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A storyteller passes away.

A great man named Merlin Dewing passed away this morning at the age of seventy-four. I was shocked and stunned, as Merlin was as young as they get, full of life and an interest in bettering the lives of others. There is a mix of grief and gratitude in me this week. Grief for his death and gratitude for a chance to get to know him in this last year of his life.

I met Merlin at Excelsior United Methodist Church where I’ve worked the past five years. My being assigned to youth and young adults, our paths didn’t cross all that much and so I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Merlin until I started the church’s Men’s Book Club in February, 2009. When I started the group, I didn’t know who would show up or who would show up consistently or who would enjoy it. It was my first program aimed exclusively at adult men and I was nervous at whether or not it would succeed. Since its inception in February, attendance has been low, not everyone who comes one month continues to the next month, and there’s still a struggle to discover what’s needed to make this club grow.

Merlin was the only man who showed up from day one and who had never missed a meeting. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

When he showed up the first night, I honestly had to play the, “I Know Your Name, I’m Just Not Going to Say It” Game. It’s the game I sometimes play with adults who I recognize at church but don’t know very well. My constituency, the youth group, is downstairs while the adults are upstairs and to make connections outside of youth and their parents, I have to make a concerted effort. So here came a man who I recognized by face but not name and as our first book discussion unfolded I not only learned his name but it soon became clear I’d been depriving myself of an excellent connection for years.

Merlin contributed so much to the Men’s Book Club. In order to be a close reader, I’m (unfortunately) a slow reader and I admired Merlin’s ability to read so quickly and yet simultaneously savor the story. At our meetings, he always had something of substance to say about the books we read. He recognized writers’ stylistic choices, how stories connected to other pieces of literature, and embraced new stories without hesitation (I’ll never forget how excited he was to finally read his first Stephen King novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the way he was impressed by King’s writing and how it went against every stereotype he’d heard of the man’s macabre storytelling). Most importantly, Merlin knew how to connect the story on the written page to the stories of our lives.

While our reason to gather was to talk about books, I must admit a major contributor to my personal enjoyment of attempting to pull a handful of men together every third Tuesday of the month was my getting to hear a slew of fascinating personal stories from Merlin. The man had a million of them, never a dull one and always pertinent to the discussion at-hand. There were stories about business and tales of the military, stories of overcoming hardship and lore of local history, great jokes with great timing and touching love stories. When I was told Merlin passed away, I was upset with myself in the same way as was I was told my Grandma Phyllis died (the day before our first Men’s Book Club meeting back in February, to tie things together a little more tightly).

For years I’d meant to get Grandma’s stories down on paper or tape and barely scratched the surface on this goal. It was a missed opportunity I’ll never get back and not having her stories and the story of her life recorded as completely as possible – straight from her lips – is the pain I try to avoid most when I think of her these days. This feeling rose in me as I learned of Merlin’s passing because I remember clearly, every month, sitting there with a kid’s grin on my face as Merlin recounted story after story and thinking to myself, “I have to get with this man and write everything he says down.”  I didn’t do that and it’s a regret I’ll carry with me.

Merlin chose last month’s book club selection, The Sweet Season: A Sportswriter Rediscovers Football, Family, and a Bit of Faith at Minnesota’s St. John’s University by Austin Murphy. He’ read it before and had high hopes this locally-focused pigskin tale smackdab in the middle of the football season would bring in more members and though we didn’t have a large group show up, Merlin lead the discussion with ease and enthusiasm. He chose Murphy’s book because he admired Gagliarti’s leadership style and we had a long talk about what it means to stand out from the crowd as a leader. Through an online search to read his obituary, I came across a business website Merlin was involved in and saw this quote from him splashed across the top of the page:

“Leaders should be measured not by how much they lead, but by how little they have to lead. Their success comes from knowing how to select and develop gifted people.”
~ Merlin Dewing

This attitude was reflected in how Merlin saw Gagliarti as coach in the book and in how Merlin contributed not only to what I personally witnessed in Men’s Book Club but also in what I saw in how he interacted with his church family, entreprenuership opportunities, and his marriage. Reading his obituary it was clear he was well-loved and well-respected with many accomplishments under his belt that I never heard about. Maybe that’s because I was downstairs with the youth group. But more likely, it’s because Merlin was humble and sought to build up others before he built up himself. I anticipate learning even more about him at his funeral this Saturday and while I’m grieving, this impending time of celebrating Merlin’s life leaves me with gratitude to have known him at all.

