This is keynote speech I gave to a cohort of certified change makers for the Idaho Commission on the Arts on Nov. 4. It now serves as an uncanny pep talk/reminder to my profoundly-changed future self on Nov. 14. But that’s how stories happen by nature. They take you by surprise.
A CHANGE WILL DO YOU GOOD?
It’s a complete honor to be here before you amazing souls and creators and community powerhouses.
I feel like saying…
Much respect Namaste, like in yoga.
Or, “we’re not worthy,” like in Wayne’s World.
I’ve been meaning to plot out this speech on change-making for weeks and weeks, but instead, I’ve just had that one song playing over and over in my head, “A change will do you good.” And as if from over your shoulder, “Will do you good.” [looks back]
Shut up song!
Because, really? Will it? Really?
I think we raw, raw, siss, boom-bah change all the time. It’s hip and rock star and bold and stuff. Without really acknowledging the fear and chaos it unleashes in its wake.
Change. Remember that was Barack Obama’s slogan in 2008? And here we are now, 2016, in the wake of incredible change. We elected our first black president. In just a few short days (and bed-wetting nights), we’re about to elect our first female president (god and all-humanity willing). Gay marriage is legal across the country. Pot is even legal you guys. It blows my teenage stoner girl mind. I would have never imagined this.
But what do we see now? What do we hear? Fear. Ugliness. Demonizing. Racism. Sexism. To degrees and on levels we never really imagined, either.
And everyone is terrified. And what does this all mean about the nature of change? Is it good or is it eeevahl? [aside: I think everyone should say evil like eevahl and I’d bet we’d have a lot less eevahl in the world.)
WHAT CHANGE MEANS IN STORIES
I see this question through the lens of storytelling. As I see all things on heaven and on earth. It is both a blessing and a curse.
I consider myself to be a storyteller, but I consider everyone to be a storyteller. Because everyone is a storyteller. It’s in our roots. It’s in our blood. It’s our birthright as human beings. It’s how we process this crazy amazing head-rush called existing.
But let me come clean, here and now, English Lit major cred and all, for the first 2 years of MC-ing Story Story Night, I had no idea what really made stories work. (Faked it til I made it!)
But this led to inconsistent shows. So I started to really examine what makes some stories shine like a diamond, and what makes other stories fall flat. And what I found taught me about the true nature of change—and the overall meaning it has in our lives.
So the secret formula I found for stories is: [dramatic pause] that there is no formula for stories. Well, there are usually 2 formulas that always work: near death and humiliating experiences. But almost no one would opt in to those intentionally.
You can’t just say, “I’m going go out and have a great story on Tuesday. Imma gonna put in my BlackBerry.”
It’s not how it works. A good story is one of the things money really can’t buy. They just have to…happen to you.
For Story Story Night, I call this life experience the course changer. The surprising moment. The turning point.
THE STORY WAVE
I compare it to a wave. You launch off. You think everything’s heading steadily up in this one direction, and suddenly [glug, blurb, water in face noises]. The action turns. And it takes you by surprise. Sometimes knocks you down. Shoves you underwater.
But note that a wave, after that awe-inspiring dramatic moment, finds peace again. Once transformed it turns back to where it came from, folds in, reaches calm. Lands softly on the sand. Ploosh.
And there you are too, storyteller, back on the beach. Sipping a mojito. Just watching the waves, man.
And that’s a story. A really good story. Because it builds in tension. You don’t really know where it’s headed until suddenly—a super powerful turn of events happens. It’s jaw dropping to see it unfold. And then it quickly comes back and finds resolution. The power and meaning of it just washes over you. Whoosh.
And there you are, in the end, soaking up the true nature of perspective—and like the universe and stuff.
In non-beachy metaphors, you may wonder what use this…genius illustration…means to you trying to run a nonprofit, or produce art that matters, or change the world, or whatever it is you are doing with your spare time.
THE SUPER AMAZING FORMLESS MAW
I’m getting to it guys.
First another secret: I never really intended to run a live storytelling program for 6 and a half years. I had practically no event planning experience except for boss dinner parties. I most definitely never intended to become such a known presence on stage. I don’t know if you noticed this, but I am actually super, super awkward. And that stems from being morbidly shy as a kid. This life is the exact opposite of everything I imagined I was capable of, even.
Story Story Night happened to me. Boom! Surprise magic. This was no slow build. This was lines around the corner. Electricity in the air. Raw emotion. Huge crowds—deeply moved. Sold out shows. Startling storytellers. Human vulnerability in the palm of your hands. In the mic on the stage.
For me, I just ran behind the phenomenon, trying to keep up with it, sometimes tripping up behind it. Amazed at all that was unfolding, seemingly unbidden. Story Story Night became an unstoppable force in the community.
But behind the scenes, it was a formless gaping maw. A super amazing thrilling formless gaping maw. I don’t know how many of you plan events, but no matter how much you think you’ve duck taped up all the loose ends and wonky holes, something always takes you by surprise.
SUPRISING THEMES BEHIND THE SCENES
And Story Story Night had shows every single month. To me, it felt like planning a wedding. Like officiating a long super vulnerable story ceremony. Every. Single. Month. To make it more intense, the theme for the month always played out behind-the-scenes too in strange and unpredictable ways. We definitely should’ve rethought some themes, like FULL PLATE, APOCALYPSE. CRAZY. [Shakes head.]
