My children both attended a K-12 school with an outdoor education program. Beginning in 6th grade, the students start taking small group trips into the wilderness — including the ocean off Catalina Island, the desert near Palm Springs and the High Sierras. They learn skills such as how to pitch a tent, how to cook over a camp stove and how to keep the dishes clean, but the main purpose of the trips is to learn how to rely on oneself in an unfamiliar territory. Beginning in 9th grade, they begin to learn how to be alone in the woods — no cell phone, no books, nothing but you, your tiny amount of gear and a little food. Sophomore year, they get up before dawn, go out alone in the dark to watch the sun rise and come together for the midday meal. Junior year, they spend one whole day and night alone. And on the senior trip, which is a three-week backpack in the mountains just south of Mt. Whitney, they go on a three-day solo.
Part of the genius of this whole program is that is trains the parents, too. You have to stand and watch your 110 pound girl hoist a 50 pound pack and go off for a week where you know she will be uncomfortable, scared and in pain. You have to sit at home watching the weather, knowing that the peak your child was supposed to summit that day is slated to get 10 inches of snow. There is no better preparation for facing the reality that soon your kid will not be living under your roof.
My youngest daughter is a senior in high school and last night was the first orientation event for the big trip. It was mandatory for students and parents, because there are a thousand points of logistics involved in this undertaking, and zero margin for error. (I mean, you don’t want your kid to be the one who outgrew her hiking boots last year, didn’t break her new ones in, and causes the group to have to re-calibrate their route because her blisters are so severe.) So there we all were crammed into the auditorium, — nervous, excited and also a little resentful because it was a Thursday night and it was mandatory, and it was a meeting.
The director of outdoor education gave a 30-minute slide presentation, illustrating the entire trip. It included shots of maps, satellite phones, first aid kids, and resupply vans. It included shots of that kid with the blistered feet. It included shots of a group making camp in blinding snow. It included shots of the carefully selected and highly trained instructors who had already been screened and hired to keep our kids in the wilderness. It was, in other words, a totally predicable “everyone better take this seriously” school trip presentation.
And then, in the last few minutes, it suddenly wasn’t. The presenter said, “It’s easy to think of this trip as a wholly physical undertaking, but that would be missing the point.” He then flashed a series of photos of kids napping in a high country meadow, standing under a waterfall, celebrating their peak summit on a rock that looked like it was on the top of the world. There was a shot of a group of kids playing charades around a campfire, a shot of an instructor reading a story bedtime, and a shot of a an epic game of Quiddich, complete with capes the kids had fashioned from their tarps, brooms they’d made of sticks and pine needles, and a ball they’d made out of socks.
You could feel the entire room start to breathe again. You could feel a certain peace settle over us. And then the presenter talked about how transformational the experience was for kids, how it was a true rite of passage, how they would come to rely on the fact that they did this, when, later in life, times got tough. While he talked, he put a slide up on the screen of a group of four kids in the back of the van on the way home from the trip. They were filthy, thin, sunburned — disgusting, really — but they were beaming from ear to ear, had their arms draped around each other, were obviously full of the joy of accomplishment and the thrill of simply being alive.
One of those kids in the photo was mine. My older girl. The one who is in her last semester of college now, about to go out into the world. The one who went back to school last week and cried because it was the first time in her life she didn’t know when she would next be coming home. My breath caught in my throat and tears spilled from my eyes as I saw her four-years-ago self. My sweet girl, I thought! What a short time we had with her in our home! What a painful price we pay for love!
I assumed that the moment had hit me so hard because it happened to be my kid there in the big climactic moment, but when the lights came up I noticed that everyone around me had tears in their eyes. I was the only parent in the room whose kid had been featured in that last photo, but every parent had been deeply moved — at a mandatory school logistics meeting.
