A Writing Workshop With Donald Davis

This week I participated in a special writing workshop with Donald Davis, Master Storyteller.  I’ve said before, he is a National Treasure.  A small group of us met with him at Karen Ashton’s home to learn and talk about capturing our stories.  This focus this week was on writing them down.

Our first day, he said, “When you have to create something, you drop back to your easiest language.  With story, our creative language is talking. Writing is the language you learn to translate into when you find the story. You don’t often find stories in the process of writing. You find them while talking.  It’s like making quilts. You don’t start off sewing. You gather scraps.  We will start by discovering ways to do scrap gathering. It’s pure fun.
Then we’ll lay them out and ask, “Is there a quilt/story there?” Where is the story??
Once we’ve found the story, what are the ingredients that it has to have to be whole?
Not just a plot summary. How to move from a starting place to a whole.
Last, how to move the story into words on paper.”

So we spent the first day looking for scraps.  Donald said, “Let’s think about what we brought with us today. Whenever we go somewhere, we take things with us. Things attached to our body. Stuff like jewelry, stuff that just clings to us. Pockets, what’s in them? Purse, what’s in it? Examine the inventory of the stuff you brought with you today. Pick something, which if you tell us about it, will tell us more about who you are, and will help us appreciate you more.”

It was an interesting exercise to spend that first day listening to each participant talk about something they brought with them.  Stories started emerging.

The second day we talked about Places.  Donald had us think about and visualize the first place we remembered living. “Could you take us to visit that place?”  He suggested we think about the following:
Can you see the first place you remember going to school?
Was going to a grandparent’s place important to you?
Going to town? Can you take us on a walk through town?
Summer camp?
Family trips to same places?
A trip you took only once?
A favorite store?
A not-so-favorite store?
Doctor or dentist office?
Childhood church settings?

Not all places are geographic
The car/truck in which you learned to drive?
Other relatives’ homes?
Friends’ homes

We spent the second day picking one place in our lives that was important to us and then we practiced taking each other there, describing the place in as much detail as we could remember.

Donald said, “As you do this, you’ll remember little events that might turn into stories.
As you listen to each other, help their place building grow.  Ask about things they already know, but didn’t think to tell us.  “Was there ever trouble?”  Naming places really really helps. Naming people helps. Give names to pets, streets, addresses.  Names give it reality.

On Day 3 we talked about the people in our lives.
Donald said, “We build places out of places we’ve been. Same is true with people. We make people out of people we’ve known. True stories are ABOUT the people we know. Sometimes people we know the best are the hardest to describe. We know them so well. Easier to describe people we meet one time. You assume others know what you know.
I started a notebook years ago of all the people I could tell a story about.
Started with the day I was born.
Mother and Daddy
Little brother, Joe
Relatives who came to see us
Grandmother, Granddaddy
Other relatives, aunt Ester, Uncle Mark, etc. 36 aunts & uncles 1885-1936 born
That’s just in the family.

Who were the people who had already died when I was born who I grew up hearing about?
My father’s daddy died long before I was born.
He was gone, but the stories were still there.

Childhood friends you could still call and talk to today.
Lost friends from childhood you always wonder what happened to.
List all the people with whom you were in love (handle from a distance, relationships involve learning, hurt, growth)
Did your mother have a little list of people you were not supposed to play with?
My mother was a 2nd grade teacher and she knew them
Roommates, mission companions, going to camp in the summer
Pets (I didn’t grow up with pets because on the farm, they didn’t work. Mom: I won’t feed an animal that doesn’t work).
Find a person you could possibly tell a story about.
Are there some people who would be lost if you didn’t tell about them?

We each chose someone in our lives to talk about and spend the day hearing what came out.  It felt like stories were beginning to surface.

The 4th day we talked about what Donald calls “Thresholds.”  He said, “Don: I grew up hearing stories. We didn’t call it “stories” we just talked. Sometimes we’d say, “I want to hear that again.” The stories we knew we wanted to hear again were always stories where someone learned something. There was reason for it. I began to absorb a sense of where to find a story.”

He said, “A helpful way to find stories is by using a metaphor: The Threshold. The bottom piece of the door. You step across it. Our lives are divided up by multiple thresholds. Anytime we cross a threshold, there is a story. Typical thresholds include marriage, having a child, moving from one place to another, especially if it’s a cultural move, graduating from college, job changes, etc. Trips that change our experience. Going on a mission. Retirement. Losing a spouse. Divorce. These are big story times. World events. The whole world was pushed through a door on 9-11, and with COVID.”

Our Threshold experiences carried us into day 4.  Then we talked about the differences between telling and writing our stories.

Donald said, “When you move to writing, you have no gesture, no sound, no attitude, no feedback. You have to compensate for all those losses. Compensate for having no Body.”  We spent the rest of our time together talking about how to do that in our writing.

It takes practice.  Practice talking and telling, practice recording and writing.

This week has been a good week.  I’ve learned and I’ve observed how others talk about things in their lives.  In the end, it occurred to me that I’m not a very good storyteller.  I don’t like TALKING about things in my past or things that I’m stewing on.  I’d much much rather write about them.  Words on paper are more comfortable to me than words spoken.  This is something I can practice, and hopefully get better at.

It also occurred to me that I am more of a Documentor than a Storyteller.  It’s what I do and how I do it.  It’s my comfortable place.  I capture things and record them.  I feel anxious when things slip away, unrecorded.  I feel compelled to write.  My journal is my highest daily priority.

I’m grateful for my laptop, for my hands, and for the words that come out of my fingers, as I try daily to keep writing my fingers to the bone.

About Ann Laemmlen Lewis

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