THE INSPIRATION PLACE PODCAST
Matthew Dicks (00:00):
Most of the time we allow our memories to be tossed away like trash when they are our most precious commodities. They are the things that we use to connect to people and to feel good about our lives and to look back and feel like we’ve been somewhere and we’ve done something, and we just tossed them away like they’re nothing. So Homework For Life doesn’t allow you to do it. It forces you to acknowledge that on this day something happened that is worth recording.
Speaker 2 (00:26):
It’s the Inspiration Place podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to the Inspiration Place podcast, an art world inside a podcast, for artists by an artist where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the arts. And now your host, Miriam Schulman.
Miriam Schulman (00:51):
Hello artist. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration. And you’re listening to episode number 204 of the Inspiration Place podcast. I’m so grateful that you’re here. Today, we’re talking all about how to tell better stories. Now I’m always telling the artists that I coach that they need to tell more stories to sell their art. You know you do too. What do you put on your website? What do you put as captions on social media? What do you put in your emails? But then they ask me, Miriam, how do we do it? Where do we get our ideas? What makes a good story?
Now whether we realize it or not, we’re always telling stories. We’re constantly narrating events and interpreting emotions and actions, whether that’s on a first date, or a job interview, at its sales presentation, or a therapy appointment, some of us are in therapy more than others. That includes me by the way. Or whether you’re telling stories at the dinner table with your friends or family. Now, hopefully you listened to last week’s episode. If not listen to episode number 203, we had the same guest last week. He is an incredible storyteller. And we’re going to link that in today’s show notes, along with both of our guest books, Someday Is Today, and Storyworthy.
When New World Library asked me if I’d interview one of their authors, I told them it sounds interesting, but send me a copy of the book first. I want to read it and make sure it’s good enough for you, my audience. And I started reading Someday Is Today. I loved it so much before I even finished it. I messaged them. I said, “Definitely, I want this author on.” And as soon as I was finished with the book and I did read the actual physical book, I downloaded the audible version of his other book Storyworthy. And these books are incredible. Someday Is Today, by the end, I was like, “This is a crazy person. I have to talk to him.” But Storyworthy, I have to tell you was actually like getting an MFA in creative writing in one book. You’re going to absolutely love it. It is by far one of the best books I’ve read on how to tell a story.
This interview is not going to disappoint either. What I love about his philosophy is that he shows you that anyone can learn to tell appealing stories. Everyone has something story worthy to express. And perhaps most importantly, that the act of creating and telling a tale is a powerful way of understanding and enhancing your own life. Now, before I bring on our guest, I do want to make sure that you knew that I’m taking applications for the mastermind track of the artist incubator program. The mastermind track is a gated version of the incubator. So this version is only open to artists who already have a website and a track record of sales. To see if you qualify head on over to Schulmanart.com/biz. That’s B as in B-I-Z. And now on with the show.
Today’s guest is the author of Storyworthy and Someday Is Today as well as many other books. A best-selling novelist, a nationally recognized storyteller, and an award-winning elementary school teacher. He teaches storytelling and communications at universities, corporate workplaces, and community organizations. He’s won multiple Moth GrandSLAM story competitions. And together with his wife, Elysha, created the organization, Speak Up, to help others share their stories. They also co-host the Speak Up storytelling podcast. Please welcome to the Inspiration Place, Matthew Dicks. Welcome back, Matthew.
Matthew Dicks (05:10):
It is a pleasure to be here again.
Miriam Schulman (05:13):
I have a quick question before we dive into today’s show. So you are a die-hard Patriots fan, Celtics fan, but you root for the Yankees.
Matthew Dicks (05:26):
Miriam Schulman (05:26):
Tell us about that.
