Tag: Personal Stories

Evolution of Story on American Idol

FromAmateur HourToAmerican IdolAn Evolution of Story

As a reader and a writer, I have become a student of the importance of story in our lives and the impact it has on what we believe, how we learn, what we understand and what we accept as valid. This has made me more attuned to my own responses to the messages around me and how those messages are now being created or transformed by story. It is useful information for me as a writer and as a consumer of information.

A Case in Point

In the summer of 1964, a group from my hometown appeared on television’s “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Mack’s program introduced performers to a national audience through radio and then television from 1934 until 1970, with 3 ½ million auditioning and 25,000 acts performing. Such notables as Ann-Margret, Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, Maria Callas, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Gentrys, Penny Marshall, Beverly Sills, Jim Stafford, and Gladys Knight appeared on “The Original Amateur Hour” and countless others competed for the public’s votes, with the winner each week invited back to compete with new contestants.

I was particularly interested in the program in 1964, when my brother performed with a group of folk singers from Kennett, Missouri.  The Minstrels had won an audition through the Delta Fair talent show, one of many they entered while in high school. The format for Ted Mack’s show was similar to those talent shows: each act was introduced very briefly before they performed and all were brought back individually for a couple of seconds at the end, with a phone number for viewers to cast their votes.

That The Minstrels were invited back for a second time was a confirmation of their talent; Kennett and the surrounding small towns could not have supplied enough votes for them to win. When it was over, they all returned to Kennett and proceeded with their lives. I imagine they recall those days as times when they enjoyed their music and each other and gave little thought to being propelled into stardom.

Fast Forward to Today

I have recently been drawn to the television on Sunday and Monday nights, after promising myself that I would not become an “American Idol” watcher during their come-back season. I had watched the series during some of the earlier seasons, but had decided that I didn’t really have time to get involved.

But one night, I sat down to watch “for just a few minutes” and I was drawn in.  By the end of the show, I was hooked – I knew that I would be watching the entire season. But it wasn’t the talent, although I quickly chose some possible winners and winced at some who obviously wouldn’t be “going to Hollywood.”

It was the stories the contestants told about themselves that caught my attention and, in many cases, my sympathy or empathy. I found myself giving extra points to those who had gone through heartbreaking struggles or self-doubt.  (I couldn’t help noticing that I was giving those extra points to almost everybody.)

Last weekend, I found myself almost weeping when a couple of the contestants were eliminated.  I liked them so much and had become so engaged with their lives that they were almost a personal loss to me.  That’s when I realized that the creators of “American Idol” were using our connection to story to bring us back week after week. Yes, we appreciate the talent and assume that it will somehow get its due when the votes are counted. But those personal stories are influencing us just the same – just as the fact that my votes went to The Minstrels because they came from my hometown back in 1964.

I realized that the creators of “American Idol” were using our connection to story to bring us back week after week.

The difference lies in something very subtle – the voters’ ability and consent to be affected by story. We are learning that it is a human trait that we all possess in varying degrees and it applies to virtually every aspect of our lives today. A program like “American Idol” can be fairly benign in its intentions and I can continue to enjoy it as entertainment and hope for the best for my favorite performers, just as I can read novels for the same reasons.

What we must remember is that the power of story can also be used in negative ways also, but that’s a subject for another post.

In the meantime, I tuned in to “American Idol” last night and was fairly subdued until it appeared that my favorite contestant might be eliminated.  Then, at the last minute, she made it through and I almost fell off my chair with relief. It was almost like reading Cinderella for the first time – she would “go to the ball” and (maybe) get a chance at the glass slipper.

Such is the power of story, and the reason I’ll tune in for “the next chapter” next week.

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Your Story — Your Legacy


Your story is about how you changed or what you learned from your experiences. Nobody can truly know this except you. Your gift is sharing what you learned with others, so that they can learn from it, too.

1. Your story is being created.  It may not be written down, but it is being told, except maybe not the way you would want or by whom you would want.  It could be everything that you remember, but perhaps not the way you would remember it.  If you grew up in a family with siblings, you know what I mean.  “My side of the story” was often in conflict with my brothers’ and sister’s, and sometimes still is.  That is because we have different perspectives on events that we shared, the household we grew up in, the people we knew and the people we loved.

2. Your story is your own. You are the narrator, the protagonist, the hero. There are those who would disagree with your story, but that’s because it’s not their own.

3. Your story is about how you changed or what you learned from your experiences. Nobody can truly know this except you. Your gift is sharing what you learned with others, so that they can learn from it, too.

4. Your story is probably incomplete or inaccurate if you depend upon the objects you leave behind to tell it for you. I have photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, journals, poetry, report cards, greeting cards, household and personal items, yearbooks, scrapbooks – that witness my life and the lives of people who were and are important to me.  They can contribute to, but not tell my story.

5. Because I have all of the above, I have a good starting place for my own stories – my own personal collection of “story prompts”. You probably have your own, waiting for you.

