The Narrative Arc of a Few Remarks

The other night, I was at a dinner to celebrate the recipients of a local college’s award of honorary doctorates. The formal festivities—robes donned, longer speeches—were the next day. This gathering was an intimate prelude among friends and colleagues. After dinner, a few of the honorees were scheduled to give brief remarks and I was keen to hear one honoree in particular.

It wasn’t just what he would say that I was sure would interest me, but how he would organize it. I wanted to see through his remarks to the scaffolding that would support the whole thing, and so I was ready for him, paper and pencil in hand. As I recorded his remarks, I noted as well the pitch of his voice and posture, his hands placed on the back of his chair. He’s a master at setting tone and providing content, but it was structure I was after.

The next morning, I looked at what I’d written, collected on the back of the invitation, and there it was: the entire narrative arc put to good use, the same as any storyteller might employ.

To graph it, it looked like this:

To write it, to deliver it aloud, it looked like this:

The beginning: a joke, a spur of the moment thing, biting and funny.

The real beginning: gratitude expressed, humility to have been selected for the honor.

And now tension building: a survey of the year’s difficulties and increasing personal challenges, which resonated well with his audience.

Then relief, resolution:  the summit reached, darkness into light, the receipt of the award figuring prominently in this moment.

And finally, the wrap up: a message, short, inspirational, and unassailable by reasonable people.

Whatever your intention with your words— to attract investors, convince colleagues, accept awards, persuade, inspire, lead, explain, apologize, educate, reflect—the well-organized story is what people are likely to remember. Follow this structure adjusted to fit your circumstances and you’ve got the basics of a compelling narrative, your audience glued to your words.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Arc de Triomphe by IceNineJon

The Company You Keep

There’s a curator at a museum here who cuts a certain figure in this town. Smart and smartly dressed, sweet and hard-hitting, he’s built a reputation for cutting right through the rhetoric to get to the point.

I was sad to learn that he was leaving for another job, a bigger one waiting for him in Hawaii; he, his partner, and their brand new baby girl would soon be gone.

Until his last day here though, he was working. And there he was on a panel as well. The topic that packed the auditorium? How to get a curator’s attention. He said it straight, as always and maybe especially so, for he had nothing to lose.

Do this, this, this, and this, he said, ticking off the basics, and a roomful of artists scribbled down every word.

And then he added one more thing: Think about the friends you keep and make sure you hang out with other really good artists.

What? Pick my friends according to talent? Rather cold, isn’t it? But he had his reasons.  

He said that if he sees an artist who’s connected to someone he already knows or admires, it tells him certain things:

  • that the artist in question is serious about his work, serious enough to want to learn, to want to take a risk and jump into the conversation;
  • that the studio visit will be interesting;
  • that the conversation will be substantive; and
  • that any business that might ensue between them will go smoothly.

Does it mean that he will like the artist’s work? Not necessarily, but with his curiosity sharpened, he will look.

So, what’s this mean to a writer? Two things. The first is that you must continually seek out and learn from your betters, that to do so will not just improve your work but mark you as someone to take seriously. Second, if you are still debating whether to attend that class, that conference, that lunch, that gathering, that lecture, that forum—put on your smiley face and just go.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: three women “Grandpa’s friends” – freeparking; two boys – Stu Seeger.

When You Get it Wrong

We all get it wrong once in a while. For a storyteller, this can present an opportunity.

1. What I thought:

I thought they were nighthawks. All week long, I saw them building a sizable stick nest (and I don’t mean twig) atop the power pole at the intersection of Ferry and Lake roads.  Though I was behind the wheel of a car, I was amazed to be so close to something this large, swooping, and determined. I searched my guidebooks. Surely, hawks of some kind?

And then, driving by one day, I saw an official standing on the road beside his corporate-looking truck pulled to the side. Must be the power company, I thought, which reflects the full extent of my knowledge about the wires overhead. He was looking up, frowning. The nest had gotten large and quite beautiful in a helter-skelter way. I sped home, worried for the birds.

2. The reality:

I called the game warden, who wondered if they were ospreys. Ospreys nest where they can see water, he said. Can they see the lake from atop the pole? Those wires could be anything, he continued, cable, phone, electric. He asked about the guy, the truck—what color, what lights, what equipment? Green, yellow, no ladders, no buckets. All birds of prey are protected, he said, and so he planned to take a ride out to have a look.

