By Linda Pratt
I have worked in children’s book publishing my whole adult life. In watching the careers of some of the most influential creators in our industry, there’s a common thread—a pushing of boundaries outside of the familiar. For example, Maurice Sendak was discovered by famed editor, Ursula Nordstrom through the window displays he created for FAO Schwartz. After winning the Caldecott for Where the Wild Things Are (still considered the top American children’s book), he wrote more children’s books, but music was also a passion of his, so he also revisited his window dressing days to do set design for a number of operas; a part of his career is the focus of a current exhibit at the Morgan Library. I call this creative cross-pollination, and it is one of tools writers have to view their craft through a different lens to discover surprises that may have been elusive otherwise.
We have someone in our own Get Lit Beacon community who has recently found himself in exactly that space–John Blesso, the founder of the storytelling event Adult Stories. John recently spoke to me about his journey in creative cross-pollination over the last 6 months.
Linda: You’ve been a dedicated writer for years. What does that mean to you?
John: I would first say that I write because I love writing. Writing keeps me balanced and it helps me be a less unruly human. During the past twenty years I transitioned out of the traditional work force and began renovating homes, working my way up to a mixed-use building in Brooklyn. For me, writing/editing and construction/renovation are similar because I either have to create something out of nothing or I am dealt chaos and disorder that I patiently have to order into place. And so every morning I wake up, make coffee and then I write before I bring on the rest of my day. Then whatever happens, I will have written.
Linda: Last fall, you set out to begin storytelling series in Beacon, which has become the successful bi-monthly “Adult Stories with John Blesso”. What part did your writing have in that decision?
John: I’ve consumed storytelling for years and since live storytelling did not exist in Beacon at the time, I decided that I would start Adult Stories. I’d been sharing my stories at readings for a long time, and the feedback was that I was a good reader. So I thought I could just translate my written work to storytelling to cultivate an audience for a memoir I want to eventually publish.
Linda: What surprised you most about this different form of sharing a story?
John: At first, I arrogantly assumed that being a writer who attempted storytelling would be like Reggie Jackson joining a softball league. There are a lot of ways that being a writer helps being a storyteller, but they are two different sports and it has been humbling to begin to learn this different craft. Also, there are ways in which writing detracts from storytelling. For me a real challenge has been to pare down scope and to sound more natural. Prose that looks great on the page can often sound overwrought when telling a story.
Linda: How have the dictates of this new craft informed you as a writer?
John: Maybe the most helpful thing that storytelling has brought to my writing is that it has forced me to study archetypal story structure. An example of this is the “hero’s journey,” in which a protagonist wants something really, really badly, goes off on a quest in search of that thing, and then often gets something else instead—something that might actually be better. Once you understand how Cinderella and Rocky are essentially the same story you can begin to spot archetypal story structure everywhere.
Linda: What specific applications of this do you see for your writing?
John: I’ve always loved big, ambitious novels and memoirs that capture an entire era and my goal was to use my life as a lens to document the broad changes that have happened in the U.S. during the past forty years—really how our social contracts have degraded. I wanted to explore topics like class, race, religion, bullying, masculinity and conformity. All while we enter the Digital Age. So that’s a lot! I’ve also always had James Frey’s fraud in writing A Million Little Pieces in my head, and as such I’ve veered toward a desire to create as full and as honest a picture as possible. But as Colin Quinn once said about standup, “In the specific you find the general.” Truth can be conveyed in the particulars of what is shared. Memoir must present the specific details of our own stories to allow us to connect with readers in a broader way.
Linda: So…what’s the next step for you on your memoir?
John: I recently contracted an editor to critique the draft that I’ve been wrestling with for—yikes!—twelve years. It was painful to have her suggest that I apply archetypal story structure to it. But I knew she was right. I’ve known how to write a good sentence for a long time now and I had always thought a lot about form. Not enough about structure. I think I confused structure with formula. It now feels immature to have wanted to rework the form of what a book is, instead of writing something that is personal and unique within a proven structure. I wish I had figured that out earlier, but maybe if it’s not painful, you’re not growing. So now, I’m applying the archetypal story structure to the arduous task of finding a more manageable arc to tell my story in a way that connects.