6. If you choose to do nothing, your story may turn into a challenge (or a burden) for someone else to figure out. The day may come when people who don’t know about how Aunt Agnes taught you to cook from your great-grandmother’s book of recipes will toss that very cookbook into the trash along with the unlabeled photos of family members nobody recognizes.

7. If you get started, you’ll be ahead of where you are now. You’ll have more labeled family pics, plus you might have photos of meaningful items you possess, with notations of why they are important to you. You might have a new binder filled with written pieces by family members (or yourself). And you might have a plan (and/or instructions) for where your story legacy should be passed on.

8. You might decide it’s time to write a story – your own story – one page at a time. You can tell the world (or just your family, or just yourself) what you experienced and what you learned. It might turn out to be your greatest legacy.


The Magic and Power of Story in Our Lives

It's All About the Story

My bucket list goal of writing a novel has led me to a study of story and a new understanding and appreciation of its place in our lives. I am now convinced that it is as important as our DNA and the blood that flows through our veins, to our survival as individuals, nations, cultures and even our own species.

For me, it has been a recognition of sorts – an “I knew that but never thought about it” moment, which deserves a reminder for those who might think, “So what? I’m never going to write a novel and I know a good story when I read it or hear it.”

It is true that most of us know a good story when we read it (and we put the book down if it’s not good).  Story is even more fundamental than that when we examine how we learn and live our lives – story is one way our brains function, as explained by Lisa Cron in her book, Wired for Story. She tells us that recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our pleasure in a good story leads us to pay attention – it’s nature’s way of making sure we learn about our world.

Our Brain Prepares Us for Story

My father told me that I was a good baby.  I could be placed on a quilt on the floor and be told to stay there and I would. I’m not sure that I was that “good”, but I heard also that I was observant.  I was happy to watch what was going on around me, whether I was on the floor or watching the curtains flutter above my crib. Since I was also obedient, my curiosity didn’t take me beyond my boundaries. Perhaps my brain was preparing me for the next phase of its development.

Parents are often driven to distraction by one question they hear from their small children – “Why?” I believe that this is one avenue to our brain’s function of constructing and receiving story. When a child asks “why?”, he is learning to interpret information so that his world makes sense.

Some children are fortunate enough to have parents who tell and/or read stories to them, so that they begin to feel and understand the pleasure that a successful story brings – another function of the brain.

Story Prepares Us for Reading

I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot.  They held my interest through the first grade, as I learned to decipher the meaning of the words beneath the illustrations. I stayed with them as they spoke to each other in their stilted phrases: “See Dick throw the ball.  See Spot run.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that nothing much was happening; there really wasn’t a story.  I’m sure that Miss Carroll was as happy as I was when we could move on to stories. I knew instinctively that a story required conflict and change. If Dick threw the ball to Jane and accidently broke her nose, that would have been the basis for a story.

Story Enables Us to Retain What We Learn

What do you remember from your history classes? I suppose that I figured out what I was expected to remember and retained just enough to make a passing grade. There was no curiosity to my learning, which was likely because I didn’t recognize the context.  Context is necessary for story and if it’s absent, we just have a lot of facts or dates that don’t teach us very much.

Today, as an adult, I have become accustomed to following up on historical events by reading about them as presented in context – in other words, in story form.  I have found that I better understand the meaning of what happened, what other events were going on at the same time and how it all affected those who lived through it. For example, John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History taught me about the Spanish Flu, and I also learned about its effect on World War I, possibly contributing to the circumstances that led to World War II.

Story Helps Us to Learn About Ourselves

Fiction can also help us to understand context and lead us to better awareness and understanding of ourselves and those around us. We develop empathy when we read of the lives of those in the story and can transfer it to those we meet in the real world.  It can also let us see that we are, in a sense, writing our own story and as humans, must deal with internal and external conflict.

We have learned most of what we know about ourselves collectively through story. Christians celebrate and share The Greatest Story Ever Told, and other religious traditions also use story as Jesus did, to instruct and inspire.

Nations also depend upon story to construct a testament for shared beliefs and values.  If “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, then it is important for citizens to understand the context for their laws. Open societies like our own provide a continuous flow of conflict beyond the basic “good and evil” to those of two values like freedom versus security and diversity versus similarity, making our story more complex and dynamic.

Story Helps Us Connect with Others

This leads me to a one commitment I made when I retired – to encourage others to reach out to others through their own memories and stories.  We are in a period of history with access to more ways than ever to “write our story”, but many of us are choosing the easiest and most temporary way to connect.  It’s as if we want to be remembered by a selfie and what can be written in a tweet. Our stories are precious and fragile and we shouldn’t be satisfied with what will be written (by others) in an obituary or left on a grave marker.

I am working on another website and blog devoted to ways we can write our own stories so that our children and grandchildren can know more about our lives than what our genealogy and DNA can report. I hope that you will join me there, and return here also, as we explore the magic and power of story.