virtualDavis

ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.
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Empathetic Storytelling

What does good, empathetic storytelling look like in the age of digitally augmented virtual reality? It might look a little like good, empathetic storytelling a century or two ago. Enveloping, enrapturing, and interactive.

Despite my misgivings about an increasingly post analog world, I’m intrigued with the possibilities for immersive, audience-centric storytelling that technology is enabling. And it looks like Empathic Media (@empatheticmedia) in Brooklyn just might be one of the players to watch…

Stories via virtual/augmented reality, 360° video, etc. (Source: empatheticmedia.com)

Virtual/augmented reality, 360° video, etc. (Source: empatheticmedia.com)

We believe that the combination of experiential, first-person storytelling approaches with virtual reality, 360 video, augmented reality and graphic journalism is the key to fostering empathy between storytellers and their subjects. (Source: Empathetic Media)

I’m onboard with “experiential, first-person storytelling”, but I have to admit that reading aloud, “virtual reality, 360 video, augmented reality and graphic journalism”, leaves a slightly tinny taste in my mouth. I take a swig of water, but it doesn’t quite wash away the acrid, faintly metallic aftertaste.

Good, empathetic storytelling liberates the story… allows the narrative to reinvent itself across media and across realities.

I’m not 100% sure why, especially because I’m truly fascinated with the dynamics of multimodal / transmedia storytelling. After all, a story doesn’t live in a book or a film or a song or a play or a graffiti mural. It is whispered — or chanted, shouted, burped — into existence with a book or a film or a song or a play or a graffiti mural… If the story is viable, it gasps and maybe it cries for a few seconds, and then it begins a wildly unpredictable life.

As it matures, it evolves. Maybe it mingles with other narratives. Maybe it’s a loner. But if it endures, it likely assumes many mantles.

Good, empathetic storytelling liberates the story from its book, its film, its song, etc. Good, empathetic storytelling allows the narrative to reinvent itself across media and across realities. And I suppose that digitally augmented virtual reality is just another mode, just another mantle, just another reinvention that vitalizes the story and [possibly] expands its accessibility. And yet, I’m skeptical that it is “the key to fostering empathy between storytellers and their subjects.” The key? I suspect there are many keys!

Story-boarding toward empathetic storytelling... (Source: empatheticmedia.com)

Story-boarding toward empathetic storytelling. (Source: empatheticmedia.com)

Storytelling, Stillness & Deep Listening

Life can become so very hectic and full of movement that we can forget what it is to be still and have nothing to do except to be still. (Abbot’s Notebook)

Before joining Mary Beth Coudal, Joanna Parson and Kathryn Cramer for a thoroughly rejuvenating Adirondack Memoir Retreat at Skenewood I posted a wandering rumination on storytelling. It connected dots. Loosely.

Mist. Lake. Mountains.

During the retreat I presented to the group on storytelling in the digital age, emphasizing the importance of — and increasingly abundant, powerful and affordable/free tools for — good storytelling. While the tools are many and evolving daily, the keys for good storytelling are few and enduring.

  • Listen Suspend noise, distraction and judgment.
  • Wonder Become curious and receptive. Ask questions.
  • Distill Strive to “unpack a narrative in its purest form” ~ Bob Davidson
  • Plot Sequence the scenes: beginning, middle, end.
  • Revise Trim the fat. Focus the narrative. Polish the delivery.
  • Practice Discover the narrative’s energy, pauses and cadence.
  • Share Relate interactively with your audience.

Although the last tip might vary depending on your storytelling medium (ie. print and video, for example offer minimal interactivity between storyteller and audience), I believe that “sharing stories” remains a superior goal to “telling stories”. After all, the story exists not in the words, images, etc. of the teller. The story is conjured up in the imagination of the audience. Whether oral story, book, movie, cartoon, it is the interaction of teller and audience that breathes life into a narrative.

For this reason, the best storytellers remain receptive, listening deeply to their audience even while relating their stories. Listening, revising, improving their narrative(s) for the current audience.

Mary Beth Coudal’s post-retreat reflection reminds us to listen and discover.

I’m finding benefits to being still, keeping quiet…

As we walked in the Adirondacks, the other writers and I stopped talking for a little bit. We said nothing.

When I wasn’t talking, I could listen. I could hear our footsteps, our breathing, a bird on the lake. I could hear a breeze through the leaves of grass. (To Pursue Happiness)

Mist. Lake. Boathouse.