Matthew Dicks (05:28):
Well, I grew up with a stepfather who was pretty awful, and he was a Red Sox fan. I grew up just outside of Boston and he loved the Red Sox. And I decided that one of the ways that I could irritate him was to root for the Yankees. And so when he would leave the room, I would turn the channel to 11, which was at the time the Yankees broadcast network. And you could get it on the UHF. And so he’d be watching the Red Sox game, I would flip it to the Yankees game. And in flipping it to the Yankees game, I sort of saw Don Mattingly, the first baseman in the 1980s, fell in love with that guy. He was amazing. And I became a Yankees fan, basically out of spite to make it difficult for my stepfather to live with me. It wasn’t easy growing up near Boston as a Yankees fan. You learn how to punch people really hard and you learn how to be punched really hard, but that’s how it happened.
Miriam Schulman (06:20):
I love it. Well for those who can’t see Matthew, he’s wearing his Yankees hat right now, but I think you mentioned it in one of your books. So if you tuned in last week, which I definitely suggest you go download that episode. There are so many gems in there, Someday Is Today. I read the book and then there were so many crazy stories in here and they’re so well told, I was like, oh, I have to read Storyworthy too. And I didn’t want to wait for it to arrive so I downloaded it to my Audible, which I actually have an obscene number of credits right now. I really should cancel it. So Storyworthy. Storyworthy, does the title have anything to do with Seinfeld episodes or no?
Matthew Dicks (07:01):
Miriam Schulman (07:03):
I’m thinking of sponge worthy.
Matthew Dicks (07:03):
It’s a phrase that I started using in terms of finding moments in your life that are worth telling other people. I think a lot of times people tell stories that don’t need to be told. And I think people’s lives are filled with stories that deserve to be told and they don’t actually recognize them. So I am obsessed with helping people find story-worthy moments in their lives so that they can connect and communicate in better ways.
Miriam Schulman (07:28):
Okay. So I’m going to say something really bold, Matthew. So I don’t say this too often, but I’ve read a lot of books on storytelling, and a lot of people I have interviewed on the podcast. For the artist in the audience, this is the number one book I have read on how to tell better stories and I’m not even finished with it yet. I think I have an hour left of it. I mean, you really are giving us a creative writing MFA of how to tell stories in one book, and in the way that artists need to tell stories about themselves because one of your philosophies is that the stories should be about you. So why don’t you start? Let’s start there. Why should the story be about you?
Matthew Dicks (08:13):
Well, one of the key components to a story is vulnerability. It’s the idea that the person who is speaking is going to say something that is deeply meaningful to them and will express perhaps something that they don’t typically express to the world. Those are sort of the best stories to tell. And you can’t be vulnerable in front of people if you’re talking about your grandmother, because it’s easy to talk about people who are not you. That is not a complicated process. It doesn’t demand you to reveal things that you might not normally reveal. And people are just not as interested.
If I said, “Let me tell you what happened to me yesterday in the store. You’re not going to believe it.” Or I say, “Let me tell you what happened to my friend in the store the other day. You’re not going to believe it.” It means more if it’s my story coming from me. If it’s a person you don’t know, or a person who’s not in the room, or a person you’ve never met before, it might be entertaining, but it’s not going to bring you any closer to me or to that person who I’m talking about. But if I tell a story about myself that contains some authenticity and vulnerability, when I’m done most of the time, you’re going to feel a little closer to me, I’m going to feel a little closer to you. And that is really one of the ultimate goals of storytelling.
Miriam Schulman (09:28):
That is so beautiful. Okay. Let’s talk about one of the things we ended the last show with, and that is really how to mine your life for the best stories.
Matthew Dicks (09:42):
Right. So I think the most important thing I teach anyone in the world is this process I call Homework For Life. It was born from the desire to continue to stand on stages and tell stories. I was getting worried early in my storytelling career that I’d run out of stories. And I didn’t want to be one of those storytellers who rolled out the same 12 chestnuts every time. You probably know someone like that, who every Thanksgiving, your uncle tells the same story, because he thinks he only has one. So what I did was I gave myself this homework assignment. As an elementary school teacher, I’m sort of inclined to assign homework. So more than 10 years ago, I decided at the end of every day, I’m going to ask myself, regardless of what kind of a day I just led, what is the most story worthy moment from that day?
