Lit––––(erally) listening to Heather Ann Thompson at –––erati.

https://www.literatibookstore.com/literati-coffee

The buzz on Literati’s second floor is quite present. Students, scholars, professors, a child, parents––all gather as writers to hear what Pulitzer Prize winner Heather Ann Thompson has to say, not only about her book Blood in the Water, but also what she has to say as a writer. Lingering coffee aromas, chair legs’ burps as they drag across floors for friends to sit with friends, a little girl’s constant feet shuffling, laughter, silence, and intellect fill the room. You can hear the eager ears in the room, and smell the thirst for inspiration. Writer’s block does not exist here.

What struck me most was Heather Ann Thompson’s encouragement for writers to have confidence in their opinion, and weigh in on their voice. Otherwise, “we would all be literally reiterating the source!” she says.

This encouragement is important for me as a writer for two reasons: the first, as a writer, I am not confident––in the slightest––in what I have to say. Looking back, I have been taught since the tenth grade that solely embedding quotes from the source accurately constructs a research paper, with no room for the author’s reflection or input. It seemed, at the time, that the “A” paper I needed looked like a bunch of research collaged in an essay form. Here, I can now see the craft of how writers walk a fine line between providing factual information for the reader to interpret, while also incorporating their own voice. Without voice, the piece would just be a reformatted version of the original source.

To hear an esteemed researcher and writer say to press in our own voice, even in research papers, is refreshing for me to hear. I can say the mountain of academic papers and research assignments do not seem so impossible! Sadly, the way I was taught in the tenth grade still haunts me, especially since I occasionally struggle with indirectness and lack of voice. But that is something I try and tackle every time I write!

The second reason this encouragement stood out to me: for Heather Ann Thompson to present this encouragement to an audience of writers in the first place whispers to me that perhaps, I am not alone in my insecurities and fears of pressing in on my own voice. This insecurity of mine is what makes me feel inadequate as a writer…but perhaps we are all still learning!

Writer-to-Writer Talk @ 🔥 L I T erati 🔥

Sorry for the title, by the way. It is late, I felt the urge to blog, and I am somewhat incoherent.

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In all seriousness, having the opportunity to attend the Writer-to-Writer talk was phenomenal, especially for the experimental piece I am currently working on. With Dr Shelley Manis interviewing Dr Heather Ann Thompson in an independently-owned book store, Literati, local to Ann Arbor. Throughout the entire talk, I had not heard of this book before (my fault) and had not heard of Dr Thompson prior either (also my fault). The modest space, surrounded by bookcases and the store’s quaint decor, allowed me to be included in the conversation, as if I was in a dialogue with Dr Thompson herself. The comfortableness of the space, too, gave me the confidence to ask my question (though I did nervously fumble a few words once all the faces turned to me).

‘Helllloooo, loved the talk by the way. I really liked that ‘torture’ theme you mentioned earlier. So, when you are in the writing process and are trying to balance in-between from being too vague or too explicit–and choosing what to intentionally include or exclude in your writing–whilst still trying to empathise with and immerse your reader, how do you decide what you want to keep in your writing?’

That is a lot of words. Basically, I was asking, ‘how do you decide what to include or exclude in your writing and how do you avoid being either too vague or too explicit?’

Her response hit home the point of ‘setting up’ your reader to know what is going to happen. I found this concept to be interesting. Dr Thompson highlighted the age-old concept of ‘show, don’t tell,’ as she described her writing process in detail. For example, setting the vibes of a scene or the character’s appearance, etc., all can enable the reader to already connect and feel the scene without it even happening. As she pulled up the example of a gory torture scene from a recent movie, she described how properly setting up the scene to the reader can convey the emotions of the event without having the event explicitly happen. This allows the reader to easily predict what is going to happen, based on a scene that is possibly just a few seconds before the plot’s climax. I think this is great advice to keep in mind when trying to stir up the reader’s emotions, through symbolism and metaphors versus explicit behaviours and actions.

My favourite takeaway from this (especially being a strong supporter of the feminist theory!) is when an audience member asked her a question about the intersection of her social identities when writing Blood in the Water: what is it like to be a white woman writing a book like Blood in the Water (which describes the experiences of people-of-colour)?