Abbot Philip Lawrence’s quotation at the top of this post, excerpted from “Storytelling: From Ira Glass to Benedictine Monks“, was in my mind as I spoke with the retreat attendees about storytelling in the digital age. Today storytellers are blessed with ever richer storytelling tools and platforms, but their audience is drowning in distractions. It’s a noisy, hectic world, and it is more important than ever to cultivate stillness and quiet in order to listen.

Another conference attendee, William McHone, is setting off in pursuit of stories following the retreat.

As I head off on Wandering III, the people, places and events I come upon will inevitably remind me of the many wonderful people, places and events that have shaped my life thus far. I am hopeful, over time, the recording will become both something of a travel log and memoir… (Wandering With Moe)

As a fellow wanderer, perennially swaying to the siren song of adventurer, I envy McHone’s walkabout. Such sweet seduction!

And yet he must cultivate stillness as he wanders. He must be curious and receptive in order to discover the stories lurking in the people and places and events he will encounter. He must ask questions and listen deeply to the answers. He must distill the essential scenes and weave them into intoxicating narrative adventures. And he must share them. Again. And again.

And if he does, when he does, we will be listening.

Adirondack Memoir Retreat

Mary Beth Coudal is hosting a 3-day memoir writing retreat from October 25 to 28 at Skenewood, an historic Georgian manor house in Westport, New York. Participants in Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat will complete a publishable story from their lives, discover the next steps in their memoir process, and connect with a community of memoir writers to share and support their journey. (Essex on Lake Champlain)

Hats off (and a deep, balance-testing bow) to Mary Beth Coudal for organizing and hosting an inspirational long-weekend on Lake Champlain for a group of inspiring memoirists. I was fortunate to lead a pair of workshops with Coudal and to present on the importance of storytelling in the digital age. But my favorite part of the weekend was connecting with great storytellers forging new paths in this wild and wooly world of publishing. Readers, you are in for a treat once these stories are ready for you!

Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat took place in an amazing location, but I’ll let the video images speak for themselves. If you’d like a first hand experience, you can rent or buy this childhood homestead of playwright Robert Sherwood, or—with a little luck—Coudal will host another writers’ retreat before the property is sold. Stay tuned…

Although I was only able to participate in the first day and a half due to conflicts, I spoke with many of the writers on their last night and they offered glowing reviews. I wish I’d been able to attend the final reading!

The Wonder of Storytelling

Ira Glass: This American Life

Ira Glass: This American Life

A week ago Bob Davidson (@bob_davidson) asked, “What makes good story?” on my new favorite blog, rednow. Davidson is the creative producer for Rule29 and co-founder of rednow, where the art of wonder is practiced, romanced and encouraged.

Wonder makes good story. And, like Davidson, I’m happy to reward storytelling MVP status to Ira Glass and This American Life. Though I’m not certain I could have teased out the reason(s) why… Not so simply. Nor so elegantly.

Here’s Davidson:

I decided to… listen to the entire collection of This American Life… [So far I] have listened to over 250 episodes. I’ve subsequently determined the TAL team are arguably the best storytellers in the business today. Primarily, because they get this:

Great storytellers are made by great listeners. Great listeners understand how to ask and identify the right question. The right questions beckons the story.

And while this is the basic framework of all great storytelling, the real brilliance of the TAL team and what arguably sets them apart is their ability to unpack a narrative in its purest form – a focus on the sequence of actions, or the “anecdote”, as Ira Glass deems it… the audience has no other choice but to begin visualizing the narrative… a space for wonder is created. (rednow)

Over the next few days I’ll be talking to two different groups about Storytelling in the Digital Age, a familiar (and favorite) topic explored with memoir writers on Friday and artists on Saturday. I have high hopes for both workshops, especially now that I can cite Davidson’s post to help incubate reflection on what makes good storytelling.

English: Ira Glass of This American Life givin...

Ira Glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I couldn’t agree more with his first assertion that great storytellers are first and foremost great listeners, but I think it’s even more fundamental than identifying the right question. Before you can identify the right question, you have to quiet your own voices enough to hear the singing underneath. Instead of imposing your story/ies, you need to open up, to become receptive and unjudging. To listen, I mean really listen, you have to be curious. To listen deeply, you have to suspend your own assumptions and convictions.

Questions help, and I agree that they’ll help beckon the stories, but even before you start to identify and ask questions you need to listen with patience and curiosity.