The prompt I really use for myself is someone has kidnapped my family and they won’t give my family back until I stand on a stage and tell a story about something that took place over the course of this day. So even if it was the most boring day I have ever led in my life, still have to choose something. The most story worthy thing from the boring day to perform on stage. And then I write it down. I don’t write the whole thing down because that’s insanity. Those are journalers. Those are people who tend to write a lot. As soon as someone dumps them, and when they find love again, the journal tends to find its way back into the drawer. I like to create simple repeatable habits. I like to make it akin to brushing your teeth. It’s going to take that long to do so.
The way I record my stories is with an Excel spreadsheet, two columns. The left column has the date. And then I stretch that right column across the screen. And in that right column, that’s the only space I have to write my story. So I’m not capturing a whole story. I’m just capturing a moment from my day that was meaningful to me. And my goal was one new story per month, 12 stories over the course of a year. I thought that would’ve been fantastic. But what I discovered and what thousands and thousands of people have discovered who were doing it with me is that our lives are filled with story worthy moments. And we just either don’t see them because we’re not attuned to our lives because we’re thinking about everyone but ourselves. Or even more tragically, we see them. We take note of them. Maybe we tell one or two people and then we forget them.
And the best way to sort of acknowledge this is whoever you are take your age and subtract 12. So for me, I’m 50 subtract 12 I’m 38. How much can you tell me from that year of your life? For me, it would be my 38th year of life. For most people, they can go all the way around the sun and not have anything to say about it. Now, if they open up their calendar and they flip back or maybe if they had a baby that year or got a divorce, maybe they have a few things to say. But most of the time we allow our memories to be tossed away like trash, when they are our most precious commodities. They are the things that we use to connect to people and to feel good about our lives and to look back and feel like we’ve been somewhere and we’ve done something, and we’ve just tossed them away like they’re nothing.
So Homework For Life, doesn’t allow you to do it. It forces you to acknowledge that on this day, something happened that is worth recording. And what will happen over time, what I discovered and everyone else, I’m not a unicorn in this way everyone has discovered this, if you focus on yourself and you give yourself this chance to think about every day, you’ll start to see the stories that you have never seen before. And so most of my days now contain multiple entries, multiple things that I have deemed worthy of entering into my Homework For Life. Not everyone makes it onto the stage. About 10% of the things that I put into my Homework For Life ultimately becomes stories that I share with audiences. But I think the other 90% is just as precious. These are moments that mean something to me that I know would be gone forever if I do not record them now.
Miriam Schulman (13:38):
That is so beautiful. It really is.
Matthew Dicks (13:42):
The other wonderful thing that will happen is if you start doing this and you start becoming that introspective person, the memories you have left behind the ones that you tragically did not record, many of them will come back. I like to think that you crack yourself open and these things start to spill out and things you can’t believe you forgot will suddenly be there for you. And you can add those to your Homework For Life too.
Miriam Schulman (14:07):
Okay. And then you also have a way of brain dumping. Oh, I forget what the word is for when you crush it, there was some sort of story.
Matthew Dicks (14:19):
Oh yes. I know what you mean. It’s crash and burn.
Miriam Schulman (14:22):
That’s it, crash and burn.
Matthew Dicks (14:22):
Miriam Schulman (14:23):
So Matthew, the difference when I actually prefer reading physical books, especially when I’m going to be interviewing someone, because what I do is in the front, I will write down, oh, these are the things I want to talk about. When you’re listening, and usually when I’m listening to a book, I’m doing something else. I’m painting, I’m doing whatever, I’m walking. And then, so I’m more likely to forget what these things are. All right. So crash and burn. Tell us that is.
