Being a storyteller
Al Pacino said that actors become emotional athletes. I would extend his description to all storytellers, whether writers, film makers, musicians, theatre directors or actors. He describes this as a painful process that caused his personal life to suffer. But does that have to be the case?
I have been a storyteller by nature for as long as I can remember, acting and writing from early childhood. I have been a storyteller by profession for the past eight years, since leaving my City career to train as an actor and write my first novel. For me, this has been a huge boon to my personal life as I stepped into what I believe I am meant to be doing, living life as the main character in my life story rather than a bit part in someone else’s.
The storyteller’s truth
That is not to say that it isn’t without its challenges. There is a notion that a storyteller is a dissembler, someone who lies for a living, but the truth is what most people want to see, hear or read. While the situation may be created or imagined, the emotional investment of the storyteller must be honest to be believed, to invite the audience into the midst of the story and transport them to another realm.
The courage to be honest
This type of honesty requires courage. The storyteller is living their personal truth in public, showing their human frailty, confusion and vulnerability to the world, in service of the story and the audience. And this emotional truth is not the truth of how it feels to empty the dishwasher on a wet Wednesday afternoon but how it feels to grapple with conflict, suffering and loss, the type of feelings most of us hide from the world.
The storyteller must draw on everything they are to engage their audience, exploring and exposing parts of themselves that they would rather keep to themselves. They may delve into their own capacity for violence or victimhood, passion or disconnection, anxiety or wonder. This can exert a heavy toll and can leave them floundering when it comes time to leave the world of the story and return to real life, finding themselves mixing the two.
A pack of lies
When I was 17 I was in a production of “Pack of Lies”. It is a story about an ordinary family who find themselves living opposite Russian spies posing as Americans. They become great friends but then become drawn into the surveillance; the web of lies and secrets destroying the friendships and eventually the family.
I remember coming home from the theatre feeling disturbed. The family had been a suburban professional one, much like mine. They had found themselves drawn into a horrible and uncomfortable situation that destroyed them. I worried that it could happen to us. I started to see potential for this all around me and it made me anxious. I talked to my Mum and she reassured me but the niggle remained.
Because it could happen to us. That is what made the story so powerful. Events overtook them. Life swerved on them in ways they could not have expected or predicted. As life does. The play had lifted the veil on the pretence we all play along with that life will carry on as it is, nothing much will happen, nothing will change, we are safe. But this is an illusion and one the storyteller is constantly asked to let go, in search of the truth.
Life in high definition
This is a challenging place to be, asked to live vividly, in high definition, with no safety net of security, no illusion of stability. It can, however, also be a very exciting place to live, but only with the right support. Acceptance of our human frailty is difficult to live through alone. But this is what we seem to expect from our emotional athletes.
Physical athletes have a team
Physical athletes push themselves to the limit of endurance to beat their previous performance, the delve into the very heart of themselves, let go of the beliefs about what is possible and redraw them. They are incredible, their dedication, their perseverance, their determination act as beacons to us lesser mortals, inspiring us to move our bodies, to ask more of our physical selves.
They, however, do not do this alone. Behind every lone runner, every rower, every tennis player, there is a team. Those who reach the pinnacle of achievement do so with support from nutritionists, mindset coaches, technical coaches, physical therapists, business coaches, mentors, sponsors, friends and family.
Emotional athletes need a team
I would argue that an emotional athlete needs the same sort of attention. I have certainly found myself thriving as a storyteller since seeking and accepting support. Over the past year I have worked with an accountant and a business coach to help me organise my business and understand how I can grow it, while remaining true to my calling. I have worked with a publishing coach on writing my second book, quietly sustained by knowing someone was in my corner. I have reached out to a nutritionist to help me organise my rather scrappy food choices, freeing me from constant peanut butter on toast lunches eaten too late. I have enlisted personal trainers in group training to help me with my physical strength and resilience. I have continued to take acting classes and build my understanding of my craft.
It takes a whole person to be an emotional athlete. It takes everything you are to be a storyteller, to wholeheartedly offer your unvarnished emotional truth to the world. It takes courage and faith, both of which are increased with support. If we as storytellers are to be beacons to others, to inspire them to live outside of the veil, to support them as they take their faltering steps outside of their cocoons and explore their emotional truth, we need to take care of ourselves.
To take care of ourselves we need to build ourselves a support team in whatever form that needs to be for us. I can be part of that support team, I would be honoured in fact. I have a group on Facebook called Storytellers’ Sanctuary so please come and join the conversation. As an actor and audiobook narrator I also offer one to one storytelling coaching so please get in touch if you’d like some bespoke support.