Above all, I tip my hat to Davidson for this: unpack a narrative in its purest form. Period. If only it were as easily executed as repeated!

New Tech, New Wants

A Sony WM-FX421 Walkman, for stereo cassettes.

Sony WM-FX421 Walkman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technology creates our needs faster than it satisfies them. (Kevin Kelly)

My Monday morning muse for your ruminating pleasure is actually not mine at all. It’s a quotation from Kevin Kelly’s 1998  New Rules for the New Economy. No longer new, of course, but if you missed out before you’ll find that it’s still relevant and eerily prescient. And did I mention that the blog version lives on his website? And that it’s free?

According to Kelly, we’re hurtling forward, inventing technologies to satisfy our desires and — in the process —  discovering new desires.

Our wants are compounding exponentially… technology creates ever new opportunities for those desires to find outlets and form. (Kevin Kelly

Although the illustrative example, a $50 Sony Walkman (remember cassette tapes?), seems practically ancient, I can’t help but transpose an iPad or even a Kindle Fire.

When a merchant sells a consumer a new Sony Walkman for $50, he is in fact creating far more demand than he is satisfying–in this case a continuing and potentially unlimited need for tape cassettes and batteries. (Paul Pilzer)

Transposed for the digital age:

When a merchant sells a consumer an iPad, he is in fact creating far more demand than he is satisfying–in this case a continuing and potentially unlimited need for digital products (ebooks, videos, games, apps, etc.), physical accessories (from practical screen protectors and card readers to fashion carrying cases), non-physical accessories (warranty extensions, maintenance contracts, customer support, etc.), software updates/upgrades, and–let’s be totally honest–hardware upgrades because sexy new models with more memory, faster processors, longer lasting batteries and retina displays are the MSG that keeps consumers coming back for more!

With writers, publishers, editors, agents and booksellers wandering the Wild West known as the Post-Gutenberg Paradigm, it’s more evident than ever that technology creates more demand than it satisfies. Increasingly tech-centric publishing and storytelling is catalyzing an avalanche of new non-book formats to satisfy consumer demands. New options are invented daily, and yet we’re only beginning to glimpse the world of storytelling possibilities around the corner. Technology is simultaneously sating and creating new demand, seeding storytelling innovation and inventing new consumer desires… Suppose I’m bullish on storytelling in the digital age?!?!

The technology of storytelling

I mutter on and on about storytelling in the digital age, but storyteller Joe Sabia (tumblr/facebook) whips out his iPad and geeky glasses for a waltz with Lothar Meggendorfer. Sabia’s quirky narrative quickly, deftly demonstrates how storytellers have always leveraged innovative technologies to improve their craft.

No doubt Meggendorfer shook up the book world when he launched his storytelling technology, the pop-up book. Bibliophiles, teachers and book printers/publishers/retailers must have ranted and raved. “Three dimensional images? Are you crazy. That’ll be the death of imagination! That’ll be the end of reading…”

But his history-altering technology was a hit. It still is today. And yet we’re still imagining, still reading. Bravo, Lothar!

Sabia’s TEDTalk, “The technology of storytelling” reminds us that technology — from the walls of caves to projected iPads — have long served creative storytellers. Bravo, Joe!

I’m curious what you think of this video. Several commenters on the YouTube video have suggested that Sabia’s performance wasn’t TED caliber. I disagree, but I’m a storytelling pushover obsessed with digital storytelling. What’s your opinion?

2012 Publishing Predictions

2012 Publishing Predictions (image of/by virtualDavis)

Day three of the new year. Already! I’m plugging diligently away at my 2012 resolutions, but what good are resolutions without some predictions?

I’ve polished up my crystal ball, and an image is emerging… A thinly veiled wish list? Are you kidding? No way. This is the real deal, a sneak peak into the future!

I’m seeing a sea change in the publishing world, a dramatic shift throughout the creator-to-consumer landscape. Old news? Yes. But what exactly does the new publishing landscape look like? Here is my oracular best.