Hours later, he called. Ospreys, all right, young ones, which have chosen this unfortunate spot to nest. The man on the street was a biologist, a specialist sizing up the scene. He concluded that it was unsafe for the birds. If one of the sticks got wedged in just the wrong way in those wires, the birds could fry. The nest had to come down. The power company would erect a pole nearby with a platform to lure the birds to suitable housing.

And sure enough, the next time I drove by, the nest was gone.

3. The storyteller’s choices:

I was wrong about the type of bird, the man on the street, and his motives. The obvious value of being wrong is that I learned: about birds of prey, the habits of scientists, the purview of a game warden, the possibilities inherent in those overhead wires, the laws that cover the situation, and the real shocker, that the power company (albeit, somewhat self-serving) was an ally.

But the less obvious outcome to being wrong is that I might have stumbled upon a story here. If I were inclined to write this incident up, what could I make of the ospreys?

a.)   I could, of course, tell it straight, from start to finish, and while this might be fine for pure reportage, it wouldn’t have much drama. My passions were inflamed at the thought of birds in peril, but my so-called bad guy turned out to be a good guy, a biologist: end of tension.

b.)   I could fictionalize it.  I could bring other characters into the action, heighten tension, define an issue, and use the basics of the osprey incident to set the scene for this enhanced tale. I could even change the bird, make it a rare eagle nesting in the penthouse balcony of a Central Park address, for example, and bring in a wealthy, quirky condo board if it suited me, a bunch of lawyers, and a bird whisperer, as well.

c.)   Or, I could look at the facts as they emerged and ask the hard question: the why question. Why the error to begin with? Why would I assume as a first proposition that the birds were in peril? Answer the why question, and what a writer finds might just eclipse everything else.

So, which option should I choose? If I were writing it up for the local news, version A. If I wanted to try my hand at satire, version B. And if I felt like working that hard, the price we pay to dig deeply into something important, I’d write version C, no question.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Osprey nest – Frank Itlab.us; Osprey in flight – Allan Baxter

What a Writer can learn from Eliot Spitzer

1.

I’ve been following Eliot Spitzer’s career since his New York State attorney general days, followed by his tenure as the 54th governor of New York, and then, straight through a noisy scandal, involving a woman, of course, which caused him to step down citing “private failings.” He dropped from the public eye for a while, scant mention of him in any of my news feeds, and then, voila, up he pops again, looking fit and well-dressed, and with his own round table talk show on CNN.

The highs, the lows, the redemptions! How can you not love the can-do, do-tell of a certain kind of New Yorker who falls from grace and emerges the better for it, even dapper?

But Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer made an ungainly couple. It seemed that Eliot (if I may presume that familiarity), though reborn a newsman, was still a lawyer, still a prosecutor, still a panting, salivating wolf on the hunt. And not soon enough, as she certainly suffered, the co-host Kathleen Parker disappeared, never mind her Pulitzer, and come 8:00 p.m., EDT,  In the Arena appeared as noiselessly as a page turned. The new show, especially compared to the old format, is taut, lean, hard-hitting, and informative.

That’s the first lesson from Eliot Spitzer: a good idea evolves. If something’s not working, figure out what’s clunky and make it better. First, Eliot himself is reborn, and next, the format of the show. It’s his show now. And we carry on.  

2.

As a lawyer, I never had a case with him, which I regret, as I certainly would have learned. But what made him good in that profession (as reputation has it), is what makes him good in his new incarnation: his urgent, uncompromising need to know. Eliot Spitzer has a very healthy, wholly irrepressible curiosity. He wants answers. He wants facts and has a nose for the odd one. He leans in, interrupts, probes, and parses words to get at a more precise meaning. Let’s drill down he says, a statement, not a question.

That’s the second lesson from Eliot Spitzer: drill down. Shine a light in the darkest corners, and your story sharpens.

3.

Meanwhile, time passes, not much, and the show shifts again. This time Eliot shares the table, off and on, with two junior associates, one male, one female, both perky, and picked no doubt to counterbalance his wolfish, incisors-bared intensity. Will they last, these little chickens, still damp behind the ears? What will come next? We’ll see.

That’s the third lesson from Eliot: you’re never done. There’s always more you can do to sharpen something. Test and learn. And move on with the sure knowledge that you’re getting better and better, closer and closer to what you hope to achieve.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Eliot Spitzer, thumbs up – dealbreaker.com; Eliot Spitzer, portrait – progressivevalues.blogspot.com.