Word of mouth

The art and value of live, personal storytelling

Among the many ways to tell a story, the most primal is aloud and face-to-face. And among the infinite stories that can be told, perhaps the most transformative are those that are personal, and true.

Since 2017, I’ve served on the Board of Directors for Ex Fabula, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening community bonds through the art of storytelling. At the center of our efforts is an annual series of StorySlam events, where audience members of any skill level are invited to take the stage and tell a 5-minute story on the night’s theme. The catch? The story must be true and must convey the teller’s own experiences.

The power of story to bring people together – even complete strangers – is undeniable. In the stories of others, we see our own strengths and faults reflected. We relate to events and emotions that remind us of our past. We recognize the common humanity that connects us despite our beautiful differences. And when we gather in the same room to hear one another’s stories, we forge new relationships based on that shared experience. We promote a culture of listening that reinforces the worth and dignity of everyone.

Oral storytelling is an ancient art that is alive and thriving in our modern communities.

In the spirit of sharing, here is a brief story of my own, recorded to promote an upcoming Ex Fabula StorySlam. While there’s no substitute for the energy of an open stage, a live mic and a packed house, I hope you still discover something in this brief video that resonates with you.

Beginner’s Luck “mini-story”

If you feel inspired, please check out Ex Fabula for yourself.

If you live in southeast Wisconsin or northern Illinois, join us for an upcoming storytelling event.

Or if you are far from the Midwest, you can still hear our stories through the Ex Fabula radio show, a partnership with WUWM, Milwaukee’s NPR.

Header photo by israel palacio on Unsplash
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Storytelling insight hatched from Eagle Cam

Learning to look beyond our line of sight

Obsessed isn’t the right word, but my family has become, let’s say, enamored with the Eagle Cam. You probably know the one. Perched high in an aerie above Decorah, Iowa, a family of bald eagles, including three recently hatched eaglets, are proceeding with their daily lives, blissfully unaware they are the stars of a new reality show. And it’s a hit.


Live streaming video by Ustream

I was introduced to the Eagle Cam by my daughter, whose class has been keeping tabs on this patriotic family of predators, but the live stream is now marching across social media faster than Grumpy Cat.

It’s not uncommon now for the backdrop of our dinner conversation or evening homework rituals to include silent, beak-to-beak feeding of squirrel viscera or the devastatingly adorable snuggling of cotton-clad eagle babies keeping warm in their gusty perch.

It’s captivating because it is an uncommon sight. Plus, the pairing of the hunters’ implacability with their gentle parenting creates a lovely paradox, albeit perfectly ordinary in nature. It’s difficult to stop watching because you don’t want to miss what comes next, and that is where this conversation dovetails (see what I did there?) with a discussion about writing.

Great storytelling makes us long to know what comes next. I wrote briefly about this regarding the mystery that can be created through perspectiveThe eagles are interesting because they are unpredictable, and we don’t know how their story ends. It is still being written.

Even more, we often are drawn as readers to what is unique. As writers, it’s important to challenge ourselves to discover the stories that lie beyond our line of sight. Sometimes, that’s literal, such as a biopic about raptors living in the trees above our heads.

It can also be figurative. The bullied child. The homeless woman. The unseen act of kindness. The secret identity of a true hero.

I advocate for unlikely storytelling because I view writing and reading as a way to explore the unknown in the world around us as well as within our innermost thoughts. There may be no better method for learning than a story – and that goes for writing as well as reading.

I have learned a few practical things about eagles by watching them on video. They build strong nests. They are nurturing. They are powerful. They work as a team.

I have also learned that by veering from the norm and looking in unexpected directions, I might find a compelling story. I have the Decorah eagles to thank for that.

And now that I’ve become invested in their lives, I hope their story ends well.