My top publishing prediction for 2012 is book bundling. It’s time for user friendly digital book and audio book integration. If I want/need a book, I should be able to instantly find and purchase a digital version. And it should include both the text and audio version of the book. Not a computer generated voice struggling through the language. A whiskey tenor bringing the story to life. A current favorite is  Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Table. Splendid! I want to listen while driving, exercising, showering and cooking. And when I settle into my armchair or flop into the hammock by the shores of Lake Champlain I want to be able to switch seamlessly from audio to text so that I can read. And when I want to jot marginalia or forward a quotation to a friend, I want it to be equally simple in both formats. This vision of book bundling should be the bare minimum. But my prediction goes further. Print books can remain relevant if they include the digital bundle. Gift giving demands this. I want to write a personal inscription in green fountain pen ink in the front page, and I want to be able to wrap and hand the familiar bound heft of a book. Most of us still love print books. And the appetite (habit?) will die slowly. But what better incentive to buy the print version if it includes the digital bundle so that readers can also be listeners, etc. Personally I love experiencing books in multiple formats. But the bottom line is that the future is all about flexibility. And as long as we’re imagining the perfect giftable book bundle, let’s through in the Vook or other digitally enhanced, value added version too. Icing on the cake. Consumers will love the bundle even if they only use a fraction of the content.

Are you with me so far? My crystal ball is not blurry on this book bundling issue, though it’s still not clear if the major strides in this arena will come from the “Big Six” or brave, savvy upstarts. A few publishing companies are already venturing into the territory, but who’s going to redefine the book publishing marketplace. I’m ready!

My second publishing prediction for 2012 is for an app/digital book convergence (or at least blurring). I love the crack of a book’s spine and the smell of musty old pages and contributing to the tangled marginalia of a treasured hand-me-down. But one’s head must be deep in the sand to overlook the smartphone’s manifest destiny. Not only have smartphones become ubiquitous throughout the developed world, but they’re quickly becoming the one stop shop for, well, for just about everything content/communication/entertainment/etc. Phone, email, camera, secretary, navigator, coach, movies, games, news, flashlight, car key, you name it, the 21st century smartphone is almost divine. Like it or not, your smartphone is the ideal book bundling vehicle, and the app strikes me as the most obvious cheap, user-friendly packaging for tomorrow’s book bundles. Enough said? And it is the ultimate inspiration buy!

My third publishing prediction for 2012 is platform androgynous content.  When I purchase a new digital title, I don’t want to be limited by my device. If I’m using my iPhone, Mac Pro or Mac Book Pro I want the same access and experience. Ditto for Kindle Fire, Nook, Sony Reader, in-air entertainment console, etc. Make it easy for your audience to consume your content no matter where they are and no matter what interface they use. Unshackle good books from the devices which we use to read/watch/listen to them and we’ll consumer much, much more of your liberated content. I promise!

These are my top three, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. The media is awash is publishing oracles, but Jeremy Greenfield’s “Ten Bold Predictions for Book Publishing in 2012” (Digital Book World) is the best place to start. A couple of highlights:

The publishing world is a’changing… And it’s changing fast! If you’re trying to catch up, stop. If you’re an innovator reinventing storytelling in the digital age, then sing, dance and celebrate because you are the change. And you’re living in the garden of opportunity. It’s a great time to be a storyteller!

What are your 2012 publishing predictions?

Update: I was honored by Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) with inclusion in his January 5 Writing on the Ether.

“as we flee from the prediction-prone and nostalgia-noxious equinox back into our present, we’re going to cast one brave look over at George Davis’ set of what he calls 2012 Publishing Predictions – but, ah, these are actually wishes… What Davis says he wants is a seamless read across several media… Davis wants to start in the print hardcover. Then have the e-version know where he left the bookmark. Then have the audio edition’s narrator pick up at the same place. And — I’m extrapolating here — finish the book by streaming the film, as before from the last point he left off in the audio-, e-, or tree-version. (Writing on the Ether)

Although Porter almost perfectly summed me up, I’d like to clear up one detail about the tree-versions of books. To be sure, the best-of-bundling will be seamless integration across media. To easily, instantly switch between audio, digital (text and/or multimedia à la Vook), video and print is an ambitious but enticing dream. And most likely a pipe dream, at this stage.

However the opportunity for seamless integration across digital media is considerably more attainable today than the seamless integration of print. So my prediction is for seamless digital integration bundled with the print book as “wrapper”. Many of us still prefer to hold and read and smell and marginalia-fill and gift print books. This habit will likely diminish over time, but not overnight. So give buyers what they know they want. But include a scan-able digital bundle which immerses readers in the riches of digital publishing.