Dr Thompson said that, as a white woman who has convenient access to resources to research these issues, she has an obligation. Dr Thompson’s voice raised with a strong fervor as she said that, and the energy and passion (which was one her favourite words, by the way) vibrated throughout the room.

She really did make history come alive.

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You can see the Michigan Daily article that covered the talk, too!

https://www.michigandaily.com/section/campus-life/dr-heather-ann-thompson

Literati Event 11/27 Reflection

I want to start off with a question that I wish I had asked — “Is there anything that you wanted to include in Blood in the Water that you weren’t able to, for whatever reason? Why?”

I wondered about that question after I left Literati. For some reason, the idea stuck with me — although Dr. Thompson had produced over 700 pages of cited work on the events at Attica in 1971, there had to be some material that she wasn’t able to keep in the final cut. I’ve struggled in the past with knowing what to keep in a piece and what not to. Although I didn’t get a chance to ask about that part of her process, she did indirectly answer it when she discussed balancing tone in her piece.

Dr. Thompson spoke at length of how to deal with communicating trauma. On one hand, too much gore and violence can desensitize a reader to the horror, or could repel a reader. On the other hand, the subject of the book is not rainbows and butterflies and needs to be understood and communicated as the horror it truly was. I appreciated her frankness on the topic, because I think it helped clarify something for me: writing successfully depends a great deal on balance and proportions. When stated so bluntly, the idea seems common sense. Of course an element of writing is balancing different textures. But as I gleaned from Dr. Thompson’s commentary, balancing is actually key to how a reader perceives a text. When deciding on what to keep and what to cut, as a writer I have to decide ultimately what I want a reader to conclude after reading the full thing.

Dr. Thompson’s work is really inspiring, and I’m hoping to read Blood in the Water as soon as I get the chance. It sounds a bit like the works of Erik Larson, who I’m a huge fan of (he wrote Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, and In the Garden of Beasts, to name a few of my favorite books of all time). I also feel inspired to actually try my hand at historical nonfiction — BiW took 13 years to write and it took a lot of digging into sources that weren’t readily available to just anyone, and I think it might be a really cool writing project to tackle some subject that would actually require research into the facts of history, some of which are buried deep.

Finally, I wanted to comment on the event at Literati as a whole. I’ve never been a huge fan of talks or podcasts, but this was actually incredibly interesting to listen in on. Shoutout to Shelley, who created an incredibly warm atmosphere and asked engaging, pertinent questions. Although Dr. Thompson’s content was obviously fascinating, Shelley kept the conversation flow natural and relaxed. Literati itself is a great place to hold an event like this, since it’s relatively small and intimate (and it didn’t hurt that the lights were dimmed and it was snowing outside!). It was as though I were sitting in on a conversation by the fireside, silent but absolutely an active participant in listening.

the moth, a cool concept –> reality

Last year for my best friend’s birthday, I found a book called: “All These Wonders, True Stories About Facing the Unknown”. Knowing that she shares my appreciation and love for getting a little glimpse into someone else’s human experience through a story, I was excited to gift the book and get to read it myself, too. Turns out, this book was a curated collection of impactful stories from “The Moth”, just transcribed on paper instead of on the radio or in a podcast.

Reading these stories and now, seeing a live The Moth event has ignited my love for this genre of storytelling. I love the raw, real, nature of these stories, the vulnerability that goes into standing in front of a crowd and sharing something deeply personal. I love finding connections to my own life, relating to someone standing in front of me and not feeling so alone. I love extrapolating grand themes about the world from a five minute rendition of a man thinking he lost his bike, when it was really just behind him the whole time.

Like at a concert, the feeling of sharing an experience with a few hundred strangers sitting all around gives the art itself a new meaning. At the Moth, everyone is sitting together, experiencing the same piece of writing with completely different lenses, and that sense of togetherness gives the story a different power. Some of the stories that were shared at the event were very personal, but the support from the community around me left me feeling empowered rather than defeated.

This environment leads me to want to share my own story with The Moth one day. Before the event, this idea intimidated me, but I learned that even if I don’t execute my story perfectly, or even if it doesn’t have a perfect arc, I will have a community supporting me, interested in hearing my story.

Moth!

As the story is told, I believe the power of storytelling is found when people are most moved by two things: vulnerability, and their ability to see themselves witnessing the story first-handed. It is a legitimate genre as it is most difficult to successfully tell a plot, while incorporating tidbits of character development, as well as making it interactive, asking questions, comedic relief, etc.

