The Art of Storytelling: How to Be a Good Storyteller- Start in the Action or Plot, Note the Irony and Comedy, Then Do a Quick Recap

I’m not good at it.  I just follow a formula I made up.

Last month my Italian second cousin Phyllis from Kenosha, Wisconsin left me a comment on my post People Watching in Nashville Traffic, saying, “I love your stories!”  Until then, it had never crossed my mind that I even told stories.  I’ve always seen myself as a younger Grandfather Time- the voice of a man who keeps one foot in the past and one in the present, in order to keep a nostalgic feel on everything “new” idea I write.  Just an involved narrator.

I’ve always thought of myself as a commentator on life.  A writer of nonfiction.  There’s no hesitation in me admitting I’m no good at making up stories- fiction is something I am only a spectator of, not a creator.  What I can do is embellish the story that is already there.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

By connecting the facts to old school pop culture references with a subtle smart Alec touch.  Finding ways to make the ordinary occurrences of life seem more interesting than they are.  My favorite author, Michael Chabon, refers to it in his book Maps and Legends, as “the artist’s urge to discover a pattern in, or derive a meaning from, the random facts of the world”.

 

And that’s basically what I’m doing.  And I get so much out of it.  It makes me feel like, in a sense, I’m about to prove the world’s wisest man ever, King Solomon, wrong, when he said there’s nothing new under the sun.  (Though he’s still obviously right.)

Because everyday life events actually are more interesting than they seem.  They may just need to be seen from a reversed diagonal angle.

So now I’m embracing the fact that intermittent in all my quirky observations are actually little stories.  The tag “storyteller” became even more real to me yesterday as I was conspiring with my sister to write Which Role Do You Play in Your Family? When I asked her what my roles are, the word “storyteller” came up write away.

There are certain things about yourself you can only learn from other people.

Frank Lapidus

Maybe my surprise in all this is the connotation that the word “storyteller” conjures up in my head.  Some eccentric, animated man looking like Frank Lapidus from LOST (for some unknown reason) telling a corny ghost story to a bunch of kids gathered around a campfire who all gasp at the end of the tale when he says, “And the ghost of Tom Joad still haunts this campground today in the form of the wolf that killed him…”  And of course, right as he finishes that sentence, the storyteller’s buddy, who has been hanging out in the woods waiting for his cue, howls at the top of his lungs, for dramatic effect.

 

But now I get it.  Storytellers can also recite true stories.  Nonfiction.  That is my specialty.  And now that I better understand who I am as a writer and communicator, I am starting to realize my frustration when people don’t tell stories the way I like to tell them (and hear them).

Like the guy at work who drags out the end of the story until the last sentence.  And I think to myself, “You can’t do that!” Because I get annoyed waiting to find out the point of the story and I stop listening and start thinking about something else, and whatever I start thinking about instead ends up becoming a new post on this site a few days later.

Or the friend of a friend who uses the punch line or climax of the story as the opening line.  Again, “You can’t do that!”  Because then I feel like there’s really no point in sitting around to hear all the details.

What that tells me about my own form of storytelling is that I have a formula for it:

1)     Start the story in the first moment of action and/or the plotline.

2)     Get to the resolution of the story by the second paragraph, approximately 1/3rd or halfway through the length of the post (or if the story is being told orally, 1/3rd or halfway through the time set aside to tell the story).

3)     Spend the rest of the time or page space picking out the irony and humor of the story’s events.  By not ending the story when the story actually ends, but instead, ending on an provoking or comedic recap note, it opens up the door for the listeners to share in the story- because the story is resolved, yet left open-ended.  (Like the finale of LOST.)

And one more thing… Now that you’ve read my take on storytelling, why not read my perspective on being a dad?  That’s right- parenting from a dad’s point of view.  I have been documenting my thoughts as a dad since the week we found out my wife was pregnant.  I formally invite you now to read my “dad blog” by clicking on the link below:

dad from day one

Like It, Love It, Gotta Have It Vs. I’ve Already Got One, Thanks

Fighting the urge to the live by the new American motto: If it ain’t broke, get another one anyway.

