True Confessions: Beth Lisick on Storytelling and Yokohama Threeway And Other Small Shames
Part One | Part Two
eth Lisick drove up to my house in Portland for an interview after appearances at the literary festival Wordstock: an overstimulating mix of books, free pens, donut holes, pasty folks with tote bags, and fluorescent lighting. She hopped out of her friend’s car and started to cross the lawn to my front door. I was on our front porch to greet her. Then we gasped, staring at the car. It was rolling toward the back bumper of the car in front. She ran back, jumped in, and put it into park. But not before it hit the other car’s bumper.
I did nothing to help her. I just laughed. But she was horrified. “Is that your car?” she asked. (It wasn’t.) I almost felt bad for her, because if it had done damage, it could’ve been a good story. It would’ve potentially wrecked the interview, but maybe it would’ve ended up in one of Lisick’s onstage performances or in a sequel to her current book, Yokohama Threeway: And Other Small Shames.
Published by City Lights/Sister Spit, the book isn’t a memoir as much as forty-eight pieces of damning memory loops. As writers, we’re often asked the clichéd workshop question, “What’s at stake for the character?” But in this book, every chapter, from “Office Holiday Party” to “An Afternoon Date with My Stalker” to “Dog Towel” has a stake on which Lisick falls. Not only does she share embarrassing stories with a direct and funny tone but she also offers useful advice—especially since I’ve rolled out my own Kurt Cobain anecdote for years until it’s flat and rotten. From Lisick’s “Piece of Nirvana”:
Kurt Cobain lit my cigarette once at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.
It’s been about ten years since I said that sentence out loud. Once I realized that everybody I know had heard me say it at least once, I finally stopped. Not that I trotted it out all the time, only when someone mentioned Kurt Cobain or Nirvana or the Catalyst or cigarettes, or sometimes Courtney Love. Have a celebrity anecdote that is more than one week old? Just stop saying it. See how it feels to abandon something you thought was precious that actually means nothing.
Propeller: You got the idea for writing Yokohama when you were on an airplane, writing a list of your most shameful moments. I first saw it as a stage performance in Portland about two years ago, where audience members picked a number and you read the corresponding excerpt aloud. How did you keep the spontaneity and humor on the page as you went through months of performing and editing them?
Lisick: It’s weird, because some of them aren’t funny at all, and some of them I didn’t want to edit because I wanted them a certain way. I tried to write them in different styles, as a letter, or in the second person, or from a kid’s present tense, like when I put fake blood on myself when my mom came home from the grocery store.
Propeller: I heard someone on The Moth say something like, “Readers are not forgiving of imperfection, but listeners are not forgiving about insincerity.” Do you agree with that, or is it too pat?
Lisick: I usually think most things are too pat and I guess this qualifies, too. I forgive writers and most humans their imperfections constantly. Wait. Were they talking about imperfections like typos and grammatical errors? If so, fuck yes. Unforgivable! And I hate insincerity in all its forms.
Propeller: When I saw you perform earlier in the week, at Entertainment for People, you added an element of surprise by having audience members read questions about your life, as if they were on a talk show. Do you seek out potential chaos, compared to today, at Wordstock, where it was you and the mike?
Lisick: Well, I’m very aware of wanting something I’m doing to be entertaining. I write what I would like to read. I think it’s the same thing with a show or reading: what do you really want to see? Especially where it’s not my night of “Beth Reads from Her Work,” because I want to surprise myself, too. If I feel myself being canned or being repetitive, I can’t stand it. I’ll find myself in the middle of a sentence and be like, Oh my god. What you’re saying right now you’ve said a million times... I’ll stop myself and try to do something different. I think it’s why I’ve never perfected anything because I can’t. I get bored of myself really easily.
Propeller: A lot of your humor is rhythm and body language and voice. You write in Yokohama, “If I am making the leap into being unselfconscious, into genuinely committing to express myself, my body will do all sorts of things I’m not in control of,” and you go on to describe trying to hide the toilet seat cover that found its way inside your pants. Were you always funny in your family growing up?
Lisick: I didn’t think of myself as funny. In high school we did some pranks. I didn’t drink so we’d go to parties and hide underneath the bed or in the closets where all the teenagers were getting drunk. We’d listen to everyone and write down what they were saying. I was outsidery a little bit, except I was also student body vice president, an athlete, and I got good grades. But I wasn’t in the party scene. They fascinated me. You hear what teenagers are supposed to be like, but I was freaked out by them.
Propeller: But then you met a lot of artist types when you went to college in Santa Cruz.
Lisick: Definitely. When I moved to Santa Cruz, that’s when I started meeting artists. I didn’t grow up with anything bohemian or alternative.
Propeller: Were you in theater?
Lisick: No. I didn’t start writing until I was out of college. I thought you had to be kind of a jerk to be an artist. It’s true! God, you have to be so full of yourself to think that anybody cares about what you say. How could people do that? I was always amazed, even in college: how could that person be so bold and so confident to spend their time doing this and think that anyone would care?
I didn’t get really weird until after I started writing. I think that’s only because I had a stable upbringing and was pretty confident, so it took me longer to figure out who I really was. I could do the normal things and it wasn’t hard for me to be that way. When I think about it now, I laugh. I did track, field hockey, diving, basketball—terrible basketball player.
n 2002 Lisick and Arline Klatte cofounded what became a successful and widely imitated storytelling series called Porchlight. At San Francisco’s Café du Nord, in front of velvet curtains, amateurs and pros took turns telling stories with no notes or prompts. At a show I saw around 2003, a skater described getting his armpit caught on a fence. He couldn’t get down without tearing muscle and fat.
