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 Modern Story of Strange Fruit, with Dianne Reeves and John Beasley

Racial discrimination is a sad reality throughout the world, and sadly, still a significant aspect of American culture. From the advent of slavery in the South, to fighting a Civil War in hopes of bringing the practice to a close, and the current state of affairs after many centuries. It is a story we wish had never been written. A story whose narrative arc still requires a remedy.

“Strange Fruit” was written 80 years ago describing the horrific practice of lynching innocent African-Americans by white people. It’s unconscionable and unacceptable that lynching is still happening today and also that the justice system failed Ahmaud Arbery. It was only after public widespread outrage followed the release of the horrific video which showed evidence of a racist father-and-son team shooting an unarmed Arbery to death.

John Beasley and Dianne Reeves collaborated on this video as a way to protest the continuing brutality and racism against African-Americans.

Directed & Edited by Anthony C. Santagati
Executive Produced by Aja Burrell Wood
Music Produced and Arranged by Dianne Reeves (vocals) and John Beasley (keyboards)
Nicolas Payton – trumpet
Terreon Gully – drums
Alex Al – bass
Composer: Abel Metropol

Black people are so tired.
They can’t go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
They can’t sleep (#Breonna Taylor+#AiyanaJones)
They can’t walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
They can’t relax in the comfort of their own homes (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
They can’t ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
They can’t have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
They can’t leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
They can’t play loud music (#JordanDavis).
They can’t sell CDs (#AltonSterling).
They can’t walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
They can’t play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
They can’t go to church (#Charleston9).
They can’t hold a hair brush while leaving their own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
They can’t party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
They can’t get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
They can’t lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
They can’t break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
They can’t shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)
They can’t have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
They can’t read a book in their own car (#KeithScott).
They can’t be a 10yr old walking with their grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
They can’t decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
They can’t ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
They can’t cash their check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
They can’t take out their wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
They can’t run (#WalterScott).
They can’t breathe (#EricGarner).
They can’t live (#FreddieGray).
They’re tired.
Tired of making hashtags.
Tired of trying to convince you that #BlackLivesMatter too.
Tired of dying.

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

 

Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

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