Speak Up Storytelling #17: Robin Gelfenbien

Episode #17 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast is ready for your listening pleasure.

We start by talking about finding and crafting stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." We talk about the Homework for Life submitted by a listener, and I offer up three Homework for Life moments from the week and discuss why one is better than another.

Next, we listen to Robin Gelfenbien's story about finding love with the help of Marie Kondo, then Elysha and I discuss the strengths of this fantastic story as well as suggestions for improvement.

Finally, we answer a listener questions about storytelling in everyday life and offer some recommendations.

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you haven't rated and/or reviewed the podcast in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work.

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An anonymous note about a possible murder

I arrived at Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires, on Sunday night with a bag full of my novels, magazine columns, and comic books. I spread them on the table for my students to see, and then I stuffed them back into the bag and tossed the bag into the corner of the room.

It sat in that corner, untouched, for a week.  

On Friday, I grabbed the bag as I was packing up to leave. Tucked into my copy of Storyworthy was a sheet of paper. Written on the paper was this: 

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Crazy. Right?

In addition to my ten students, the room had been used by several yoga classes, and on our final evening together, my students performed for a group of friends, family, and folks staying at Kripalu that week. I had also performed for a group of about 70 people earlier that week, telling stories and teaching lessons after each, including a lesson on the importance of telling stories. 

A lot of people on campus knew who I was, what I did, and where I could be found. 

There's no telling who left that note in my book or why.

But it seems as if the note might have been left for me and might apply to the work I do. In addition to our organization being called Speak Up, I spend enormous amounts of time convincing people that they have stories to share. Stories that need to be shared. Stories that the world wants to hear.  

This note would seem to fall along those lines. 

I cannot find a Rosalie Gomez who was murdered on the internet. Maybe this is referencing something that happened pre-internet. Maybe it's fiction. I have no idea who Rosalie Gomez might be or if she's even real. 

But I've often said that odd things happen when you begin telling stories. Strange coincidences. Surprising connections.

Earlier that week, while my friend and teaching assistant, Jeni, were swapping stories, we learned that I had been the DJ at her cousin's wedding 20 years earlier, and she had attended that wedding. She barely remembered the day, but I remembered a lot, including details that she couldn't believe I recalled.

"Just think," I said. "Twenty years ago, we were in the same room, at the same wedding. You were 17 and I was 27. Now we're sitting here today at a yoga center in the Berkshires as friends."

That kind of thing happens to me all the time. Tell a story to 100 or 200 or 500 people, and you will find someone in the audience who somehow connects to that moment for often than you would expect.

The world is a surprisingly small place.

But this note is beyond a simple coincidence or unexpected connection. It's something else. Perhaps a bit of fiction scribbled on a piece of paper and tucked into a book called Storyworthy on a whim.

Maybe something more. 

Sadly, I'll probably never know. 

Listen to smart people plus me

I appeared on two podcasts recently that I really enjoyed. Both are hosted by people who I could talk to forever. 

You can find both podcasts wherever you get your podcasts, or you can click the links below to listen online. 

Slate's The Gist with Mike Pesca 

Mike and I speak about storytelling, film, Bruce Springsteen, and other sundry topics.

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Roxanne Coady's "Just the Right Book"

Roxanne, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers, and I have an expansive conversation on storytelling, books, productivity, happiness, and much more. 

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A celebration of so much more than just a book

On Saturday night, I took the stage at the release party for Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, and told five brand new stories to an audience of more than 200 friends and family.

It was quite a night. 

My friend, storyteller, and producer Erin Barker once told me never to produce a show and perform in that same show. I've been violating her rule ever since launching Speak Up five years ago, but there have been nights when I fully understood what she meant. Preparing to perform while managing the multitude of problems that can occur in the process of producing a show can be challenging.

So it shouldn't have been surprising that being the only storyteller of the night, telling five BRAND NEW stories in addition to a brief lesson after each story, is extremely difficult and mentally taxing. I've done solo shows before, many times, but never before had I taken the stage with completely new material. Stories Elysha had never even heard before. 

It was a lot to hold in my head. 

Thankfully, once I stood behind that microphone, everything quieted in my mind and I knew exactly what to do. The stories were there, just waiting for me to begin telling. 

