The Creative Penn Podcast Episode 500

Storytelling takes many forms, and while my focus, for the most part, supports individuals telling their story verbally, writing your story is another avenue for generating impact based on your ideas, lessons learned, and life experiences. In fact, a number of my clients have turned their attention to the spoken version of their story after having published a book.

The Creative Penn Podcast

As with speaking, learning the art and craft of written storytelling takes time, and is based in large part on seeking the wisdom of others who have made the same journey. If writing is your current profession, or simply a future goal, then The Creative Penn Podcast should be in your toolbox.

Joanna Penn is the host, and after 11 years she released her 500th episode. A milestone that few podcasters reach!

You’ll need to hear the entire podcast to discover the many pearls of wisdom that she offers from past episodes, but I wanted to share a few of them here.

Write What You Love

Are you writing what others think you should write, or what you feel the market wants? Maybe you feel that your talents are limited to only one genre, or either fiction or non-fiction. Joanna was stuck in that box until she tried her hand at writing fiction books and now has 18 novels to her credit. Don’t let the challenge of exploring new styles of storytelling hold you back.

It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks

Taking this idea further, it is extremely rare (like one in a million) that a first draft is the best you can do. This applies to writing books, articles, or your personal story. When Joanna interviewed Mur Lafferty, the point was made that if we can recognize this fact, and stop worrying about it, great writing is possible.

And I think, when people allow themselves to just write the story and not worry about what’s going to happen to the story afterward, that’s when they really let themselves actually improve. It’s like when they’re thinking about it too much, they hold themselves back or they put some sort of handicap on themselves. But when they just write and not worry about sucking or worrying about how good it is or where it’s gonna be published, then better things happen. ~Mur Lafferty

Realizing that you could write something terrible and then fix it up later with editing freed me from so much. My first drafts are a lot better now, but we all have to go through those first few books where we don’t know what we’re doing! ~Joanna Penn

Leverage Your Intellectual Property

Too often writers will publish their book, either through a traditional publishing house or independently, then they’ll move on to the next project. But there are international rights, audio book rights, movies, even gaming rights to consider.

It’s a subject writers need to spend time exploring, and hire a professional when there are contract related questions. Bottom line, don’t sign anything unless you fully understand what you’re signing up for.

I think authors, indies, have not given enough thought to rights. Taking a publishing rights perspective on your work is the missing link for the indie author and it’s really important to trade publishing. ~Orna Ross

I know the worth of my intellectual property assets, they are the basis of my business — as well as my art. If you understand this, you are an empowered writer! ~Joanna Penn

Develop Your Personal Brand

The concept of having a personal brand was once reserved for those who “made it” in the publishing world, who made the best seller lists and were interviewed on all the talk shows. But in the digital world, with podcasting, Instagram, email marketing and video channels, anyone can get their brand in front of thousands – and on a daily basis if so desired. How do people see you? What’s your brand?

Turning Pro

Some folks are happy being a part time writer and publishing once in a while, making some spending money on the side. But if your goal is to make a living by telling stories – and this applies equally to a writing career or a speaking career – then you should go all in and understand what it means, what it takes to go pro.

When I was trying to learn to be a writer and was falling on my face over and over and over, the reason I decided finally was that I was an amateur. I had amateur habits and I thought like an amateur and what turned the corner for me was just a simple sort of turning a switch where I just decided, I’m going to turn pro. I’m going to think like a pro.

Courage plays a lot. It takes a lot of guts to do this. Patience is also very important, to be patient with ourselves, allow ourselves to fall off the wagon sometimes. Taking the long view is another aspect of it. ~Steven Pressfield

Publishing is like a roller coaster, it’s up and down and up and down. It’s similar to the music industry. If you have one hit, don’t assume that your next one’s going to be a hit. So when you do have money, you need to save well, invest it, prepare for times when it’s going to be a crash, and just don’t think that it’s going to keep going. ~Kevin J Anderson

There’s so much more content in this 500th episode of The Creative Penn, so do give it a listen, and if you’re a writer (professional or aspiring), subscribe to the podcast. You can thank me later. Every episode is a deep dive into the world of writing, publishing, and most importantly, storytelling.

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

 

Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson

Creating a Vivid and Continuous Dream

John Gardner was an accomplished author, literary critic and university professor – a rather rare combination. He was one of the best teachers of fiction writing, and his two books on the topic, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, have helped thousands learn the craft.

If you read my previous blog posted titled The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?, you’ll know that my approach to personal storytelling is to stick to what’s true and not delve into the world of fiction. That said, we can still learn much from the methods used to write fiction, which is why I’m sharing a few quotes from Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist that apply equally to nonfiction.

…the best stories set off a vivid and continuous dream…

We’ve all been there. Reading a book that you can’t set down or watching a movie that has you leaning forward, barely breathing. When you get lost in a compelling story, the ‘real’ world has a way of disappearing, replaced by the narrative at hand. It’s a common experience with great fiction, but is also happens when we see a speaker live on stage that has everyone in the theater spellbound. While there are many factors at work in such situations, word choice and an eye for detail are key elements.

…one sign of a writer’s potential is his especially sharp ear – and eye – for language. The better the writer’s feel for language and its limits, the better his odds become.

As with most talents, this comes naturally to some, but most of us have to work at developing this illusive skill. The good news is we can learn it with practice. Noticing cliche words and phrases, or those lacking imagination or specificity. Our story’s first pass often contains a lot of safe language. Words that easily come to mind, and work okay, but we can do better.

