5 lessons on storytelling from the inaugural THREAD at Yale

THREAD at Yale debuted in June, gathering together a veritable crazy quilt of storytellers from a range of backgrounds and perspectives and working in diverse media.

“It’s time that storytellers had a gathering that respected the new reality, by disrespecting the old boundaries,” Mark Oppenheimer ‘96, ’03 Ph.D., director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and THREAD at Yale, wrote at the launch of the program. Based on feedback from participants, the program lived up to its promise to redefine storytelling in modern media.   

“THREAD did more than provide me advice on structure, pace and the rest of what makes a compelling story,” said Matt Walks, a digital media associate at ESPN. “It gave me access to the creators that have mastered those qualities in today’s industry.”

The program, an offshoot of the Yale Journalism Initiative, took place on campus June 7–10. In the mornings, participants heard from masters in multimedia storytelling, like John Branch, the sports reporter for The New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Snow Fall. In the afternoons, they divided into workshops, where they discussed their work with program faculty, including longtime NPR reporter Linda Gradstein and New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman ’06.

Many program highlights came from the conversations between participants over pizza at BAR or cocktails at Mory’s, but here are key lessons from a few of the THREAD mentors on how to redefine the boundaries of storytelling.

1. Follow your curiosity

Steven Brill ’72, ’75 J.D., who endowed the Yale Journalism Initiative to support Yale students considering a career in journalism, talked with THREAD participants about the importance of taking on topics you truly care about.

Before you pursue a story, he said, consider whether you want to wake up every morning thinking about it, and knocking on every door until you get the answers you need.

Brill spoke from his own experience. His latest book, “America’s Bitter Pill,” about the Affordable Care Act,involved conducting countless interviews, organizing pages upon pages of dates and facts into a timeline, and even getting an up-close perspective from a hospital gurney. 

2. Find the essence of your story

Like writers, cartoonists need to find the essence of the stories they are telling, said Steve Brodner, a freelance illustrator whose work appears regularly in The Nation, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among other publications.

“The best illustrators figure out their statement, then think about the hierarchy of images to tell that story, before even beginning their composition,” he told the participants, encouraging them to apply the same techniques to their own writing and editing.

3. Be real and have fun

Catherine Burns, artistic director at The Moth, which features stories told live and without notes, told the participants, True stories told live fail when people try to give a performance versus just being vulnerable and honest and real, she said

She also shared advice she gives to The Moth’s storytellers: Have fun — if you do, the audience will have fun with you.

She illustrated her talk with a video of Matthew Dicks, a master storyteller and 17-time Moth StorySLAM champion, who had the THREAD at Yale participants alternately laughing and crying with his tale about friendship, family, and an automobile crash.

4. Mind the gap

Glynn Washington, the host and executive producer of Snap Judgment, a show that mixes music and real-life dramas, talked about the importance of storytellers “minding the gap.” We need to let our audience make these stories what they want them to be, he told the participants — if we tell our readers and listeners what a story means, we steal that from them.

Washington played a video of a young man about a car ride with his “two mamas” as an example for the class, and encouraged participants to come up with their own parallels as they watched the story unfold.

5. Think across media

On the final morning, Anne Fadiman, a renowned essayist and adjunct professor of English at Yale, spoke with  Stillman, a former student, about her views on storytelling. It can be useful for writers to think of themselves as film editors, Stillman said — to ask themselves: What shots do you need to take? When should you zoom in and zoom out?

At the end of the THREAD at Yale program, one of the participants, Martha Frankel, executive director of Woodstock Writers, said she had come to campus with one or two dreams and left “with a pocketful of them.”

Many participants expressed their desire to continue the conversation on redefining the boundaries of storytelling, having built relationships — and even friendships — with one another.

“I found the chance to work with other professional storytellers on the nitty-gritty of my own work as well as hear their processes to be invaluable,” said Catherine Ferrez, manager of user experience design at Yahoo. “I walked away with a clearer sense of purpose for my work, a renewed momentum and a diverse group of colleagues with whom to continue the conversation.”

For more information about Thread at Yale and how to apply, visit thread.yale.edu.

Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this