Matthew Dicks (14:51):
Well, people have probably done it before in school. They just, I don’t think they do it well. It’s sort of stream of consciousness writing. The problem that people have when they stream of conscious write though is when I engage in a crash and burn session, what I’m doing is I’m writing the first thing that comes into my mind. And I’m just writing it whether it’s silly or ridiculous or nonsensical. But what will happen as I begin the process is other ideas will suddenly appear. And what most people will do is they’ll pursue the first idea they had. Oh, I’m on a roll. I suddenly started writing about butterflies, and now I’m thinking about butterflies, and now I’m remembering a time I went to a butterfly garden, and then suddenly something will appear, another idea like the headlight of my car is broken. And they’ll push that away, because they’re on this roll with butterflies.
And I say, no, allow that new idea, the headlight that’s broken on your car to crash in, because you’ve got butterflies now. You’ve explored butterflies, and you can go back to that later when you’re not sort of stream of conscious. But while we’re in stream of conscious new ideas come crashing in all the time. It happens in dreams. When you’re dreaming and suddenly, I was in Hawaii and now I’m on Mars. How did that happen? Because when your brain is open and Mars crashes into Hawaii, your mind jumps to Mars. That’s what I want people to do when crash and burn.
So for five minutes or 10 minutes, you just write without any thought of what this could be or what direction we’re going in. And as soon as a new idea pops into your head, allow it to come in. Because it’s the ideas that are crashing into the idea that you started with that are often the ones that are unexpected, the ones that you never saw coming, the ones that are going to have some real meaning to you. It’s a simple practice. I do it almost every day. And almost every day it yields something that is worth holding onto.
Miriam Schulman (16:40):
Okay. Now there are things that are not worth holding onto, and we are now flipping back to your Someday Is Today book. And many of us, I was going to say, perseverative thinking tends to be something that plagues my audience more than the average person, simply because a lot of us are neurodivergent, we’re ADD, and when we get on a thought, we stay there. So a lot of what occupies, unfortunately, brain space are people who have wronged us.
Matthew Dicks (17:18):
Yeah. Terrible people.
Miriam Schulman (17:20):
And like West Elm who made me pay for the shipping on the chairs, or whatever. Okay. So what do you do about all that negative head space that you don’t want to remember? You have a great strategy for dealing with that.
Matthew Dicks (17:35):
Yeah. So I just think negative people in our lives kill us. They destroy our spirit and they really make our lives difficult. And so I sort of have four strategies that I use to deal with negative people. And based upon who they are and what they’re doing to us. The best way to handle a negative person is to forgive them for their negativity. And that’s a wonderful thing, if you can do it.
Miriam Schulman (17:35):
Matthew Dicks (17:59):
But we all know that’s not an easy thing to do.
Miriam Schulman (18:01):
Matthew Dicks (18:02):
Right. It is the preferred one. It’s the noble and ideal thing to do. And if you can do it, fantastic. But if you can’t, the second one I always say is to try empathy, which is, I’m not going to forgive you, but I’m going to try to understand why you are the way you are. Because if I can figure out that you’re treating me poorly because your marriage is a wreck, it may not hurt me anymore. I don’t have to forgive you for making my life difficult every day. But I now at least understand where it’s coming from, and I can understand it’s not personal. I can still be annoyed with you, but I understand what the problem is and I can have some empathy for you. And that often can solve the problem.
You can also eliminate people, which just means I’m not going to talk to this person anymore. That’s hard sometimes if it’s a family member, although I have eliminated family members from my life, because just because they’re related to me by blood doesn’t mean they’re terribleness needs to be in my life. But sometimes-
Miriam Schulman (18:56):
But they still occupy our head space even if they’re not in our physical space. So that’s why I-
Matthew Dicks (19:01):
… No, I mean eliminate, like I don’t talk to them anymore. They’re just-
Miriam Schulman (19:04):
You don’t ever think about how much you like that person?
