|« Author Christopher Bakken Discusses New Culinary Memoir||The Orphan Trilogy's Chicago Connection »|
Author Thu Sep 12 2013
If you're an avid reader of the GB Book Club, you probably are a fan of storytelling and live lit events in Chicago. Perhaps you also read memoirs and creative nonfiction, or enjoy storytelling podcasts like The Moth and This American Life.
But with a love of live literature and personal storytelling, there also comes an aversion to certain topics. We've all been there. One minute you're laughing along to a hilarious, madcap story from a talented storyteller, the next you're rolling your eyes and uncomfortably shifting in your seat while someone blubbers creepily about stalking their ex-boyfriend or describes a bodily function in stomach-churning detail. Whether we are sick of a topic because it is too common or because it's just personally off-putting, we all have some storytelling pet peeves. So let's talk about a few, and then open the floor for you to share yours in the comments.
1. Breakup Stories
People love to create raw, uncomfortable art about emotional anguish and unrequited love. It's a phenomenon that dates back to the middle school cafeteria, or perhaps the beginning of time. And since the beginning of time, people have been telling the heartbroken to buck up and find something else to focus on and talk about other than their ex.
There is nothing wrong with telling a story about a break-up, of course, but many people venture into this topic when the wound is still too fresh. It takes a bit of perspective and distance to write thoughtfully and interestingly about such a personal drama. Sometimes, the story of your sweeping, epic heartbreak belongs in a private Google document rather than on the stage. We all have the bad poetry to prove it.
2. Coming-of-Age Sexual Awakening Stories
In the hands of the right writer, nothing can be so touching and relatable as a sexual bildungsroman. In the wrong hands, it can seem, well, masturbatory. Early adolescent crushes and fumbling sexual experiences are frequent live storytelling fodder, so before you tell a story about your first time, make sure you're bringing something unique to the topic.
Again, an adult perspective can bring a lot of depth to what would otherwise be a self-involved, somewhat immature topic. When an author is able to recognize the mistakes they made in their early romantic life (particularly the wrong-headed assumptions they made about themselves or the people they were attracted to), their coming-of-age story can be hilarious, deep, and sweet. But when a writer can't get over their adolescent flame or their embarrassing screw-ups, the audience can get a bit bored.
3. Nostalgic Childhood Stories
Don't get me wrong: I have heard some witty, charming, and enlightening stories about childhood at various live lit events. A well-written, clearly thought-out childhood reminiscence can transport the listener and provide all kinds of new information about the author's background. Childhood recollections might be some of the most potent, most humanizing storytelling topics available. But without a strong editorial sense, a childhood story can easily warp into a meandering, syrupy-sweet tale that no one but the author relates to.
It's hard to condense distant past experiences into a tight narrative. Memory just isn't that linear. And it's even harder for a writer to take the audience's perspective and figure out what they will find interesting and what they will find boring and navel-gazing. Generally, I think that if a childhood story has no narrative arch and is too self-serious, it runs the risk of putting the readers off. Instead of sharing a bunch of disconnected memories and moments that are meaningful only to you, find the story at the heart of your past experiences.
4. Recent Traumas
Making art about a recent misfortune or tragedy is the most difficult endeavor of all. And of course, when a person has just experienced a major life event, it's only natural that they want to talk about it and process it. But when a writer or storyteller ventures into a recent trauma before they have fully coped with it, the result can be a hushed, fidgety audience, and a few too many tears.
Again, a caveat is in order: some of the best work I have ever heard or read has been about tragedy. For example, Samantha Irby's essay about taking care of her MS-afflicted mother is absolutely soul-shattering and revelatory. And at live lit events around Chicago, you'll frequently hear remarkable, affecting stories about loss, mental illness, addiction, financial insolvency, divorce, senility, discrimination, and many other raw, wrenching topics. Occasionally, though, you will also see someone over-share and attempt to process a recent trauma onstage, and the result is wrenching and discomfiting in all the wrong ways.
None of these pet peeves are absolute, of course. A lot of great writing has been done about all four of these topics, and storytellers should continue to probe them; it's just a matter of how. Writing artfully about any of these four subjects, I would argue, requires a high level of emotional distance, insight, and editorial skill.
It's not that writing about losing your virginity or getting dumped should be verboten. Those are great, fertile topics that almost everyone can relate to! Just make sure you do it in a writerly way, after you've had sufficient time to consider the event and find the story lurking within it.
What are your storytelling pet peeves? What makes a personal story relatable and interesting to you? Post your ideas in the comments below or tweet me @erikadprice; I'm hoping to write a follow-up piece sharing others' ideas.