professional runner nor nutritionist. Instead, he addresses readers as equals and fellow explorers. He writes in the enthusiastic, endearing voice of someone who has discovered something brilliant and can’t wait to tell you about. No Meat Athlete has grown into a brand that includes books, running groups, merchandise and more but Matt’s voice hasn’t changed. He is still the excitable, passionate, chatty guy you want to go running with then hit the pub for a vegan beer ‘n’ burger afterwards.

In his own words:

You can run without being a “runner.” I did it for five years.

Even once I had run a handful of marathons and was close to qualifying for Boston, when I lined up at the start of a race among all these passionate runners, I still felt like an imposter.

I was just a tourist, doing what runners do, but without feeling like I really belonged.

Sometime during the training for my Boston-qualifying race, where I finally succeeded in breaking 3:10:59, something shifted in me.

Shortly after qualifying, when I was in that happy, weirdly cloudlike space you find yourself in after accomplishing something you’ve worked at for so long, I read Born to Run. And damn if I didn’t feel like a runner after that.

For the first time, I could say that I really loved running, not just as a means of staying in shape or for accomplishing goals, but for its own sake.

And so I became a “runner.” Quotes and all.

Read more

Practice: “You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.

Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice. via Jane Friedman

Remember: “Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.” ~Mavis Gallant

Elements of Storytelling 5: Accuracy

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 5: Accuracy

Good stories create a vivid, believable world. To achieve this, descriptions and details have to be accurate to the context and setting of the tale.

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Case study: Illahe ‘1899’ Pinot Noir

What it is:

Illahe is a small vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, not far from Salem. Winemaker Brad Ford is a laconic, dedicated experimentalist and a stickler for accuracy. Each year Illahe releases a small batch of ‘1899’ Pinot Noir, so named because it is made without using any modern equipment or electricity.

Why it matters:

Anyone can claim to be “traditional” or “classic” — Illahe delivers by being accurate down to the last detail. From the vine onward, ‘1899’ is made to strict standards. The grapes are tended by hand, horses not tractors are used to work the land, picking, sorting and crushing is done by hand. “No electricity” means “no electricity”: they use candles to light the barrel room or bottling line. When ‘1899’ is ready to go to its distributor in Portland, the cases are transported by stagecoach, bicycle and canoe, ensuring that no modern technology touches it until it leaves the Ford’s care.

The Illahe story:

Brad’s first harvest was in 1986, when he performed the important roles of tractor driver and bucket collector. He took a short break after high school to work as a bartender, carpenter, grant writer, and English instructor. He then returned to wine, taking classes with Barney Watson, Al MacDonald, and Professor Wamser at Chemeketa and PSU.

Brad worked with Earl VanVolkinburg, Joe Dobbes, and Russ Raney, who taught him the practical aspects of the craft and about their love of the product. He also owes a debt to Peter Julian of Nuit-St. Georges, Burgundy, who invited him to attend tastings from Chablis down to Mercurey, hitting all the major towns in between. His experiences there taught him that winemakers can craft incredible wine without huge operations, but not without close attention to the vineyard and vinification. Read more here

 

Practice: “When you are present at the birth of a child you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts… When you write, stay in direct connection with the sense and what you are writing about. If you are writing from first thoughts — the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize, and evaluate — you don’t have to worry.” ~Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones

Remember: “Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Elements of Storytelling 4: Heritage

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 4: Heritage

Stories are how we connect to the past and make sense of the present. Heritage gives us a sense of shared lives, experiences, and memories.

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Case study: St. John & Dolly Smith’s Pickles

What it is:

Possibly Britain’s best pickles, sauces and chutneys. The first time I tried St. John & Dolly Smith’s ‘Scotch Bonnet Pickle’ my taste buds lit up like someone put 1000 volts through them. It was a blistering simultaneous hit of taste and sensation. The heat-wave receded leaving two questions: Who made this? And: Where can I get some more?

I tracked down founder and self-styled Pickleman Chris Smith and discovered a backstory as flavourful as his creations.

Why it matters:

The sauces, pickles and chutneys would be extraordinary, with or without the story of St. John and Dolly Smith. But by connecting his product to its heritage, Chris taps into a primal hunger for stories about love, belonging, success and navigating an ever-changing world. His heritage touches on history, empire, education, immigration, death, and the inevitable march of time. The details of our stories are different, but every one of us experiences equally big, scary, life events. I fell in love with the pickle and its promise that change can be beautiful and there is always another chapter to be written.