Matthew Dicks (19:07):
Miriam Schulman (19:07):
No, they’re gone. They’re just gone for you.
Matthew Dicks (19:12):
Yeah. Well there was a guy we used to play golf with all the time, me and my buddies. And he was so annoying on the golf course because he was so angry and always sort of having a temper tantrum. We just stopped calling him. We eliminated him from our golf game and eliminated him ultimately from my life. I don’t see him anymore. And there’s nothing wrong with sort of making people go away if you can. I know it’s not the easiest thing to do. And it requires a difficult conversation sometimes, but that’s a great way to do it. But if all of those don’t work, then I use the enemies list.
Miriam Schulman (19:41):
Matthew Dicks (19:42):
And the enemies list is the idea that there are just people who have hurt us, and we want to get them back or we can’t let it go, one or the other. We can’t let it go, or we do need to sort of get our comeuppance, our revenge. But because they’re in our heads, they’re interfering with the work we want to do. And so I create an enemies list. Right now it has eight people on it or eight entities. Some of them are organizations, some of them are people. And by taking someone who has wronged me terribly, someone who I really feel like I’ve got to make your life is miserable someday as you made mine, when I offload that person onto the enemy’s list, I’m able to think, okay, I don’t have to worry about it anymore, because I’m not going to forget that they need to be ruined someday, but they don’t need to be in my head anymore. They can go and they can live on a list which exists on my phone. And now I can move on with my life.
And just recently I had a person on my enemy’s list, come to me and say, “I did a really terrible thing to you five years ago and I really regret it. And I need to tell you I’m sorry.” And miraculously that person, who I hadn’t given a lot of thought to because she was on my enemy’s list, she moved from enemies list to forgiveness, which really that doesn’t happen very often. But that happened for me. Other people had been on my enemy’s list and I finally got them back. Like, that person did a terrible thing to my wife. I need to make sure that they somehow suffer as a result. And then one day at a party, I did a thing that made them feel exceptionally uncomfortable and awful. And I went, “Okay, now we’re even. I can cross you off my enemies list.”
Miriam Schulman (21:20):
Yeah. And let’s just be clear-
Matthew Dicks (21:21):
It’s the idea that we offload the negativity onto a list.
Miriam Schulman (21:23):
… I just want to be clear that Matthew is not a serial killer plotting death on anybody. The revenge could be as simple as he is more successful than they are in ways that make them, I don’t know.
Matthew Dicks (21:38):
Miriam Schulman (21:38):
It does not have to-
Matthew Dicks (21:38):
Well, sometimes you can watch your enemies sort of just flounder and fail in life and then you can go, okay, I’m good now because karma got you. So now I’m not even worried about you anymore. And then you just come off. My therapist actually really loves my enemy’s list. He said it really makes a lot of sense because it’s just offloading baggage onto something else. So it’s not here anymore in our heads. It’s on a piece of paper, and I really can disconnect then and leave it over there and know it’s there. It’s waiting for me, but now I can be more productive in my own head. So yeah, it works really well for me. It’s worked well for many, many people.
Miriam Schulman (22:14):
I’ve always said that, not just with enemies, but anything that is plaguing you, that’s a thought that you’re thinking over and over again. Even if you just write it down, it doesn’t have to be in a specific place. It does a powerful thing that your brain recognizes, oh, okay. She wrote it down. We’ll get to it later. And it’s very similar to what Dumbledore did in the Harry Potter movies where he’s using the Pensieve and pulling those thoughts out and those silvery threads and not letting it take up head space anymore, taking it out of your head. So that’s why I really liked the enemy’s list, because I thought that was a powerful strategy that would really work for me and other people.
Matthew Dicks (22:52):
Yeah. And Dumbledore’s Pensieve is a lot like Homework For Life too.
Miriam Schulman (22:52):
Matthew Dicks (22:56):
Which is I’m going to hold onto those memories and put them somewhere so that they’re not lost and I can use them later.