Propeller: When you started Porchlight how did you know it was the right time to do it?
Lisick: I think from doing the Poetry Slam and seeing how people would just start one up in their town. It came about after I did a story for The Moth in San Francisco. I’d left the Poetry Slam after two years, because it was so canned it drove me crazy. It was performance poetry of people performing the poem the exact same way. I met a lot of great people, but the work itself—I didn’t love it.
What I liked about Porchlight was it was very simple: you bring a lot of people together; you give a lot of people a chance to get onstage. Because I never thought I’d be a writer or an artist or a creative person, I love showing other people that they can do that. I believe everyone’s creative, and a lot of people have at least one great story they can tell—a lot of people have a million of them.
I knew Arline from working at SFGate [an online news site], and she came from a different background from me—totally SF society. I knew she would be a great person to start with because we could draw from different scenes.
Propeller: And you had themes, and the audience was rooting for you...
Lisick: And the audience was always renewing itself because you had six storytellers and they’d bring their own friends and family. We’ve had hundreds of people get up there.
Propeller: How do you practice with people who may be new at storytelling so they don’t quote unquote fail?
Lisick: You never know—and I like that—sometimes people get up there and they do bomb, and I’ve had shows myself where I was like, Oh god, but that’s part of it. The biggest secret is to just be yourself and people are going to like you and want you to do well. A lot of it is about the story and to figure out—wait, don’t tell the audience this part yet—and to make it a little bit suspenseful so people care. But sometimes people get nervous, and I know how that is. You just fuck it up.
Propeller: In this kind of society, even though it’s the city, there’s not always an opportunity to hear stories unless you’re at a party and there’s the guy who’s drunk and up in your face. It’s unique in that way if it’s well curated.
Lisick: We’re trying to always get new people and find people who wouldn’t think they’d be the type of person who’d get up onstage and do it.
Propeller: You’re not as involved in it right now?
Lisick: No, but I still help curate. I go back every once in a while, and I still help people over the phone.
Propeller: Do any of your performances go into your memories of shame? Or do you think, I’m just not going to go there because I’m not going to look at or listen to the recordings again. Because otherwise you might get paralyzed.
Lisick: I feel I could be so much better at things if I did that. When I told stories at Back Fence PDX or at other storytelling events or because I do Porchlight, I work with people. But when it comes to my stuff, I’m just not interested in perfecting something. When I’m telling a story aloud or writing my books I’ll go through my stuff about three edits, but I won’t push it. Even with stuff I don’t love, if it captures something and I can’t figure out a way to make it better, I’m just going to leave it. With my novel I’m writing I work a lot harder editing it, because it’s not me and it’s not my voice. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it makes sense to me.
Propeller: After exploring self-help groups and movements in Helping Me Help Myself, did you ever feel that you needed to get “centered” and have no conflict or did you just think, Well, I’m just going to feel ashamed my whole life and that’s the way it is?
Lisick: A big part of who I am is that I’m into that. I totally define myself by the things that I failed at and the bad things about me. I don’t walk around thinking like I’m an amazing person who’s accomplished a lot of things. Instead it’s like, Whoa, I’m a kind of screwup. I think a lot of self-help people would say that’s bad, but I don’t think it’s that bad. I don’t feel so shitty about myself that I can’t create stuff and enjoy myself and my life, but I’m very tied to that. Even on that feminism panel today [at Wordstock], people were talking about breaking into the mainstream. But I don’t think I’ll ever be a mainstream person. I’m never going to be a mainstream American humorist. I just won’t. And that’s fine.
Talking to people who’ve written serious novels and seeing the VIDA scores [which compare rates of publication between women and men] and how women get reviewed, that’s totally real, and if I were a serious novelist I’d be pissed. But I also feel like that’s not who I am. I’m kind of a weirdo who does my little thing, and I’m glad I get to do it and some people like it. I don’t freak out that [anxious voice]—Why aren’t I more popular?—or like—I have a voice that people really need to hear. I don’t think that at all. I don’t think, I really deserve a bigger audience.
My comfort zone—to use self-help lingo—is more of an underground losery way. It limits me in a way. The self-help books say that, too. But it’s not worth it to me to fight harder to be more popular. It doesn’t seem interesting to me.
Propeller: So when you’re having these awkward experiences, do you think, This is a shame thing I can use in the future, or do you also feel shame for other people or painful for them? Like for me, Here I am in India and I’m throwing up all over my passport in front of a beggar. I can remember this...
Lisick: I think part of it, too, is when you’re a writer you’re always taking things in and processing or analyzing your behavior and other people’s behavior. You can’t just peacefully exist in the world. But I don’t really write that much. I just feel like I only will write something that feels original or unique, at least to me. It’s one of the reasons I don’t do mom stuff. There are enough white ladies in their forties who are writing about parenting.
Part One | Part Two
Beth Lisick is the author of five books: the memoir collection Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames, the New York Times bestselling comic memoir Everybody Into the Pool, the gonzo self-help manifesto Helping Me Help Myself, the story collection This Too Can Be Yours, and the performance poetry/story collection Monkey Girl.
Alex Behr recently interviewed Steve Almond for the magazine. Behr’s essay about performing in the “Mortified” series ran in our Winter 2010 issue.