Happily, I wasn't the only performer that evening. Andrew Mayo of Should Coulda Woulda opened the show with a reconfiguration of his band consisting of three of my former students (and his children), the parent of a former student, and the siblings of a former student. 

They were brilliant. The perfect way to begin the night. 

But the highlight of the night came when Elysha took the stage in the second half of the show and played her ukulele and sang in public for the first time.

The story that I told just before she performed was about the months following a brutal armed robbery. I was battling post-traumatic stress disorder at the time but didn't know it. I was clawing my way through life, not sleeping or eating, and oddly not able to pass from one room to another without suffering incredible fear and mortal dread. 

Then one night I found myself standing before an iron door at the bottom of a dark stairwell in an abandoned building in Brockton, MA, wondering if I could find the strength to walk through that door to the room on the other side.

I was there to compete in an underground arm wrestling tournament (crazy, I know) with the hopes of winning some money and taking one step closer to paying off a $25,000 legal bill after being arrested for a crime I did not commit. 

I found the courage to do the hard thing that night. The impossible thing, really. That was the hardest doorway I've ever walked through in my life. And even though I would continue to suffer from PTSD for the rest of my life, that doorway in the basement of that building has made every doorway since so much easier to step through. 

I wanted the audience to understand the value of doing the hard thing. I wanted them to put aside any fears that they might have. I wanted their dreams of someday to be dreams of today. I wanted them to understand that every hard, frightening, seemingly impossible thing that I have done in my life has always yielded the greatest results. 

I was terrified about taking the stage for the first time at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011 and telling my first story. But doing so changed my life. 

So I asked Elysha to perform for the first time that night to show people what the hard, frightening thing looks like. She's only been playing ukulele since February, and she's never sung in public or taken singing lessons. It was hard for her. Frightening. Yet she stepped through that door and was brilliant. 

Elysha performed Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and during the final chorus, the audience joined her in singing. When the song was over, everyone leapt to their feet in the loudest applause of the evening.  

I was so proud of her. I still am. 

It was a wonderful night for everyone involved. I can't thank everyone enough for the support.

We recorded the evening and will release the audio in two parts as episodes for upcoming Speak Up Storytelling podcasts so that you can hear the stories and the lessons and Elysha and everything else.

A call to action! Please? Pretty please?

I'm writing to you today for a different kind of reason today. I hope you don't mind. And it's storytelling related. 

I have a book coming out on June 12. It's my first nonfiction title, and I'm excited and nervous. 

  • Excited because I've wanted this book to exist for a long time.
  • Nervous because it's a departure from my fiction. Something new. I don't want to fail miserably.

I need your help.  

The book is entitled Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling. It is a book about the art and craft of storytelling.

Part instructional guide, part memoir.

It's written for everyone, because over the past four years, I've discovered that everyone can utilize storytelling to their advantage.

  • People who want to perform at The Moth or a similarly styled storytelling show
  • Salespeople who want to connect with their customers
  • Presenters who want to connect and engage audiences
  • Ministers, priests and rabbis
  • Teachers, professors, and therapists
  • Yoga instructors, cooking instructors, and camp counselors
  • TV, radio, and podcast personalities
  • Attorneys
  • College and job Interviewees
  • Real estate agents
  • Nonprofit leaders and professional fundraisers
  • Politicians and activists
  • Archivists, museum docents, and curators
  • Grandparents who want their grandchildren to listen to them
  • People looking to get beyond the first date
  • Folks looking to make new friends or simply become more interesting

All of these people and more have taken my workshops to learn to tell a better story

A woman once attended a workshop because she wanted to make friends at work but couldn't seem to get anyone's attention. "I will never stand on a stage and tell a story. I just want to tell a better story at the cafeteria table."

Not only did storytelling help her make friends at work, but she went on to perform in our storytelling show and now tells stories as part of her job.

I've written this book for everyone. No matter who you are or what you do, storytelling can help you. 

