Let's Talk About Story

How we can develop our storytelling voice in our creative pursuits

Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter, a companion to my podcast of the same name.

Last week’s issue of the newsletter was a little different than usual, in that I shared more about my own personal journey and methods, and I was pleasantly surprised with the reception. It has been one of the most popular issues since the newsletter launched and I heard the most direct feedback about it too. Thank you to all of you who read it and to those of you that reached out with positive things to say!

I have started scheduling interviews again for the podcast and will likely be returning with new episodes in early March, and with them, a return to the more guest-focused newsletter. Until then, I thought I would share some more personal thoughts, this time on the importance of story.

Story is Everything.

When I first launched this podcast, my goal was to hear from other media and entertainment industry folks about how they were coping during this strange year, to hear their story and document it as a time capsule of this moment. As the show progressed, I also became interested in what drives creative people and informs their creative choices in their art, another form of their story.

Think of a time that you’ve consumed a form of media and the story was unclear. It may have been a movie, a book, or a podcast (maybe even an episode or two of this show). Chances are, if you left feeling confused or that your time wasn’t valued as an audience member, it’s because not enough attention was paid to story.

As a producer, whether for a podcast, a TV show, or even a newsletter like this, I have often thought that my most important role is to facilitate good storytelling. To deliver to the audience a coherent beginning, middle, and end. To take them on a journey and allow them some form of escape. To set the storyteller up for success and to give him or her a clear path through their narrative.

From a practical standpoint, this often means getting lost in the weeds for a little bit. When I research a guest for the podcast, for example, I spend a lot of time doing my homework. I read what the guest has written and view their creative work. I often will also read or listen to other interviews they have done and think about the questions that I haven’t heard asked yet that I would be curious to know. As I spend time thinking about little details, I am also cognizant of the big picture. When I zoom out, who is this person, and what story can they share?

While researching a guest, I write a rough outline with questions for each show. I often reorder the questions a few times before I actually record the interview, and as the guest and I are talking, I’m also constantly course correcting that roadmap, cognizant of what story we are telling together as we talk and what the best path through it is.

Over the last few months, I have been asked by several people for advice on their own potential projects, most of them podcast related. While I do my best to offer concrete advice about equipment and hosting services, I think the more fundamental question that I ask everybody, including myself when my show launched, is what story do you want to tell?

It seems like a simple, obvious point, but I can tell you from experience, it’s something that is often overlooked. So often, people are so fixated on the end goal (“I want to make a podcast/ TV show/ novel/ documentary” etc), that they lose sight of the whole reason for that pursuit in the first place.

It brings to mind the classic Seinfeld scene where George and Jerry are meeting with NBC executives to pitch them “a show about nothing.” George is emphatic that literally nothing will happen on the show- there will be no love arcs, no dramatic tension- it will be a show about the mundane details of daily life. Confused, the NBC executive asks him “then why I am watching it?” George’s response: “because it’s on television.” To which the NBC exec quips back “not yet.”

We Are All Storytellers

Back in January, I spoke with Craig D’Entrone, who is the show runner on the ambitious PBS project American Portrait. It tells the story of America in this moment across several media forms from the perspective of everyday people. Craig told me: “We knew going into it that every person is a storyteller, that’s what makes us human.”

This premise has stuck with me, and the more that I have thought about it, the more I realize Craig is right. Our need to share through stories goes back to the days of cave men and women sitting around a campfire. In the earliest days, these stories were about which berries were nutritious and which were poisonous, but as time went on, they became about what it means to be human: Where did life come from? What happens when we die, and where are our loved ones who have passed? What are the stars? What is rain? At their core, all of the world religions are really just origin stories about how we got here and what it takes to be a good human. So too with lots of cinema and literature.

In homeschooling my daughter this year for second grade, I have learned that children her age respond really well to story. The curriculum I’m using to teach her is based heavily in story and in relating to the world around us through legend and myth. She has been very responsive to this style of learning, as I suspect most adults would be too.

I should also add that “story” need not always be a fairy tale that starts with “Once Upon a Time…” and ends with “and they lived happily ever after” and your creative expression need not be a piece of art, like a painting or a film.

A story in a creative work can be as simple as a well-made dinner that tells the story of your family because the recipe was your grandmother’s favorite, or the story of the meat and vegetables that went into that meal and the farm they came from.

Stories can also be told through architecture and space. In speaking with former Disney Imagineers (theme park designers) like Eddie Sotto and Tom K. Morris, I learned just how meticulous every little detail in a park can be in reinforcing a story. Eddie talked about spending hours sitting on a bench auditioning background music for the Main Street section of Disneyland Paris. The tempo, instrumentation, and mood of each song mattered, and it changed with the time of day. Mornings were upbeat and full of life. Evenings grew a little more subdued. It wasn’t as simple as popping in a “Hits of the 1900s” CD and hoping that would do. That mentality continued into every detail of the parks, from the woodwork to the light fixtures to the costumes that the employees wear in various areas.

With these examples in mind, what stories are you telling, intentionally and unintentionally throughout your day? What story does your home tell about you? What about your meals, your clothes, and your actions? If you aren’t happy with those stories, how would you change them?

I invite you to think more about the role of story on your creative endeavors, both large and small.

Project Update

A post shared by Heath Racela (@heathracela)

In last week’s issue, I shared a photo of a piece of furniture that I was in the process of building. I finished it last week and it’s now in our living room, keeping our board games and Nintendo Wii out of sight.

What story does it tell? I see it as the story of my progress as a “maker” (a term I use very lightly here). A story of resourcefulness. A story of the beauty of wood and the whimsy of a fun paint color.

What story do you see?

The image above links to my Instagram post, where you can view more photos and get details on the build.

If you have questions, comments, thoughts, ideas, or anything else that you’d like to share, please feel free to email me anytime: hracela@mac.com

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