Storytelling from Cave Fire to Kindle Fire

Storytelling from Cave Fire to Kindle Fire

Storytelling from Cave Fire to Kindle Fire (image by virtualDavis)

Isn’t digital storytelling just enhanced storytelling? It’s just the newest chapter in humanity’s quest to improve the way we tell stories. We instinctively yearn for better communication, for storytelling innovation. And yet digital books, audio books, multimedia books tend to meet resistance despite their obvious appeal.

New scares old. Old doesn’t quite understand new. Or doesn’t want to…

In “Is It A Book, Is It A Movie…No, It’s Movie-Book!” we get a glimpse at the book world’s awkward response to digitally enhanced storytelling.

Many eBook writers shy away from multimedia publishing, preferring instead to stay with straight text… An eBook that features multimedia is not an eBook, they say. It’s… an app… What IS an eBook with multimedia? Can we continue to call an eBook an eBook knowing that now it may feature multimedia? … What about audio books? … [Or] movie-books… (Technorati Entertainment)

Let’s call it digital storytelling. Or storytelling in the digital age. Maybe we should just call it storytelling, because — no matter how resistant the publishing industry and book critics and schools and libraries may be — the public is embracing (and will continue to embrace) storytelling in all of its innovative new forms.

Let us imagine the first time a storyteller added innovative new technologies to their bag of tricks. Picture the proverbial caveman standing by the bonfire with his family, talking about the hunt from which he’s returned with a week’s food. In telling the story of creeping up on his prey, he describes his cautious steps, following the fierce Bigmacosaurus, slowly, quietly all afternoon. Until afternoon turned into evening. As daddy caveman describes the fall of night he slowly extinguishes the campfire leaving his wife and children sitting in the dark around the glowing embers. They pull closer together, absorbed in the story. Now dad begins to pace around them in the dark as he speaks, so that they are never quite sure where he is, and he begins to breath deeply, hoarsely, imitating the sounds of the Bigmacosaurus. And suddenly he leaps across the embers and pretends to drive his spear into the Bigmacosaurus, just barely illuminated as he writhes on the ground, bathed in the dull red glow of the embers.

The end.

“Time for bed, cave kiddies!” he bellows. But they don’t move. They cling to their mother, scared to death.

So dad adds kindling and blows on the embers, resuscitating the fire. Within a few minutes the interior of the cave is once again illuminated. The children are less afraid, but still too nervous for bed.

“But what if the other Bigmacosauri followed you home?”

“Yes, what if they come and get us tonight while we sleep?”

Dad takes a charred branch from the fire and proceeds to draw a picture on the cave wall. In the crude illustration a hunter with a spear crouches in tall grass beside a herd of Bigmacosauri. He explains to his children that he discovered the heard around mid-day, far away. He draws the sun directly overhead, and adds wavy water to portray the lake located half a day’s journey from the cave. Then he moves down the wall and draws himself in the mountains pursuing a single Bigmacosaurus, the sun much lower to the horizon now. He explains to his children that he successfully split the heard, forcing the biggest Bigmacosaurus to run toward the mountains which lay between their cave and the lake. He draws a herd of stampeding Bigmacosauri running off into the distance where the sun sets on the far side of the lake. His next drawing is of the the hunter right next to the Bigmacosaurus, spear high in the air about to plunge. A crescent moon is high overhead. He explains to his children that he wanted to drive the Bigmacosaurus as close as possible to home so that he could minimize the distance he would need to carry the meat. He explains how hard it was because wild Bigmacosauri are scared of cave men and don’t like to come near them. But daddy cave man succeeded, and now they have plenty of food. But the next time he wants to hunt a Bigmacosaurus, he will have to go all away around the lake to the far side where the sun sets. He draws one last picture, looking across the vast lake at tiny Bigmacosauri no larger than ants speckling the horizon beneath the setting sun.

The children have fallen asleep in their mother’s arms, so the parents carry them to their beds and tuck them in.

So far, nothing’s unusual about this, right? Just another evening at the cave.

But when the parents tuck themselves in, the cave man’s wife rolls over to her husband to whisper.

“I don’t know what you thought you were doing tonight, extinguishing the fire, making all those beastly noises, reenacting the hunt, drawing on the walls. Look how much you scared the children.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare them so much. I always tell them stories…”

“I know. Stories are good. But all that other stuff, it’s just, I don’t know. Not right. Can you just stick with storytelling? Just words?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Thank you. Good night.”

“Good night.”

But the next day the cave kiddies beg for a story. “Like last night, daddy. Not the boring old way.”

“Yes, like last night. Pleeease?”

