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Storytelling for the Writer

By Graham Shelby

Spalding MFA Alum CNF 2010

During the Spring 2015 residency, Spalding MFA alum and professional storyteller Graham Shelby (CNF 2010) spoke to students about the art of live storytelling and the lessons it offers writers. Graham is a veteran of the Peabody Award-winning storytelling organization The Moth, which helped inspire our exploration of what may be humankind’s oldest art form.

Graham is one of the hosts of the Louisville edition of The Moth StorySLAM, which students attended during Residency, and he served as host for our own non-competitive storytelling event (“The Flame”) in which students told personal stories on stage.

Here, Graham recounts some of the main points of his plenary lecture, “Adventures in Live Storytelling.” 

Live storytelling may well be humankind’s oldest art form, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. If my Moth experience is any guide, storytelling still offers writers valuable lessons in craft and discipline, because to tell a live story well demands equal measures of courage and restraint, balance and abandon.

I’ve been telling stories in front of live audiences for fifteen years. I’ve performed in schools, libraries, museums, and festivals. I tell folk tales and ghost stories and personal experience stories, some of which I’ve never fully written down.

Sometimes people assume storytellers are either speaking extemporaneously or reciting a personal essay they’ve committed to memory. The truth is generally somewhere in between. Tellers strive to sound focused and articulate, but also spontaneous and conversational.

Moth storyteller and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik once described it this way: when it comes to language and word-craft, “Readers are not forgiving of imperfection.” By contrast, Gopnik says, a live audience doesn’t need a teller to speak in finely polished sentences; rather, “[l]isteners are totally unforgiving of insincerity.” Phrasing that looks artful on the page can sound pretentious and off-putting in person. Rote memorization poses the same problem. I usually write out and memorize my first and last paragraphs and a few transitions. The rest is outline. 

Tell a story in front of a live audience and you realize it’s much easier to fool yourself and others in stories told through ink and pixels than it is when you’re standing in front of them. It’s a good honesty test for a CNF writer— or any writer. Could I stand in front of people and tell this story and not flinch or hedge or worry that someone would ask a question I didn’t want to answer?

I love writing. I do. But it can be isolating. When we’re writing in our rooms, it’s easy for our eventual readers, unknown in name or number, to remain abstract. So easy to focus on what we want, rather than what they need.

Live storytelling serves as a reminder of who is most important in the writing equation, it isn’t the writer, or the characters (real or imagined), it’s always, always the audience. 

Graham Shelby is a word guy. Always has been. Something about assembling words in different ways, like Legos, has always fascinated him. When you’re a word guy working in text, you’re called a writer. Work your words on stage, you’re a storyteller. Audiences and formats change, but the job remains the same – take the words, do something interesting, effective, memorable. Send a message. Tell a story. Communicate. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Graham is a communications expert with extensive experience in broadcasting, education, business and the arts. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky, and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Spalding University.  He works in corporate communications and finds as much as time as he can to write personal essays, travel with his family and listen to public radio.


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