The Challenges of Story Compression

One of the most difficult challenges every storyteller faces is how to compress days / months / years / centuries when crafting a narrative. For example, the Roman Empire lasted some 500 years, yet books on the topic are typically under 500 pages, which illustrates how many facts the authors had to cut. Even when the subject is as narrow as the life of one person, such as Julius Caesar, that same page count only allows for the highlights. Volumes of data are left behind.

So imagine the difficulty in reducing an entire life – and in this case it’s quite an illustrious life – into a twenty minute podcast. Could you compress your life into twenty minutes? Rather frustrating for most folks. But such is the mastery of Nate DiMeo, founder of The Memory Palace, with his insightful story about Robert Smalls. You might call The Wheel a master class in story compression.

This excerpt from Wikipedia will give you some indication of Robert Smalls’ life, though it’s just one chapter of a saga that’s hard to fathom. Listen to Nate’s narrative and you’ll gain a much better sense of Robert’s keen ability to plan and execute. The other thing you will notice is the difference between information – as provided by Wikipedia – and narrative nonfiction – as spoken by Nate DiMeo.

Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915) was an American politician, publisher, businessman, and naval pilot. Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, he freed himself, his crew, and their families during the American Civil War by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, on May 13, 1862, and sailing it from Confederate-controlled waters of the harbor to the U.S. blockade that surrounded it. He then piloted the ship to the Union-controlled enclave in Beaufort-Port Royal-Hilton Head area, where it became a Union warship. His example and persuasion helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.

Even without personal knowledge of the area, and few details of the historical moment, you can still imagine the scene of a blockade off the coast, of Robert’s desire to escape slavery in The South, and the impossible notion of stealing a Confederate boat in order to make his escape. There is the briefest mention of his mother, his wife and two daughters, yet you clearly see the stakes involved in his decision to take that boat, to risk it all.

Robert Smalls Photo By Brady Handy

Photo by Mathew Brady / Public Domain

With the visual references to slaves being bought and sold, to being whipped in the fields, you come to embrace the motivation, despite the stakes, to take that boat, to take the wheel, at the age of 23. The escape took hours, but in just a few seconds Nate takes us onboard the Confederate gunboat CSS Planter, where we feel the tension, the odds stacked against success.

Confederate Gunboat CSS Planter

Photo by Unknown Author / Public Domain

I’ll leave it to you to hear the story to its conclusion. To marvel at the fact that his heroic exit from South Carolina wasn’t the end of the story. How he served in the Union Navy.  How he returned to Beaufort after the war, became a politician and served in both the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives.

By the story’s conclusion I felt as though I had been listening for hours, while being taken on a magnificent journey of one man’s incredible life. But when I checked the clock, only twenty minutes had passed. Story compression is a time warp, an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling short-changed.

If you have a desire to tell your life story – on a podcast or on a stage – if only to cover the highlights, yet feel that the challenge of compressing your story to a reasonable length is next to impossible, revisit this podcast. In fact, do yourself a favor and subscribe to The Memory Palace. Every episode is a master class in how to captivate an audience and reveal the essence of what it means to be human, and do so in a matter of minutes.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The Challenge of Finding Historical Truth

My last post touched on the art of Interviewing From a Historical Perspective as a way to enrich your story by including the experiences of others. But finding the truth in history can be a problematic topic unto itself, as so much of what we think of as history deviates from the truth in sometimes subtle, and sometimes dramatic fashion.

The decisions we make are largely based on our perceptions of the past, which means the only way we can tell a true narrative is to understand the past correctly. As long as we live within a lie that others have told to protect/enhance their reputation or further their false ideology, we will create/enable a new generation of liars. ~ML

In a recent Longform podcast episode Evan Ratliff spoke with Michelle García, and part of that interview dealt with the issue of determining what is true, as well as the difference between just telling the truth and telling an honest story.

Do listen. It’s a masterclass in coming to understand who you are, where you come from, and the challenges of telling an impactful story others need to hear.

How You Alter the Narrative

If your intent is to capture a story’s essence, to reveal a fundamental truth to your readers/listeners, then you need to be aware of the perspective that you bring to the table, a perspective that affects the process of assimilating the facts, coloring the raw landscape that you’re attempting to faithfully paint.

This process of self-examination and reflection embraced by Michelle guides her in the story creation process, and as you will hear, it requires a special sense of awareness – of your beliefs, your values, and your way of experiencing the world in each present moment.

That the facts are all there, and they’re all accurate, and they’re all right, that I began to wonder, just because you have the facts right, does that mean the story is true in its essence? ~ Michelle García

At one point Michelle refers to a conversation that she had with a law professor on the topic of history repeating itself. His observation was one that we should consider when trying to understand any chain of events: “It’s not that history’s repeating itself, it’s that this is the present moment, reaching into the past, to define its future.”

