Sat just six rows back, center, at a Garrison Keillor event tonight and listened so hard my ears dried out.
This is how you tell the story.
Everyone knows (or should know) the host of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, a two hour variety show on weekends. Keillor’s been doing this for years, a gentle lampooning of Minnesotans, Lutherans, and old radio broadcasts. And he’s got it down pat.
With his soft voice and his distracted look, he’s very agreeable, a perfect vehicle for storytelling. And that’s the thing; while I was enjoying it, I was dissecting it. You could actually hear him (no, feel him) dial the aperture of his story in or out as needed. He described a civil war vet as “calcified” – perfect! In one word, the auditorium had the image of a 100 year old man, small and wizened and frail, without details to slow things down. Just a word.
Later he moved his tale to driving out into a field with a girl following graduation, mentioning the barbed wire gate they opened, the grass they drove over, nothing specific, just warm generalities. He recalled her sitting on the seat next to him, one bare leg up on the dash, and mused about running his finger so slowly along the soft curve of her calf. He didn’t spoil the moment with details, he left us there in the sun-warmed car and inviting girl. Beautiful.
He also showed how storytelling could wrap into its media, how he could use gentle singing, a cocked eyebrow, even a glance back at Rich Dworsky (his PHC music director). Yes, those are all tricks of inflection and pacing, but then again, writers have their own means to pace a story: longer words, slower words, chapter breaks, fonts, italics and so on.
Writers add depth. Typists don’t. And writers are storytellers, first and foremost.
Watch the masters and learn. I did.