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Russell Frank: Come and Listen to a Story

by on June 22, 2012 6:16 AM

At that moment a fearful noise and clamour was heard in the hall, there were violent shouts, the door was flung open, and Dmitri burst into the room. The old man rushed to Ivan in terror.

That’s a typical chapter ending from Dostoevsky, master of the cliffhanger. Here is a couple more:

But before Pyotr Alexandrovitch could think what to answer, the door opened, and the guest so long expected, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, came in. They had, in fact, given up expecting him, and his sudden appearance caused some surprise for a moment.

At that minute the door opened, and Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin appeared on the threshold. He stood scanning the party with severe and vigilant eyes. Katerina Ivanovna rushed to him.

Maybe your life is more exciting than mine but I can think of very few occasions when someone has flung open a door and burst into a room the way Dostoevsky’s characters always fling and burst. This presents a problem if you fancy yourself a storyteller.

Well, we’re all storytellers. But it’s one thing to tell stories in the course of conversations and another to perform a story in front of an audience. That’s what I and a few other people are going to do at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Webster’s.

Thanks to impresario extraordinaire Pam Monk, storytelling has become a monthly staple at the new Webster’s. The ground rules are simple: Prepare a more-or-less true story and let Pam know you want to tell it so she’ll put you on the program.

The key word here is “prepare”: Unless you’re a genius storyteller, the idea is to practice your story so that you don’t have to read it.

This is a new challenge for me. So far – this will be my third try – my method has been to write my story and edit it, activities that I’m totally comfortable with from years of column writing, then memorize it, which I haven’t done since I acted in school plays as a wee lad. The goal isn’t to get the story by heart the way I would if I were saying a Shakespearean speech, but to get the chronology and the details down so I tell the tale in the right order without forgetting any of the juicy bits.

The juicy bits are important because of how un-Dostoevskyan my stories have been. This has been somewhat dismaying. You would think that 50-plus years of living would yield enough remarkable experiences for at least a few riveting stories, if not one thousand and one nights’ worth.

But when I search the memory banks I find very few incidents with enough drama to generate edge-of-your-seat curiosity about how it all turns out. Even the dangerous situations end in anti-climax rather than climax: I was scared or I could have been harmed, but nothing bad actually happened.

I should consider myself lucky. I grew up in a time and place fraught with very little danger. Now that I’m wanting to tell stories I wish I’d been more of a daredevil.

The first story I told, at a practice session at Irving’s before Webster’s reopened, was about a nutty family that lived down the street from me when I was a kid. The highlights: We used to toss a rope out the window of my friend’s second-story bedroom and climb down the side of the house. And I used to find a place for myself among the meat-slicing machines in the back of my friend’s father’s car and go in search of fires when we heard the sirens. I never fell and I never got sliced.

The second story was set in Rome when I was in my early 20s. I was the target of a pre-Internet version of the Nigerian scam: These two guys tried to get me to shell out some money in hopes of getting more money a little bit later. But I didn’t bite (though tempted) so I didn’t get cheated.

Next week I’m going to tell a hitchhiking story. Like many such stories, it includes getting picked up by shady characters, getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere and having to fend off lewd advances. Close calls, but I arrived safely at my destination.

This is where the juicy bits come in. A story doesn’t have to be suspenseful or dramatic to be interesting as long as it is richly evokes a time and place. I’m always quoting a blind editor to my feature-writing students at Penn State: “Make me see what you saw.”

That’s what I try to do in these stories. String together enough compelling small moments and maybe the audience won’t notice that there’s no big moment.

Come see for yourself. There are some good storytellers in this town, including some whose lives have been way more exciting than mine.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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