 

I listened to “Stranded on a Desert Island” among others. This one stood out to me because there was sort of a plot line: the progression of his high school relationship. Nothing, however, was pinpointed. It felt like some guy just randomly had a microphone stuck to his face, and he was forced to tell a story. He did seem comfortable, so much so, that he took his time, allowing space for the audience to laugh. This is important!

 

I do have a desire to write my own Moth story. I probably would not share it; I feel too insecure in what I have to say, to be completely honest. The Moth has definitely opened my eyes to writing about anything—the whole gist of conversing about a one worded theme is quite difficult, and would be a great exercise to do everyday. Journaling about random topics may stretch the brain and creativity, to create linguistic arts.

Moth Mania: My Favorite Stories from Three Consecutive Hours of Listening

So I think I overdid it a little. I was unable to attend the local Moth Radio Hour last Tuesday, so I started listening to the Moth Radio podcast for the first time. Before I knew it, it was three hours later and I had barrelled through five episodes. Here are some of my favorite stories and what they taught me:

“A Sign, A Satire, and a Scandal” by R. Eric Thomas
A mix of humor, seriousness, and emotion, this was a great first-ever Moth story! The storyteller takes us along for the ride as he writes a satire piece about a Black History Month sign, only for him, an African-American college student, to be called a racist. His story heavily features his own internal monologue, so the audience empathizes with him from the beginning and always knows what to feel. Thomas has an easygoing rapport with the crowd and I could practically hear him feeding off of their energy as he spoke. This story taught me that the level of detail you choose to share with the audience drastically affects their perception of the tale and of you. It also taught me that the energy you bring to the stage can make or break your story.

“Mug Shot” by Steve Osborne
The host introduced the storyteller as a retired New York City police officer, adding “…and yes, that is his real voice.” As Osborne began to speak, I understood why: he had a “feg-ed-aboud-it!” New York accent you only hear on TV. He himself was a dynamic character, making his story just as dynamic. He told a story about a criminal he was about to nab, only to discover that he had died weeks ago. The perp’s mother, who was living in the apartment the cops investigated, asked to keep a copy of her son’s mugshot, a photo Osborne described as one “only a mother could love” earlier on in the story. That subtle foreshadowing brought everything together, making the ending all the more touching and cathartic. The storyteller also achieved the amazing feat of making the audience feel for the mother of a criminal while simultaneously rooting for the cop after him. This story taught me that half the story depends on the identity and attitude of the storyteller, and that foreshadowing can turn an interesting story into an astounding one.

“C’est La Vie” by Terrance Flynn
Hoo boy, this one was a doozy! Probably my favorite one so far. The storyteller takes care to set the scene of his nights at a gay bar called C’est La Vie, complete with all the sights, sounds, and smells. He describes an attractive man, a key figure, in intricate detail, from his windswept blond hair and dirty work boots to the way he always smelled like chocolate. Only much later in the story is it revealed that this man, who Flynn pined after for years but never obtained, was freakin’ Jeffrey Dahmer. HOLY PLOT TWIST, RIGHT? When this bomb was dropped, I (and, I assume, the rest of the audience) wondered how I didn’t see it before: blond, skinny, sketchy man at a gay bar in Milwaukee in the 1980s? Crazy. Not every story can have a jaw-dropping moment like this, but it certainly helps to keep people engaged. This story taught me that if you’ve got a plot twist, build up to it! It also taught me that tiny details can make a story surprising and special.

Would I write a story for the Moth Radio Hour? I’ve certainly listened to enough of ’em to have the practice. Seriously though, while I’ve never been a New York cop or been centured by my college’s Black Student Society or almost gone home with a cannibal, I might have some stories to tell. They don’t have to be super crazy: as long as I use vivid detail, empathetic narrative, and play off my audience, I think I might be able to pull it off.

Marvelous Moth Moments

On Tuesday, I was able to go to The Moth live in Ann Arbor. I had listened to a few Moth stories online before, but this was my first time experiencing it live. I can confidently say that the experience exceeded my expectations, and my friends and I already have the next one marked on our calendars.