(Postscript – At Merlin’s funeral, there were indeed tales of his being humble and for as many wonderful stories as he told me about other people in his life, it was an absolute joy to hear so many wonderful stories about him. The man has done so much, including playing an integral part in keeping the Twins in Minnesota in the early 1980s, not that one would have heard about it from him.)

On December 15 the Men’s Book Club discusses The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Knowing how quickly Merlin could get through a book, our group will be left wondering if he finished, what he thought of Sebold’s style, and especially how he viewed the portrayal of the afterlife. I would have loved to hear what new stories he’d be able to relate to the novel, and I wonder if I would have finally made time to work with him on writing them all down.

Merlin Dewing was a man of character and he enriched the story of my life.

-nm

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Improv and Storytelling.

It appears this may be a week of improv-related posts.

I’m teaching an intro-level performance track improv class at the Brave New Workshop these days and the subject of story and scene came up, and this is a subject I’ve been kicking around in my brain for a while. It this particular situation, there was speculation that, if the players in a scene can feel it has reached its natural ending in the story arc, should the scene be cut or is it okay to let it continue and see what else happens. I’m of the opinion both approaches can work – on a case-by-case basis considering the scene, the players, the audience, etc. – if the players involved treat the situation with truth.

Let’s say a two-person scene establishes two characters who are ex-lovers. They are both upset about their relationship and want things to be better. Finally, they make up and tell each other, “I love you.” If this scene were in a movie, the scene would fade to black and the credits would roll. But that’s not how it would go in real life. In reality, something happens after two people say “I love you.” They talk more, or cuddle or make hot chocolate. Whatever they do, it takes what just happens and begins a new story arc. The “I love you” moment moves from the climax of one story to the beginning of the first act for the next story. To this end, a scene could continue and explore the characters’ relationship further.

In improv ensemble work, this approach requires patience from both the players in the scene (deciding your scene has ended from the inside can be dangerous) and the players on the back line (particularly for ensembles who often cut scenes when the “big laugh” happens). Instead of looking for the high point or the “big laugh,” I wonder what would happen if more improvisers cut scenes by looking for story arcs. And on top of that, I wonder what would happen in more improvisers recognized story arcs, let them run their course, and let them carry on beyond into truly unknown territory.

-nm

Storytelling shapes.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve done onstage improv on a consistent basis, I’ve been performing since 1999. I’ve also been writing during that time, though I’ve realized that when I’m improvising more, I write less and vice versa (lately, it’s the case of vice versa). One thing I dig about improv and writing are its commonalities, and one major piece is storytelling.

Jerome Stern presents his concept that each work of fiction has a certain shape which lends itself to a distinct style of storytelling. I’m reading his book, Making Shapely Fiction, and am enjoying the concepts he lays out. Stern presents sixteen story “shapes,” each presents the story shape, explain why it’s effective and what pitfalls to avoid, gives an original example of the story shape (all written by Stern, as far as I can tell), and asks the reader to try writing a story in that style. It’s a quick read, a good shelf resource, and nice and cheap – what more does one need from a good writing book?

A few of Stern’s shapes remind me of what can make a good improv scene successful. For example, in “Bear at the Door,” Stern asks the reader to write a story where the character has a problem, a significant problem, a pressing problem. The example problem he uses is a bear at the door: “The bear demands action. (Stern, 46)” To go beyond the bear example, the story demands action. A healthy improv scene will constantly raise the stakes; the actors won’t hesitate, even if their characters do, to take action. Another of Stern’s story shapes is “Blue Moon,” describing how to make the unreal acceptable in story (think fantasy, science fiction, legends and myths, etc.). These are the stories which rely on the reader’s willingness to suspend belief, and it all begins at the beginning. Let’s say there’s an improv scene where Actor A proclaims his favorite taxi drivers are chipmunks. Actor B has two choices: embrace it and declare something which raises the stakes (“Yes, and they drive better than those stinkin’ squirrel drivers!”) or try to justify the crazy claim with something that breaks the reality (“Oh, grandpa, take your pills!”). They’re both responses, but the first one is a healthier choice. It accepts and supports the reality of the scene laid out by Actor A. With this choice, Actor B is not afraid to let the scene’s reality be different than the reality of his own world, and the characters – and the audience – is in for a real treat.

Stern’s story shapes are aimed at fiction writers (always know your intended audience, dear reader!), but the crossover to other forms of storytelling art is hard to ignore.

~ nm

[tags]jerome stern, fiction, improv, storytelling, making shapely fiction, writing advice[/tags]