by Theresa Miller and Marilyn Friedman
She’s been published in Salon, The NY Times, and Smith, won The Moth GrandSLAM three times, recovered from amnesia, and was a nude model. The last two things usually get people’s attention. Her name? Cole Kazdin.
Kazdin knows how to tell a great story. She’s been published in anthologies Afterwords: Stories and Reports from 9/11 and Beyond and The Best American Sex Writing 2004, was featured on NPR, and her play My Year of Porn has been optioned for film.
She can show you how to craft the story you want to tell in her class, Going For The Gut: A Storytelling Workshop (1 Day) on Monday, April 28th and her Grand Slam Story: A Storytelling Workshop (7 Wk Online) class starting on June 3! In her one day class, you’ll learn you how to find good story ideas, hone your structure, and create engaging stories fit for The Moth. In her multi-week class, you’ll craft and polish two storytelling essays and learn Cole’s secrets to winning the Moth Grandslam!
Cole Kazdin talked with us about what exactly makes a good story, how to turn sad into funny, and what storytelling means to her.
1. What made you want to tell and write stories and when did you realize you were good at it?
Wanting to live in Narnia instead of Pittsburgh and reading a lot as a kid probably had something to do with it. But I’ve always written and told stories in one form or another and the desire (compulsion?) won’t seem to go away.
I don’t know if it’s something you ever feel “good at.” I appreciate great writing and storytelling by others. It feels important to tell and share stories.
2. You’ve been published in the NY Times, Salon, Smith magazine and your stories have been featured on NPR. How did you get your first publishing credit? How are the essays you write for print different than your live stories?
The first piece I wrote for Salon was a cold-pitch. I had an idea, looked up the email address for the editor of the “Life” section and wrote her a note. I got lucky – she liked the idea. I ended up writing for them for years. The New York Times Modern Love piece was a cold-pitch too. I wrote the entire piece – it was a story I wanted to tell, so I put a lot of work into it. I didn’t expect to ever hear back from them, but that one was very important to me to write.
I encourage people to cold-pitch. Take time to really craft your idea or story and start sending it to people. The worst they can say is “no.”
My print and performance essays aren’t so different – performance pieces are a little more conversational, and I ad lib on stage, but structurally they’re very similar.
3. You’ve won The Moth GrandSLAM three times. What do you think are the must-have components of a good story? And what did you do to make your stories GrandSlam worthy?
High stakes are a crucial component of a great story. If you almost died wrestling a lion with your bare hands, then lucky you – instant high stakes story. But “high stakes” don’t have to be so extreme. The trick is finding the stakes in non-lion-wrestling experiences. I’ve heard great storytellers take simple things and create high stakes and it’s thrilling as an audience member.
In my stories I try to find a little humor in something horrible. Writing about the death of one of my closest friends, my personal goal was to find something funny. Just so we all wouldn’t want to kill ourselves at the end of the story.
4. A serious injury on a TV pilot was the inspiration for your one-woman show The Cole Kazdin Amnesia Project and numerous essays that have been published and we’ve heard you tell on stage. Tell us a little bit about what happened to you and how you were able to figure out which parts of this traumatic experience were worthy of telling.
I was playing a cheerleader in a TV pilot and at the very last minute, the producers made me do a stunt that we’d never rehearsed. It ended badly. I fell and had a horrible back and head injury, could barely walk and had amnesia. The recovery took over a year and writing about it was the last thing on my mind. I ended up suing to get my medical bills paid. The network had great lawyers and I had some guy who advertised on bus benches (not really, but close), so I didn’t get any money but they paid my bills. Years later, I was so grateful there wasn’t some big settlement, because then I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the story to anyone who would listen!
When something is that traumatic though, it takes a long time to be able to write about it. I needed distance. Stories change over time as your perspective changes. What’s important changes. I’ve written about the amnesia several times in the past 13 years since the accident and the story is different every time.
5. Your stories are hilariously self-deprecating and always (very) honest. You’ve even written about your first sexual experience after amnesia. How important is being an open book when telling a story?
Thank you! A little self-deprecation goes a long way. It helps you as a storyteller – it keeps you honest and it also puts the audience at ease. If someone is cool and has their shit together, I can in no way relate to them. But if someone hates themselves and trips and falls and wishes they were more productive – AH! That’s something I can connect with!
6. As a performer, what do you do to engage your audience? Are there things you are careful not to do?
This is a technical thing, but for me it’s so important to know my material, to be well-rehearsed and to feel prepared. There’s so much anxiety knowing you’re about to get up in front of 1000 people and tell them about bad sex you had, or whatever your story happens to be. If I’m well-rehearsed, I’m that much more comfortable. If you nail the material, the audience will feel in good hands.
The second part is to know why you’re up there. For me, storytelling is a way to connect live with other people. It’s a shared experience, not therapy. You’re not up there to unload about how your father never loved you. At least not entirely. I think if you go on stage in the spirit of wanting to genuinely connect with your audience, let them laugh, there’s a good chance you won’t be crying in the car on the way home.
7. What are students going to learn in your class?
First and foremost – that they have a great story to tell. We all do. And because we all have different life experiences, it’s inherently non-competitive. I may not have ever wrestled a lion with my bare hands, but I have some great stories about being bullied at a horrible all-girls school in Pittsburgh!
In class, we’re going to focus a lot on clarity – getting to the core of what a story is about, and then stripping it down to make it clear. I think the more concise a story is, the more the writer’s voice comes through in a way that’s honest and never contrived.
Most of all, we’re going to write, write, write. Sometimes it takes PAGES to find that perfect sentence, that surprise turn, that stunning reveal. The more we write, the more we’ll discover. That’s exciting to me – as a teacher and as a writer.
8. What advice would you give aspiring storytellers?
Everyone has something different that works for them, but for me, daily writing practice is key. Wake up, write. It’s nothing anyone will ever see or hear. I equate it to practicing scales at the piano. You’d never do it on stage, but it keeps your mind and your fingers nimble. It’s also a safe, private place to be boring or crazy. What I did yesterday, to-do lists, grudges … whatever. Then later, when (IF) I sit down to work on actual writing, I’ve already purged a little of the crazy that morning; I’m warmed-up.
Reading is also so important for me. My mind rests a bit and disappears into another world. I learn so much from reading others’ writing.
If you want to be performing, I think it’s mandatory to see as many shows as you can. You learn from watching great and even not-so great performers. What works? What doesn’t work? What are you responding to? There are so many great podcasts out there too – listening to The Moth podcast or This American Life, podcasts of various live shows is so fun for me and so very inspiring.
Thank you so much of taking time out to talk with us!
Don’t forget to sign up for Cole’s Going For The Gut: A Storytelling Workshop (1 Day) on Monday, April 28th and her Grand Slam Story: A Storytelling Workshop (7 Wk Online) class starting on May 20!