4 min read

on retelling: how to measure the power of a story

a story's truest value lies in how others make it their own

This past Thursday evening, a few young storytellers gathered in our Written Out Loud Studio. The Studio is our weekly "free writing" zoom where we write, chat, and just in general hang out.

I've been thinking a lot about listening recently, so I asked the group if they'd like to listen to a story written by a superb Written Out Loud storyteller named Jonathan. Jonathan wasn't with us in the zoom that night, but he had just completed his novel, called What's Outside The Box? I knew Jonathan was talented, so I figured that his book would have a pretty good chance of holding the group's attention.

It ended up doing much more than that.

To facilitate our "listening party," I uploaded a pdf of Jonathan's manuscript to an app called Speechify. Speechify uses A.I. to instantaneously translate text to voice, creating an audiobook in zero time. I looked over the menu of voice choices: I could choose to have Jonathan's book read aloud by Barack Obama, Snoop Dogg, Gwyneth Paltrow, or any number of generic voices and accents. I went with Gwyneth.

I pressed play, and the story began. Jonathan's writing, plus A.I.-Gwyneth's voice, began casting a spell immediately. Within thirty seconds, every one of us in the Studio had forgotten we were alive.

The story immediately plunges the listener into the dire circumstances of its main character, Aria. Aria is the abused teenage daughter of an ultrawealthy father, who runs a mysterious tech company. In the first chapter, he orders Aria's hair to be forcibly dyed black by her brother, who dutifully hauls her off to the bathroom. Before he dyes her hair, he ties Aria's hands to her chair. 

Our hearts immediately went out to Aria. We were spellbound, feeling her desperate yearning for freedom as we would our own.

After the dyeing deed is done, Aria slinks back to her room. Absentmindedly, in a fog, her hands wander until she find a secret letter, written by a barely-remembered friend, Sana. The letter invites Aria to a concert where Sana will be singing. Aria's gaze drifts down to the date of the concert. December 18.

That's tonight.

A distant feeling stirs inside Aria. Not just a desire for freedom, but the far-off chime of her own agency. She puts down the letter, and walks slowly out of her room, and then down the stairs, towards the back door. The thought darts across her mind: You can do it! Escape! 

But she can't.

The storyteller, Jonathan, slows down time masterfully during this sequence. The closer Aria gets to the door, the slower her movements become, as her growing fear immobilizes her body like hardening concrete. Aria needs only to open the unlocked door in order to be free. She places her hand on the doorknob. But she cannot turn it. She stays still, entombed by her own terror.

Suddenly, in a stunning turn, yank, and tumble...the door is opened: from the outside!

Aria falls to the ground outside. She looks up at a face she does not know...or does she?

Wait.

Sana.

"You wanna try breathing for a second?" says Sana.

Aria, half-dazed, says, "Aren't you...singing tonight?"

Sana laughs and says, "No."

Sana kneels down to her friend and says,

"You are."

Soon after, Jonathan virtuosically throws down a chapter break.

I pressed pause on the storytelling, and all of us in the Studio blinked our way back into the world.

I recorded the group's reaction in the zoom that followed. This is where the evening's moment of unexpected magic unfolded. Watch:

 

That's Harrison in the upper right. He's writing his second novel with us this summer. But as you can tell, it's not just Harrison's writing that's exceptional. It's his listening.

One of my favorite aspects of this moment is that this brief scene was not “written by” Harrison.

It was retold.

I find the generosity and eloquence of Harrison’s storytelling to be all the more inspiring because he makes no claim of ownership whatsoever. As a result, his storytelling is free of any pressures that come from sharing “one's own” work with others.

Harrison is simply, generously, and joyfully retelling a story he himself heard for the first time only a few seconds earlier. In doing so, Harrison makes this story his own.

In Jonathan’s writing, there is no mention or description of a shield, or bubble, around Aria. That’s an image that Harrison felt in his own imagination, as the story passed through him. By sharing the story through the filter of his own perspective, Harrison created something new. Who knows? Some day, Harrison may write a story of a girl trapped inside a bubble, as a result of hearing Jonathan’s story.

Or perhaps, one of you will: maybe one of you reading these words right now, who happened to press play on that video, and hear Harrison's great retelling...maybe you will write the story, or make the movie, or write the musical, of the Girl in The Spherical Jail.

We live in a moment where the value of a story is measured by the highly dubious measuring-stick of money. How did a film "do" at the box office; how many copies did a book "sell"; how long did a play "run" on Broadway. I would imagine that many of you feel as suspicious as I do of using money as a measuring stick of a story's value.

I am much more intrigued by the idea of measuring a story by its ability and power to be retold by another human being. Not in a way that's rehearsed, but in a way that feels released: just as Harrison released his interpretation of Jonathan's story.

For the majority of our time here on earth, retelling was the only way a story demonstrated its power, This was the only standard, and the only means by which stories could survive, for literally thousands of years. The stories that inspired the Bible, and all of Shakespeare, and the heiroglyphs, were remembered, retold, and reimagined around campfires for many, many years before printing presses and hand-writing and even cave painting were invented.


Welcome to the Summer We Tell Our Stories. At Written Out Loud, we've had a great many stories penned up inside Written Out Loud. This summer, we look forward to sharing them with you.

P.S. if you'd like to read What's Outside The Box, you can download an e-reader or pdf right here, in our new Written Out Loud bookstore, absolutely free. (You can also order a hard copy, which you'll have to pay for, but we'll ship it right to your home.) You'll notice a few other stories in our bookstore, all of which we'll be presenting, telling, and retelling to you all summer long. Feel free to dig in to any and all of them. I'd love to hear what you think.

Much more to come.

Best,

Josh

josh@writtenoutloud.org

LINK TO THE WRITTEN OUT LOUD BOOKSTORE

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