We need only to figure out exactly what it is that we’re trying to say – partly by saying it and then by looking it over to see if it says what we really mean – and to keep fiddling with the language until whatever objections we may consider raising seem to fall away.

Writing and revising is tedious, but it’s the only way to move from just okay to excellent, from a general to a more specific meaning. If the goal is to give a speech, as opposed to writing an essay, then the process will involve rehearsing and editing so that the worlds don’t just read beautifully, but sound superb. How do we do that?

Read more

The Essential Power of a Family Story

In addition to the many podcasts that I listen to regularly, I stay connected to the art and craft of nonfiction storytelling by keeping tabs on a few sacred sources of story wisdom, one of which is Nieman Storyboard.

Their articles delve into the practice of narrative journalism and highlight some of the best stories from authors and speakers who are making a noteworthy difference in a world that often struggles in that regard.

Nieman Storyboard, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.

A recent Nieman Storyboard article by Ioana Burtea covered a keynote speech by journalist and novelist Tatiana Tîbuleac given during The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest. The Needle and the Thread spans three generations and reveals the difficulties that Tatiana encountered in regards to how, and when, to tell a transformational and healing family story.

The Power of Storytelling 2019 Conference

Distilling the essence of a 34 minute story in 1800 words is an art form unto itself and Ioana’s article extracts impactful quotes and narrative elements which take the reader on a guided tour of Tatiana Tibuleac’s talk, including this gem that inspired me to click through and watch.

“It’s amazing how life can go on in a place designed for death.”

While her delivery is akin to an offhand comment, those 13 words carry with them a fateful measure of meaning arranged in layers of joy, sorrow, and hope. They speak about those who survived, who had a life yet to live, and those for whom a Siberian gulag became the last chapter, last sentence, and last word of their story.

“My story is a wound that took three generations to heal.”

I invite you to read Ioana’s article for a glimpse at how she tells a story about a story, and then watch Tatiana’s keynote in its entirety to see how she weaves the essence of her grandmother’s story into her own journey from being a young storylistener to becoming an adult storyteller. And the admission that she’s still a work in progress.

It’s also interesting to note that in this age of dramatic stage presentations, with an emphasis on big body movements and emphatic vocals, Tatiana delivers her talk while sitting. Yet the emotions of her story still come through in her voice and facial expressions, as well as her hands. And the narrative structure itself keeps the viewer engaged throughout, offering us a “what’s next” refrain to maintain the story’s forward momentum.

“I didn’t want to write a book like a gun,
I wanted to write a book like a hug.”

Story length is another aspect to consider. I often work with clients who need to craft a narrative which can be use in a variety of circumstances, from a TED-style talk to conference keynote, and in such cases we’ll build out a 15, 30 and 45 minute version of their talk. As Tatiana’s length hits the middle, think about what you would cut to make it a 15 minute talk, and what topics you would go deeper with in a 45 minute version.

Do you have an essential family story to share, one that transformed you in some way, one you’ve carried with you for a very long time? Is now the right moment to tell that story? If so, capture it on paper, and be sure to include your personal journey from the story’s origin, to the point of understanding its full impact. Future generations will benefit from your wisdom.

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

 

De Oratore by Cicero – Book 2 – The Effects of Oratory

In addition to being a lawyer, politician and philosopher, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) was also a preeminent Roman orator. Drawing on the teaching of Greek rhetoric and the craft of oration in Roman times, he composed De Oratore to highlight the principles he believed were at play whenever someone planned to speak on an important topic.

While political speeches and legal proceedings were at the forefront of public speaking during this time, the concepts presented here are valuable in the drafting of any nonfiction narrative. Written in 55 BC, and comprised of three books, De Oratore is a dialogue that is set in 91 BC.

Cicero shares a dialogue, reported to him by Cotta, among a group of excellent political men and orators, who came together to discuss the crisis and general decline of politics. They met in the garden of Lucius Licinius Crassus’ villa in Tusculum.

Lucius Licinius CrassusQuintus Mucius ScaevolaQuintus Catulus
Marcus Antonius OratorGaius Aurelius CottaPublius Sulpicius Rufus

Marcus Antonius explains to Catulus:

But to determine how we should arrange the particulars that are to be advanced in order to prove, to inform, to persuade, more peculiarly belongs to the orator’s discretion.

Determining the order in which to present all your story blocks is one of the most powerful aspects of narrative structure, and one of the most difficult to master. You’ve identified the various elements that can tell your story, then you’ve selected those which best support your argument, idea or experience. Now the challenge is arrangement – which block goes where.

How to open, how to lead the audience on the journey, and finally, how to conclude your talk so that the listener understands what you have shared. Your story resonates emotionally and intellectually. While there are no rules for this structure, keep in mind the need to grab their attention early on, keep them engaged throughout the entire talk, and have it all make sense.

Antonius then offers:

…to listen to him from whom you receive any information or to him to whom you have to reply with such power of retention that they seem not to have poured their discourse into your ears but to have engraven it on your mental tablet?

If your story is compelling, and presented with the same energy and passion that mirrors your thoughts and feelings, and if it impacts the audience and inspires them to see the world with a fresh perspective, then Antonius believes that your message will not only resonate, but has the power to alter their memory, and thus, remain with them.

Keep these ideas in mind as you work on the sequence of your story blocks. If the audience believes what you’re saying (ethos), then finds their heart touched by your words (pathos), and the logic holds up (logos), you will maximize the impact of your story.

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]

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