Who should go to storytelling—or “live lit”—events? Humans should. Sure, many in the audience are writers like myself, who have been on both sides of the stage. But you don’t have to be. Just like you don’t have to be a writer to read literary journals (though a lot of writers do that too!). So I invite you, now that the days are shorter and colder, to come out from underneath your blankets and pull up a chair or barstool to warm yourself around the proverbial cave-person fire and participate in a ritual as ancient as we are.
Sometimes there are themes.
In general, a show is either themed or it isn’t. Confession, Your Song, You Just Don’t Understand, Blue are some of the themes I’ve written for. They give writers a jumping off point, a common thread to the evening. Though no story is ever the same. Themes let us dissect a single word or phrase into a plethora of life bits and lead us to unexpected places; give us focus for stories we’ve always wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out our “in”. Themes encourage the audience (both writers and non-writers alike) to contemplate what stories in their own lives may fit into the lineup. Non-themed events, while perhaps looser in organization, often organically generate motifs, the stories pinging off and speaking with each other. A shared moment, a common mood.
The stories in a given evening expose the humans in the audience to the variety of ways we tell stories: painstakingly crafted or more off-the-cuff (though please with a sense of direction); memorized or read; with a straightforward plot or a more lyrical approach with chosen defining moments in our lives coalescing in meaning and connection. We tame the randomness of our lives all within eight to ten glorious minutes or 12-1500 words.
For any naysayers out there, these events are not just a bunch of folks navel gazing, rambling about themselves. And a good event producer has tools to curb tellers trapping the audience into a group therapy session as that does happen from time to time. What you’re most likely to experience is someone at their most raw and real and genuine and often funny, a human who owns their faults or transforms and makes a further connection by the end of their story. And if the content, the style, or the performance isn’t your bag, remember it will be over within the next ten minutes.
You can connect with people In Real Life.
Storytelling and solo performance have a long history in Chicago where the heart of my live lit experience lives. This history includes Fillet of Solo, performances at the old Cabaret Voltaire on Clark Street, and others. But 2009-2010 was a banner year with the launching of Essay Fiesta, Story Club, This Much is True, and others cozying up to established folks like 2nd Story and The Moth. I decided to ride this wave into wherever it would take me upon my return to the city at this time, and both my inner Theatre and English Majors thank me for it.
These Chicago events take place on any given night of the week: the first Monday, second Tuesday, third Thursday, and so on. They give us a “third space” between work and home to connect with our cities and neighborhoods, meet up with friends, meet new folks. Along the way we can discover a new bar or theatre or coffee shop. They are often free, but some may take donations on behalf of a charity or to help with production costs. Others charge admission to pay the artists!
As the night progresses, we can find the universal within the personal: Maybe you too had dreams of wanting to be a reality TV star or once made fun of a beloved celebrity or friend or fallen in love with a best friend or lost a parent. And even if you didn’t, a good storyteller will be sure to include all the humans in the audience. My goal as an audience member is to feel the feels, be entertained, and be surprised.
Of course, you don’t have to live in Chicago to have these experiences! The rise in popularity of true stories in print and performance (not to mention podcasts and Netflix documentaries) has spread throughout the country. A little online searching gives us Oral Fixation in Dallas, The North Carolina Storytellers Guild based in Greensboro, and Gag Me With a Spoon in Duluth, Minnesota. Check your community’s events calendar and cultural guides to discover events where you are!
What do I do next? you ask.
After the show, go ahead and talk to the host/producer—often there’s an invitation to submit or otherwise participate. Talk to the storytellers! Let them know if there was something you were particularly drawn or connected to. You never know where the conversation may lead. Go to as many different events, including poetry and fiction readings and mixed genre shows. Find shows with a niche or approach you’re interested in: LGBT, movies, off book, etc.
Take a class or workshop—some shows have their own “education wing.” Some writers collectives have their own workshops, such as the Porch Writers Collective here in my new hometown of Nashville. Get some friends together all casual like and share and discuss your work. Start your own event! Ultimately, just write. Even if you don’t want to share it with the world, be inspired by how we can think about our lives.
Ultimately, an In Real Life literary community allows writers to get away from their laptops and out of their heads and to learn and be inspired from each other, get feedback both formal and informal, try out new material for your essay collection, podcast, or other shows. The non-writing humans in the audience can also break away from their own realities for doses of culture and connection.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a native Detroiter, longtime Chicagoan, and new Nashvillian. He’s shared work in many Chicago events including Essay Fiesta, Flick Lit, Is This a Thing?, Serving the Sentence, You’re Being Ridiculous, and TenX9 Chicago. And in Nashville at TenX9 Nashville and Poetry in the Brew. He has work published in Belt Publishing’s Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology and forthcoming in the Fall 2017 issue of Waxing and Waning from Nashville based April Gloaming Publishing, among others. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com.