A few testimonials:

"I laughed, gasped, took notes, and carried this book around like a dear friend—because that's exactly what a Storyworthy book should be. As a novelist, I've studied my craft in countless ways, but never before have I seen its marrow revealed with such honest, approachable charisma. Matthew Dicks has written a perceptive companion for every person who has a story to tell—and don't we all?" — SARAH McCOYNew York Times and international bestselling author of Marilla of Green Gables and The Baker's Daughter

“Matthew Dicks is dazzling as a storyteller and equally brilliant in his ability to deconstruct this skill and make it accessible for others.” ― David A. Ross, MD, PhD, program director, Yale Psychiatry Residency Training Program

"Offers countless tips, exercises, and examples to get you on your way to better stories. Anyone who wants to take the stage, become a better writer, or simply tell better stories at Thanksgiving, will benefit from Storyworthy.” ― Jeff Vibes, filmmaker

See? Seemingly intelligent, presumably real people endorse the book. If they like it, you will, too.

And now... how can you help:

1. Preorder the book. Preorders help to determine the size of the first printing and increase my chances of getting noticed right out of the gate. The book is currently available for about $10 via preorder. Please consider purchasing now and having it arrive on your doorstep in June. Buy a bushel, in fact. Give it as a gift. A graduation present. An awkward, unexpected projectile. I've been told that every time you preorder the book, an angel gets its wings. I don't know if that's true, but let's find out. 

You can preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your favorite indie bookstore. You can use these links below:

2. Tell your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and enemies about the book. Ask them to preorder. Share the links on social media. If you know of someone whose company or school or university might be interested in the book, pass on this information. Any and all buzz would be appreciated. 

Thanks so very much for your support. It means the world to me. Truly. Every writer needs readers and every storyteller needs an audience.

You have been remarkable in both regards. 

How can you possibly have so many stories?

It's a question I get a lot. Whether it's stories that I'm sharing on the golf course or at the dinner table or on the stage, I always have a new story to tell.

A small part of this is the unusual life that I've led, filled with chaos, bad luck, and at times, disaster. My friend and the Artistic Director of The Moth Catherine Burns has said to me, "You either have a good time or you have a good story."

A much larger part of it is the system that I use to find stories in my life called Homework for Life. People who use my system with fidelity and rigor find themselves awash in stories about their lives. It works.

But having many stories to tell also has a lot to do with the understanding that a story is not always a series of fantastic events or shocking developments. You need not move mountains to have a great story to tell. A story can be small. Infinitesimal, really, if it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.

That's why I love Bill Bernat's story "Oreo Relapse," which was featured on The Moth Radio Hour last week. Bill's entire story - more than five minutes long - takes place in a grocery aisle as he tries to decide if he will purchase a bag of Oreo cookies and thus fall off his dietary wagon.

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That's it. If I were to summarize the story, I would say, "Man battles his inner cookie demons as he tries to decide if he should purchase a bag of Oreos."

And yet the story is filled with humor and heart. It speaks to something universal in all of us:

The power of temptation. The fragility of will power. Our constant inner battle of right vs. wrong. The shame of not having full control over our desires.

Bernat's story is brilliant in its simplicity. Very little happens in the story, yet when he is finished, I feel like I have been offered an honest, unflinching look at the man's soul. I feel connected to the man. I love the guy.

I don't know Bill Bernat, but I bet he has lots and lots of stories to tell.

"Nothing interesting ever happens to me."
"My life is boring."
"Nothing too terrible has ever happened to me."

Refrains I hear all the time to would-be storytellers who worry that unless you've died on the side of the road or been arrested for a crime you didn't commit or lived on the streets, you won't have any good stories to tell.

Not even close to true.

If you are willing to speak honestly, embrace vulnerability, think introspectively, and share a part of you that most would not normally share, you will have more stories than you could ever imagine.

Do your Homework for Life.

Listen to Bill Bernat's story.

Become the person who always has a new story to tell.

Meditation and McDonald's

I've spent this weekend at the world famous Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.

With its silent breakfasts, farm to table meals, candle-lit shrines, and slow walking, contemplative guests, the place doesn't exactly match my aesthetic.

I'm sort of like a bull in a China shop here.
A man without a country.
A misplaced, misbegotten vagabond.

I suspect that I'm the only person here armed with a Diet Coke at all times. I definitely swear more than anyone I have met so far. And I was the only person in yesterday's sunrise yoga class wearing jeans and a tee shirt. 

