Guest Bloggers

3 Things I’ve Learned About Storytelling (and Life) from Performing Narrative Nonfiction

Guest Blogger Anastasia Zadeik writes:

The bar is hushed. I stand at the podium, bright lights partially obscuring the crowd. I see a blur of faces and blank spaces, hear ice clinking in a glass somewhere to my right and murmurs from the back of the room where drinks are being ordered and served. I am about to start speaking when I remember a tip I was given by my first performance coach, Jon.

“Before you begin,” he said, “take a deep breath and remind yourself to . . . slow . . . down.”

This, I have found, is good advice and, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on” so…

1. Before you start a story (or anything new)—take a deep breath and remind yourself to slow down.

I begin to read the narrative nonfiction piece printed on the pages in front of me. It starts with some background about my dad, how he was a Latin, Hebrew, and Greek teacher, a Shakespeare scholar, and docent at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then the story places him in the hospital at age 81. He is about to go in for emergency surgery when he calls to me to share what might be his last bit of fatherly wisdom. I slow down in the reading, pause for a few seconds, and then explain that, instead of the profundity I expected given his extraordinary intelligence and the dire circumstances, I heard my dad say, “There are some Bob Chin gift cards in my wallet. Make sure you use them with your brothers and sisters.”

The crowd laughs.

I look up to see the blur of faces and spaces and lift my gaze to just above the heads, following advice from the minister at the church where my father’s funeral was held—a piece of advice I received when I was about to deliver the eulogy I’d written for my dad when, months after the Bob Chin gift card incident, we lost him to complications from that emergency surgery.

“Look just over their heads until you feel comfortable,” the minister told me. “They will think you are engaging directly with them. Only when you begin to feel at ease should you lower your gaze to their faces, and then engage with an open, amiable face or two around the room.”

2. Give the impression you are engaging directly until you can actually engage directly (in other words, fake it til you make it) and then look for the people who appear open and amiable.

I lower my eyes to the page again and share how my dad never walked again after that surgery, how he suffered from ODTAA syndrome, “One Damn Thing After Another,” and the grief and loss my siblings and I felt when he died. I share how we went on a scavenger hunt of his favorite paintings at the Art Institute together as if trying to find him somehow, and our fear that we weren’t ready to be the older, wiser, generation. My voice drops and wavers slightly as I allow myself to feel those feelings again. I hear an audience member sniffle.

I wait a moment, let the sadness settle, and then I begin to share how my siblings and I did indeed use my dad’s gift cards, how Bob Chin’s was a crab shack that served alcohol and how we proceeded to get drunk and tell bittersweet stories, how my brothers ended up fake-wrestling on the floor of the funeral home, and how the hotel clerk thought I was planning a bachelorette party when I called to inquire about the capacity of the hotel’s hot tub and whether we could bring our own booze into a conference room. I lift my eyes, now fully engaging with the blurry faces, and hear laughter again.

Then, slowing my voice again, I finish with the last piece of advice my father actually gave me, the words of wisdom and love he wanted to pass on to his grandchildren. The laughter fades into silence and I hear another sniffle, and another.

And I am reminded of something my second performance coach, Eber, told me. “If you can make them laugh or cry, it’s a good story. If you can make ‘em laugh and cry, it’s a great story. And if you can make ‘em laugh, cry, laugh, and cry again, then it’s an amazing story. Be authentic and make them feel it.”

3. Be authentic

Trust me, this does not contradict #2 because this is all about the delivery of your message. Let your emotions come through. Make them feel your passion, your dedication, your fear, your joy, your belief. Make the most of every moment. Grab ’em with what you know and what you feel and don’t let them go until the

Anastasia Zadeik is a writer, editor, and narrative nonfiction performer. She lives in San Diego, CA, where she serves as Director of Operations for the San Diego Writers Festival and as a mentor and board member for the literary nonprofit So Say We All.

Blurred Fates is her first novel.

When she isn’t reading or writing, you will find her hiking, practicing yoga, playing tennis, swimming, or hanging out with her husband and their empty-nest rescue dog, Charlie.

“3 Things I’ve Learned About Storytelling (and Life) from Performing Narrative Nonfiction” first appeared in Jane Friedman’s July 12, 2022 Blog.

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