What Comedians Know About Great Storytelling
I have a guest blog post up on Brevity this week. The post explains how I made a pyramid to organize my memoir's narrative threads, from the specific to the universal.
The day my Brevity blog post went live, I listened to the podcast This American Life, episode 596: Becoming a Badger. It contained the story of a French comedian trying to make it big in America. The big-name American comedians all said that he was good. Great, even. But his act felt a little generic.
"The whole point of going to see a comedian is you want to see something that other comedians don't do," Colin Quinn said. "It's all relatable. It's emotions, you know what I mean? ... Now I get to use my favorite expression (I'm always looking for an excuse): In the specific is the universal."
The other comedians agreed.
"Being personal—that's where American comedy's at right now," said Zach McDermott.
"When you're a headliner," said Ali Wong, "those are the people who give a lot of their essence on stage."
"Just tell me what you care about," Jeff Garlin said.
Damn, I thought. That's really good advice. Not just for comedians, but for me. Give a lot of your essence on the page. Tell people what you care about. In the specific is the universal.
Plotting my narrative threads on a spectrum from specific to universal helped me find clarity. But it was only the beginning. Now I must weave those threads together into a cohesive story. I have to tell the world what I care about.
I have to keep writing, in other words.
I've written a rough draft of the first ten chapters of The Skeleton Club. A few sections still don't feel right. I trim what feels like fluff, then I go back to discover that I've cut too much of the story. The editing becomes an addiction. I become so mired in the polishing of words that I lose touch with what's important.
"Just tell me what you care about."
I'm trying. And sometimes I get it wrong. I wrote a blog post last week that hurt someone I love. I'd written the truth, from my perspective. But my perspective contained petty resentments and misplaced anger that even my careful editing couldn't wipe clean.
I ultimately deleted the post, but I couldn't delete the hurt I'd caused.
I care about telling the truth. I care about not hurting people. I care about coming to the page raw and vulnerable and unafraid. I care about what other people think.
"Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass. "Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."
Good for Whitman. Me, I contain muddles. But I'm still here. Still writing. Still sharing my essence with the world.
I hope you'll share your essence with me, too. I hope you'll tell me what you care about, whether you say it with a painting or a photo or a Facebook post. Let's get specific. And maybe with those specifics, we'll find the universal threads that connect us all.
Collage by Carmelo Alvarado (Creative Commons license)