Lessons in Storytelling from Other Artists
by Dana Sitar
1) Make yourself the villain
In editing the stories for my next book The Hart Compound, I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out just how to make one particular story sing. It was tricky. I am trying to portray a particularly emotional time when I did some particularly shitty things, and for a long time I couldn’t quite get the right emotions to come out.
One brief line in this post about storytelling from Jeff Goins made me realize what I am doing wrong with this story:
“If you’re guilty of those [negative] acts, you’ve been the villain.”
It struck me: The story hasn’t been working because I have been trying to make myself both the protagonist and the antagonist. Trying to write a story about my negative actions without portraying myself in a negative light.
This wouldn’t work with a fictional antagonist, and I can’t expect it to work in my memoir. If I want to tell this story, I have to bite the bullet and make myself the villain.
There’s no reason to do this all the time; I think I come out alright in the rest of my stories. But, occasionally, even your protagonist has to screw a few things up. If you want to take the leap and write about your life, make sure you’re jumping in all the way. Be honest – you can’t be the hero of every story.
2) Find the most interesting person in the room.
Photographer Penny de los Santos offered this brilliantly simple advice for capturing a great photograph on TWiT Photo:
“Sit across from the most interesting person at the table.”
Writing creative non-fiction means having to find a story in real life. It means figuring out what around you is worthy of being written down. If you can’t find a story, maybe you need to do something more interesting.
As a journalist and memoir-writer, I made a decision at the onset of my career that I would always live my life in such a way that I would always have a story to write. I make my way into interesting groups of people. I attend intriguing events on a whim. I listen when people open up to me. If I find myself with nothing to write about, it’s usually because I’ve been sitting still for too long.
Penny’s simple and cheeky advice is perfect for writers as well as photographers. Position yourself in life to keep your eye on the most interesting people. Keep your notebook, your recorder, your camera nearby, and be ready to capture the magic moments that happen all around you. If you’re paying attention, the stories will usually write themselves.
3) Love what you write, and write what you love.
“There’s no way to describe what I do. It’s just me.” – Andy Kaufman
I recently watched Man on the Moon for the first time, and it occurred to me that some of my greatest artistic influences were once thought to be crazy. But they continued to do whatever entertained them. Andy Kaufman, Hunter Thompson, Andy Warhol, and Charles Bukowski were all weird without a precedent. Anais Nin and Henry Miller couldn’t get books published in the U.S. for years. People didn’t understand them in their day, but they made the art that they loved, and it was eventually loved by others.
You have to be able to sell your work; that fact will never go away. But don’t be afraid to be weird. Write what you’re passionate about. Make sure you love what you write, before you try to sell it others. Be uncomfortable in front of a crowd when you tell them your idea. Just make sure that what you’re creating is truly brilliant enough to bring them around in the end.
4) Take risks.
“I must admit that I have not felt this excited and nervous since I first tried stand up over 100 years ago. It’s humbling to take a risk that you are not sure will work. You don’t know if a joke will bomb unless you try it.”
Once you have achieved a fair level of success, it’s tempting to settle into a routine, to stay in your comfort zone. But, don’t forget how you got there. It was scary to publish your first blog post. It was nerve-wracking and unbearably exciting to mail out your first book proposal. It was a gamble to quit your day job to write full time. Those risks are what make your art what it is. They’re what take it to the next level. Don’t get too comfortable, and don’t be afraid to bomb once in a while.
Ritesh: My question today is very simple. What is the most important lesson you have learnt in life?
About Dana Sitar
Dana Sitar is a freelance journalist and author of the ongoing memoir series This Artists’ Life. Her latest release, The Hart Compound, follows the writer to her journalistic roots as Senior Campaign Writer to a Mayoral campaign headed by two Madison, Wisconsin comedians. Dana shares writing tips and anecdotes at her blog by.dana.sitar.
About The Hart Compound
In August 2010, Madison comedian Nick Hart announced his intentions to run for Mayor of the city. At the same time, Dana Sitar was approaching divorce and trying to find her way as an aspiring writer. Their paths converged when the writer took the first of many leaps and reached out to the ambitious comedian, figuring he would have a good story to tell.
Split between the feature articles written for this bizarre political campaign and the short stories written behind the scenes, The Hart Compound introduces a unique cache of artists through the eye of an emerging Gonzo journalist.