gossamer threads of connection (aka: what makes good storytelling)

"Storytelling" by Randis, via deviantart
Let's talk storytelling shop, shall we? I read an interview the other day that some lucky duck got to conduct with my favorite British actor the lovely, talented Jason Isaacs and my favorite Irish actress the lovely, talented Saoirse Ronan (by the way, you say her name like this: Shir-suh...I first took notice of her in the movie THE LOVELY BONES which was an okay reproduction of Nicole Krauss' superb book by the same title, and kept saying her name Say-OY-ersee. Because I'm an American from the South, and we always think you should say it like you spell it. [Unless, like me, you grew up in Kentucky 3 hours from Louisville, which we don't say like Looisville...we say it like LOOVull, KinTUCKee, all Appalachia-proper like...but we do say LaFayette, Kentucky like it's spelled: Luh-FAY-ett, not LAH-fee-ette like those crazy French people think you say it] {Dear French people: I apologize on behalf of the South}. At any rate, finally I google researched how you really say her name and the correct Gaelic pronunciation is Sheer-say, but I think she says it Shir-suh. Either way, no matter which way you choose, you'll sound exactly 100,000 times less dumb and American if you pronounce Saoirse the Gaelic way and triple bonus: no one will accuse you of being from Kentucky.) 

Where was I? Oh, right! So some lucky duck got to interview those two amazeball human beings at Sundance 2015 (still bitter I wasn't there). They were promoting a really intriguing-sounding movie I'm kind of desperate to see now that I know more about it and have heard them describe it, Stockholm, PA. And here's what Jason thinks about storytelling (from an actor-y perspective, but you can easily apply this to any kind of storytelling both fiction and non-fiction--books, poetry, magazines, orations, songs, art, photography, book clubs, group therapy...) (what? WHAT? group therapy IS telling stories): 

“When you watch things on the big screen you realize why we gather to be told stories. It’s important to continue to gather. Watching other people go through big emotional challenges is somehow uplifting, cathartic. The fact that you’re with other people watching them go through it makes you feel more human. It makes you feel less alone. It gives your soul a stir. I see that storytelling has value. That’s why it’s universal. Acting and story-telling is about connecting.” -Jason Isaacs, January 2015

Isn't that really astute of him? Jason Isaacs has got an astute, canny, smart brain. And I hear he's a really nice human being on top of that. I vote we make Jason Isaacs our planet's top representative storytelling expert and artist-in-residence. 

Here's what Saoirse says about acting (and I think we wordy types will all agree we feel the same way after finishing a marvelous, stupendously good book):

"The thing that I miss most when I finish a film is just the atmosphere that you'll have on set. When I started working, on the very first thing that I ever did, I was only on it for like two weeks or something, but I got so into it, and I loved it so much, I was devastated by the end. It becomes your world." -Saoirse Ronan, January 2015

Tell it, sister. I vote we make Saoirse Ronan our planet's representative for Young Adult storytelling.

In addition, they BOTH have exotic accents that make them sound very, very smart. (I do know people from their part of the world, and probably Jason and Saoirse themselves, will possibly disagree with me about that and say: But Amy, we don't have an accent. But then they don't have to listen to the hillbilly speak I have to listen to every day, now do they? No. No, they do NOT. I think if they had to hear what I hear all the time, they would agree with me when I say: UK people sound smarter.) (And spell swankier.) 

And Nikole Beckwith! The writer/director of this movie Jason and Saoirse were talking about--what a delightful, thoughtful, artistic soul she seems to be. Somebody interviewed her about what she thinks is paramount to good storytelling and here's what she says:

"I think you have to love your characters. I’m not sure. It’s one of those intangible things. You want to make sure that every character has a sense of a life of their own. I’ve been saying that some of my favorite movies are movies where you feel like everyone has their own movie but you’re just getting to see this one little slice. I think that’s very interesting. I think you have to have a lot of respect for your characters." --Nikole Beckwith, January 2015

Another smart, astute, canny brain and a thought you could apply to other types of storytelling (like books). I really heart storytellers, don't you? ** 

In my research about what makes good storytelling, I've run across a lot of Jason Isaacs thoughts. Many months ago, I found a website that's dedicated to him, with lots of links to interviews he's done, and he always makes my heart soar with hope and happiness when he talks about this process. He's rather prolific at playing bad guys (he actually plays a lot of good guys, too, but everyone always fixates on Lucius Malfoy for some reason...I feel it has something to do with the Fabio-like hair, but that's probably just me), he is also prolific with opinions about what makes good storytelling. Here are some storytelling bits of know-how I've gleaned from Jason's exotically-accented, swanky-spelling, big brain: 

*"Nobody wants to watch characters with no conflict." (Nobody wants to read about them, either.)

*"Great storytelling is about being completely specific, which makes it completely universal." (This observation is completely universal to all genres and types of storytelling, and I think Jason Isaacs should become world famous, for this quote alone.)

