By Rivka Willick
Art in all its forms is a powerful force that can inspire, educate, lead, entertain, and heal. This is especially true of stories. They can be like a medication that can restore and rebuild us, but too much of certain medications (or certain stories) can do harm. There’s no formula, it varies depending on the story and person. Let’s take a look how a story can become toxic from over telling.
Getting Stuck in a Story Let’s go to history and classic American drama for a dynamic example. James O’Neill was a very gifted actor who shared the bill with the legendary Edwin Booth. He played Macduff to Booth’s Macbeth, Laertes to his Hamlet, and Iago to his Othello, often receiving better reviews. He played Marc Antony, Brutus, and Romeo consistently receiving great press. Then he was offered the role of Edmund Dantes in a theatrical version of The Count of Monte Cristo which was a smash hit in 1883. It meant a consistent stream of money and work for the next 30 years. He tried a couple other roles, but Dantes was a reliable meal ticket and a sticky trap. In time the audiences only wanted to see him in that single play which became a straitjacket that eroded his talent and led to depression. This sad but true story was woven into his son Eugene O’Neil’s greatest play, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
It’s easy to get stuck by writing the same story over and over again, or performing that story everyone wants to hear in a storytelling performance. Motivational speakers often find themselves riding high, then suddenly the offers and recognition drops. Although audiences might weary of these over told stories, the teller also may lose the passion to tell it.
The Painful Story You Don’t Want to Tell Again Telling or exploring a painful or traumatic event in story form is often empowering and can be healing, but telling it too many times can reverse the positive effects. I remembers sitting with a storyteller during one of the annual National Storytelling Networks Conventions. She began telling me about her college storytelling program, but quickly got upset. During her first year she developed a story based on some very painful personal experiences. She got positive feedback from her teachers and fellow students, but wanted to try something else. She told me her teachers, but they wanted her to stay with this story which might lead to opportunities; that’s when she broke into tears. She said she couldn’t control her emotions after telling the tale and she needed a break. If a story is causing pain, stop telling it, find another way or another part of the story to tell, or take a break. Reliving a trauma over and over in the shape of a story can stimulate painful feelings and work against healing.
Giving up. Many artists, speakers and writers find their groove and then get too comfortable. The opportunities to try new stories and ideas are still there, but the teller stops thinking, stops exploring. Trying new material and new approaches is essential in all art and creation. When you stop exploring you stop growing. What’s that great line from Shawshank Redemption?… “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Rivka coaches online, does workshops, and all day/multi day intensives. Rivka@SimplyExtraordinaryTales.com