Flounder on the Road

by Loren Niemi – May 12, 2022

We just finished twelve days on the road clocking in 3,567 miles to share four performances including three (High School, New Voices, Liar’s Contest) at the Stone Soup Storytelling Festival in Woodruff, SC and an on-line performance for the Northlands Storytelling Network’s 2022 Fringe Festival. In between and around those stories were meals, museums, and visits with friends in Richmond, VA, Brooklyn/ Manhattan, NY, Montclair/ Maplewood, NJ and Peoria, IL. 

It was a nod to the “used to be” of my years of spring tours and a reminder of what I do love about America. Even from the freeways/ tollways/ expressways, billboards and announcements of local attractions invite you to stop and look. Who wouldn’t want to wonder about Noah’s Ark Storage or Uncle Ali Baba’s House of Prime Rib? In another time I might have added stops there and back for house concerts or small storytelling workshops though for this road trip it was a hard two days driving 500 plus miles to get to South Carolina and similar long drives amid bumper to bumper traffic and road construction from Richmond to Brooklyn and Pennsylvania to Indianapolis. Even with the price of gas being what it is, it was good to see spring green.

What else was a nod to the past and hopefully the future was performing before a live audience. I am the first to admit that I do my best storytelling when the audience is in the room and I can hear them breathing. In that moment: what does this audience require? More or less description? Faster or slower delivery? Can I slide in a joke or a poetic image while we round this story’s corner? The telling is a relationship acted out in the present.

On Saturday at Stone Soup, I told “Burning Down the Barn” in the morning New Voices section and “Memphis BBQ” in the afternoon Liar’s Contest. That one got me a third place win and $50. Winning aside, it was/ is a joy all the more appreciated after the pandemic hiatus to see and hear an audience appreciate the story.

One of the models of how the American School of Storytelling might work is to do extended tours with day-long or weekend workshops and a performance over the course of a month or two. We’d like to partner with art centers, libraries, churches, and colleges who would take on the local promotion, registration, providing the space and hosting while the American School provided marketing content, course material and the performance. 

And for the performance, we’re thinking not just Loren Niemi but other regional or national tellers who are also American School of Storytelling instructors. We could work at flat rates or split the proceeds as need be. If you’re interested in talking about such an experience, drop us a line at americanschoolofstorytelling@gmail.com and let’s look at calendars for September of this year or pretty much any of 2023.

Reimagining Traditional Stories

by Loren Niemi – March 27, 2022

What do you remember about your favorite fairy tale? The major characters? Three pigs, a wolf… The basic plot? They build houses, the wolf blows the first two down but can’t shake the third. What else? The setting? Where were the pig’s houses? The time of year? Springtime or was it Summer? Who is telling the story?

Ahh, now there’s the first question that needs be asked about traditional tales, and personal tales as well. While most traditional tales are told in the third person (they/them), there is an argument to be made that when told in the first person (I/we) the story has more “energy” and greater emotional engagement. What is the story when told from one of the pigs or the wolf’s point of view?

That is what the Reimagining Traditional Stories class is all about. Over the course of three hands-on 90-minute Zoom sessions Wednesdays, March 30, April 6th and 13th. From 7:00 – 8:30 PM Central time we will explore what happens when you change the point of view, the time frame and even where the story begins and ends. Bring a story you want to work on and see how what you thought the story is/was takes on a new vibrancy as you work with the tools for reimagining the familiar.

This is being taught by Loren Niemi, the American School of Storytelling’s founder and principal teacher. With over 43 years as a professional storyteller, 26 years of teaching the craft at Metro State University, and the author of two books on story structure (The New Book of Plots, Point of View & the Emotional Arc of Stories) he knows of what he speaks.

It’s $120 for the series and begins this Wednesday with an option of a discounted cost for additional individual coaching after the three sessions. Register for this one at Eventbrite.

How Erotic is that?

by Loren Niemi – September 8, 2021

When we posted the description for “The Erotic in Stories” some wag commented that it was “talking about pee-pee” which probably says a lot about his proclivities but nothing about what the workshop actually is. If anything, that comment points out the need for a considered understanding about what eroticism is amid the frequent and casual misunderstandings.

We are not talking about porn. We are not talking about cliché. We are not even talking about the ordinary images of bare-chested hunks of Romance novels or the prominent busts of femme fatales of Detective/Crime covers, though they may claim it.

I will suggest that the Erotic is the “spell of the ordinary,” that is to say, it is the particular combination of the emotional and the physical in a particular time and place. The effect of light and shadow, taste, smell, sound which carries or invites emotional connection. It is both what is present in an appeal to the senses and what is withheld, that which is suggested. That suggestion is precisely why, in most instances, it is not porn which is explicit.