Like it? Love it? Gotta have it!

I can almost remember a time when I was a kid, where it was normal to really really want something for a long time and then when I would finally get it, my heart was content.  The newly obtained item gave my heart rest, and I was happy, as any kid should be.  Whether it was a new Nintendo game like Super Mario Bros. 2, or a bicycle, or a rare Ninja Turtle action figure like Splinter, April O’Neil, or Ray Fillet, I got what I had wanted for so long.  And funny enough, I never wanted a replacement after I received my prized possession.

But somewhere along the way, whether or not we can blame it on “typical capitalist American behavior” or the mindset of Generation X (I just barely made the cut- it’s anyone born between 1961 and 1981), it became normal to want a “new one” though the old one still works just fine.  Maybe just an innocent desire to keep things fresh.  Or maybe a potentially dangerous pattern.

My Italian grandfather was one of the most influential people of my lifetime.  Having grown up in an orphanage in Kenosha, Wisconsin (his mother died when he was young, and there were 12 kids in the family), he lived a minimalist lifestyle, only spending his money on his few children and grandchildren.  Hardly ever buying a new (used) car, new clothes, or new furniture.  Never buying anything name brand.

This way of thinking definitely shows up in my everyday life.  My wife jokes that I have more clothes and shoes than she does.  And it’s true.  Because I don’t get rid of them unless they’re literally rotted.  Like my old red running shoes I have delegated to only use for walking and riding my mountain bike on my lunch break.

It’s true that I own over twenty pairs of shoes that still look less than a year old.  But most of them are indeed at least ten years old, in actuality.  Because I have certain shoes I wear only if I know I will be outside or if there’s a chance of  rain that day.  Those are my “outside shoes”.  By wearing them instead of my “inside shoes”, it keeps my newer shoes looking new.

While I’ll never be as frugal as my grandfather (who when my mom was a little girl, reused dried out paper towels multiple times before throwing them away) I subconsciously try to imitate his lifestyle.

I can’t see myself ever buying a brand new car, knowing that it loses thousands of dollars in value as soon as the first owner drives it off the lot.  And I can’t see buying a different car until my current one costs more to repair than it does to actually buy another used one.

Not that buying a new car is any kind of moral issue, or that going on a shopping spree for a new wardrobe is necessarily evil, though it’s probably not a wise decision if it involves a credit card (I’m a Dave Ramsey fanatic).  But for some of us, that strand of “gotta get a new one” serves as toxic acid in our DNA.

It gets tiring hearing of men leaving their wives for another woman.  That’s definitely a familiar theme this year already in the media.  And while some could say, “What does to me if matter if Tiger Woods or Jesse James cheats on his wife?  Why is that national news?”  Because it does matter.

Not because we’re nosey.  But because in some sense, the reflection of the lifestyles of celebrities causes a subconscious call-to-response for the rest of us:  “Hey look, it’s normal, he did it.”

We have to either say, “No way, that’s not for me.  No thanks!”  Or “Well, maybe that’s not so bad…”

It shouldn’t be that hard to be happy with what we’ve already got, even if it’s not perfect.  And really, that’s a mindset that is often difficult to accept and adopt: Near-perfect is as perfect as life can really get.

Is the grass really greener on the other side?  Yes, of course it is.  But the irony is this: You’re already standing on the other side.  Somebody’s else’s “other side”.

You’re already standing on the greener grass.

"I don't care how... I want it NOW!" -Veruca Salt

My Jewish Upbringing

“You’re just another face that I know from the TV show.  I have known you for so very long.  I feel you like a friend.”