Mother grimaces.

Father looks at mother and shrugs.

Fast forward. YouTube, Audible, Vook, iPad, Storify and SoundCloud blur past. From cave fire to Kindle Fire… Onward!

Storytelling in the Digital Age

Storytelling in the Digital Age. It should have have an acronym, but SDA sounds like a medical device. StoDA?

Or, maybe it’s time to drop the “Digital Age” reference and remember that storytelling, in any age, is storytelling.

No matter what you dub it, it’s a sizzling time to be a storyteller! Powerful new storytelling platforms, tools and communities are being invented every day, empowering storytellers and audiences but simultaneously introducing new challenges. As a writer, storyteller and teacher, I’m a bit obsessed with the evolution of author/audience relationships. Storytelling in the Digital Age is redefining this timeless relationship in exciting and unpredictable ways; empowering raconteurs of all stripes to explore new narrative vernaculars; unshackling indie creators from yesterday’s gatekeepers and referees; and enhancing audiences’ appetites for stories and previously unimaginable story interfaces.

But Storytelling in the Digital Age isn’t all noontime massages and dark chocolate. The proliferation of sexy media tempts creators to swap good narrative craft for snazzy special effects. Critics worry that audiences are becoming lazier, more passive even as increasingly interactive storytelling is possible.

What follows is a digital scrapbook of interesting tidbits about Storytelling in the Digital Age for you to check out. I’ll add and subtract as inspiration (and time) permit. Don’t hesitate to recommend juicy material that I’ve overlooked!

It’s a sizzling time to be a storyteller! New, powerful platforms and tools are invented every day. And storytelling communities are coalescing where and when they never existed before. Here’s a digital scrapbook of interesting tidbits for you to check out.

On Publishing, Adventure and Julio Cortazar

Argentine writer Julio Cortázar‘s short story La autopista del sur (The Southern Highway) opens on a Sunday afternoon north of Fontainebleau, France amidst a traffic jam of anxious, overheating weekenders returning to Paris. Trying to return to Paris.

They check their watches, move a few inches each time they get the chance, tell themselves contradictory stories about what has caused the jam, and wait expectantly for an authority to clear things up.

But no authority takes charge. Nothing clears up. Paris becomes an abstraction, the metaphorical Ithaca that catalyzes Odysseus’s adventures and storytelling.

Are you with me so far? Good.

Top up your coffee; add a dollop of bourbon. You’re going to need both. And if my Cortázar Homer two-step’s already gotten you out of your comfort zone, you just might want to stop here. Seriously. As in, stop listening/reading. Go load the laundry. Turn on the tube. Tweet a friend. Talk about the weather. Because the Cortázar Homer two-step is… It’s just the warm up. The big jig – the toe tapping, deep dipping, smooth sliding number I’m about to dance (and sing) – it’s bodacious. And it’s liable to blur the steps you’re already dancing. More than a little.

Still with me? Laundry be damned!

There’s a new tune in town. And a new dance.

Remember the eBook Summit 2010? Presenters were rhyming and jiving as if their careers depended on it (I suppose they do), innovating right there in front of our eyes. Remember the vook boogy and the broadcastr shuffle? Of course, some presenters were wearing fancy new clothes but humming the old tunes and dancing the old steps. It was a mixed bag.

Publishing industry representative weren’t in sync; presenters were shimmying to at least two totally different rhythms, one oh-so-retro and the other post-post-modern.

Fast forward to the 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference. This conference was different. There was much greater alignment of wills and visions. Embracing digital books, digital distribution and digital platforms; embracing print on demand; embracing indie publishing; even embracing increasingly transmedia-oriented publishing alternatives.

I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday riffing with many of the five hundred writers in attendance about manuscripts, queries, pitches, proposals, platforms, print books, digital books, etc. And not just writers. The event was thick with editors, publishers, agents, platform builders, app creators,… Three days of presentations by individuals at the bleeding edge of 21st century publishing, professionals reinventing storytelling in the digital age.

