Saturday, July 25, 2009

LIVEBLOGGING - Room of Your Own 2: Blogging as Storytelling

Session Description: If you’ve ever fought the battle between promoting your blog and spending time developing your writing craft, this session will help you try to recapture the most important aspect of the blogging experience: storytelling. Neil Kramer and Amy Turn Sharp will explore the principles of storytelling, and how they are fundamentally the same in Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Curious George, and your own blog. Join this session to discuss new methods for writing, developing stories and characters, and why the best bloggers learn their craft from watching ... soap operas?!

The session began with Neil introducing himself. He thanked everyone for not going to see the Bloggess (laughter). Said this session was about storytelling and would be informal. Jen Lancaster will be here. Even someone who has only posted three times, though, is still the same storyteller.

Neil said that the keynote was beautiful last night, and it was inspirational, and so many of the seminars have been inspirational, and in this session he intends to do the opposite. He wants to be reductive, to go down to the bare bones of what a story is, and why we tell them. When he first talked about the session, someone said "I'm not a writer, so I'm not going to that," but he feels that storytelling is integral to everything.

Neil asked what the audience thinks of when they hear "storytelling." He said that an advertisement is a story. He invited Sizzle up, and they pretended they were doing a commercial (because Amy is being interviewed). The "commercial" was cut off when Amy arrived.

Amy didn't think anyone would come. They didn't give the names of their blogs to show how reductive they are. He wants us to figure out what a story is and how that knowledge can help us improve our blog posts.

Amy invited the audience to do lots of talking and participation.

Neil and Amy then performed their commercial. Even something as basic as a commercial is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, there is a main character with a problem (a headache/hangover), there's drama, the resolution is Anacin. That's how commercials try to sell you things.

Neil said that a lot of us were probably English majors and we think of stories as something humanistic, but stories are really amoral. The Nazis told stories. Religion is belief in stories that tell who you are and what your community is. Every country has stories. History books are stories.

Neil's wife is Russian and she learned different stories and history of WWII than Neil did in the U.S. Each country creates its history from its own point of view.

Amy added that your blog isn't just a chronical of life. You write to express yourself and find connection. She doesn't just write to tell a three sentence story. There is more meat and connection. She asked if the audience thinks the same way - do you write as stories? Fiction? Truth? How do you write your blog?

Neil reiterated that he wants to combine people who think they're writers and the people who say they're "just" a mommyblogger - both are telling stories.

Neil's grandfather is the best storyteller. He can't write three sentences on paper, though.

Jeannie at added that her father is the same way. She said she writes about him a lot, and she feels like she's interpreting what he has to say (about Vietnam). She also tells the stories about Vietnam from her mother's point of view. She filters it through herself, learns about them, and looks at it from the perspective of her own anxieties compared to theirs. They have great stories but they don't know how to tell them.

Amy said that when she and Neil were planning, they knew that they could have a conversation with the session about "how do you tell stories?"

Amy said that if you don't feel comfortable with the rules of stories, it's harder to write them.

Neil made the distinction that the story doesn't always have to be about WWII. He went to the women who were transformed by their blogs session and heard those stories. Neil has written posts about waiting in line at the bank, which can be as dramatic as fighting at Normandy (laughter) depending on who you are. He wants to make sure that we understand that we don't have to be abuse survivors to have stories.

A story is a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that holds someone's interests.

Kathy, who doesn't have a blog yet, is a professional whose background is math and science, and in order to build and do the right kind of tech things, they have to tell stories about the products. What she does in her job is have people walk her through the story of what happens with products. You don't have to be Hemmingway.

Neil said that this would be the Keynote if he ran BlogHer, not the small room on the last day (applause).

Neil said that branding is a story that the business people stole from storytellers (laughter). Stories sell. Storytelling is amoral. Reducing into a story is a main character who has a problem that gets solved.

An audience member played devil's advocate, saying their commercial was not compelling. But Neil's story about the bank line is compelling because he's like Woody Allen. There's a difference between an account and a story. She goes on blogs and doesn't want to hear a laundry list of what someone did all day. She wants a compelling story.

Neil said that he wants to empower people by telling them that everything's a story. He's not trying to make real storytelling less, he's trying to show that people are ripping off storytelling.

The audience member said that you have to have some overarching idea where people are laughing or thinking, it can't just be "I went into a bank."