Picking the themes for these shows felt like giving myself mystic little word clues on what would unfold in my near future. Knowing those themes in advance didn’t really help though, because by the very nature of it, the story had to take me by surprise.
And through each of these relentless themed monthly surprises, I learned how to put on a show. I learned how to brave the odd nuances of the stage, often surprisingly lonely in way that Steve Martin calls “the ego’s last stand.” Every month, I stood up there, come rain, shine, heartbreak, depression, dead sweats of night. I learned what I was really made of. Or at least how to eat it in public with more grace.
CREATION BY SHOCK & AWE
And the larger the fail, the bigger the corresponding change. I call it creation through shock and awe.
Here’s an example. The first real problem with our program was built into our very framework. It’s our schtick really—what set us apart from other storytelling programs. Each show had 3 featured storytellers intermixed with an open story slam. Yet finding and training these 3 diverse, interesting, real people in advance became a total bear almost instantly. But it would make or break a show. This part never got super easy, I admit. But 6 months in, this non-stop featured storyteller struggle led to the creation of the Story Story Studio, a workshop series that’s now taught 100s of kids and adults in Idaho about the power and possibility of real live storytelling.
Or there’s the byproduct of one of our first major controversies. Cussin’. And sex talk. Our crowd seemed divided. We got complaints from both sides. Some were appalled by some of the content. Some hated us censoring it. So about three years in, we created the adults-only Story Story Late-Night, the positively shameless black sheep of the storytelling family. It’s my favorite. I know a mom’s not supposed to say that. But it is.
NEAR DEATH OF STORY STORY
Ultimately, Story Story Night had our own near death story. And as you know by now, those stories always work. They’re always pretty epic. But thing is, you don’t know if you’re going to die.
So there I was, 2014, on the brink. Story Story Night was about to bite the dust. Legit. When a nonprofit’s on its deathbed though, it comes silently in the dead of daylight fluorescents—in the form of spreadsheets. We had to face the facts, Jack. Even with sold out shows, we had miscalculated everything.
We had totally neglected to build a viable structure for this baby. We had no real paid staff. We had no plan to change that reality. Four years in, it was time to call a spade a spade, and fold.
And then one random Tuesday, I got a spam email. One of those like, you won $30,000 emails, probably form the price of Kazakhstan or whatever. I totally ignored it. Until one day, a full month later, Sam Stimpert at Visual Arts Collective said, “Can you believe that grant we got?” Boom! The spam was real. It was a surprise $30k SEED grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
RESURRECTION BY RAUSCHENBERG
Along with the life-saving out-of-the-blue grant, the Foundation flew us to Captiva Island in Florida, where the late, great multi-media and found-object artist Robert Rauschenberg made his work in these stark white, beautifully lit studios surrounded by wild nature.
We landed there with other SEED grant winners—the creators of groundbreaking projects from across the country. It probably feels sort of like this experience did for you, meeting all of these on-fire creators. It was like adult camp for weirdo artists. People who make something real—often from nothing—because something inside tells them they have to.
True to form, I collected these people’s stories, usually on the beach at night as we drank champagne and hard alcohol (which is ill advised). I realized that running an arts program was pretty freaky and weird for everyone. But it was always rooted in passion and vision and curiosity—the real change-makers.
I realized that nobody really had it figured out. That we were all mostly blindly stumbling our way through, from surprising moment to surprising moment, to see where this thing called art took us. And each of us feels pretty alone, a lot, building up this boundary-and-button-pushing thing that either does or doesn’t make sense to the whole of our lives. That either is or is not slowly taking over it.
But I also realized, that these radical change-makers, they’re out there. Like the X files. Dotted through every community, they’re like blazing beacons, starting ground fires that have the potential to light everyone up. Visible from space, I bet.
And as we sat there on the sand of Captiva Island in the dark and watched the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, sparkling with bioluminescent plankton, I realized I reached the end of the story. For Story Story.
And I’m going to end this with the immortal words of the great poet, David Bowie. (Rest in peace.)
Turn and face the strange [turns around]
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time”
Profound words—and “ch-ch” sounds. To me, this means that change is always comin’, and it’s gonna change you. You don’t know when. You don’t know where. But there you are just minding your own business on a random Tuesday and…boom! Change. Suddenly, you’re tracing a brand new curve. You’re likely living through a moment that is changing your course. And these moments make up the great stories of your life. These are your real becoming.
They just sometimes feel like shit. And chaos. Or pure ecstasy. Followed by chaos. And the best thing you can do when you’re living through it is to face the truth—however ugly, however revealing, however wild—that this surprising change brings to light. Then ride the wave.
And eventually, when you’ve landed on your feet again, you can find the theme to frame it all, in the end. This theme helps give the story real meaning in the larger context of your life—and helps you link your experience to the universal storyline of human existence. Just let your story be your guide. (I think that’s from Pinocchio.)
Or as my favorite advice columnist, Dear Sugar, Cheryl Stayed, wrote, “Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.” [mind blown gesture] We’re all just reverse origami, you guys.
And maybe the theme for your story will simply just be “Changes.” Just try not to get that song stuck in your head.
Thanks for letting me come here today and interrupt a perfectly good lunch.
Much respect, Namaste.