The St. John & Dolly Smith story:

St. John Smith taught at some of India’s best schools, some of which were boarding schools where Dolly’s role was that of house matron. When their two older sons left university they moved to England with 13-year-old Chris. It was the first time he’d left India and his abiding memory is of coming off the boat to see frost so thick on the ground it looked like snow. The utter foreignness of his new home was assuaged by the familiar foods of Bangalore.

“Friends were crazy about my parent’s cooking. They would come around with a list of requests for their favourites but my mum and dad were very modest,” Chris recalls fondly. “They always thought ‘oh, they’re just being polite.’”

As the son of gifted cooks, he admits to never doing much in the kitchen. “Why would I, when they could do it better?” One of Dolly’s traditions was taking jars of pickle to school reunions, a flavoursome evocation of shared memories. After his mother passed away, a chance meeting with one of her old friends encouraged Chris to dig out her recipes and revisit his culinary heritage.

Read more here

Practice: “Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties — the disasters, the days of grace, your relatives’ faces lit up by birthday candles? Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore — those terrible petaled swim caps, the men’s awful trunks, the cocktail dress your voluptuous aunt wore that was so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of it.” ~Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird

Remember: Even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses — would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories?” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Elements of Storytelling 3: Inspiration

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 3: Inspiration

Great stories are not plucked from the air; they grow from the fertile soil of stories that were told before.

Case study: Eivissa: The Ibiza Cookbook by Anne Sijmonsbergen

eivssa cover

What it is:

A cookbook based on, and inspired by Ibiza food. What it isn’t is an attempt to slavishly recreate traditional Ibicenco recipes, or a generic Mediterranean cookbook. The author lived on an organic farm in Ibiza for a dozen years, growing local produce, working with other farmers, and hanging out with rare-breed animal experts, fishermen, and artisan cheesemakers, before she put proverbial pen to paper.

 

Why it matters:

This long period of absorbing and exploring the food culture freed Anne to create recipes that are unique to her but capture the essence of Ibiza. She transforms stolid island fare like flaó — a dense, old-fashioned cake — into something fresh and suited for a modern palate. Each recipe becomes a story in its own right, revealing the history and origin of its components and the author’s inspiration.

The Evissa story:

Ibiza is on the cusp of a food revolution. The island’s traditional farming and fishing culture has been supplemented with a wave of chefs and producers making artisan products and vibrant food.

Now Eivissa, the first recipe book to showcase the incredible Ibicenco dishes Ibiza cuisine has to offer, reveals how to recreate the tastes of the white island in your own home.

Divided into seasonal chapters to reflect the ingredients in Ibiza, these are gorgeous recipes reflecting the heritage of the cuisine, yet with contemporary twists. Sample a really simply Grilled Courgette Ribbons, Asparagus & Mint Tostada from Spring, for example, or a Grapefruit & Juniper-Encrusted Pork Salad. Try Steamed Mussels with Samphire or Chicken with Roasted Figs from Autumn. Or treat yourself with a Ricotta Pine Nut Cake or Spiced Chocolate Truffles.

Full of stunning photography shot on location in Ibiza, both of the recipes and the island’s beautiful backdrop, these are recipes that are full of energy, warmth and enjoyment.

Read more here

Practice: Plenty of writing ideas are culled from great tales that have been told throughout history. Some of these have been converted into formulas that writers can use as storytelling guidelines.

From the three-act structure to the hero’s journey, formulas have been criticized as making stories dull and predictable yet they have also been credited with providing writers a framework in which to create.” via WritingForward.com

Remember: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

Poem of the Month – Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem Dulce et Decorum Est speaks for itself.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poem of the Month – A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

I first encountered Jack Gilbert’s poetry in The Sun (American literary magazine, not British tabloid). A sentence from ‘A Brief for the Defense’ stuck with me, nagged me through summer: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”.

As one blessed with much comfort and satisfaction, I wonder at my privileges, wonder at the randomness of life, wonder why millions suffer through no fault of their own, and others live in shocking luxury through no virtue of their own. Gilbert’s taut, evocative, defiant poem comes the closest of anything I’ve read to elucidating the tension between grief and high delight. Gilbert doesn’t moralise or draw conclusions. Though he refers to both God and the Devil, for me the poem is Zen. Ultimately, none of us is in control. The secret, if there is one, is to laugh anyway, to listen for sound of oars in the silence and watch the island sleep. And to refuse to allow our lives to be defined by the worst of times.

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A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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