As far as being an audience member goes, I think the host made it very clear as to how we were supposed to behave, which was pretty in line with the expectations I had for being an audience member. We were supposed to listen and engage with the storyteller, which I also did not think I was going to have any issues doing (which, for the most part, is true). However, one aspect of being an audience member is realizing, and somewhat acknowledging, that we were supposed to act collectively as an audience when listening to the storyteller. It was different than when, for example, I am reading a book or watching TV because in those situations, I am experiencing the story by myself. Experiencing stories as a collective audience made the environment feel warm and welcoming, something that I personally can’t feel when on my own.

 

In my opinion, to tell a good story is to not only know the story, but to know yourself and what you have learned from the story you’re telling. For many of the performers, specifically the winning one, I could see how the experience that they had shaped them as a person. This, I think, is the power of storytelling – after five minutes of hearing one story about a stranger, I felt as though I already understood them.

 

As I’m sure many people felt, I was surprised at the ratio from men:women speakers. About halfway through the night, when I noticed that there were way more men storytellers than woman storytellers, I looked around the room to see if there were just way more men than women there. To my disappointment, it seemed as though there were an equal amount, and that more men were just deciding to share their stories. I don’t know if this was just because it was an off night or if it was for any other reason, but the entire rest of the night I was left wondering why so many more men spoke.

As I mentioned in class, I spent the entirety of class thinking about what story I would share for distance…nothing came to mind. Then, I started thinking about other stories that I could share just in general, like, events that have shaped me to become the person I am…nothing came to mind. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t think my life is super exciting or if it’s because I’m just too hard on myself, but I literally have no idea if I have any stories that would be of interest for anyone to hear. Definitely something that I want to think about. I can’t be THAT boring, right?

A Story is Not an Essay

I ended up listening to the podcast, and I think I didn’t do exactly what the assignment dictated and listened to individual stories instead of a single episode. They were from different themes and regions, I believe, but they were all very interesting.

 

I think one thing I wasn’t expecting was exactly how I would negatively react to some of the stories. I don’t really want to go into detail because it’s a bit personal, but there was one particular story which bothered me. The reason that it bothered me stuck with me throughout the entire story, but there wasn’t really a way for me, as a listener, to voice this and get it off my chest. I listened to the whole story (which was around 10 minutes) and couldn’t get my mind off this one thing. Whenever the storyteller said something pertaining to this problem, I just felt angry.

 

This initially pissed me off and I almost didn’t want to finish listening to the story — I think going into listening, I had this mindset that all the stories I would listen to would move me deeply and emotionally, in a good way. They would open my eyes up to the world, connect me to humanity, etc, etc. My experience was honestly anything but.

 

I ended up finishing the story and thinking on it, and although it still doesn’t quite sit right with me, I realized how brave it is to tell stories as personal as it was. I’m sure the storyteller realized that this story would garner some negativity, simply because of its subject, but they still told it, and they told it in its rawest form. The point of storytelling, I realize, is not necessarily to gain an audience’s approval, but to bring something personal into the open and to reflect.

 

The other stories I listened to were much more lighthearted, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. One of them was about a young man’s experiences with his family in an airport, and I laughed aloud for a few moments — he describes how his family always forces him to carry baggage, and to take advantage of certain airport loopholes to bring as many bags onto the plane without paying for carry-on as possible. The story didn’t necessarily have a deeply stirring message for the audience — it was more of a reflection than anything else. In the very end of the story, he states his realization that he had inaugurated into adulthood in his family’s eyes because of the latest airport incident. The story was refreshing because it didn’t try to bring me into the light or elicit any particular emotions from me — it was just one individual’s story, and it allowed a listener to glean their own shared experiences from it.

 

I think that throughout my academic writing career, I’ve always been taught that my pieces must have some particular meaning, that they must persuade a reader, or come to some clever conclusion. I realized that I hadn’t made sure to check this attitude at the door when beginning to listen to the Moth — the entire time I listened to the stories, my mind was perpetually trying to gather evidence on the piece’s essayistic qualities. By the end, I realized that there were little to none essay characteristics in all of the pieces, and that this was intentional. Stories are not essays. Essays can be told in stories, but to boil a story down to simply an essay is to do it a great injustice.

 

I think I’m going to listen to an episode again this weekend, and this time listen solely for the sake of listening. Reactions, however negative, aren’t bad — essays may require some objectivity, but stories do not, which is something I’ve picked up on from listening to the audience’s reactions.