Why? Because the presenter is a master storyteller who had complete control of his craft. Here are some of the things he did brilliantly that we can all strive to do in our work:
1. Know your audience. I mean really KNOW what is in the depth of their hearts. We weren’t just parents. We weren’t just parents of second semester high school seniors. We weren’t just parents who had to pay careful attention to a long equipment list and a stack of release forms. We weren’t just parents who were going to have to send our kids go off a grueling trip. We were parents who had better start getting used to the fact that our 18-year-old kids could survive and in fact thrive without us. I keep a bunch of quotes on my desktop. One of them is this: “The world is asking only one question: `Can you help me where I hurt?’ -- Pastor Orval C. Butcher.” Where does your audience hurt? Know it, and tell a story that touches them there. If you stop short, you will do no better than a guy running a mandatory meeting no one wants to go to.
2. Understand the difference between plot and story. Plot is where the trip is going, how they meet up with the resupply vans, which peak they climb, what happens in case of accident. Story is why they’re out there. What the point is. What they learn. And note that this is a non-fiction tale I just recounted. It’s as critical to know the difference between plot and story in memoir and non-fiction as it is to know it in fiction.
3. Start with something that breaks a pattern. The sun rises every day. It’s lovely, but it’s not news. What gets our attention is when something happens that we don’t expect. In this case, it was three gruesome close-up photos of teenagers’ blistered feet. We thought we were getting a dry run down of the equipment list. Instead we got THAT. The room exploded in shouts of laughter and disgust, but the presenter HAD us. Do the same with your story. Start with something unexpected. Story is, after all, about change.
4. Linger on the moments you know mean something. Our presenter lingered a long time on the satellite phones because safely is in everyone’s mind. He lingered a long time on the summit views because that’s the tangible payoff on the trip – the thing you can see and feel. He lingered the longest time on the intangible payoff — that moment in the van when the accomplishment could be read on the faces of those kids. How do writers linger? We have a lot of tools to help us with this:
- You go inside to a person’s thoughts, to what they think and feel and believe and know. I did this in my writing, above, with the paragraph, “One of those kids in the photo was mine…”
- You use body language to zero in on the exact twitch or breath or movement that belies the truth.
- You employ dialogue, which in terms of story time is s-l-o-w. Consider, the sentence, “Four years later, she was a grown woman with a family of her own.” That’s time going fast. “John ran down the hallway, burst out the door and leapt into the car.” Also fast. Here’s slow:
He turned to his buddy who was behind the steering wheel. “Are you ready?”
He nodded again, but this time with less conviction.
“Listen,” John said, “I’m kind of hungry. Is it okay if we stop at McDonalds for a burger before we head out?”
It took Jim a moment to react. He jammed his lips together, as if to keep from smiling — or crying. “I hear the McRib is back,” he said.
You can feel something shift there, something that means something, right? An understanding passes between these two guys. There’s a level of trust here, an unspoken love. I mean, granted I just made up that scene here at 9:30 on a Friday morning out of the clear blue sky so it’s not the best scene ever, but it’s slow on purpose. And this is, by the way, what show don’t tell means. Show don’t tell is not literal. I did not write, “Jim didn’t want to go but John made him.” Show don’t tell is emotional. It’s letting us see the emotion unfold. That’s what you do to shine a spotlight on something important to your story.
5. Say what you mean. Our presenter said exactly what his point was, in clear, straightforward, provocative language —“It’s easy to think of this trip as a wholly physical undertaking, but that would be missing the point.” He did not leave us to GUESS what his point was, or to figure it out, or to connect the dots. He told us, flat out. Often writers forget to do this, or think it’s cheating to do this. They leave the best stuff off the page. If it’s not on the page, however, you risk losing your readers because they are off coming up with some other point on their own, like, “Why don’t they have a bunch of Babywipes in the vans at the end of the trip so the kids can wash their faces?”
6. Believe in what you are saying. Our presenter talked about this trip as if there was nothing else in the world more important to him. It’s his job to safely organize this trip, but he believes in what he is doing, and when you listen to him you can feel that, and you want to believe it, too. The same is true of a story. You have to believe what you are saying and what I mean by that is you have to believe that you have the authority to say it, that you have the right to say it, that you are the best person in the entire world to say it.
So — could you make a room full of people cry? Or laugh? Or be inspired to change their lives? Or take action in a particular way? Good. Now go prove it.