This weekend my classmate Nitin Rao pointed out that a story slam was taking place in my neighborhood. Today I stopped by to pay a visit. I recounted a story about what transpired when I took a girl on a date to the gun range.
Today I had my first outing for my summer storytelling project, with silver-tongued Sloanie and friend Miro Kazakoff at my side.
I learned a lot, interviewed four strangers, and most importantly had a great time. I also shared with Miro my thoughts on the project, as captured in the below video. Thank you Miro for being an awesome teammate on my first day (and for teaching me so much about interviewing people). Onward ho-
On Tuesday I had an inspirational call with Derrick Ashong (aka DNA), a West-African born musician, social entrepreneur, and host of The Derrick Ashong Experience on Oprah Radio.
Derrick inspires me for two reasons: First: he has guts. With the prospect of a lucrative career on Wall Street, Derrick (at the time a senior at Harvard) had the courage to strike a risky path for himself and co-founded Soulfège, a West African band with beats as catchy as their message is positive. Second: he pays the rent. Through speeches, performances, consulting gigs, and his radio show, he has designed a career that enables him to express himself artistically yet also supports him financially.
Derrick had the following words of wisdom regarding my storytelling project:
– On growing my network: It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows what you know. Tell people what I’m working on.
– On finding a mentor: A mentor will want to work with me because they care about me deeply, or they respect my work. The most efficient way for me to find a mentor is to go out to venues and perform (a.k.a Just Do It).
– On the art scene in LA: Some of the most talented folks in LA’s art scene are artists who most people have never heard of. Seek them out.
– On where to perform: Start with Zanzibar in Santa Monica.
I’m excited to track Derrick’s pragmatic approach to building a career of self-expression, and I hope that I can channel his courage and discipline as I build my own.
This evening I attended a super helpful workshop in Boston, hosted by seasoned storytellers Norah Dooley and Karen Chace. In our workshop I, along with eight others, practiced storytelling technique and then performed, on stage and with a mic. Brilliant.
A few key lessons that I learned:
– Shed my ego: To be a great storyteller I should realize that it’s not about me; I’m merely a conduit for the story itself. Once I realize this, and my ego subsides, I will connect with my story more deeply and so will my audience.
– Don’t memorize: I need to see the imagery in my story in order for the audience to see it. This is easier to do when I’m making up the story as I go along, as opposed to reciting a memorized transcript.
– Project confidence: If I appear nervous on stage, the audience will feel an urge to take care of me and will lose focus on the story itself.
– Slow it down: There is a lag between when I speak a word and when it is processed by my audience. Allow my audience to process one image before moving on to the next one.
– Kill my darlings: Superfluous narrative needs to go. No matter how beautiful it is, if it’s not the meat of the story, my words will lose my audience. We practiced this until 30 seconds felt longer than 60 seconds.
– Recover gracefully (clever): If I accidentally omit a part of the story that is critical to understanding the ending, rather than saying, “I forgot to tell you something,” instead say: “but what you don’t know…” or, “what I haven’t told you yet…”
– Take a moment: At the beginning and end of my performance, take a moment to connect with my audience. Starting too soon or leaving the stage too quickly will undermine the power of my story and might also slight my audience.
Among us was also a 10 year old girl. I was amazed at the ease with which she spun stories, and it reminded me that storytelling is less about learning a new craft and more about rediscovering an old one.
Lately I’ve had some great brainstorms on how to frame my storytelling project this summer. My friends, sis, and I have come up with a list of eight ideas that I’m excited about and, the longer I sit with this list the more excited I feel about one idea in particular.
The question that I want to answer is: Why will people be excited to move to Los Angeles in 10 years? In an era where Hollywood has been killed by distributed content creation and distribution (a la YouTube), where foreign investors are no longer pouring money into skyscrapers in Los Angeles (but rather new megacities in the Far East), where Americans are immigrating abroad for blue collar jobs, why will people still pack up their lives and move, with excitement and purpose, to the city of Los Angeles? What is it about LA’s DNA, its lifeblood, that will continue to draw both fresh immigrants and tourists? What are the immutable, timeless values that can be found in LA and nowhere else?
