Long ago, someone asked me the question, “Musicians practice scales to develop their skills. What can storytellers practice? To get better, what should we work on?”
I will answer this question positively, in a future newsletter. But first: you must be warned!
It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? “Put in your hours practicing basic skills, and you’ll be a better storyteller.”
Unfortunately, this apparently worthy quest for skills can easily lead your storytelling astray.
How? Here are four dangers of “skill work” in storytelling:
Danger 1: Disconnecting
If you focus too much on the mechanics, you can become disconnected from the big picture, from the purpose of your storytelling.
I knew a violinist from the New York Philharmonic, Mischa Borodkin. He heard me dutifully practicing scales on my guitar one day and stopped me. “When you are playing scales,” Mischa said, “always play with soul.”
The last thing we want to get better at is disconnecting from our stories, our selves, and our listeners. “Practicing” can help us improve, but only if we are practicing communicating what matters to us.
Rather than practice mindlessly, tell stories often to caring listeners. As you tell, seek immediacy and connection. Seek to lead your listeners on a satisfying, mutually enriching journey.
Danger 2: Running from Your Fears
The urge to develop skills can sometimes be a response to fear. We can be afraid of doing poorly, of being disliked, of being vulnerable, and much more.
All those fears are understandable. But the way to conquer them is to face them and heal them, not to “build your arsenal of skills.”
Rather than learn skills as a way to not feel afraid, try to embrace the exhilaration of telling, of letting go of the bar on the roller-coaster, of joyfulling riding the story wave.
Danger 3: Neglecting Your Strengths
There may be one best way to play a rapid C-major scale on a piano, but there are infinitely many ways to be a great pianist, a great composer, or a great storyteller.
Think of the storytellers you love best. They do not all tell stories the same way! Instead, they have each found ways of telling that build on their unique strengths.
Build new strengths, of course. But don’t neglect the noble search for the strengths you already have. Rather, notice what works now. Experiment with doing it more – more often and more boldly. Find safe places to tell in new ways, then allow your unique qualities to emerge in them.
Danger 4: Not Prioritizing
There are lots of skills I could use in storytelling. I could certainly make use of Odds Bodkin’s harp skills and Kevin Locke’s hoop-dancing skills. I could use some less obvious skills, too: Donald Davis’s ability to move an audience to long, deep laughter and then on to other deep feelings. Connie Regan-Blake’s deep sense of integrity. Penninah Schramm’s flowing river of connection to Jewish tradition. And more.
But such skills can take decades to develop, so I can’t develop them all. Which skills are, in fact, worth my life’s blood?
That’s the question I need to answer. My answer will be mine alone, and it will likely shift over the years.
This is the fourth danger: focussing on a list of skills can divert me from the path of prioritizing, of wrestling with the question, “Exactly which potential strengths of mine will pay off the most for my listeners and me?”
So What Path Should You Take?
The quest for storytelling skills is an honorable one. But rather than being the safe path it might appear to be, it is strewn with the dangers described above.
The only path worthy of your art is one that keeps you connected and brave, that leads you to the hard choices that assist you in discovering your own flavors of greatness.
(Please look for a list of “The Twelve Skills of the Storyteller” in future newsletters.)