The Key to Telling a Good Story, or The Night Jeff Daniels Killed it on Guitar and Gave Me Chekhovian Wisdom
There is a debate that I’m having with my thirteen-year-old daughter Dorothea about whether or not Jeff Daniels wanted to talk to me. She maintains that he had no interest in spending any time with me. I, on the other hand, contend that the star of stage and screen was charming, gracious and open to the prospect that someday he and I could be chums if our paths ever again cross. I am right, of course, because age always trumps youthful temerity. Thirteen-year-olds are so damned suspicious of two guys with touches of grey hair having a good jaw, you know.
My encounter with Jeff Daniels took place at the Pfister when he was recently in town lending his considerable storytelling and musical talents to the 6th Annual This Time Tomorrow Foundation (TTTF) fundraiser. TTTF is a great organization that offers financial assistance to families affected by cancer. It’s noble work, and when TTTF shows up at a person’s home who is battling the disease they do so with a check in hand that the family can use to help offset medical bills or other pressing needs.
Daniels was part of a whole musical storytelling evening that included performances by The Ben Daniels Band (his prodigiously jamming son), a supremely harmonic Lotus Crush, and the very funny Mark Eddie. The whole affair was hosted by C. Thomas Howell, who in recent years has shined as a smart director and actor but may forever be remembered by teenage girls of a center era as Ponyboy in the film version of “The Outsiders.”
Given that my teenage daughter is developing some serious chops as a guitar player and writer, I was very grateful to be able to bring her along as my date for the evening. But, I let her know that this wasn’t just going to be fun and games. There was work to be done. I had a simple burning question for all these troubadours with tales: “What is the key to telling a great story?”
My grinning daughter and I first bumped into Ben Daniels and his band mates (one of whom recently agreed to be Mrs. Daniels, I found out). These slouch and cool musicians drip with the aura of good storytellers, the kind of guys and gal who spin yarns that look like your most treasured ironic Christmas sweaters. I put my question to Ben and his compadres and they threw loads of thoughts my way. “Keep it from the heart…be brutally honest…mix it up…talk about what you know.” Daniels’ guitar player George also showed me an elaborate handshake that a fella like me who is challenged by rhythms beyond pat-a-cake has no chance of ever remembering. I chalked that one up to visual aid.
Mingling through the crowd, we came upon Terry McDermott, lead singer for Lotus Crush. Lotus Crush had just freshly recorded what you might call the TTTF anthem, the tune “This Time Tomorrow” that has been covered annually by different artists since it was first penned by TTTF founder Cory Zimmerman as an emotional response to his friend and business associate Dick Ticcioni’s cancer diagnosis. I might mention that I had the great honor of meeting the happy and healthy Ticcioni at this event, and he is decidedly kicking cancer in the keester.
McDermott struck me right away as a man blessed with two remarkable gifts that put him in rarified air as a storyteller. First, there’s the hair. Oh, how I wanted to reach out and tussle his divinely fashioned rocker locks. That sort of eye candy is just money in the bank for presenting yourself as a tale teller with sticking power. But this chap also totally brings it with one of the smoothest, sweetest, Scottish accents ever to pass scone-scented lips.
On top of his killer do and honey vocals, McDermott was full of heart, smiles and charm. I asked him his recipe for telling a great story, and he brought it back around in the best way possible–he told me a story. Terry talked of a friend of his, a fellow Scot who moved to New Orleans and now does things like make amazing ice cream. He also is, according to McDermott, an undisputed master of telling a good story. His advice to Terry, and a good nugget if I’ve ever heard one, is, “Make the fish just a little bit bigger.” In other words, we all have a story in us, and there’s no shame in telling it the way we “want” it to be told as opposed to the way it might have really happened. I’ll fess up to loving this one, and you can trace my affection for that statement back to any of my writings that are laced with the faint smell of a nice fat tuna that can be caught jumping off the page.
This info grabbing was all fascinating for me and thrilling for my hanging-on-every-word daughter. She pointed across the room to a man with an unbelievably wide grin on his face and said, “I’m guessing that’s the funny guy.” Her attention had gone to Mark Eddie, and I’m proud that my gal can pick the good-humored gents out of a crowd.
Mark and his wife Cyndi were delighting guests with joy flecked talk and cheery self-portraits that Cyndi was snapping like a happy turtle with her arm length selfie-stick.
I approached and introduced myself and told Eddie, “My daughter noticed you and told me you must be the funny guy. I think she’s right.” Eddie laughed and, a dad of daughters himself, kindly made Dorothea feel like a critical part of our conversation. Mark is a man who makes his living telling stories and I knew he’d have great advice for me on how to really tell a great tale.
“Well, I got a great bit of advice from a Hollywood producer a few years back that I think is really smart,” he said. “The key to being a great storyteller is to be completely sincere. And once you learn how to fake that, you’re set.” I’m a sucker for a good one-two punch line.
Mark continued on and on, demonstrating his belief that joy and sincerity are keys to telling good stories. He stressed the importance of being authentic, being the full “you” and not worrying about trying to be something you’re not when telling a tale. This authentic guy’s story is one of toothy grins and good cheer, and if we had four more hours together, I shudder to think of the number of groaner jokes the two of us would have come up with together.
We thanked Marc and his wife for a lovely chat, and started across the room when Jeff Daniels started walking our way. It’s with a sense of nerd pride that I lay claim to being a big fan of Jeff Daniels–the playwright. I’m not discounting his work as an actor, of course, because he’s just damned compelling on screen and, for those of us lucky enough to have seen him on the stage, a force to be reckoned with. That was my special way in, my secret handshake. “Hello, Jeff Daniels. My name is Jonathan West, and I just wanted to tell you how much I like your plays.”
Now, as I mentioned at the top of this story, my daughter and I have a different take on the moments I spent learning lessons on storytelling from Jeff Daniels. She’ll forever poke at me, but I’m telling you true that we had a lovely chat. And if you’ve taken anything away from the tips I was given by the others in the room, you’ll know that what my fish is sincerely authentic and there’s no fakery involved. Honest, I tell you, from the bottom of my heart.
I share a particular fondness for one of the key figures in Jeff Daniels’ career, the playwright Lanford Wilson. Daniels’ work in his early plays helped to launch his long and varied career. When I asked Daniels’ his thoughts on how to tell a great story, he paused a moment, reflected and then laid it out straight. “Build the structure and then make it look like there’s no structure.”
I admit to overthinking things at times, so these types of simple, plain-spoken lessons are like gold to me. Work hard, but no need to show off. Daniels summed it up in a second. Keep it simple, stupid. He also talked about the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and muttered a couple of swear words about his ability to build a great house but to never show his reader the framing.
And if you ever had any question about Jeff Daniels’ musical abilities, well feast your eyes and ears on this snippet. He’s got game.
All in all, it was a spectacular night of music and great tales all told from the heart by masters. And for me, the storytelling take away for the night was crystal clear. Take the time to be as honest as you need to be and you’ll land a great tale. That fish, my friends, will always arrive fresh on the line and a few inches longer than you ever expected it would be.
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