Telling stories for fun and profit

Cliff face
I’ve made up stories since I was a kid. I started my own version of The Hobbit at least eleven different times. Then later on I tried making up stories that were more original. A few were. Many weren’t. Some were good. Others lousy. Ultimately, stories are aggregations of a thousand overheard conversations, films, books, poems, tall tales, barstool monologues, lies and nursery rhymes heard, read seen and watched over the years.

Stories are interesting. People like them. And they’re willing to pay money for them. At least that’s our hope when I co-founded the company Slipstream Cinema, which focuses on aerial cinematography but is ultimately about assisting people in the telling of their own stories and using technology to help them do so.

Storytelling can be a profession, and I’ve been working pretty hard to make it so. Sure we shoot high definition digital video from RC helicopters that have onboard electronics that would make the guys in The Right Stuff jealous. But what we do is no different than what people have done since before the dawn of history. Everyone has stories. It’s what makes us human.

What I’ve learned from documentary projects is that even though you can make up a story, it’s often more effective when other people, who aren’t MFA-trained, pedigreed, published or otherwise blessed-by-the-literary-establishement storytellers tell their own stories in their own words and you’re merely there to capture it and help bring it into the world. Your role is sort of a narrative midwifery. There aren’t good or bad storytellers. Anyone can do it. You just need to ask them the right questions.

Your role as a documentary or brand storyteller is a sort of narrative midwifery

Trying to monetize storytelling gives me mixed feelings. Even if I have a full-time job and a new startup business that do exactly that, there’s still a purity to telling stories just for the hell of it.

A tradition in our family is for me to gather all the kids around the holidays and bring them into an empty bedroom (no, I’m not the creeper uncle, I promise) and tell them a frightening story with the lights out. These are rarely original tales, but more often embellishments or approximations of common folklore. One of my favorites is the story of Resurrection Mary, one of the many spirits haunting the paved-over prairielands of my South Chicago childhood homeland. The best lore is often rooted in the geography of our youth. During these tales, we usually lose one or two kids along the way as they slip through the door, spilling a ray of the warmth and safety of the hallway light. They always return for the next story, though.

They still want to trade on stories in the dark like our Pleistocene precursors.

It amazes me that kids growing up with digital cameras and the Internet, 3D and animation still want to trade on stories in the dark like our Pleistocene precursors. It’s part of who we are, this tribe of gangly, unpredictable bipeds. Each of us bears the soul of a poet and balladeer. It’s a product of our evolution and genetics, a result, perhaps, of our uselessly outsized brains.

Kids in cemetery

Kids in the extend Baker clan hang out where one famous Chicago legend was born. Resurrection Mary can be seen in the background.

Whether it’s an independent project, a screenplay or an interview for the day job or a client project, I’m struck by how often I’m moved to tears or inspired or awed by a story that someone is telling me or even some that I conjure up from the stew of experiences rattling in my own head.

Can storytelling across a number of different media become my one and only full-time profession? Is there a formula that will allow me to reproduce my labors in this way, like any good Marxist-Leninist desires? Can capturing, weaving and reproducing stories for remuneration that would also make any objectivist or capitalist proud be a tenable existance? Time will eventually share the story of that answer.

David Baker by teslathemes