Amy segued into asking the audience what blogs they like because of the narrative. People mentioned Citizen of the Month and Doobleh-Vay, Schmutzie, Finslippy, and many others that I didn't catch. Amy said that those people also talk about their daily life. It's not all deep. And we like it because the writer is a character.

Some people who write blogs really are characters. Some people take a three sentence account and make it several paragraphs that leave you elated.

We should all be the character of our blog, Amy said.

Neil said he didn't know if we are taking the right approach. He doesn't want people to lie, even though he does all the time (laughter). Even if you're being totally honest, he said, you can somehow describe yourself and the character and make it a better story.

Kari from I Left My Heart At Preschool blogs about her kids, and she feels like sometimes... They took a trip to the zoo, but she made it a story of a series of unfortunate events, where she was having the worst day but her kids were having the best day, and she tried to talk about that in a story. She is the main character, not her kids. She wants her kids to someday look back and read these and hear stories about themselves from her point of view. She asked advice and Amy said, "We don't fuckin' know," (laughter).

Neil said people make mistakes by thinking they're not the main character when they are. What distinguishes one mommyblog from another is the way that each mother interprets and explains what happens, even though all kids do the same things.

An audience member said that the story is in the extra stuff, not in the bare bones of the plot.

Neil said a story is a beginning, middle, and end. A better story has all the extra stuff.

Neil and Amy did another skit where character adds to the skit.

Now the boring Anacin ad is a little bit better, because there's character in the story.

He related it back to Kari's comment.

Deb from Dirty Socks and Pizza really likes her writing style, but it kind of assumes that people will read the entire post. She likes keeping the punch line for the end. People don't always read to the end. She feels pressured to change her writing style to gain comments/feedback.

Amy feels that she gets a lot of feedback from friends and family, but she doesn't get many comments. She encouraged the audience member not to change her style.

Neil said people read too much, but he tries to really Read things.

CeeCee from 24 at Heart asked about developing herself as a character on her own blog, and how to define what is truth and what is "based on" truth.

Neil is stumped. He may no longer write risque posts having met all of the people reading (laughter).

Amy asked if the landscape of your life doesn't change. She called out Schmutzie and how her blog has changed over time.

Amy said most of us really ARE the person on our blog.

Neil said that storytelling should be troublemaking.

Neil reads posts and thinks, "This is their mind," even if the writer says she's not really "like that" - she is in her mind.

Amy who writes Inherent Passion said you shouldn't change your voice because you'll lose part of your character. Suggested we should use our own voice and write for ourselves. She thinks personally that you know someone because of their writing style, that's their character, and you love them because of that. "It's lovely to know part of that person."

Neil and Amy then did another skit. They added more character to the story. Now Amy AND Neil had personality. The point being that there was that bad commercial, but by adding even more character to it, it adds depth.

Eden from is Schmutzie's husband, he said that when it comes to storytelling and blogging, every so often they'll transcribe conversations from both of their points of view. He said the difference between blogging and fiction is a lot thinner than many of us admit.

Margaret Andrews from Nanny Goats and Pansies asked if everyone is seeking publication, and if they feel like they're blowing their wad on their blog - they want to save their best stuff for their book.

Neil feels that way about Twitter. Amy writes as daily practice at writing. She's using it to help her craft her writing. It's an archive for her children, and it's practice.

Neil then talked about inciting incident, which means when you've got a character and he does something or something happens to him. It's the incident that gets things moving.

Neil cited Star Wars as the classic journey.

Someone asked if you "have to" start with the inciting incident, but Amy said there are no "have tos" - they just want to give us an idea about storytelling.

Neil talked about a YouTube video that demonstrated that children remember things better when there's a sentence, and better still when there's a question. The point being that our brains look for questions, that's how we move - what's going on, what happened? Storytelling is integral to our being. That's why kids read stories.

The inciting incident is therefore important, because it gives you a question - what is going to happen next?

Amy said that most of us will write a BlogHer post, and that the most interesting ones will be the ones that tell the story, not the ones that just list what happened.

Neil asked everyone to imagine that we were going to jointly write a post about what they did last night, focusing on the inciting incident. He asked for inciting incidents that would make the story interesting. Audience members gave examples.

The panelists said that we all have a goal in coming to BlogHer, so we could write about whether or not we got what we wanted out of it, and that could be the inciting incident.

