Out & About With . . . STORY Chicago

For two days each year, storytellers from across the country and a spectrum of disciplines converge on Chicago for one purpose: to talk about story.

It’s apt, then, that the conference that hosts these discussions is called simply that: STORY.

This year I was privilege to join them.

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STORY began six years ago thanks to the vision casting and planning of founder Ben Arment and a group of friends. What many don’t know is that STORY started as an event for storytellers in the Church—pastor, teachers, drama group leaders, and others who wanted to express stories and concepts from the Bible in their fictional work.

But the event has grown far beyond that beginning.

While many of the speakers identify personally as Christian, others do not. The attendee mix now represents a plethora of beliefs, from evangelical and Catholic to Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic and others.

For me, this year’s STORY began on a difficult note, as I sped non-stop from an exhausting work week onto a train at 6:15 AM Thursday, just three hours before the conference began.


Looking back, I wish I’d been more alert for the mix of speakers, which included Jonah Lehrer, talking about rediscovering his creative life in the wake of a plagiarism scandal. Poet Malcolm London, whose spoken word seems to flow as easily as breath from his lips. Tattoo artist David Allen, talking about the impermanence and intimacy of his art. And Harvard professor Sarah Lewis, calling artists everywhere to examine the history of both art and science to find patterns  of discovery that can inform our work today.

While all of these talks might sound unrelated, I was struck by one common theme: the quiet celebration of failure. From Lehrer’s exploration of how his imploded career taught him to “love the mystery of the blank page again,” to Lewis, who charted the role of failure in many major breakthroughs, each speaker pointed out that not succeeding is in many ways more important the alternative.

In a world where success is pre-engineered, measured, and expected literally without fail, how many of us consider missing the mark an essential pre-requisite?

Moving into Day Two, a good night’s sleep and a whole lot of cold meds did some good for my brain. And good thing, too, because the richness continued in abundance with the likes of Welby Altidor, Creative Director for Cirque du Soleil, John Collins, organizer of the “Dear J.J. Abrams” online campaign, Josh Boone, director of The Fault in Our Stars, and Melissa Weigel, one of the geniuses behind The Moment Factory, an L.A.-based digital experience agency that creates spectacles such as Madonna’s world tour and the LAX Bradley Terminal multimedia installations.


If the preciousness of failure was the theme of Day One, then Day Two’s theme was most likely “The Power of Collaboration.”

Welby Altidor tackled this issue head-on, noting that while collaboration is “hip” and supposedly valued, most of us would rather not talk about just how hard it really is. Politics, insecurities, and personal viewpoints, among others, continually intervene to harry our best efforts at working together.

Altidor, Wiegel, and others spoke about how their organizations fight the inertia of “silo-ed thinking” by deliberately scheduling group critiques when they know a creative team isn’t ready yet. They also rethink internal terms that may short-circuit collaboration. For example, at Cirque, Altidor found that renaming a big internal critique session from “The Lion’s Den” to the “Jam Session” transformed how the entire team approach critical feedback—both recipients and deliverers.


Photo courtesy of adventuresofarchibald.com

In a class by himself, however, was final keynote Tony Hale, Emmy-winning co-star of Arrested Development and Veep, who delivered perhaps the most powerful message of all before sending us back out into the world:

“Contentment as a creative person,” he said, ” is something you cultivate now, where you’re at. Because if you’re not content now, you won’t be when you get what you think you really want.”

Coming from an Emmy-winning actor, who says he discovered this truth after reaching what many would consider a pinnacle of success, these words had all that much more the ring of truth. Not to mention delivering on what one might call a hallmark of the annual STORY Chicago recipe: absolute transparency.

In a world where smoke and mirrors rule the day, STORY has the courage to shut off the machines and smash all the shiny objects.

In one room, in one place, in one moment, the creative community come together to admit our struggles and speak honestly to ourselves about creating change.

Which . . . that last time I checked . . . is what our work is all about in the first place.

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Learn more about STORY Chicago and get on the list for updates by visiting storychicago.com.

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