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The Spinning-Plate Theory of Storytelling

Have you ever seen a juggler start to juggle plates?

First, the juggler takes a plate out of a bag and puts it on a stick. Then she pays intense attention to it, gets it spinning until it needs just a small motion of her hand to keep spinning, and then turns her attention to the second plate.

In turn, the juggler focuses on getting each new plate started yet keeps the old plates going, until there are 6 or even 8 plates spinning above the her head.

Stories Are Like Plates

Every story that you learn, adapt, or create has its own periods of requiring intense attention and other periods of requiring much less attention.

When you’re obsessed with a new story, for example, it requires your direct attention in a work session or your indirect attention in the shower, where you suddenly have a new idea about it. This phase is like starting a plate.

There are other periods in your journey with a story, though, that resemble “just keeping the plate spinning.” Once you’ve begun telling a story in public, for instance, it usually requires less of your attention. To be sure, if you were to stop telling it long enough you’d forget it, but it only requires that you bring it out sometimes and give it a twist or two.

In other instances, a story needs your unconscious attention free of overt focus, which we commonly describe as “putting it on the back burner.”

The Trap of One

In the novel Madame Bovary, I seem to remember a character who is obsessed with writing a great novel. To be certain it was great, he began creating the perfect first sentence. For years, he worked hours a day on it, but all he did was to write and rewrite that first sentence!

If you spend all your time on one story for too long, it won’t develop as much as it could. On the other hand, if you spend too little time on one story, it won’t develop as much as it could, either.

You’ve probably noticed, too, how your experience in learning one story can help you learn another story. As it turns out, you become the best gatherer and spinner of stories when you have multiple stories that are all, in some way, being spun at once.

The key is balance. You aim to focus enough on each individual story (when it requires it) and also to have enough different stories in other stages of growth.

How Do You Create The Balance?

When you have a story that requires your intense attention, give it pride of place. Don’t start intense work on another story until that first one is happily up and spinning.

But once that first story no longer needs so much from you (or if it seems stuck for too long), be on the lookout for what your next story will be. It moves you forward to have new stories spun, one after the other, onto the ends of sticks. After all, old ones will eventually stop spinning well: they fall off and break or are ready to be put back in the bag for a while.

Marketing Spin

I first heard the spinning-plate metaphor used by Barbara J. Winter (in her 1993 book, Making a Living Without a Job), who used it to argue that independent service professionals need multiple streams of income. We can’t develop a new stream of income, she said, without paying close attention to it. But once it’s going, we can pay “maintenance attention” to it while we begin developing another income stream.

Her point, of course, applies to professional storytellers equally well.

In the same way that having only one story in your repertoire is a trap, so is having one product to sell, one customer, one source of income, or one market.

Going Broke

In the spring of 1990, I made a decision to focus all my attention on the school market. I hired a former teacher to help me get school jobs. I stopped pursuing all other forms of work.

I made this decision, as bad luck would have it, just a few months before a major recession hit Massachusetts. Before the next school year even began, the market for artists in schools collapsed.

In short, I had dropped all my other plates just as this one broke in my hands. I found myself without any income at all.

Why Diversify?

Any market will eventually dry up – because you tire of it, because you outgrow it, because the funding changes, or because other artists come along who become the new “flavors of the month.”

I’m not telling you to give up on a particular market that you love. But it’s in your best interest to cultivate new ones, too.

Further, you want additional WAYS to earn money. If you rely completely on performances, for example, consider adding workshops, publications, coaching, etc.

My Second Chance

One day in September, 2001, I arrived at the airport in Atlanta – only to find that all planes were grounded because of a terrorist attack.

At the time, of course, I did not imagine that many people would stop flying for years to come. Neither did I imagine that one of my streams of income, in-person workshops in several cities around the U.S., was going to be cut in half as a result.

As it happened, I had other plates in my bag. I began to put intense attention to increasing my telephone coaching, then, later, my recorded stories and workshops, and then, still later, courses taught via telephone and World Wide Web.

Because of those additional plates, my business has shifted. But it was not devastated by the changes in 2001 as it was in 1990.

Just as in an ecosystem, the best protection against change is always diversity. As a storyteller, whether you’re learning stories or earning your living through stories, your best protection and your best method of growth is to carefully nurture, in your artistic and your professional life, many spinning plates.

This is issue #82 of “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” You can sign up for your free monthly subscription (complete with money-saving subscriber specials and announcements) in the upper right corner of this page.

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