‘You know your story is being heard, understood and received by the way your audience is breathing,’ says Julie Perrin of Telling Words. She’s not only a storywriter, but also a storyteller – she performs many of the stories she writes. ‘Whether they make those little gasps or laughs or sighs, whether they’re relaxed or fidgeting and on edge: all of these bodily, nonverbal communications are part of what carries it. Both from you to the audience but also between them.’ Perrin’s seen what happens when a story falls flat and she knows when a story is resonating. She’s aware of the nonverbal communications that can keep writers distanced from our readers. As a writer for print I hate being in the same room as someone reading my work, every twitch and raised eyebrow sends me into a tangle of anxiety. Yet the way Perrin describes the conventions of telling stories, I wonder if the ability to have such a tangible connection with the audience might be a benefit.
‘There are lovely conventions of repeated rhythms, alliteration and internal playing with sound that make it more memorable, and can lull people. There are repeated refrains that are like being rocked and (in the right moment) the people really appreciate that,’ says Perrin. In person or on paper, her awareness of how this musicality is received must surely be an asset. ‘There are other moments where it needs to become really sharp, witty and acerbic,’ she adds. These descriptions of hers make me wonder how different her writing process is for print and performance (she’s been published in The Age, The Big Issue and Visible Ink).
In fact, when she has a story idea, Perrin isn’t always sure whether she will print it or perform it. ‘I often run two different versions – not wildly different – but there’s just a slightly different inflection,’ she says. As her stories evolve Perrin decides whether her words will remain in print or be pared back for performance. When chosen for performance the artifact changes. ‘Ultimately you can have the most beautiful text but [if you’re going to tell it rather than print it] you can’t just sprout a text like a recitation because all of your energy is in remembering those words you’ve tried to learn,’ she says. ‘Audiences can see you trying to remember.’
Perrin breaks the to-be-told stories down to key words and storyboards, and she maps their locations and objects in the space around her in order to ground her listeners. The story might even change in the performance itself. ‘In any spoken story there’s a reciprocal relationship between the story, the listener and the teller. How a story is listened to by a group of people effects how it can be told. The story shifts with the quality of the listening,’ she says.
‘You really can’t make it too literary, so it’s about being artful with the everyday rather than trying to be really clever with very intense and dense language,’ Perrin says of choosing words for spoken delivery. But to me her advice seems apt for written work. Perrin describes the delivery of spoken work as ephemeral. ‘Essentially speaking it is just shaped air. That’s what it is. It’s here today and it’s gone in a second. The beginning of uttering a word: it’s almost over before it’s begun,’ she says. To me, a first-read is similarly fleeting.
Delivering to audiences has taught Perrin the importance of a moment in storytelling – of the tangible aspects of what writers make. Yet although an audience’s response may seem telling in one performance, unlike me, Perrin knows to take each twitch and raised eyebrow as they come. ‘There are all these different kinds of breath-response. There are all these different kinds of stories,’ she says, stating that just because one audience doesn’t scream with laughter or sob in sadness, it doesn’t mean your story and your writing is any less powerful or beautiful. ‘You just need to seek to inhabit it,’ she says.