And yet I've had an excellent weekend here, teaching storytelling and performing in their main theater. And it appears that I will be back three times next year, including a weekend alongside Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray, Love, another weekend of storytelling like this last one, and a week-long advanced storytelling workshop in the summer.

Somehow this place and I have found a means of coexisting. I think we may even like each other. 

Still, it may come as a surprise to those who know me well to hear that yesterday morning, I sat atop a rock on a hill in the early morning cold and meditated as the sun rose over the hills. 

While I meditate every morning, it's normally done on the couch.

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Lest you fear that I have lost myself entirely and become something I am not, I followed up this period of meditation with the trip to one of my favorite places in the world, forgoing the world class cuisine of Kripalu for something more fitting of my personal aesthetic. 

Go to The Moth and tell a story. And not "someday." Go soon.

Just this past week I heard from listeners who heard one or more of my stories on The Moth's podcast, The Moth Radio Hour, and/or The Moth's website in:

Cape Town, South Africa
London, UK
Columbus, OH
Hartford, CT
Western Australia
Hong Kong
New Hampshire
New York City
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Blackstone, Massachusetts

The idea that people across the globe are listening to me tell stories about my life is incredible. The power and reach of The Moth cannot be overstated. 

And you could do this, too. If you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM (and there are many throughout the country and the world), you should go and tell a story. Drop your name in the tote bag and wait for your name to be called. Perform well, and your story might travel the world someday, too.

And everyone has a story. If you don't believe me, start doing my Homework for Life and you'll soon discover that you have more stories than you could have ever imagined. 

So choose a true story from your life, take the stage at a Moth StorySLAM, and speak into the microphone. Tell your story. It need not be funny or sad and suspenseful or perfect. It simply needs to be a story. The Moth actually offers some tips and tricks to help your performance. And there is no better place in the world to tell a story than at The Moth. The men and women who host and produce these shows are remarkably supportive and exceptionally professional. The sound equipment is second to none. And best of all, the audiences are warm, kind, and more accepting than you could ever imagine.  

And who knows? It could change your life. 

It changed mine. 

July 11, 2016 will mark my five year anniversary in storytelling. On that day in 2011, I took a stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and competed in my first Moth StorySLAM. I told a story about pole vaulting in high school and managed to win the slam. 

 

That story eventually made its way onto The Moth Radio Hour and podcast. 

My original plan was to tell one story on a Moth stage and never return. Do it once and put it behind me. Check off the box marked "The Moth" and move on. 

Instead, I fell in love with storytelling. I worked hard and got better. Today storytelling is an enormous part of my life.

In the past five years, I've competed in 43 Moth StorySLAMs, winning 23 of them. I've also competed in 17 Moth GrandSLAM championships, winning four of them. I've performed on stages small and large throughout the country and around the world for The Moth and many other storytelling organizations.

In 2013 Elysha and I launched Speak Up, a Connecticut-based storytelling organization with the goal of bringing the art of storytelling to the Hartford area. By the end of 2016 we will have produced more than 40 sell-out or near sell-out shows throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. We've partnered with theaters, museums, art spaces, and more, performing for audiences ranging from 150-500 people.

I've also taught storytelling to thousands of people, both in workshops that I run and in my role of storytelling expert on Slate's The Gist. Recently, I've begun performing solo shows at places like The Pound Ridge Storytelling Festival, The Lebanon Opera House, and Kripalu, and I've begun delivering keynote and inspirational addresses for a variety of organizations.   

My wife has been able to stay home with our children for the past seven years in part because of storytelling.

All I wanted to do when I began this journey was tell one story for The Moth.

And I am not special. I did not grow up in a family of storytellers. I didn't learn to tell stories from some master storyteller. I didn't spend nights in coffee bars and at open mics honing my craft. I just went to The Moth and told a story. Then I did it again and again and again. 

So if you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM, you should go and tell a story, too. As frightening or daunting or nerve wracking or impossible as that might sound, you should go. Since I began telling stories for The Moth, about half a dozen of my closest friends (including one former elementary school student) have gone to The Moth to tell a story. Many of my former storytelling students have taken the stage at a Moth StorySLAM and performed.

