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Author Thu Sep 12 2013

What Are Your Live Lit Pet Peeves?

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.

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vise77 / September 11, 2013 12:16 PM

I think you covered it well, but may I add this: younger writers (god bless them, they are only learning) talking about being a punk music (post punk?) type of person in a small town before Chicago, or being generally out of place in school, or something along those lines. Call it the misfit beat, perhaps. I've heard sooo many of these stories, and while I do get tired of them, I also understand they are a part of many writers' needed writing experience. But, hey, we are all misfits, right? So perhaps dial those stories back? And let's just state: We can't all be Joe Meno.

What I would love to hear are more stories about the recent immigrant experience in Chicago, the new groups, or even the newer waves of older immigrant groups.

Erika Price / September 11, 2013 12:37 PM

Vise: Great points! And thank you for also mentioning what topics you'd like to hear *more* about-- it's probably way way more productive to talk about what kinds of stories (and kinds of storytellers) we need to hear more of than to rag on the tropes that occur too often...So people should throw those suggestions in the comments too, maybe for another future post!

Carly / September 11, 2013 2:59 PM

I don't think there are any topics that come off as "pet peeves" for me. Personally, I think what makes you successful at a live lit event is story craftmanship and delivery. Not every writer is a great public speaker and vice versa. But I don't think I've ever walked into a show silently hoping "X" wasn't going to be the subject of someone's story. You mention Samantha Irby's essay and I'd like to point out that the reading series Guts & Glory she co-hosts with Keith Ecker is one of the best around. All of the topics you mention above have been explored and I think participants in this particular show are encouraged to dig deep, often covering these subjects. IMO, pet peeves for me are readers who don't respect time limits and shows that are unorganized or not well curated. I'm still working to make a show that's entertaining and accessible and know tweaking is needed even eighteen months in. Maybe the overall gist here is that you should really think about where you're at mentally and whether or not it's appropriate for an audience, regardless of what the topic is.

Ryan / September 11, 2013 4:54 PM

This is severely limiting. No topic should be off limits for a writer. What's important to keep in mind is what's interesting and different about their common experience. A big part of storytelling is identifying with the writer and seeing a bit of yourself there, sharing in that experience. You've heard them a lot because they are common experiences, so you're correct that the key to keeping it interesting would be for the writer to find what's unique about their own version of this common experience. But if we eliminate all these types of stories, we lose most of nearly every writer's childhood and early adult life. All topics should be on the table. But there should be a writer's version of the Hippocratic Oath. First do no harm would be "first, don't be boring." So the takeaway from this column is really don't write the same story we've already heard.

Don / September 11, 2013 7:19 PM

• Time. Don't waste it. Condense, condense, condense. Some stories can (and should) be told in 12 minutes but most should not.

• "I'm the Hero in This Story" Ugh. The trouble with the bad break up stories or the recent trauma stories is that often they are stories of victimhood. Victim stories are only interesting if you are actually an effing victim. Otherwise, focus on how YOU were responsible for your downfall.

• Stand Up Rebranded. If you want to do stand up comedy, do THAT. If you want to tell stories, do that. Don't come to a storytelling stage to tell your jokes.

• Anecdotes. "This happened and then THIS happened and then..." A story is more than a list of events. A seven year old can tell a context-free narrative. Be better than a seven year old.

All that said, it isn't the story, it's the storyteller. A bad storyteller can crap all over a fantastic story; a great storyteller can read you a list of soup can ingredients and blow you away.

Greg / September 12, 2013 2:05 AM

That anyone anywhere would have the temerity to tell a writer/performer what to write about or how to present it. Who do you think you are? Storytelling is a personal art, made most meaningful because the connection between the artist and listener is both memorable AND ephemeral, and whether the story connects the writer to one or more people has nothing to do with some dictators deciding for the people what stories are deserving. On behalf of storytellers and writers everywhere, the notion that you have anything pertinent to say is just a figment of your (ahem) imagination.

Erika Price / September 12, 2013 4:55 PM

Greg: I really did strive in this piece to make it clear that none of these topics are off-limits. I have no interest in telling a writer or a performer what they aren't allowed to write about. Everyone has the right to delve into these topics. However, these are common topics, and ones where the storyteller runs a real risk of seeming overly sentimental, navel-gazing, or narcissistic in a way that might put the listener off. When a capable, seasoned writer tackles these topics, the results can be pure magic. But it's hard to make a reader/audience care about these experiences if there isn't a really unique voice or a ton of talent driving it. For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

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