I’ve spent over 20 years traveling and sharing stages and microphones with some of the smartest people in the world — Pulitzer Prize winners, neuroscientists, astronauts, a white-collar criminal, that one guy who used to show up at storytelling gigs in New York and sit up front, look angry, and make everyone feel like a knife fight was going to happen. What was that dude’s name? It was like Devlin or something. Derrick? Demetrius, maybe. Anyway, I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few tips on life and how to live it along the way. That’s why I’m here to Solve Your Problems with Storytelling. Depending on how you read that, I’m either here to solve any problems you’re having in life by telling you a story, or I’m here to solve whatever problems you’re having in the area of storytelling.
“What do you do if your scalp is always itching?”
— M. Haldin, Portland, ME.
Jesus. I was hoping we’d start off with a question that was a little more epic in scale, but this is good, this is, yeah… Okay, let me tell you a little story. I’ve survived a decent amount of afflictions of the years. There was one time I found myself flopping around in a cabin with aches and shivers. This was upon my arrival in Montana from New York, where I had taken a shower prior to departure and found what looked like a little poppyseed walking around just under the waistband of my underwear. The little bug had bitten me, evidently, because it was walking away from a tiny red mark on my waist. All things being relative, flopping around freezing and aching in an old cabin is a first-world problem these days. It’s not the sort of thing that leads to El Presidenté ordering his secret anonymous armed forces to abduct you into a rental van. But still, it was no picnic to find myself moaning and writhing around on the floor like the singer in a ‘90s grunge band — the stove burners cranked up, the oven on high with its door open, my bones aching like I’d been hit by a car, my freezing body wrapped in wool blankets in the middle of a heatwave in the Madison Valley — all while the little bite mark from a week prior was turning into a giant burgundy bullseye that grew to the size of a manhole cover from my waist and down my hip. Now, at the time, any number of folks would recognize the soothing dulcet tone of my voice and tell me they loved the storytelling podcast they heard me hosting, but the fact is, surprise America: the not-for-profit storytelling podcast-hosting scene is not a scene where you make a living or get health insurance. It would take ten years of pounding the pavement in Hollywood until you make an actual living off of stories and have some insurance. In the meantime, while I was writhing around on the floor in that old cabin in Montana, I found myself wondering how much a visit to the doctor was going to cost. A few years prior, when I had kidney stones, I remember putting $3,000 on a credit card at a hospital in Brooklyn. The good news is, I only had to put $500 on my credit card for the tick bite. That was the price for a doctor to walk into the room at one of those clinics by the freeway, wince at the sight of me with my pants down, exposing a port-colored bullseye rash that stole focus from my misshapen midsection. That charge also included telling me I had Lyme disease, and sending me on my way to fill a prescription for doxycycline at the CVS across the road, and twenty-one days later, I was in good shape; all the symptoms were gone. You’re asking me what to do if your scalp is always itching. And what I’m suggesting is throwing yourself into it. Scratch it, roll around on the ground with your head in your hands howling, shivering, wondering what it’s going to take to stop this goddamn itching. The problem with people is we try to solve our problems while maintaining our composure and keeping up appearances. It’s not effective! You have to get down on the ground and really feel what’s wrong. Because when we throw ourselves into what’s wrong in our lives, and really let it bring us down to earth quite literally, we get very connected to the idea of finding a remedy by instinct. When you hit rock bottom (or the filthy floor of an old fishing cabin) you become ready to follow your gut to a solution. Get down on the floor with your scalp situation and I wouldn’t be surprised if you pop up with a really good idea, like, “I’m going to pour tea tree oil all over my scalp, I have no idea why, I just have a hunch that it will fix this.” You could say that, or you could pop up off the floor with another great idea like, “I’m gonna put a towel in hot water and put that over my head, that feels like it’s gonna stop the itching.” Trust me, after I got back from that hospital in Brooklyn that time, after lithotripsy treatment for kidney stones, I dropped down to the floor of my kitchen in pain, then popped up with the great idea of putting a bag of frozen sweet potato fries on my nuts, which lead me to the even better idea of getting off my high horse of sobriety and recovery, and being open to getting higher than a kite by taking one of the codeine pills they sent me home with. And that lead to going into my bathroom and urinating a perfect string of black pebbles that gathered in the toilet bowl like a zen garden. I stared at the zen rock garden in my toilet, meditating on the fact that I just put $3000 on a credit card and maybe I needed to find a better gig in this so-called gig economy. Be grateful your scalp is itching like crazy, M. Haldin of Portland, Maine. I have a feeling it’s going to lead you to a better place.
“Why is expressing myself creatively tied to my mother’s ideas about success?”
— Dell, Brooklyn, NY
Because we’re all broken machines and someone levied the same judgments on her. Kind of neat how we pass our diseases along for generations, isn’t it? We’ve all been given our gifts. For instance, if I drink, I get mildly depressed and convinced there is not one fun or rewarding thing in my life, eventually flirting passively with suicidal ideation. Here’s my advice: Move far enough away to fail as often and anonymously as possible, and close enough that word of your eventual success will travel fast. Wait a minute, you didn’t have a problem with storytelling, and I didn’t tell you a story. I have failed.
“Action starts your story, directors don’t yell “Sleep in!” or “Couch!” to get the scene rolling.” — Dan Kennedy
Send your questions about storytelling to Dan here.
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