“Pit of Despair” Stories

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I watched Jannie Kruse give a short talk on “labels.” She talked about the categories we put ourselves in—how we label ourselves based on our upbringing, and about her stern and abusive grandfather. To make her point, she stuck a series of “Hello, My Name is…” labels to her blouse upon which were written the words: “Victim,” “Powerless,” “Weak,” and “Worthless.”

Her speech was personal and vulnerable. She took the audience to a dark place. We felt the pain of not being valued, and she kept us there for an awkward and powerful moment.

Stories transport listeners into our experiences. Audiences feel our feelings, share our reactions, and may even show physiological responses to the places we take them. (Once, when I told a story about a storm at sea, a woman in the audience began to show signs of seasickness.) Taking people into “the pit of despair” can be powerful and effective, but the dark side of the power of story must be handled with care. Had the speaker stopped there, her audience would have spent the rest of the day feeling depressed and worrying about her mental health. Such are the after-effects of this particularly unpleasant type of “unfinished symphony” story.

After her well-timed pause, Jannie began to talk about the power we have to choose, “Who am I?” One by one, she peeled off the negative labels, stuck them together, and crumpled them into a ball.

She began to create new stickers: “Super Mom,” “Inspiration,” and “Creator.” As she did the “work” to write each new label, she stuck them on her blouse where the old ones had been. This was not a speech about victimhood; it was a message about self-determination and self-love—a story of emotional transformation that was made all the more engaging by a journey from the pit of despair to the mountain top.

Whining about how tough you had it in front of an audience is a twisted form of group therapy. Leave your baggage in the closet. Personal stories of loss, tragedy, violence, addiction, and abuse are acceptable on the platform, but your goal should always be to transform your audience—to assist them on their journey.  If you drive your listeners into darkness, lead them back to the light.

4 comments

  • I was intrigued by the title of this post precisely because my short story “Forever Christmas” (published in the new Lior Samson collection, Death Rehearsals) is an archetypal “pit of despair” story, one of bottomless desperation. I believe it is possible to lead readers back to light precisely by leaving your character in the pit, thus charging the reader to find the redemption This requires a bit more faith in the reader than writing the happy clean resolution, but I believe it can also, done well, make for an even greater impact.

    • Literature is a different beast. Moby Dick ended in tragedy and yet, it’s a classic. But try that in front of a live audience and unless you’re especially artful, local therapists will have a field day. The “cautionary tale” can work, but transformation is usually a better motivator than conflict. Thanks for reading and weighing in.

 
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Dave Bricker: StorySailing®