Take a moment to ponder that statement and consider how it relates to the story that you want to tell. You’re writing in that present moment yet recalling a myriad of events you’ve experienced. The conversations, the environments, the emotions, the interpretations. And you’re telling your story for the simple reason that you have a desire for others to understand what you have learned or come to believe, and maybe, just maybe, their future will be different as a result.

The true power of storytelling lies in the fact that your story can become part of someone else’s story. ~ML

Michelle García as Restless Rebel

I’m always fascinated by the journey that creatives embark upon, or become a part of beyond their will, as they etch out the path which brought them to the current moment of creation. What drives you, pushes you, frustrates you?

I was such a rebel. I was punk. I was angry. I was Sex Pistols. I was The Ramones. I wanted to kick doors down. You have a fury that no one has articulated, put into words, taught you how to channel, and so now you go about the world like a loose cannon, which is what I did, looking to find where you can sort of catalyze all of this energy. ~ Michelle García

Michelle came from a small Texas town that in one narrative would have been a footnote, but in today’s climate of immigrant controversy, of demonizing the other, has taken on a more relevant meaning.

To be able to write about where I was from, was, in a way, to capture a spirit of storytelling, a spirit of what it means to be a journalist, in a way that I had not known before. ~Michelle García

Is that true in your case? Is place a character in your story? A character that’s woven into the fabric of your storyline? How has your origin story shaped the reality of your present moment? The role that it plays is often overlooked or sidelined by speakers/writers. Don’t let it take a back seat. It’s part of your truth.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

Interviewing From a Historical Perspective

The process of crafting an impactful story often begins with identifying events and insights from your life’s journey, but such stories become more compelling and diverse when they include the experiences of others, as additional voices will broaden and deepen the narrative landscape, allowing audience’s to better understand the point you’re proposing, or the lessons you have learned.

One way to do this is by interviewing people who can offer listeners/readers a perspective that expands beyond yours. As with the disciplines of writing and speaking, interviewing is an art form that one must study and practice. When clients ask me how to conduct interviews I steer them to the On Being podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett.

Her interviews with renowned scholars, writers, poets, scientists, and religious leaders explore the most fundamental and profound questions. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? If you’re looking to sharpen your storytelling skills, consider this podcast is an interviewing masterclass.

The podcast recently replayed a timely episode recorded on November 17, 2016: This History is Long; This History Is Deep – it’s an interview with Isabel Wilkerson. By reading the transcript while listening you can identify when Krista is diving deeper into a particular topic, or moving their conversation into new territory.

…our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong. ~ Isabel Wilkerson

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95,000 Names – 95,000 Stories

Traditions are an essential element of every culture. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” Stories, in other words. But not just spoken, as humans are prone to create celebrations based on these stories. Such is the case with Pride Month.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on Sunday, June 28, 1970, one year after the Stonewall Uprising, and provided the sparks that would ultimately ignite the LGBTQ+ movement for equality. In subsequent years gay pride marches and parades would spread to cities across the United States and throughout the globe. The number of events continued to increase rapidly, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton declared June as “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.”

The modern version of Pride events are largely celebratory, but a remembrance of those who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic remains a solemn component. Some five decades later, the month of June 2020 has become a focal point for many others whose lives tragically ended before their time, as COVID-19 deaths approach half a million and protesters take to the streets with voices raised in support of Black Lives Matter, protesting to eliminate extreme police violence.

With Pride events cancelled this year due to the virus, it felt as though origin stories which were threads of the tradition would fail to find a public voice. But last week The Kitchen Sisters broadcast an insightful podcast episode that told one of these stories – 95,000 Names: Gert McMullin, Sewing the Frontline.

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A Decades Long Struggle for Justice as told on The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace continues to be one of my favorite storytelling podcasts with its unique way of bringing forth historical landscapes of people, places and events that traverse the arc of time, deftly infused with an insightful sense of relevance that speaks to current affairs.

With the struggle for racial equality front and center we have an opportunity to take a step back and revisit other struggles which continue to compromise millions of lives. Within the time frame of 8 ½ minutes Nate DiMeo compresses decades of oppression against the LGBTQ community, painting with both broad and fine strokes alike, calling out moments that crushed the dreams of countless lives. Yet love, relentlessly, pushed back the waves of oppression.

On the surface this story may seem dissimilar from the current storyline playing out in city streets, but that one phrase, “to be who they were”, binds these two struggles at the wrist. It’s difficult for me to fully comprehend, to grasp beyond the intellectual, to feel the emotions at a cellular level, to walk the streets and feel compelled, as a matter of survival, to be someone else in order to safely navigate society. 

Beyond the topic laid poetically bare, pay close attention to how Nate weaves the history of one physical place and the souls who passed through its front doors to the national narrative, now his pacing gives us space to assimilate each word and phrase.

A White Horse on The Memory Palace Podcast Read more