*And--no direct quote, just an overall summary of what I've seen/heard--Jason often talks about how storytelling (for him) is not just a way to connect, but to unravel the human condition, to discover what it means to be a human being. This echoes what countless other storytellers--visual, musical, and writerly--I've read and listened to all say whenever asked: "What makes good storytelling?" (It's a TRIBE!) 

This is why Jason Isaacs and I should live in the same neighborhood. So I can invite him and his family over for summer barbecues, and then we can sit on the porch talking about unique ways in which to tell stories, as we slap away mosquitoes. Jason's a master storyteller, and so I would like to ask him to tell me how to do it correctly. And also, maybe he'll agree to get me into Sundance 2016. And possibly a coffee date with Clive Owen. Oh, and! I need him to come up with an interesting travel itinerary that will help me really understand what makes London London. When I finally go to England. And he's got daughters who can play with my daughter and take her off my hands for like an afternoon or something so I can get stuff done for the love of God. (Am I overstepping my boundaries? I'm over stepping boundaries. I do take liberties with nice people, and I think I can do that because I'm really really nice.) (Also, I'm doing free PR for Mr. Isaacs and his employers at the end of this blog post and on all of my social media for the rest of February, and so this is a totally fair exchange. I feel.)  

So my take away is that, basically, storytelling (according to Lucius Malfoy, Briony from ATONEMENT, and talented, thoughtful screenwriter Nikole B.) is this: 

When a really good story comes to an end, we are suddenly lost and sad, because that story becomes our world for a bit, and that only happens when we are exposed to good storytelling, which is always specific conflict between interesting characters we feel deeply for. Good storytelling is one way to unravel the human condition, and whenever that happens to us, our souls are stirred because we recognize our common connection, an invisible story thread that binds us all, and we are forever altered in some way after we've been in the hands of a master weaver. (To wit.)

Gossamer threads of connected humanity, is essentially what I'd call good storytelling.  Taking apart, then putting back together, the messes that make us brilliant and stupid, funny and sad, crazy and sane. What makes a person feel so superior or inferior to everyone else? What life experiences did that girl have to give her the idea she can be so cold and cruel? Is he really a gigantic a-hole, or just a scared little boy hiding behind one? Which is worse: Evil that reveals itself for what it is, or Evil that looks and feels like kindness? Is there even a difference? Why are we here? Why should we care? What happens next? IS there a next? 

Doesn't that make you want to sit down, right now, and read a good book that tries to answer questions like that? Or write a story that addresses something very specific that's always troubled you or freaked you out or made you angry? Good stories leave us with more questions than answers, I think; they make us want to continue wondering about what happens next, they inspire us and impassion us and let us know we are all in this together. 

I think what's most amazing to me, as a writer, is how very many stories there are to tell, from just the mundanities of Life. You don't have to be a Nobel Laureate to tell a good story; they are already there, all around you, in places that are no more extraordinary than simply waking up and making the decision to get out of bed, go make some coffee, see what will happen next. 

Right now, for instance, I'm staring at a stack of graded papers I need to enter into an online gradebook. I don't feel like doing this, and I don't feel like doing this because it's making me think of some of the issues swirling around public education these days, how wrong and unfair it's become not just to teachers but to KIDS, and this is making me very angry. And when I get angry about something no matter how boring it may seem to other people, I want to peel back the layers to study it, because I need to understand the source of my anger so I can write about it, sort it out. And when I do THAT, my hope is that my anger will calm but also someone else out there who is angry about something completely different may read my story, and learn something about peeling back the layers to their own anger and understanding it. Because anger is a very universal, human thing, and by learning about it we can support one another and maybe even find ways to help each other let that shit go.

Therein lies the power of good storytelling. 

P.S.- watch Dig--on USA!--starting March 5 at 10 PM/9 Central! (sorry if you're in Europe because you'll have to wait to watch...but you all got Case Histories first and also you guys have universal healthcare and better maternity leave, and all we have in America is Republicans arguing over oil pipelines and voter I.D. fraud....so get over it.)

P.S.S.-Here's a behind-the-scenes preview of DIG that I bet will make you set your DVRs so you can watch DIG on March 6 because lots of people don't even watch TV shows when they air nowadays (I don't--I try to be asleep by 9 PM...since I usually wake up and can't get back to sleep by 2 AM). No, seriously--go click the link and watch that interview, there is one right after that one with Anne Heche, too. Doesn't that look like really superb storytelling? Blood, mystery, and sex with gorgeous Anne Heche. Those are prerequisites in ALL my stories, at least.

**Next time I write about storytelling, it will be from the point of view of a story writer storyteller. I could have culled writerly storyteller sources for what makes good storytelling. But I started my blog post because I liked what Jason, Saoirse, and Nikole had to say about storytelling and it snowballed from there.*** 

***I may have also been looking for a way to combine storytelling talk with Dig (on USA starting March 5!) promotion. I'm sorta scheisty like that.

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