The power of vulnerability in storytelling

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Today’s culture revolves around highlight reels. We showcase only our proudest accomplishments on a résumé (sometimes even exaggerate them a little) and carefully curate Facebook profiles to show exes what they’re missing. As a counterbalance to the trend of artificial humblebrags, “The Moth” started up in New York City: a series of live storytelling events in which normal people (and occasionally celebrities) stand in front of a crowd and own up to the suckiest, strangest, deepest and most illuminating moments of their lives. “The Raven Narratives” was formed in the same tradition, by Four Corners residents Sarah Syverson and Tom Yoder. Their next event in Cortez is Friday, May 20, at the Sunflower Theatre, and in Durango it’s this coming Saturday, May 21, at the Durango Arts Center. Akin to the confessional comedy of Louis CK, this kind of honest storytelling feels relatable and tends to strike a chord with people. Hearing people admit to foibles, heartbreaks and breakthroughs makes us feel better about our own bad times, and hearing what they’ve learned from those experiences can be helpful, too. It’s also cathartic for the raconteurs, almost like talk therapy in a public sphere.

How it worksThis weekend’s Raven Narratives will feature eight regional storytellers who have privately hashed out their tales for weeks, even months. There is only one off-the-cuff story per Raven Narratives event: Audience members are invited to put their name in a “crackerjack box” during intermission, and if your name is picked, you go onstage to tell one short story (4 to 5 minutes), the only requirement being that it stays on theme. The “theme” for the group’s May performance is “Baggage,” intended as both a literal and metaphorical interpretation.

The Raven Narratives’ participants don’t volunteer on a whim. People send in story pitches online and Yoder and Syverson collect names, then spend time sitting down with each potential entrant. “We choose who relates to the theme best, and we want gender and racial diversity,” said Yoder. “We talk to them about what might be good to emphasize. Some people tell stories and there’s little details they skim over – but as a listener, you want to know how something smelled or looked like or what color it was – so we try to draw out that richness.” Yoder isn’t looking for perfectly-polished narrators, either. A much higher premium is placed on authenticity. No points are taken off for saying “um” or “ahh” too much. The biggest challenge lies in getting to the meat of a story that’s complex and broad in only 8 to 10 minutes. Fortunately, there’s little need to worry about preparing a clever resolution: “Sometimes the stories lend themselves to a moral, and sometimes they’re just like, ‘Wow I can’t believe that thing happened, and there’s no way to glean a moral from it,’” said Yoder.

All four of the storytellers mentioned here are first-time participants in The Raven Narratives. For local photographer McCarson Jones, “baggage” refers to her family baggage, marriage baggage and the world travels she took with actual luggage in order to leave all that behind. Narratives co-founder Tom Yoder’s story dates back to his life as a 5-year-old, relating to his father’s experience with baggage as a pilot. Katie Burford, owner of Cream Bean Berry, will focus on a key transitional period during which she decided to leave journalism and begin making ice cream for a living. And Chris Blankenship, counselor at Open Sky Wilderness, will speak quite literally about the weight and meaning of the physical things we carry.

Vulnerability in publicFew experiences render you more vulnerable than standing before an audience sharing a deeply personal moment from your life. There might be friends watching, but there will also be strangers or even mildly hostile acquaintances (Just kidding). In a secluded town like Durango, there’s a good chance you’ll already know half the people in the theater – but they might not REALLY know you. “There’s a benefit to telling these stories to people you know,” said Yoder. “You can expose some part of you that people didn’t know about. A lot of the feedback storytellers get is, ‘I never knew all these people around me had such rich stories!’ You start to see the community differently as you look at people and wonder what kind of story THEY could tell.”

Just bear in mind when bearing your soul: You can’t take it back. “On the one hand, I will have friends out there, so they’ll be willing to cut me some slack,” laughed Burford. “But when you’re exposing personal details to people who may just be acquaintances, you’re going to see them in the grocery store!” At events or parties buffeted by meaningless small talk, there isn’t often an opening to break out your most poignant material. “This story isn’t something I want to bring out at a social gathering,” said Jones. “It’s pretty deep and intense. I have to be in the right space.”

Though the process may seem terrifying, the whole point of Raven Narratives is to let your defenses down in the appropriate setting. As a profession, Jones photographs regular people in various states of undress for her sensual “Underpinnings” series, thus she’s no stranger to eliciting vulnerability from others, and she’s clearly learned a thing or two. “I’m not afraid of how my story will be accepted,” Jones said. “The people who attend want to hear what you have to say. They want to be moved by what you share.” Blankenship is nervous, but similarly confident the audience will be supportive. “We all want to be heard,” he said. “We all want to connect with people through the explanation of our lives. It is scary; but at the end of the day, being vulnerable can give you a lot of power. Power over yourself.”

Owning your failureMost people want to act as if they have life all figured out. But we’re all just glorified thespians, gamely acting like we know what we’re doing. There’s no script to follow, no cues we’ve been trained to recognize. We’re winging it, for the most part, though we try our best to hide any obvious confusion. “I’ve had the experience of being on Facebook and feeling like everybody is doing amazing, wonderful things and my life sucks,” said Burford. “This is a palliative to that. I think people respond to it because it’s in our DNA; I imagine cavemen sitting around a fire, before there was any technology. This is how people connected to each other.”

Flaunting your mistakes may seem antithetical to the self-promotion and résumé-building to which we’ve become accustomed. But personal essays about abuse, childhood trauma or everyday life experiences get huge traffic on the Internet. Reality TV shows where people humiliate themselves and show their truest, most unflattering colors are unstoppably popular. Storytelling of this nature can be likened to switching on the light in a bedroom at night to confront the burglar you suspect of prowling around by your closet. “By telling the story, by owning it, you’re taking the power away from it,” said Blankenship. “When you shed light on your failure, you’re saying, ‘I’m comfortable with this, I’m not ashamed.’ Those stories are the most relatable. We have the most empathy for that.”

There’s plenty to learn from defeat and rejection (arguably, even more than there is to be learned from success). “I think the best stories come from those moments of failure,” said Yoder. “We don’t want to pull the armor off that we wear all day long; it’s shiny and nice and looks great. But one of the gifts of storytelling like this is it can make you look at people differently, or even forgive them. Like, ‘I didn’t know what that person has been through. I never would’ve thought they’ve been through that.’”


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