On Saturday afternoon, from 3:15 to 5:15, I pitched my memoir Rosslyn Redux to literary agents, many encouraging, interested and full of advice. Most asked for a proposal. Incredible! Actually, the whole experience was incredible, from the controlled chaos of the event itself to the real-time, time-lapse “pitch tuning” made possible by pitching, pitching, pitching. Picture 500+ writers navigating a too tight, too hot, too dimly lit conference room at the Sheraton. Picture 58 literary agents sitting around the perimeter of the room, surnames affixed to the wall behind them. And lines, serpentine lines of writers, waiting for a chance to sit, smile, inhale, greet, pitch, exhale, smile, listen, inhale, engage, nod, exhale, smile, thank, stand and then head off to the next line. And bells, so many bells, every three minutes another bell ringing announcing the change. Next writer. Next pitch. Three minutes. Ninety seconds to pitch, ninety seconds to listen, talk, interact, connect. Or not.

We all sang and danced. Then shuffled to the next partner. And sang and danced again. But better. Each time better. Cleaner, crisper, freer. Less book pitch, more dialogue, more collaboration. I’m talking about getting in sync. Flowing. Finding our groove. In fact, at the risk of bludgeoning this song and dance metaphor into oblivion, the whole weekend was about finding our groove. A new groove, but our own groove. Does this make sense?

Like Cortazar’s protagonist, we writers started the #wdc11 adventure hyper-focused on our destination: deliver the perfect pitch to the perfect agent. I’m generalizing. I’m referring to the majority of the attendees. Several writers didn’t intend to pitch. But most did. Most, like me, have been working long and hard on a manuscript. Most, like me, were pitching for the first time. We were learning how to pitch – hopefully how to pitch well – by pitching. And perhaps, if the predictables and the unpredictables were aligned, we’d accelerate our quests toward published authordom.

It wasn’t just during the Pitch Slam that my memory flitted from the low-ceiling, fuzzy lighting and recycled air to Cortazar’s short story. Again and again I thought about the traffic jam south of Paris. An otherwise random assortment of motorists except for a common ambition: get to Paris. But the delay stretches to hours then days with nominal progress and no authority steps in to offer answers, guidance or assistance. Even the change of seasons doesn’t significantly advance the motorists’ progress. Gradually the motorists’ ambition shifts from reaching their destination to surviving the traffic jam. News and rumors circulate. Then are debunked. Then more rumors. Strategies, amities and tensions ebb and flow. Micro communities of motorists coalesce around the rudiments of survival and sickness and birth and death. Life happens. Until, one day, traffic begins to move. Paris comes into view as columns of cars begin to advance – slowly at first, then more and more quickly – toward their destination. The micro community begins to dissolve as the motorists hurtle toward Paris. I’ll leave the final ironic twist to you. Read the story. In Spanish, if you can.

So why all this song and dance?

Here’s the skinny. As writers we’re all traveling in a similar direction. Or trying to. Sometimes we’re all targeting the same destination. We focus – or think we do – like laser beams. We don blinders to eliminate distractions. We stare straight ahead at the destination, press the pedal to the metal, and race headlong toward the goal.  Then something shifts, slows us down long enough to question, to regroup, to consider

  • whether we’re headed toward the right destination
  • whether we’re pursuing the destination in the best manner
  • whether the destination has changed since we picked it
  • whether we have changed since picking our destination
  • whether we’re missing the scenery and the people along the way

If my destination is the perfect pitch, a debut memoir, a rhyzomic platform, a storytelling career for a loyal audience, or all the above, the Writer’s Digest Conference did a bang-up job of slowing me down. In short, the Writer’s Digest Conference provided the proverbial traffic jam. So many writers ostensibly headed in the same direction, hyper-focused but blinded, caravanning along together but mostly disconnected. Until Friday afternoon. Traffic was forced to slow down for three days. We writers are an independent, solitary and stubborn lot, so it wasn’t surprising that we chomped at the bit, test driving our pitches, asking and re-asking for the secret sauce. For a while. Until we got to know the writers sitting next to us. Until Chuck Sambuchino reminded us that pitching is a conversation, that agents were here at their own expense to find promising talent. Until Jane Friedman dilated the menu of writer’s destinations. Until Dan Blank and Guy Gonzalez dilated the perception of a writer’s platform. Until Richard Nash nimbly bridged the solitary-to-social divide and reshuffled the writer/publisher relationship. Until a parade of literary agents shook my hand and welcomed me to the conversation.

The Writer’s Digest Conference was enjoyable. Singing and dancing usually are.

But the Writer’s Digest Conference was more. It was a traffic jam that introduced me to dozens of inspiring, visionary fellow journeyers on this adventure of writing and publishing. It exposed me to the community that can help me and taught me how to ask for help. It created a map and gave me the tools I’ll need to reach my destination.

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