This is also a discussion on story telling.
They come together, trust me.
Essay Fiesta takes place every third Monday at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. It, like a vast majority of shows, is a first person, non-fiction story telling series. The first awesomely weird difference, though, is the theme song that hosts Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin play on toy xylophones and concertinas. The second difference is that, unlike other pass-the-hat style readings that use the money to stay running or to pay the authors, Essay Fiesta donates all of their proceeds to 826 Chi, the youth writing program founded by Dave Eggers. Past that, it’s a classic series.
The five year anniversary (which is an accomplishment among accomplishments) also featured a live band, Funky Hot Grits, playing before and in the middle of the show. Which is always fun, live music and live lit being intertwined. There was, as there is at five year anniversary readings (see Story Club), appropriate birthday decorations. As the theme song played, the bright lights of the Book Cellar on, birthday decorations abound, a friend turned to me and said “This just got twee as fuck.”
Which is what it is. Twee is fun, twee is cute. The stories started off with Willy Nast telling a story about leading a conference full of people while working in the corporate world, envious of a poet friend who followed his gut and left for Egypt on the precipice of the 2011 revolution. Following was Tiffany Wong in her live lit debut, talking about Portland. Third came Jeff Miller, recounting a hiking trip to Colorado without enough water. And last, Karen Shimmin talked about babysitting and breaking up and crashing a car. Then there was a break with more Funky Hot Grits.
I’m giving short descriptions of these because they were fun or interesting or cute stories, but the staying power wasn’t there. They were given as stories at face value. Willy and Karen brought theirs back around to bigger points (Feeling trapped in a job and the need to feel needed, respectively), but the others relied on an understanding with the audience that there was something bigger. The stories were difficult to connect to because feeling was missing. Besides that, with the exceptions, the stories were told with wide lenses, covering a lot of ground, a lot of time. This made it harder to connect as well.
As Funky Hot Grits played and I grabbed a beer (a book store with beer, +1), I looked forward to the second half of the reading. Two of the tellers I have seen many times before, and with good reason. Megan Stielstra and Essay Fiesta original founder Keith Ecker are amazing storytellers. And they didn’t disappoint at Essay Fiesta. Keith with a story about feeling comfortable with his identity as a gay man while dining in the South, and Megan while discussing burning herself at Arby’s while waiting to get out of her hometown and away from her parents’ ongoing divorce. Also in the second half of the evening, David Maclean told a story about spin class—the only story about a spin class that you will ever need to hear—tying it to his history of running away from a collective motivation. These stories were precise, clear, and wonderful.
And there is a difference in how they were written. They were performed with a level of expertise that comes with being more established tellers, sure, but it was the stories themselves that followed a fairly specific formula for a good live lit story.
Here’s where I should give a big old caveat.
I am not a professional story teller. I have told stories several times, but would by no means call myself an expert. I watch a lot of readings, though, and as I watch both the tellers and the audiences, I’ve noticed a few commonalities between the ones that get the best reaction. So here is that:
The best live lit stories offer a single story, a story of one specific moment, in two halves. In the first half, the audience is given the Information. The Information—location, time, who this past version of the story teller was, and the conflict of the story—sets the audience up for the second part of the story, the Message. The Message is an expository exploration of the reason we are being told this story. It helps the audience understand what the teller is really trying to say. It helps the audience connect with the same feelings or learn new ones. It’s where the teller creates a shared space of understanding around the topic. And then, usually, the teller jumps back to end the story with a little bit more of the Information, just enough to bookend the story and keep things organized. Go to a reading. Listen for these parts. I’ll bet you’ll find them.
These two-part stories do well, and at Essay Fiesta, they had the audience. The folks who came and stayed, a pretty packed room, all fell into rapt silence, hanging on each and every word. And this was an excellent move on the host’s part, keeping the strongest tellers together, towards the end, right before passing the hat and collecting the money for charity. They knew how to use the two parts of the reading to effectively get to their goal. They did a great job making sure the audience was going to be receptive to their Message. And that’s pretty cool.
Essay Fiesta is the third Monday of the month at The Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln Ave.)