Dozens more have told a story for us at Speak Up.

If you live near a city that host a Moth StorySLAM, go and tell a story. I can't imagine what my life might be like today had I not conquered my fear and told my first story. 

And if you live in the vicinity of me, I'd be happy to take you to one. Climb into my car and we'll drive together to New York or Boston and listen to ten strangers (and perhaps me) tell a true story from their lives. The stories will be honest, funny, heart-wrenching, surprising, suspenseful, and more. Some will be told exceptionally well. Some less so. 

It won't matter. You will have a fantastic evening of entertainment and human connection.

Maybe you'll even tell a story yourself. You should. You never know what may happen.

My son, the storyteller. I had no idea.

My three year-old son made up a story about traveling to New York to visit his cousins Ari and Zoe. If you listen closely, it actually many of the all of the elements of an excellent story.

  • The story is concise. 
  • The story is simple,.
  • It contains mystery and genuine surprise (critical for creating an emotional response in your listener) 
  • The story continually flips on itself. Instead of an "and then and then and then..." story, Charlie tells a "but and therefore" story, which is always better.  

He's a little young for The Moth, and he's still a little rough around the edges, but he's a hell of a lot closer to being an excellent storyteller than I ever expected.

Resolution update: March 2015

Each month I post the progress of my New Year’s resolutions here as a means of holding myself accountable. The following are the results through the month of February.

PERSONAL HEALTH

1. Don’t die.

Didn’t even come close to dying.

2. Lose 20 pounds.

I remain just one pound down. At this pace, I will miss this goal by a lot. It’s mostly been my inability to get to the gym regularly in March due to illness and scheduling.

3. Do at least 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups five days a week.

Done. I’ve added a plank every morning as well.

4. Stop drinking soda from two-liter bottles.

I didn’t drink soda from a two-liter bottle in March, and my soda consumption remains cut by well over half. I’m also drinking more water than ever before.    

5. Practice yoga at least five days a week.

I tried last week to restart my yoga routine after healing from an injury and  realized that I could barely remember it. I’ll be meeting with my yoga instructor in April, I hope.

6. Learn to cook three good meals for my wife.

No progress

WRITING CAREER

7. Complete my sixth novel before the end of the summer 2015.

The book remains about half finished, and I am about to launch back into fiction, but for reasons that are complicated, I may actually be putting that half-finished novel aside temporarily and beginning a new one.

It’s crazy. I know  

8. Complete my seventh novel.

This book remains about half finished as well.

9. Sell one children’s book to a publisher.

I have three books written and ready to go. I have three new ideas that I plan to work on in 2015. We will submit one or more of these books to editors at some point soon.

10. Sell a memoir to a publisher.

The memoir is written and is being polished now.

11. Sell a book of essays to a publisher.

My book of essays did not sell, but the responses that we received from editors were exceptionally positive. In a few cases, it was not a pass as much as a request that the book be reorganized and written slightly differently than it is currently constituted. I will do so. Fiction is now my main focus, but this remains a priority in 2015.  

12. Complete a book proposal for a book on storytelling.

Progress continues.

13. Write a new screenplay.

I’m still revising my first screenplay based upon film agent’s notes. No progress on the new one.  

14. Write 50 pages of a new memoir about the years of 1991-1993.

I have 25 badly written pages for this memoir that must be transformed into 50 good pages in 2015. No progress yet.

15. Write a musical for a summer camp

Excellent progress. It’s moving along well.  

In addition, I completed revisions on the musical that my partner and I wrote last year. In the fall, it will be produced by a local theater company.

We also have interest in our first musical – a rock opera – from another local playhouse.

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16. Publish at least one Op-Ed in a physical newspaper.

I published three more pieces in the Huffington Post last month.

How to be a Grownup

12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents

Why “Your Child is Not As Gifted As You Think” Is the Worst Thing That a Teacher Can Say

Again, this is not a physical newspaper. Writing pieces for physical newspapers is part of the plan to launch my next novel, so this may happen in the fall if not before.

17. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.

No progress.

18. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.

My first idea: Backing into a parking spot. I rightfully assume that anyone backing into a parking spot is a lunatic of the highest order. I shall spend a week backing into parking spots and see what wisdom I can glean.