I like this question because it’s one that I’m genuinely curious about, and it’s one that I feel that Los Angeles, and America more broadly, will really have to grapple with if (when?) it’s overtaken, economically, culturally, and militarily, by the rising tigers of the Far East. Other former superpowers — take France for example — have gone through this introspective process (arguably after WW2), and have done a pretty good job at finding their core values (or articulating their story). Over 80 million tourists go to France annually (more than the country’s population!) to fall in love with French culture — that timeless, unique, immutable set of values that can only be found in the alleyways, boulevards, parks, and art galleries of France.
So why will people come to Los Angeles when its skyline is unimpressive, its economy is stagnant, and its cultural impact is negligible? What are LA’s other assets that fill a big hole in the hearts of its residents, many of whom may not be interested in Hollywood, or a glam lifestyle, or may have better job prospects elsewhere, but stay in LA because they love the idea of raising their families there? If I can help LA to answer this question, perhaps I can help America to find itself in a world where its economy is second to China’s (or, according to the Wall Street Journal, in 10 years).
My main concern about this story is that it’s so big. I have this hypothesis that the more specific the story, the more compelling it is. And so one of my challenges is how to tell this story in a way that’s extremely personal, and yet speaks to the larger narrative. Here’s to figuring that out-
A few related thoughts:
– Professor Antonio Muntadas: “The fastest way to determine if you have the right story is to try to tell it. Before you head to LA, interview people in Boston. You’ll know very quickly what works and what doesn’t”
– Professor Ricardo-Pitts Wiley: “The difference between story — and news — is how deeply the person is invested in sharing it.” What I like about this story is that I feel that most residents of Los Angeles (those who plan to stay there indefinitely) have a vested interest in sharing it. This is potentially powerful.
– If I do tell this story, I’d love to integrate it into my cross-country drive to Los Angeles. One idea is to ask for peoples’ (say a farm-hand in Kansas) opinion’s on Los Angeles. Perhaps people outside of LA have an easier time articulating why it’s a great city than those who live in it.
– As I think of this story, I’m often brought back to the “Lose Yourself in Melbourne” commercial presented in my marketing class by Professor Ritson.
This afternoon I had a great conversation with Jeanne Dasaro, co-founder of The New Prosperity Initiative (NPi), a nonprofit that publishes hopeful stories of people and organizations that are working to build social and economic prosperity in their communities.
I asked Jeanne for her advice regarding my summer project and she imparted some great wisdom. Specifically:
– When conducting an interview, do the video afterwards. Video has a way of taking the air out of the room.
– Beware: It’s easy to get caught up in an interview, lower your threshold for good answers, and then come home realizing that you didn’t get much that you can use.
– Phrasing questions to get a good answer is a lot harder then it seems. At the basic level it’s the difference between: “how was your day?” versus, “tell me about something that happened today”
Jeanne also pointed me to a few great resources that I’m excited to look into:
– I Heart Strangers: A running (daily!) compilation of photographs, and the stories of people in them. Created by Joshua Langlais.
– Theatre of the Oppressed: A theatrical concept where spectators are brought into the performance of a play about social issues. I’ve been thinking about how to mix improv with true narrative and this is an exciting manifestation of this.
– The Small Story: A site based on the belief that everyone has a story. Created by Cara Solomon.
– Positive Detroit: A website which publishes only positive news from the city of Detroit.
Here’s to positive narratives that build community and understanding-
Earlier this afternoon, in the heart of MIT’s campus, I joined 40 members of the MIT Arab Students Organization and their friends and consumed story in an oral tradition that runs deeply in our shared ancestry.
Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American with a talent for hip-hop and spoken word took us on a journey through the streets of Syria, as well as the unique liminal space that he resides in between his ethnic motherland (Syria) and his childhood home (America). His songs, inspired by the works of Langston Hughes, did an incredible job of conveying the beauty and shared culture that flows through the streets of Damascus. My favorite song of Omar’s was about a “Street Called Straight,” or a street in Damascus that’s purported to be the longest inhabited street in all of civilization. He walked us down it, and as he did so he spoke of the storytellers and shopkeepers that he met along the way, men and women who who represent a modern manifestation of a spirit that is as older than time and unique to Syria.
I was excited to find out that Omar is based on Los Angeles, and I hope that we have the opportunity to collaborate this summer.