– “Turn It On Again” by Genesis

When I was in 6th grade (1992-1993) my friend Chad Mathers was telling me about this funny TV show he had began watching called Seinfeld. He explained that the main character was Jewish. Then he said to me, “You’re Jewish, right? Your mom looks Jewish, so that means you are too.” I replied, “Yeah, I guess I’m Jewish.”

Most of my classmates knew my mom because she was a substitute teacher. And they knew by her physical traits she wasn’t just “American”. She was something ethnic. No one really knew exactly what nationality she was, though. Neither did I. Because I just never thought to question it as a kid.

In fact, I had every reason to believe I was Jewish. My mom was always using words like, “kosher”, “schnozzle”, “finagle”, and “hoopla”. (Though only those first two words are actually Jewish words.) And she always perfectly and naturally handled the family budget- she now works at a bank.

Her parents: My grandfather was 5’ 6”, dark-skinned, curly haired, and had the “schnozzle”. He never used the word “church”- instead he called it “tabernacle”.  The only kind of bread he ever had at his house was Jewish Rye.  He saved most of his money and when he rarely bought a new car, he paid for it in cash. My grandmother is 4” 8”, even darker-skinned, with long black hair. Neither of their accents helped- respectively Kenosha and Buffalo. Seemed Jewish to me.

Most Jews living in America have German last names, often including “sch”, “stein”, “berg”, and “man”. My last name, Shell, is German and was originally spelled “Schel”.

And my family has always been close. Every holiday and birthday was spent together. Meatballs were often a part of the meals. Only they weren’t Matzah balls.

My earliest memory of learning my true heritage was in 9th grade. Evidently it took that long for me to be self-aware enough to question my heritage.  It’s not that I actually thought I was Jewish before, it’s that I didn’t question it.  I just assumed.  But despite all the Jewish clues, I learned I wasn’t all that Jewish. My grandfather (Albert Metallo) was Southern-Italian and my grandmother (Lola Mendez) Central-Mexican. And on my dad’s side, German and English.

But after doing some in-depth some research, I learned there’s a good chance that too of my great-grandmothers were Jewish (Wiseman and Vite), not to mention a Green and an Ullman a little bit further back.

My mom and I in 2004

While I’m fully proud of my actual heritage, I feel more Jewish than I actually am. Thinking back on the last decade, the celebrities that people have said that I look like are all Jews: David Schwimmer, David Arquette, Paul Rudd, Zack Braff, and Ben Savage (from “Boy Meets World”). And I have played Jesus in more church skits and plays than any of my friends, because I always “looked the most Jewish.” I was the obvious choice.

And like the Genesis song “Turn It On Again” talks about, the characters I knew from the movies and TV shows (and even musicians) I watched growing up became like family to me, in a very cloudy, subconscious sort of way.  In particular, as I kid I thought I was Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) from The Wonder Years.  And in talking to my sister in preparation for this post, I learned that she always thought that too.  We never knew that we both thought that until now.

The Three Stooges. Seinfeld. Friends. Pauly Shore. Bob Saget. Ben Stein. Howie Mandel. Dustin Diamond. Adam Sandler. Andy Samberg. Bob Dylan. Billy Joel. Just a few Jewish people who have surely influenced the culture of my life in some minutely tangible way.

Several years ago I stumbled across an obscure brand of wine that evidently has become my favorite.  The name caused me to think it was German.  But once I read the label carefully, I realized it is wine mainly used for Jewish services.  It’s Manischewitz brand, one of the nation’s leading brand of kosher products.

And this year I officially stopped eating pork and shellfish. Therefore the word “kosher” means something important to me. It means “hot dog I can eat”.

Some Jews actually have no Israeli blood, but they convert to the religion of Judaism. I sort of feel like that somehow. However, the only Jews that believe Jesus is the true son of God are the Messianic Jews.  Clearly put,  I feel like a Gentile (a person is not from the lineage of the nation of Israel) who has converted to Messianic Judaism. Yes, I’m a technical Messianic Jew.