Three Lessons Learned at STORY Gathering 2019
I’ll be honest, I have been avoiding writing this blog post recap of my STORY 2019 experience. It’s not that there isn’t lots to talk about — there is. It’s not that it wasn’t an incredible conference — it was. (In fact, cracked my inner German stoicism and brought me to tears within the first five minutes.) Ironically, it’s more that STORY is hard to put into words.
Here’s a super brief on what you need to know: STORY is not a marketing conference; it’s a story conference. As such, it doesn’t draw the typical marketing audience. (Which frankly, was refreshing.) From church leaders to nonprofit directors, filmmakers to aspiring authors, it brought a true miscellaneous drawer full of humans to Nashville for a few days that challenged our hearts as much as our minds. Think of it a bit like TED meets social mixer meets living art exhibit. Beyond that, you’ll just have to buy a ticket and attend next year if you’re curious.
And don’t expect their website to paint the full picture. As one attendee noted in her recap:
“I’ll admit I was hooked by the mystical experience this conference depicted on its website (was this going to be Hogwarts for writers?), but this self-described ‘conference for weirdos’ was hands down the best experience I’ve seen inspire a creative community. It wasn’t another failed networking attempt, and it didn’t disguise a hidden agenda of marketing tools or software.”
And though I can’t fully explain the true depth and profundity of the STORY experience, I can share a few lessons that have stuck with me since I returned home.
THE SPACE BETWEEN IS UNIVERSALLY UNCOMFORTABLE, CONFUSING AND MESSY. IT’S ALSO FULL OF POTENTIAL.
The theme of this year’s STORY was liminality. Although you may never have heard the terms “liminal space” and “liminality,” if you’re a living, breathing human…you’re already an expert. The words may be new, but the sentiment surely isn’t.
Liminal space is the time between. It is a place of transition, waiting and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.
Envision a person leaping between two trapeze bars. Arms outstretched, they’ve already let go of the trapeze of the past, but have yet to firmly grasp the trapeze of the future. For the moment, they are suspended in midair between the two, lingering in the liminality of the present. In that moment, it’s hard to know if they are falling or flying.
Though it takes different forms for all of us, even within our own lives, the experience of lingering in liminal space is universal. It can be messy, scary, awkward, daunting and uncomfortable. It can also be a place of rest and restoration before it serves as something empowering and transformative, powering us onward into a next chapter, new path and purposeful future.
STORY IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE A STAND AND GIVE A DAMN.
In the battle of “Harry Potter people” vs. “Disney people,” I fall squarely and unequivocally into Camp Potter. (Roawn wood, phoenix feather core, surprisingly swishy…). That said, I found new love in my heart for Disney after Linda Woolverton took the stage at STORY. In case you’re not familiar, Wikipedia has this to say about her: Linda Woolverton is a screenwriter, playwright, and novelist whose most prominent works include the screenplays and books of several acclaimed Disney films and stage musicals.
But really, you probably better know her as the mastermind writer behind beloved Disney classics including: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Homeward Bound. (Go ahead, I’ll pause while you think back to that one and shed a tear. Everyone in the STORY audience did.) Linda is also the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney (Beauty and the Beast), which became the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If that weren’t enough, she also became the first and only female screenwriter with a sole writing credit on a billion-dollar film for her work on Alice in Wonderland.
NBD. JUST KIDDING. REALLY BIG DEAL. (It is obvious I became an instant Linda Woolverton fan girl?)
One of my favorite story moments was when Linda shared the story behind the creation of the beloved Disney princess, Belle. This excerpt from a HelloGiggles article tees it up nicely:
“In the ’50s we continue this trend of passive heroines who wait around for magic to change their lives. Even their big songs (Cinderella’s “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and Aurora’s “Once Upon A Dream”) focus on these girls’ main occupation: dreaming, not doing. Whenever anything happens to these girls, it’s because a fairy godmother (or fairy super villain) is pushing the passive princess along the story conveyor belt. At the end of the day, if someone is going to be active, it’s going to be a prince on a shoe search, or hacking through shrubbery fighting off a dragon 20 times his size. The princesses remain passive, so passive, in fact, one of them isn’t even AWAKE during the film’s big climax.”
Linda Woolverton, on the early days of creating Belle:
“Disney animation was an old boys’ network at the time, and I was met with a lot of resistance. I wrote a scene in which Belle puts pins in a map while she’s waiting for her father to come back — because she wants to travel to interesting places. But when the storyboards came back, she wasn’t putting pins in a map…she was baking a cake.” (source)
Speaking to the STORY crowd, Linda shared another Belle anecdote. When Linda originally presented Belle as a bookworm, executives pushed back, claiming that a Disney princess needs a “more active” hobby. Sent back to the drawing board (or writing board, rather), Linda reflected on her own youth, recalling all the times she had read a book while walking to the store on an errand. Linda returned the character to the execs. Instead of just reading, Belle was now “active” reader. (Suddenly all those scenes of Belle meandering through the village while walking and reading have a whole new context, eh?)
Ask and ye shall receive, Disney execs. And just like that, the most beloved Belle in history was both saved and born.
WE’RE NOT ALL CREATIVES, BUT WE ARE ALL STORYTELLERS.
Ponder this for a moment: Which is happier? A blender or a vacuum cleaner? Why?
The word “storyteller” may not appear on your business card, but it’s in your blood. (And if you answered the blender vs. vacuum question, you just story told without even thinking!) We all have stories to tell — and those stories have the ability to impact the world around us.
One of my greatest lessons on story actually came after the STORY conference. I took a few days of vacation and went on a farm tour with a perfect stranger who drives around other strangers for a living. I won’t say the idea of being trapped in a car someone for four hours didn’t sound a little bit daunting. Over the course of our time together, we weaved back not only through her family history in the region, but also through the history of the farmers, the land, the community and the country. We plucked ancient leaves of indigo and marveled over historic tobacco smoking in the barns. We paced through fields of first-generation hemp. We snacked on sun-warmed garden tomatoes and plump, orange persimmons. We visited a barn where a mother had been forced to continue milking her cows daily alongside the swaddled, frozen bodies of three of her five children who had died from starvation one winter, waiting for the ground to thaw so she could bury them. We paused to reflect at the foot of a large stone where slaves had once been chained for auction. It was a day of many stories that left me with new and renewed perspective.
Your voice is important.
Your story is important.
Whether you’re on a forward trajectory to somewhere clear or lingering in the liminal, the world is here, waiting and ready for you to share it.
To learn more or grab tickets to next year’s STORY Gathering visit https://storygatherings.com/.