“But What’s The Story”

I hated that question. We were ten weeks deep in a documentary film class at Syracuse and the professor had repeated it ad nauseam for every class of the semester.

Each week, we came in with a new reel, a few more scenes that eventually led to our final semester project, a short documentary. After each team finished showing their clip, carefully put together during all-nighters tucked away in the school’s tiny, cramped edit bays, he would ponder carefully and then give his response: “Maybe I’m just not seeing it. But what’s the story?” It was obnoxious and frustrating.

The next time we met, we’d bring a new interview that we swore focused on story and story only.

“But what’s the story?” he’d ask.

That. That was our story, we moaned.

That was somebody talking, that wasn’t story, he’d say.

It was the hardest class to get out of bed for — and I took an environmental science class once. Eventually, though, as we began to finally bring out the stories in our projects, it started making sense. He was holding our feet to the fire because that was the only way to get us to understand what real story was. Eventually, we bought in. We saw what he meant about capital S Story (the craft) as opposed to little S story (the anecdote). We knew we wanted to create the former and we saw that to do so, we’d have to become passionate about it. We had to devote ourselves to quality and craft.

That’s not to say that passion is a flipped switch. It’s learned, it’s nurtured. Most of all, it’s recognized. It’s knowing what’s crap and what’s good, and not wanting to settle for anything less.

We’d tweak and re-edit and still he’d ask the question.

“But what’s the story?”

We pushed ourselves to create something that would finally shut him up. But he never relented, always pushing us further.

“But what’s the story?”

We didn’t realize it until later, but he wasn’t teaching us how to make a documentary film, he was teaching us craft. He was teaching us that no matter how much time or energy or coffee or whatever we put into storytelling, we would keep producing crap if we didn’t have passion for what we were doing. We started asking ourselves, “But what’s the story?” It was relentless, obsessive. Obnoxious, even.

But it was the difference between doing and dabbling. Between asking yourself the hard questions and waiting for someone to ask them for you. It’s the difference between good and “good enough.”

At the end of the semester, we had a screening to show the short films we labored over. Every single group had found their story. And over beers later, we gushed.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an article he was writing. “Is it any good?” he asked. I read through it, pondered carefully, and shot him an email back: “Maybe I’m just not seeing it. But what’s the story?”

This was originally written (whoa… 4 years ago!) for Keith Stoeckeler’s fantastic AllThatInspires.Me blog, which sadly no longer exists. Thought it was about time to re-share.
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