Lukas Rowland: Storyteller

Monday evening, I got up on stage and told my first personal story in front of an audience. I was given the honour of closing our showcase, where we presented eight weeks of hard work. It was amazing to see how everyone’s stories had evolved from the beginning, and I was extremely proud of my fellow workshop participants.

I was captivated by their stories to the point that I didn’t feel nervous until we were applauding the next-to-last performer. Taylor got up on stage and said lovely things about our work, then she introduced me and I tried very hard to remember the performance tips that we had received a couple weeks ago. I keep repeating confidence in my head, and tried to exude that as I approached the stage with butterflies in my stomach.

I took a moment, and then launched into my story.

I could feel that I was roaring through it entirely too quickly. I sensed two parts of my mind: the story, which almost seemed to have a life of its own; and the storyteller, critically analysing and offering nudges for course correction. Slow down, said the storyteller, and the story complied. I felt myself ease into it, then the storyteller fell silent and I was fully into the tale I was telling.

It was incredible. Having an audience to laugh at the funny moments, or shift in their seats at the awkward ones. I felt that they were with me in the story, and I knew by their applause at the end that they appreciated it. I had people I didn’t know come up to me afterward and share kind words that had me beaming.

I want to thank my fellow storytellers for their support and bravery during this journey. Adjani, Ellie, Manoosh, Arielle, Rachel, Hayley, and Amy; your stories were beautiful and I was so glad to see your hard work bring them to the versions you presented.

Finally, an enormous thanks to Nisha Coleman and Taylor Tower for presenting this workshop. You told us from the very first week that we were already storytellers, but that didn’t really sink in until we all went up on stage. Thank you so much for this incredible adventure! I can’t wait to do this again!

Creating content

Last week, stories were on my mind, but there’s a lot more going on in my writing life. I have a hard deadline for my application for a writing residency in New Orleans; I submitted a piece to my writing workshop that is meant to serve as my writing sample, and got great feedback that I need to incorporate into a new draft. I have until nearly the end of the month, but the piece has been sitting long enough, it’s time to get my hands dirty again.

Another important piece of feedback from my workshop was that the story seems to be starting too late; in the previous first chapter, Simon gets the phone call that begins his return to the South. There is nothing established about his relationship with the South, with Montréal, with his family. These things need to be present in the reader’s mind so that the gravity of his journey south is understood.

Since getting this feedback, I have been envisioning the novel in three parts: Montréal, Louisiana, and back. I have been working to flesh out part one and provide motivation for Simon: why did he leave, why has he never been back, who is he and what is his relationship with his place of birth and the place he has chosen to make his life? His relationships with people are clearer in my mind, I really need to dig into how he feels about Home, and what that means to him.

A lot of these feelings have been coming out as I explore the past in my storytelling workshop. I don’t know how much of the past will end up in the novel, I want it to have the immediacy of being set in a “present” time, the past being referenced in anecdotes or perhaps flashbacks. Still, it has been fun to explore these old memories, and discover how much lies beneath the surface. For instance, if I’m telling someone a story from my past, I’ll recall the major events, but it’s only in the telling that other details I thought I’d forgotten begin to emerge. I’ve been doing a lot of free writing to suss out some of those details.

The main storytelling project will be the story I’ll perform at the end of the workshop, and I’m doing work on that week after week and looking forward to each meeting on Monday night for more guidance and encouragement. I’m excited to perform this evolving tale, I’m tapping into high school experience, speech and debate, band, I’ve been on stage before and felt exhilarated by that energy. Really, it’s just telling a story to strangers, and I do that all the time already.

I attended another schmoozer October 30 in a silly mask I picked up at Pharmaprix: all red and black and clearly designed for a woman, with a matching lace collar and big, red jewels made of plastic. This was a joint event by QWF and ELAN, so there were artists present from many disciplines. I spoke with a translator, a juggler, a musician; we all do the same thing in different ways, and it was nice to spend a couple hours chatting with other creative folk. Maybe I’ll convince myself to bring my business cards next time, and stop telling people, “Well, I haven’t actually written anything yet,” when I really mean that I’m unpublished. Not for lack of trying, this has been a great year for getting myself out there!