Please, Sit Here With Me, and Hear My Story

The night at the Moth blew me away. I have missed listening to stories, for the academic rigor of the college education often leaves little room for anything that doesn’t require an MLA/APA/Chicago citation.

I loved the entire experience of the live storyslam. There’s something so unique about having 200 people sitting in the same room, all united with the purpose of engaging with a story. It wasn’t just about the stories, every part of the Moth event contributed to the experience as a whole. There was the audience warm up by the oh-so-charismatic host with an amazing laugh, there was the excitement of drawing names from the hat, the performative aspect of the stories, the judging process, the use of mini-stories between the big stories, all of that built up to a very refreshing evening. I honestly felt like I got more in contact with my emotional/human side, which often gets slighted in favor of posh objective academic discourse (you feel me?). I think the rules of the Moth added to the overall vibe of intimacy and authenticity. 5-minute stories kept things concise and almost like a conversational story, rather than a ted talk lecture, and making it true+ YOUR story to tell made the experience of listening to them so authentic, knowing that the stories were real and from the mouth of the one who had been through it.

But why would I want to pay money to attend the live event when it is all uploaded in podcasts and story hours anyway?

There’s so much to an evening at a live story slam that just doesn’t come through if you’re listening to the stories from your own bed. Not that I wouldn’t, I feel like that is a wonderful experience in itself, but the evening at the slam itself is completely different. One thing I really loved was hearing the mini-stories in between the big stories. These were short, anonymous responses to a prompt on a slip of paper, related to the theme. Tuesday’s theme was “Distance” and the mini-stories prompt was “Tell us about a time you went all the way”. I loved hearing the quirky, different interpretations of this, and the way people condensed it into a few poignant sentences. This is especially because I just finished an experiment in writing microfiction, and these mini-stories I heard reminded me so much of microfiction, in that a lot of the good ones still had that sense of beginning, middle and end, and alluding to something larger, even in the small form of a few sentences.

I’m definitely putting the future storyslams on my calendar. I’ve already made a date with one of my friends for the 4th December one! I am so excited!

Listen

My grandmother loved stories. I spent the first six years of my life at her feet, in a tiny agricultural village in Andhra Pradesh. My earliest memory features me, being eaten alive by mosquitos at twilight, listening as she retold village gossip to her friends. There was always boisterous laughter, gasps of shock, and definitely some clucking of disapproval.

Every morning before sunrise, as my grandfather headed off to the fields, she would drag me to the village temple. I would be bleary-eyed and starving, sulking the whole way. We would sit on those cold concrete floors while the priest would sing beautiful mythological hymns for us. I don’t think these songs would be beautiful by today’s standards, but they often brought brought tears to my grandmother’s eyes. They are hundreds of thousands of stories, overwhelming even the thousands of gods – some are sung, some are told, some can’t be told before a certain hour, some can only be told at a in the presence of a certain person. These rules wrangled the sheer volume of stories to a manageable list for our listening pleasure.

I could not understand these hymns, and to be honest I did not care to. The prayer songs are usually sung in a specific dialect that even my devout grandmother could not fully understand, a secret language taught only to the caste of priests. I would sit there, nodding off, as the priest would chant and sing and conduct his puja. The sun would rise, and my grandmother and I would walk back home in the rising heat. The whole way, she would retell everything that was sung. I always liked her versions better.

There is something about listening to people tell stories that I love. As I was listening to Moth, I came to the realization that I really felt no desire to get up on that stage myself. Sitting, listening, is what comes naturally to me. Being a good listener is something that I have always prided myself on, but I never really thought that it came from loving listening as opposed to…I don’t know…being a good friend?

I think storytelling is an art, whether it is performative or not. The Moth stories are rehearsed and refined in some way. Still, I feel that same intimacy listening to strangers talk about their stories as I feel when my friends are telling me about their days. Stories are a huge part of what makes us human. Humans are  social creatures, and we have always used stories as an essential way to connect with one another. I think Moth capitalizes on that innate desire to gain a glimpse into someone else’s world, to look through their eyes for even a few minutes.

I know that my grandmother would have wanted me to create, but I do not think I have a story that needs to be told. I think I am happy listening in, watching someone else explore their world for a little while. At least for now.