The focus of the two sessions of “the Erotic in Stories” with Loren Niemi and Laura Packer, will be on how to find/select/craft the erotic in personal and traditional stories. How to create the right details to invite the audience to make their emotional connection to the story or the characters in the story. We will also take a look at the use of metaphor which can be a powerful tool for casting a “spell”. For the participants, whether you choose to reinvigorate traditional material or flesh out a personal story, this hands-on workshop is just that – you working on your material to enliven the story.

Register today

Woman smoking on couch

Forgetting the Middle for a Moment

by Loren Niemi – August 7, 2021

In America we are used to stories that begin, “Once upon a time…” It is familiar and recognizable. What follows is not here and now, but some other place, some other time in which, as often as not, magic and adventure are possible. What follows is a story that proceeds to an ending which, as often as not, concludes with “Happily ever after.” It takes us out of that other time and place and returns us to the here and now. This too is a metaphor that all is well, that the world turned upside down has been righted.

“Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are not the only beginnings and endings of stories. There are dozens, hundreds, of culturally specific beginnings and endings but all serve the same purpose to mark a departure from the here and now into another realm. Why? It is easy to see the utility of those formula beginnings and endings in traditional stories. They are a shorthand that lets the audience suspend judgment, and enjoy the lessons, values, modeling of behaviors that are contained in the entertainment, that is the story.

With personal, literary and contemporary stories, how we begin is more problematic. Those old formulas don’t work or don’t work as well. What we need is a start that does two things simultaneously: provides an invitation for the audience into the world in which the story takes place and sets the tone for what follows. A strong image or a particular action is called for. To use a fishing image, we need to set the hook as soon as possible. Sometimes the storyteller needs to provide some context but the danger is that we offer too much background or wind up talking about the story rather than tell it. Often we forget that we can begin with the moment the world is turned upside down or an invocation of time and place that sets that hook, and fill in the background as the story proceeds.

How we end the story is also problematic when we are not using a traditional formula. Here the central question is where or what do we want the audience to have when the story ends. Emotional satisfaction? A good laugh? A question? A hunger for more? An implied moral? On that point, let me beg you not to end a story with an explicit moral. If you are pointing out the lesson, either you distrust the audience’s intelligence to draw their own conclusion or distrust your ability to demonstrate within the story what the “moral” is. Depending on what we want the audience to be left with will determine where the story ends. Even then, it is helpful to have a strong or satisfying image that marks “done” rather than sputtering to a stop or as is the case with many slam stories, coming to an abrupt and unsupported end because you ran out of time.

Both beginnings and ending require careful crafting. It has been said that if you know where you begin and where you end the middle will fill itself in. True enough when you are crafting the whole of the story. Once you decide how to start and have some idea of where you want to end, the decisions about how to get there are structural. A leads to B leads to C or some variation of that depending on the particular plot form that serves the story. Conversely, if you begin with a particular plot form in mind, the possible satisfactory and functional beginnings and endings are finite. It is the choosing and the structuring after, that makes the story live.

Which brings me to the next class from the American School of Storytelling: a class specifically on the crafting of beginnings and endings. Three sessions of hands-on exercises for deciding what kind of a beginning and ending best suits the material you want to tell. Whether you are looking to wrestle a personal story into an engaging tale or reimagine a traditional story without “once upon a time” (or to find a compelling image/invitation into that world after “once upon a time…”) these sessions will give you useful tools to shape the material.

Here is the registration link

Telling Difficult Stories

by Loren Niemi – June 30, 2021

John Barth (an author not much read outside of Academic enclaves these days) said: “The story of your life is not your life; it’s your story.”

I am in agreement with him on that point. The stories of my life are usually more interesting, and perhaps more meaningful, than the life that gave rise to them. I can tell over 400 stories about my life from age 5 through last week. Each of them is a mix of memory, emotion, fact and (for the sake of honesty) craft, that makes the story as Elizabeth Ellis and I often say in the Difficult Stories workshop: “truthful and artful.”

But let me elaborate on this point in relation to difficult stories in general and the Difficult Stories workshop in particular.

What we live is simultaneously complex and simple. We make the (best) decisions we can in any given moment as to what we will believe a situation or course of action is and what we will or will not do. That is the simple part. The complex part is how we feel about that situation or course of action and what it means in the larger context of our lives. Our messy, entangled lives. Much of the time that process of coming to know and understand what we feel and what it means is intimately connected to the story we tell ourselves first of all, and then, tell the family/community we are a part of.