Telling stories

So I said the writing had taken a backseat in the move, but that isn’t fully accurate. Before my moving weekend drew to its conclusion, I had the first meeting of a personal storytelling workshop that I signed up for after seeing it in a QWF post. Honestly, I had barely read the description: my eyes seized on personal and storytelling and I thought, “I’m writing a novel loosely based on my life, this could be something interesting.”

I was woefully unprepared for how interesting it would be.

We have explored by listening to several stories in-class, and I also attended Confabulation for the first time to get a better sense of what we’re meant to be doing. The very first homework exercise had me listening to a song from my adolescence in a dark room and crying my eyes out at the rush of images and memories. The second part of the exercise was to free write for fifteen minutes, and in a rush of song lyrics and boys’ names came the seeds of a story.

After a couple more meetings, I had a vague idea about a story I would tell involving a cat and three big, bearded men huddled around her in a veterinarian’s office. I freewrote on that in my notebook (which I have started to carry around everywhere and sort of romantically think of as my spellbook, silly boy) and then I sort of worked that into a first draft as I was typing it up. I sent e-mails to the presenters of the workshop, the fantastic duo of Nisha Coleman and Taylor Tower, here presented alphabetically by way of explaining that they are equally enthusiastic, informative, and encouraging in this terrifying new adventure.

As I had discovered with my latest submission and the beginning of my novel, there is something frightening about uncovering feelings, especially those felt during younger and more tumultuous years, and putting them into a work that is meant to be shared. At the same time, there is catharsis and liberation, a feeling of breathing a heavy sigh and feeling a weight lift up from my shoulders. I’ve talked about it in therapy, and these authentic sentiments will be the ones that will resonate with readers and make them care about the characters I write.

So I wondered if the cat story was personal and essential enough. I had sent an e-mail to Nisha and Taylor to get their opinions; I didn’t even have a proper draft for comparison, just the typed-up version of that first freewriting exercise.

What I had done that night but forgotten, is write a set of notes on the back of the exercise, talking about feelings and impressions and how utterly unprepared I was for those floodgates to open. I was doing homework for a writing workshop, this was not something my therapist had assigned. Still, the experience rang familiar due to recent work with feelings, so there was something comforting in the flood.

Then comes our latest meeting last Monday, where we are told that we are being split into pairs and telling our story, such as it is, to a partner.

In my mind: what the fuck? I haven’t decided yet! I haven’t even written the story that might be the better one to do!

We were reassured that this was not important: great emphasis was placed on the fact that the state of our story at this time was immaterial, what we needed was to present elements of it and see how an outsider reacted to them. I listened to my partner’s story with interest, completed my role for her part of the exercise. Then it was my turn to invent something. Well, not invent, the story was something that had happened, the events were real, but now I had to spin them together from whatever written spew had come forth after I cried over a song.

The start was awkward. I apologised (which we had been instructed not to do, as my partner reminded me) and started it with a drive. A few words in and I feel the story sort of support me, not take over exactly, but there was a natural flow that I felt this needed to have. I improvised here and there with details, my brain sometimes snatching ideas up at the last moment. The ending definitely left something to be desired.

Then it was my partner’s turn to talk, and I took a page of notes based on her comments that I brought home and immediately hammered into a first, typed draft. Now it exists. Now it can be printed and torn apart and lines can be drawn, elements can be added to reinforce the bones of this story. I took a vague sort of something and refined it into a messy beginning which may bear little to no resemblance to the final product, which I will perform on stage. Here again, a frisson of fear and excitement. I’m thinking back to my speech and debate days, although that was always a prepared piece where I simply added my performative interpretation. This was going to be me getting up and sharing an intimate part of my life with strangers.

How thrilling!