Performance, Poetics and Prose (Oh my!)


January 25, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

If you read this blog – and I hope you do – you know I’ve committed to 20 hours of creative work a week in 2015.

I may have to find a new spot for the terrarium.

I may have to find a new spot for the terrarium.

But from now until February 10, most of that creative work is going to be focused on preparing for a storytelling event. Or at least it should be.

This would be my upcoming performance with Brian “Fox” Ellis at Loren Niemi’s monthly event Two Chairs Telling. I’ve talked about Two Chairs on this blog before (and interviewed Loren as well). There’s a great example of a Two Chairs recording on that post which features Ward Rubrecht and Elizabeth Ellis (no relation to Brian, as far as I know)- but I have never performed there, and it’s something I am looking forward to with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

There’s nothing to dread, really, but you know…whatever sharpens your saw.

Horace Goldin sawing a woman in half.  APIC/Getty Images

Horace Goldin sawing a woman in half. APIC/Getty Images

Fox Ellis is a professional storyteller – that is, he makes his living telling stories.

His own bio says he “has more than two dozen characters living in his head, from Walt Whitman to Charles Darwin, and a repertoire of more than 400 folk tales from his Irish, German, and Cherokee heritage. He has hosted whiskey tastings and Chautauqua, produced shows for television and theatre, published 16 books and recorded a dozen CDs. He has been a full-time professional storyteller touring Europe, Central America, and these United States since 1980.”

Well okay then.

I have characters living in my head, too.

Twenty hours?  I'm going to need ankle bracelets. And possibly support hose. Photo courtesy Nate Bolt.  Original artist unknown.

I’m going to need support hose. Photo courtesy Nate Bolt. Creative Commons license. Original artist unknown.

I make my living writing grants, which is in many ways a form of storytelling.

But I definitely have fewer than those 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell says you need to achieve mastery in the craft of telling stories on stage– even if Gladwell’s theory has recently been called into question.

Most Two Chairs Telling events have a general theme, so I spent some time this month watching Brian’s videos to try to see what we have in common, and what we do differently. He talks a little bit about his approach to storytelling here:

A lot of what Brian does is living history – for schools, museums, parks.

I’m not a historical interpreter, but we’re clearly both very interested in biography, and in trying to understand who the key influencers of our time were, what they contributed to the culture, and how they were also a product of that culture and their time. I tend to focus on women – last week’s blog post on Coretta Scott King being a fair example. He tends to focus on men. The wardrobe challenges are easier, for one thing.

Fox Ellis as Charles Darwin.  Photo by Ivan Phillips

Fox Ellis as Charles Darwin. Photo by Ivan Phillips

What I proposed to him was a dialogue about what draws us to portray or tell the stories of particular people.

About the intersection of personality and the history of ideas. It won’t just be talk, of course; the stories we’re drawn to will be there as well. And it’s possible we’ll each include a folk or fairy tale that speaks to the characteristics those personalities embody as well.  He said he’s game.

So I guess I’d better get to work.

But in the meantime… I also signed up for another online course at The Loft Literary Center.

A course on the lyric essay. This began last Monday, and will involve readings, discussion questions, writing assignments, and “workshopping” the pieces of other classmates for the next six weeks. What on earth was I thinking?

Well, this, actually.

I had learned a lot from the blogging course I took last October from Patrick Ross, one section of which involved a discussion of how a blog post was like and unlike a personal essay.

I liked the idea of the blog post as a reflective piece, one that engages the reader by revealing the self and having a distinctive voice. I liked the idea of my words having to carry their own authority, and having to earn the privilege of being read. The parts of blogging that Patrick maintained were like journalism were less appealing to me. In particular, the telegraphic, “AP wire” type of journalism that requires an inverted pyramid and putting the takeaway up front. There are times when inverting the pyramid just seems like a bad idea.

There are times when inverting the pyramid just seems like a bad idea...

People sometimes tell me my best prose is lyrical: I thought I’d like to figure out how to do more of that.

I now know that people who use the term “lyric essay” in MFA and Iowa Writer’s Workshop-type circles expect it to be more than just an essay that uses poetic language. I can also tell after the first week that how much creative license is “allowed” in this genre is going to be a big issue. As it is in memoir, and in storytelling. Especially storytelling that purports to be “living history.”

Rather than having bit off more than I can chew I am hoping I am about to experience breakthrough synchronicity.

If you’re in the Twin Cities on February 10, stop on by and find out.

The Flammarion Engraving: A metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge. I'd be down with either.

The Flammarion Engraving: A metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge. I’d be down with either.

21 thoughts on “Performance, Poetics and Prose (Oh my!)

  1. lorilschafer says:

    I’m tired just listening to you, Paula! I’d be pleased to get half of what you have planned done :)


  2. ejfrostuk says:

    Love the idea of a blog post as a reflective piece. And as one of those Iowa Writing Workshop-types, I can definitely say that your prose is lyrical! :)


  3. woodbeez48 says:

    Ha, it’s interesting how you’re also talking about juggling all the creative things you’ve taken on in your life, this week. What you’re doing sounds like great fun as well as being a challenge. I know you’ll meet it but wish you lots of luck as you prepare :)


  4. Charli Mills says:

    Oh, the temptation to be in Minneapolis on Feb. 10! I recall your post and interview with Brian and I’m thrilled you get to pair with him for story-telling.


  5. Judith Post says:

    This sounds like an ambitious year for you. May your synchronicity be serendipitous! Good luck with everything.


  6. Mary Rowen says:

    I also hope you experience breakthrough synchronicity, Paula! I wish I could be there for the event. It sounds amazing.


  7. Stacey Gudonis says:

    Finally got back into LInkedin (they sent me an embarrassing email that I hadn’t been there in a year) which led me to your Linkedin. Now I just have to use it, hmm.


    • There’s no reason to use LinkedIn, sis, unless you think there are ways to grow your business through it, or you’re looking for a job, There was a great joke about LinkedIn on the Colbert Report when President Obama was on. I put a link to that video on my Facebook page on 1/21; you should watch it. Then you will feel no LinkedIn shame whatsoever.


  8. Oh your courage is spurring me to take action. Yes you seem busy but it sounds like it is feeding your soul as well. I very much enjoyed reading what is going on in your life and your insights along the way. Send me some of your courage please, I am thinking of a new project that will put more of Me out there. Peace and Blessings to you!


  9. genieinablog says:

    I actually performed in a storytelling show last night! It was my first experience with live storytelling, and it was really fun. I can’t wait to hear your experience.

    Also, if you’re in the Twin Cities (correct?), I’d encourage you to look into auditioning for the Twin Cities production of Listen to Your Mother. I co-produce the Austin show, and it’s an amazing opportunity to share a story. Here’s more info:


    • Congratulations, Leigh Ann! Glad to hear you had a good time. No, my blog didn’t eat your comment; it was just deadline week at work, and the comments are moderated. It should tell you that; I hate it when my own comments disappear without any explanation. I appreciate the link and will definitely look into it!


  10. […] not recognize at the time – and what I hope to explore a little further on February 10 when I do Two Chairs Telling at the Bryant Lake Bowl with Brian “Fox” Ellis – was the piece of my future the piece […]


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