I have not begun this experiment yet.

19. Build an author mailing list.

Third email sends today. Things are good. The job remains twofold:

  • Create engaging content that will keep readers interested.
  • Build my subscription base.

20. Build a new website for matthewdicks.com

Nearly finished. I will be migrating my blog and website over to the new website at some point in April.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will open this blog one day in April and find an entirely new look. I hope you like. 

STORYTELLING

21. Produce a total of eight Speak Up storytelling events.

Two down and six to go. We have two more shows scheduled in April, at both Real Art Ways and Connecticut College, and we have two new partnerships with local venues that we will be announcing soon.

22. Deliver my fourth TED Talk.

I will be delivering a TED Talk at Boston University in three days. I have also pitched talks to two other TEDx events in 2015 and await work.

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23. Build a website for Speak Up.

Done! It’s a single page on my new author website, and it’s not nearly as robust as we want it to eventually be, but Speak Up finally has a webpage where you can find dates of events, ticket information, an opportunity to sign up for the mailing list, and more. You can find our webpage at speakupstorytelling.com.

24. Attend at least 10 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.

I performed in a Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York and a GrandSLAM at The Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA, bringing my total number of Moth events in 2015 to four.  

25. Win at least two Moth StorySLAMs.

I’ve competed in one StorySLAM in March, receiving the two highest scores of the night from two judging teams (9.6 and 9.4) and the lowest score of the night (7.9, which is also the lowest score I have ever received) from the third team, which landed me in second place. I still cannot understand what happened, and when I think about it, I still get a little upset.

26. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

Like the February GrandSLAM in NYC (and six before it), I placed second in the March GrandSLAM in Boston. I was chosen to tell from second position, which is an exceptionally difficult spot to win from, but I was still in the lead when the seventh storyteller took the stage and beat me by a tenth of a point.

I compete in another GrandSLAM in NYC this month.

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27. Launch at least one podcast.

The MacBook Pro has arrived, complete with GarageBand, which was critical to my podcasting efforts.

I have crossed over to the dark side, at least in terms of podcasting.  

My website is nearly ready to receive podcasts.

This will happen soon.     

NEW PROJECTS

28. Pitch at least three new projects to two smart people.

I pitched one of my projects to one person in January. No further progress.

29. Host at least one Shakespeare Circle.

Nothing scheduled yet.

MISCELLANEOUS

30. Enroll in the final class needed for certification as a high school English teacher.

No progress. 

31. Set a new personal best in golf.

There are rumors that the golf course may open in April. .  

32. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.

Done.

My Story of the Day exercise will change your life. I promise. And you'll find a bunch of stories in the process.

Slate editor Allison Benedikt sent the following tweet around the holidays. Julia Turner, who was referenced in the tweet (Benedikt may actually be quoting her) is Slate’s editor-in-chief:

@juliaturner "You live your life. Most days are pretty much the same. You forget most things you’ve done. Then it’s over." Happy holidays!

This tweet struck a chord for me.

For more than a year, I’ve been teaching storytelling workshops as part of Speak Up, the storytelling organization that my wife and I founded in 2013. In addition to the many things that I teach to storytellers, I spend a great deal of class time sharing strategies for generating new story ideas.

There is one exercise in particular that I love. In fact, whether you are a storyteller or not, this exercise can change your life forever. No joke.

Before I go to bed each evening, I sit down in front of my computer for five minutes and ask myself this question:

“If I had to tell a five minute story onstage about something that happened to me today, what would that be?”

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Then I review my day, seeking out that one defining, possibly story-worthy moment. Oftentimes the moment is unspectacular. Hardly story worthy at all. But more often than you might think, I manage to find an actual story in my day.

It’s rarely a great story. Most of the time, it’s not even a good story. But it’s a story. Something that made this day different from the rest. Something possibly worthy of telling someday.

And sometimes, I find a great story. Something that I can’t wait to tell. More often than you might expect.

Once my story of the day has been identified, I record it in an Excel database, usually with a couple sentence fragments of description. Just enough detail to remind me of the story later on.

