The keynote speaker at the Writers On The Sound writing conference was Brian McDonald. His talk, The Secret Power of Story, was engaging, interactive and fun…even in the gymnasium of what used to be an elementary school.
At the beginning of the session he took us along the journey of creating a story together as an audience of about 200 people. He ran from one side of the gymnasium to the other, microphone in hand, and helped us build a story using seven basic steps, or triggers, that propelled the action. In the case of our audience, we created a story that invovled a princess, a vacuum cleaner and her evil father, the king. It seems somewhat superficial (only seven steps?), but you can see how these seven steps, or variations of them, are the basis for how most stories move:
- Once Upon a Time
- Every day
- Until one day
- And because of this
- And because of this
- Until finally
- Ever since that day
After the group story-telling session was over, McDonald urged us to think of ourselves not as writers (what?!) but instead to think of ourselves as storytellers.
What he shared about stories and storytelling really resonated with me. He had so many good nuggets, here are just a few:
- We’re all ravenous for stories, we seek them out. Words are just the device we use to tell stories.
- Why do human beings tell stories? We tell stories because they contain survival information . Through stories, we benefit from someone’s experience. And, as a writer, I would argue that we benefit in sharing our experiences.
- The method or medium in which those stories are shared doesn’t matter – it can be in a comic book, short story, newspaper article, movie, play, etc. What matters is that there is something in that story that speaks to the piece of humanity that transcends all the other stuff on the outside.
- As a writer, the more personal you are in telling your story, the more invisible you become to the reader.
- The story that you don’t want to write is the one that you have to share.
In the spirit of stories, Brian wove many stories into his talk. One of these was a profile he heard on This American Life. The profile was about a mother whose child was born with Mosaic Down Syndrome. With this syndrome, a child will possibly develop some characteristics of Down Syndrome, and he may not develop others. When he was born and diagnosed, this mother decided she would not to tell her child that he had Mosaic Down Syndrome until he asked about it. When he began attending school, he noticed that the kids treated him differently. When he asked why, his mother explained that he had some characteristics that were different than the other kids. When the interviewer from This American Life asked him how he felt about being different, this boy said, “Well, I think of it like the X-Men. They were different, but that’s why they were cool.”
Yes, the secret power of stories help us survive.