It is said that the difference between storytelling and therapy is that in therapy we pay the audience. That may be the case, but the core of each is not our relationship to the audience but our relationship to the story. For many of us, therapy is the process of learning how to tell and interpret the meaning of our story. The function of the therapist is to be both a ‘deep-listening’ audience and depending on the approach, the coach/inquisitor/dramaturge of our telling.

In our book, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking about Difficult Stories” Elizabeth Ellis and I point out that our workshop is not therapy though it may be therapeutic. The fact is that there are two parts to working with difficult stories. The first is to come to an understanding of what it means for you. Therapy is, in theory, the place to do that. The Difficult Stories workshop is focused on understanding what it can mean to others. In looking at the specific choices you have in structuring your story, you may come to an understanding or a better understanding of what it means to you but our focus is on how to shape the story in a way that lets others have an understanding of your story – the who, what, where, when, and why of experience – that illuminates the meaning of the story for you.

We say that difficult stories are those that are hard to hear and hard to speak. We say telling them is valuable and necessary. Whether they are testimony or a cautionary tale, a lesson learned, a mistake made or corrected, we are committed to helping you make the conscious structural choices that will allow you to speak truthfully (to the facts and the meaning) and artfully (to images and themes that move a story to the universal and human).

Priced at $200 and limited to 10 participants, the three-session on-line version begins Thursday, July 8th at 7 PM Central and as a bonus, if you do not have a copy of our book, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories” I (Loren) will send you one upon completion of the workshop.

Register today!

The Allure of Summer Camp Ghost Stories

by Loren Niemi – June 19, 2021

There is a story I tell about camping with the boy scouts in my youth. At one point after the meal of bacon, beans and burnt potatoes, the scoutmaster has us assembled around a fire and begins to tell us a series of ghost stories. Each is more horrible than the one that preceded it and I say, “If this is the place where the insane killer slaughtered all those boys, why are we here?”

His reply was, “Niemi, you just don’t get it, do you?”

But I did. Even then I realized two things about ghost stories told around the campfire. The first that no matter where you are, some dreadful spilling of blood and guts took place. The location doesn’t matter, the story doesn’t change. It is always supposed to make you look around wondering, WTF will happen next? The second thing is that these stories are only as scary as the audience’s willing participation. No matter how we ratchet up the BG&G (blood, guts & gore) if the campers are unwilling to suspend their disbelief, unwilling to see themselves in the situation, the stories cannot offer thrills and chills.

Many years later, I was telling ghost stories at a girl scout camp. ‘The Ghost with One Black Eye’, ‘Phantom Hitchhiker’, a Wendigo tale had all made an appearance but the story that provoked screams started with “She didn’t want to be a babysitter, but she was. She didn’t want to go into the dark basement with the bad flashlights but she did…” and that’s all I had to say. Those campers did not have to suspend their disbelief to see themselves in that story. They already had so many images in their head of what that was, and so easily could see themselves in that story, that my invitation was enough.

There is a formula for every ghost story which calls for us to establish entry into a work in which ghosts or perhaps more generally, the unimaginable, may be imagined. Often, we begin with the common place, the ordinary, into which the unexpected enters. Whether it is the girl standing in the rain, and when you stop, is seeking a ride home or the creaking of the ghost with one black eye climbing the steps. From there we build tension leading to a climax. In the first instance, the parents tell the driver she is long in the grave, in the second it is the impudent dweller of the bed offering a second black eye.

The sleight of hand in ghost stories is based on the tone of voice. It is not only what we say but how we say it. When are you soft, when loud, when fast, when painfully slow? It is the modulation of voice that allows the audience to fill in details, to fill in emotional anticipation.

Let me circle back to that moment I started with. In fact, the ‘ghost’ in the story I tell is not anything the Scoutmaster told us but what happened the next day when we were coming back to the parked cars that would take us home. There was an ambulance and county sheriff’s deputies crowded around the body of a drowned man. The Scoutmaster had us line up and walk past the body. “Take a good look at death,” was the implicit statement and since most of us had never seen that sort of thing before, it made an impression.

The ghost story I tell leads the audience from the lighthearted foibles of boy scouts on a camping trip to that moment, and to the silence that follows. If I tell the story well, that silence at the end is what haunts the listener.

When done well a ghost story is a joy, And all this and more will be explored in our free Summer Camp Ghost Stories workshop on June 27, 2021 at 7pm.

Visit our classes page for the full list of upcoming offerings.