Megan at NotToBrag said she often knows what incident she wants to write about but she doesn't know what she wants to say, but because you know there's an audience, you have to figure out what the story is in order to blog for an audience (as opposed to journaling).

Amy said you're figuring out yourself as you write.

Amy said that we like to read things that inspire us. We care about all the shit in the middle.

Laura from agrees that she started her blog because she's a writer. She had a child and quit writing her novel, and now she blogs for writing practice. For her the blog has helped her, while drawing time away from the book, to be less precious about sitting down to write.

Schmutzie found it interesting that before she blogged she'd gotten away from writing. She found that while she was trying to create stories, what really is the story is the transformation in the character as the story unfolds. She gets transformed in the original incident AND in writing it, and then the transformation continues in others when they read what she's written.

Neil said that storytelling is really about yourself.

Eden said that the schedule would tell the plot of BlogHer, but the story is the individual voices coursing through it.

Neil said that stories are what make people care about what happens to each other.

Amy said that sometimes we don't value our stories enough. She said sometimes if you expand a little bit, we all are SO interesting.

Leah for Moms Without Blogs said watching the keynotes made her realize that she's not a Writer, but she does write. When she first started her blog it was freeing to not have readers. It's been interesting to see what's happened to her process now that she knows people are reading. She said that something shifts when you know someone is reading.

Neil said that being a writer doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good storyteller. Being a storyteller also doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good writer.

Kate from Sweet-Salty said that there are two aspects that are fascinating - the structure of storytelling makes any story compelling. In journalism you get drilled on who, what, where, why, and when. She thinks that's what the panel is getting at - sometimes we forget the structure in blogging and it falls flat. If you can go back and think of these structure aspects there really is something missing. She also went back to Schmutzie's comment. She feels that some of her writing was fiction that became real for her. She's adopted some of her stories as her way of seeing things.

Kim at Prosaic Paradise said that for a long time she said she wasn't a writer, but she is because she writes. Her voice is a documentary voice, not a lyrical voice. She told a story about a tent in her living room that was a blog post, that was ten lines. She doesn't think she can write in a different voice. She doesn't think it's necessary to write any certain way, it's ok to write in 10 lines.

Amy thinks the cool thing about the blogosphere is that there are so many different voices out there.

Neil said that in reality he doesn't follow the rules he's talking about. He just wants to talk about the topic, but that doesn't mean that he's giving instruction. He says not to compare yourself to what someone else is doing.

Black Hockey Jesus said that a challenge for him was learning how to trust himself and believe that he had stories to tell, and to have the courage to tell them. He said you can sit down and think really hard about structure, or you can sit and stare at the computer screen. Rather than worrying about what your voice is, try letting the voices come to you. His stories are more authentic when he lets the stories come to him and listens to the voice of the story. Plugged where everyone should get a book.

Neil disagreed a little, because he feels competitive with BHJ.

An audience member said that she had a pragmatic question - from a writing standpoint, do most of you try to break things up into episodes or do you put it in one post?

Neil said he's broken stories up.

He says he's learned more from All My Children that relates to blogging than he's learned being an English Major. He says the big bloggers can throw up a photo and get a thousand comments, because that photo is just one episode in their soap opera.

Jennifer at said that her blog is about pre-mommyhood, career decisions, going into motherhood, etc. She said that she knows her story has been going on for almost a year, and people may be thinking, "Is she ever going to have a kid?" There are things she's saying again and again about pre-motherhood, wants to know if that's redundant.

Schmutzie answered, saying that she's been blogging for six years. But if you've forgotten that you've written about it, your readers have too, and when you revisit you write it differently.

Eden added that you can't just say "screw you" to each element of the periodic table, you have to create backstory, but the binder was his voice/his character, and it held the whole "stupid thing" together.

An audience member said that if you ask, "Will this matter to anyone but me?" it goes a long way toward improving your writing. She also said that you should allow yourself the element of surprise. She said to play with language, explore who you are, and stop worrying. "You're all so lovely."

Amy agreed that blogging is a joy and she always should have been experiencing it. She wasn't going to come because her father in law just passed away due to a tragic accident in England. She had the choice to stay home alone or be here. Her story about BlogHer is beautiful because she's been buoyant because of all of us and our stories. She encouraged everyone to find a story for this week and write it, and thanked everyone.

Neil wrapped up with one more episode of the Anacin commercial, adding emotion to the story, too.

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