Ever since Mrs. Kaplan’s 4th grade class, I was taught about the importance of story structure. You have your beginning, your middle, and your ending. This was the structure used for essays, stories, poems, eventually term papers, eventually screenplays, eventually one man storytelling shows. It’s also a structure that follows us beyond the medium of writing. Our relationships have beginnings (first dates), middles (being comfortable enough to pee with the door open), and ends (oops). Our professional lives have beginnings (interviews and first days), middles (water coolers and office parties), and ends (oops). We’re in a constant state of being either in the beginning of something, the middle of something, or the end of something, often times at overlapping intervals all at once. A few months ago I was given the opportunity to work on a project that’s had me re-imagining this structure, and wondering about the importance of endings.
A few months ago I was invited to partake in a one day design session hosted by FIT. FIT, if you remember, is a team that looks at innovating around disaster relief. This one day session was a pure brainstorming session based around one issue – flooding in Pakistan. The goal was to come up with 2 ideas of something that could be prototyped and then presented to a non-profit that’s been doing work with Pakistanis around disaster relief and emergency preparedness. That was our beginning. We had 1 day, some paper, a lot of colorful markers, and open space for creativity. We split into two groups, mine being myself and Steph Brown. We started our process very simply, very broadly, by writing down “storytelling”. And then we dove in.
The term “storytelling” is one that I grapple with on what seems like an every day basis. Ever since diving into the storytelling community just over a year ago, it’s a conversation I have a lot. What does storytelling mean? In some ways, aren’t we all storytellers? What constitutes a story? Is a painting a story? Of course. Is architecture? Public policy? Culinary arts? Sure, why not. The sort of institutionalization of “storytelling” as a specific medium, ala the Moth, is a relatively new medium, especially when the argument of “weren’t cavemen who drew on walls also storytellers?” comes into play. I have personally fallen in love with storytelling as a medium and have fallen in love with its powers and ability to bring together a community, also ala the Moth. Having had the opportunity to work with their Community Program, I got to see the power that the storytelling process can have on people, both old and young. There’s something special that happens when you sit down with people and bare your soul.
I think back to working on my one man show with my wonderful director Nisse Greenberg. Sitting in his kitchen, eating freshly cooked vegetables, and just talking about the lowest points in my life. Not just what happened, but what I felt when they happened. The story, as Nisse would show me, is not the story of me thinking I had a job and moving back to New York and then not getting it. The story is in the moment when I was sitting in what I thought was an introductory meeting and the moment I realized it was just an interview. That moment. The story isn’t about my friend who committed suicide the night before our senior play and how it resulted in me dressing up as a female monkey, the story is in the moment I was walking down the hallway to the dressing room. The stories are in the moments we don’t think about mostly because we don’t want to think about them. But these moments are the ones that we need to bring up, that we need to talk about with each other. These are the moments that we wanted to foster for Pakistani flood survivors.
We started by talking about what modes of storytelling we could use. What issues we wanted to bring out. The tree branches of ideas grew and grew, some spiraled into vortexes of unusefulness, some begat new ideas. This was our middle. The middle of something is often the messiest, because you’re constantly creating and, in my opinion if you’re doing it right, breaking the rules. This was the meat of the relationship, the most pressing work project, the action. We start to narrow down our rules – we want to think of something that will be low tech. Web? Video? No, too much. Cell phones, SMS? Good, but can we get it even less technical? What does that mean? New rule – accessibility. We want to think of something that can be used by everyone. New rule – replicability. We want something that can be used by anyone whether or not there’s someone there telling them how to use it. Where did that leave us? Around our lunch break. What was our purpose? What was the goal? To help people who had been through an ordeal we couldn’t even imagine. Well, why don’t we just have a space where people can talk? No tech. No flash. Just people sharing their stories. So we took that idea, we sprinkled in some structure and rules that someone could implement, and we came out with an idea that we’re now calling the Story Troubadours.
The idea is pretty simple – create a space for communities to share stories amongst each other. FOCUS, the group on the ground that FIT has been in partnership with, would set up the infrastructure and establish the idea, but then the communities themselves would gather and share stories with each other. The stories would be focused on ideas that had some sort of tie to survivorship: coming home, rebuilding, passing information along from generation to generation. What can we learn from our pasts? What can we do to prepare in the future? People should gather at community meeting places, and once FOCUS sets up the structure, it’s all community led. Essentially, there would be a beginning and a middle, but no ending.
Endings are important. They help us wrap up what we just experienced, help us grasp what we learned, help us unpack or pack up what we need to move on. They help us evaluate the effectiveness of a project. They provide us with information on how to make something better next time. But sometimes we don’t get the ending we want or deserve (I’m looking in your direction Quantum Leap, which wasn’t sure if it was being renewed or not, so it just ends with Sam jumping at the end and WE NEVER KNOW IF HE GETS HOME OR NOT). Sometimes its ok if there isn’t an ending. Sometimes its better if there is no ending.
I think we’re more and more dependent on endings, and it diminishes our beginnings and our middles. We get wrapped up in the evaluative measures of something to wonder how well we did or if we impressed someone, we lose sight of what we’re actually doing. We focus too much on where a relationship is going rather than the relationship. We think about promotions and moving up the ladder rather than on the work in front of us. I think it’s ok for there not to be an ending for the Story Troubadours, I think that’s part of the point. In a storytelling class I took at the Magnet last year, someone asked the teacher (Adam Wade) how he comes up with some of these stories, since it seemed like some take place over the course of many years. He explained that stories aren’t ever set in stone. It’s not like you tell a story and then that’s it, but that they evolve over time. The more he lives, the more he experiences, the more he learns, the more his stories change, and that’s a good thing. There isn’t necessarily an ending, and there shouldn’t be.
We have since worked more on the project, worked up a prototype, and it’s now on its way to FOCUS to implement in Pakistan, which I could not be more proud of. What started as a single word on a piece of paper written down by 2 people in a small room with magic markers is on its way to hopefully impacting real lives. Will it be successful? Will it help anyone? That’s part of an ending not yet written. But I’m growing more and more appreciative of embracing that. I’m more and more happy falling deeper into the beginnings and middles.
Sorry Mrs. Kaplan.