For the last two Mondays, I’ve dropped into a local, weekly storytelling workshop.
I did it in the way I do many things: with a plan; a goal; an endgame in mind — I want to be better at storytelling. (Because we all could.) I want to be better at identifying and naming and validating my own emotions and experience (ditto.) And then I want to be better at channeling those, and storytelling is an okay place to start.
The first week was great. The group was friendly, we all did this queer “check in; check out” structure for introducing ourselves — which was… fine — and most of the stories were good. Which was great.
By the second week, though, I realized something: after every story, a few people would always give feedback, but we could’ve pretty much skipped it, because after the words “I really liked it” (which they always said), there was only one reason they gave for why, which was:
“This really resonated with me.”
(Or “I could relate to this” or “this represented me” or “[let me share this personal anecdote about how I’ve had a similar experience]” or whatever.)
And I realized:
“Relatedness” is the number one reason people like any writing. Or any writer.
In the words of Heidi Priebe, who wrote every day for two years:
“People don’t want to see you in your writing. They want to see themselves in it.
People don’t really want to read biographies. They don’t want to read personal essays. They don’t even want to read think pieces about other people’s heartbreaks or triumphs.
They want to read something — anything — that they see themselves inside of. They want to feel smug reading your biography, because they didn’t make the same mistakes you made. They want to feel validated reading about your heartbreak because they’re feeling the same pain that you’re feeling. They want to feel moved by your inspirational essays, because they see how the lessons you’re preaching can apply to their everyday lives.
Readers need to find themselves inside of every single piece that they read — whether it’s as straightforward as adopting the ‘independent woman’ identity or as far-fetched as believing that if they were in Harry Potter, they’d have defeated Lord Voldemort as well.
But a piece of writing that neglects its reader is a piece of writing that will not succeed. No matter how eloquently it’s written.”
And it’s absolutely true.
The funny thing about this, of course, is that when I say “people want to see themselves in writing,” this obviously includes the author. Most writers — and especially most good writers — want to see themselves in their work.
So even as audience members told the storytellers how much their story “resonated” with them, the storytellers were just sitting there thinking about how, more importantly, it reflected themselves. And it was this hilarious, adorable standoff of personal emotions all tossed into the center of the room like some kind of “feelings” puppy play time.
And we call this thing “connection,” but really it’s just all of us doing what humans do best, which is bringing it all right back to ourselves.
And it’s fine. It’s fine.
But it might be worth considering how you tie the two together — your feelings, and whether others can relate to them. Because the story that people liked best weren’t the ones where the storytellers were the most passionate, or entertaining, or emotional, or authentic.
It was the ones that were most mundane, and most easily relatable.
Like the one about a dude losing someone he barely dated. The one about a woman on the phone with her mom. The one about a dude hating a school class. The one about siblings and family holidays.
They’re something to which everyone in the room could relate. And while he may have been the one who told it, we all repackaged it tidily as our own, and then thanked him for putting our own feelings into words.
Writers should write their experiences, sure. But beloved writers let the readers feel them as their own.