This is different than writing in a journal or a diary every day. Journals and diaries do not demand that you find stories. A diary or a journal entry can reflect a person’s thoughts and feelings for the day, but they do not require the purposeful search for story. They do not insist that the person seek a defining moment from every day of their lives.

It’s these defining moments that make all the difference. It’s the process of recording the stories of our lives that can change your life.

It's changed my life.

Suddenly my days are no longer “pretty much the same.” No longer do I forget most of the things that I have done. Every single day of my life now contains the kernel of a story, and about once or twice a week, those stories are good enough to move over to my official database of story ideas, which currently stands at 194 items.

194 potential stories to tell. 194 stories good enough to tell.

I have no more forgotten days.

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A storyteller who I adore once asked me why he never hears me repeat a story onstage. With 194 possible stories waiting to be told and a constantly growing list, why would I ever repeat a story?

At this rate, I'll never get through the list that I already have.

Since I’ve been teaching this strategy to my students, I’ve witnessed some incredible results.

About a dozen of my students continue to do this exercise everyday. Twelve is honestly a pathetic number. I’ve probably taught more than 100 students over the past year, so my percentage of students committed to the process is low. But this process requires a commitment. It’s a five minute commitment, but for some people, even that is a lot.

More importantly, it also requires a great deal of faith.

You have to believe that the process will ultimately yield results. You have to believe that the five minutes spent each day are worth it, even after days when the best you can do are story ideas like these:

I make dinner. Hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. The only dinner I can actually make.

Taught Clara about the Rolling Stones while lying in bed with her. She likes the way Jagger dances.

Walked dog at 2:00 for the second straight night. Snowing.

These entries will probably not make good stories. If Clara turns out to be a Rolling Stones fan someday and we attend a concert together, perhaps the entry about her and the  Stones will become relevant, but it’s unlikely.

But I remember each one of those moments clear as day.

I remember cooking my wife hot dogs and macaroni to surprise her after an especially hard day.

I remember lying in my five year-old daughter’s bed, listening to Satisfaction and explaining the difference between The Stones and The Beatles.

I remember the snow starting to fall as I walked around the block in my slippers, trailing my dog. It was cold and quiet, and I felt so lucky to be out there to see the first flakes, despite the hour.

Those days are not lost to me. They will never be lost to me.

The dozen or so people who continue to record their daily stories do so religiously. We have become a cult. All report that the process has changed their lives. Comments from my former students include:

“I’ve always wanted to meditate but was never able to. But this I can do. It’s like a form of focused meditation. I see so much from my day that I would’ve forgotten.”

“I’ve discovered that I have stories. I lead a more interesting life than I ever knew. I can’t believe it.”

“I feel like I’m a more important part of the world now. I feel like my story is a part of a bigger story.”

“I’ve learned so much about myself and recovered so many stories from my childhood through this process that I had forgotten.”

This is also true. By sitting down and reviewing your day, searching for a story worthy moment, the door to the past often swings open and memories long since forgotten are suddenly pour through.

Looking for stories? Follow this process every day for the rest of your life.

More importantly, do you want to change your life? Do you want your days to matter? Do you want to recall the moments of your life that mean so much in the moment but are lost so easily?

Take my advice. Commit to five minutes every day.

Alison Benedikt (or perhaps Julia Turner) was not wrong. "Most days are pretty much the same. You forget most things you’ve done. Then it’s over."

Don’t let that be you.

Storyteller Interruptus

I don’t have an office. I have a sad, little room attached to the side of the house with ancient windows and no heat that would require a hat and mittens in order to spend any time in. So when I am working at home, I do the majority of my writing at the dining room table.

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This is a mixed bag. Part of me loves working while my children are running around and playing underfoot, but the constant interruption of the workflow makes things extremely challenging at times (and sends me scurrying to the library or McDonald’s or my classroom in order to get things done).

Thankfully, I do a lot of my work before and after everyone is asleep, but during the day, even an benign question from my wife can bring things to a grinding halt.

In our next home, I will have an office, damn it. A heated room where I can escape and work when necessary.

Clara felt my pain the other day when she tried to use materials from school to retell a story for us. She was doing such a lovely job (perhaps she will be a writer someday, too) while her rotten brother tried to spoil everything with his rottenness.

If only the world would treat us storytellers like the delicate flowers that we are.