Miriam Schulman (23:01):
Yes. Okay. And speaking of yes. All right. So in Someday Is Today we learned that you live life with a yes-and mentality. However, now we’re getting back to writing, when you write, you’re not writing with a yes-and. You are writing with a but or therefore philosophy. So for those who haven’t read your books, could you explain the first and then the second, the things that I just presented?
Matthew Dicks (23:32):
No one’s ever combined philosophies from two books into one question. That was pretty remarkable. So the yes idea is, well, it’s very popular today to hear people say, you have to learn how to say no to protect yourself, preserve your time, preserve your head space. And I think that’s a terrible bit of advice. I think that we don’t have a lot of opportunities given to us in our lives. I think that a door is presented to us and we have a chance to walk through it or to say no. And I think what most people say is, only choose the doors that you think are best for you. And I say, “Choose all the doors.” Because a yes can always be turned into a no. If you step through the door and you explore an opportunity and you then decide it’s not for me, you can just close the door and walk away from it.
But if you never step through the door, you never know what you’re going to miss. The yeses that I have said in my life, the ones that I should not have said, the ones that I thought, “I don’t want to do that, it sounds terrible. There’s no reason why I should want to do it. It’s never interested me before.” Yes. Those are the ones that have yielded truly the most productive, remarkable, extraordinary results. But when we sort of think we know what’s best for us, that is enormous hubris. That is the idea that, I understand the whole world and I know what’s best for me. No you don’t. We have no idea what the world might offer to you. And there’s going to come a time in our lives, all of us, when people aren’t asking us to do things anymore, where those doors are fewer and far between.
So when you have doors presented to you, when someone says, do you want to do this thing? Whether it is, do you want to learn how to play pickle ball? Or do you want to write an epic poem with me? Or do you want to learn how to stain glass? If none of those things appeal to you, you should still say, yes. You should go try each one of those things and you give them an honest effort. And if you don’t like them, then you can say pickleball is stupid. Epic poems don’t get read by anybody. And stained glass goes on church windows and I don’t like to attend church. So none of those things are for me, but at least you gave them a shot.
Miriam Schulman (25:42):
Okay. So we are running out of time once again, but not things to talk about. So I am going to leave our listeners with, if they want to hear more, they want to learn what the compliment sandwich is, why you should be a criminal, and what the burglar bag is I suggest you get Matthew’s book, Someday Is Today. We’ve included all the links in the show notes, which you’ll find over at 204. And don’t forget if you’re looking for help learning how to sell your art, or you need a kick in the ass or more accountability than the artist incubator might be for you. To see if you qualify head on over to Schulmanart.com/biz, as in the letters B-I-Z. All right, Matthew, do you have any last words for our listeners before we call this podcast complete?
Matthew Dicks (26:36):
I think that the best thing you can do to become a storyteller is to be a better listener. I think that we tend to fill a lot of space with our own words. And so a policy that I have whenever I enter a space, particularly because I’m a white straight American man who feels like the world bends to him at all times anyway, what I have sort of trained myself to do is to try to be the last person to speak in every room that I enter. That forces me to be a listener. It forces me to afford space to other people who might not normally have that space or feel like they can take that space. And it also informs me better so that when I finally open my mouth and I say something, I might say something slightly more meaningful because I’ve learned a little bit about the people in the room. And when it comes time for me to share something, I’m more likely to share something of value.
So if you can just find a way to be a slightly better listener than you are now, you’ll make the world a better place. You’ll make other people be heard in a way they are not being heard now. And ultimately you will become a better storyteller because storytellers are listeners of stories. So try that practice, try to be the last person to speak in every room you enter. And I think you’ll find it’s really helpful in terms of just being a better communicator and a better person.
Miriam Schulman (27:51):
All right, Matthew. Well, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Matthew Dicks (27:54):
Thank you. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
Miriam Schulman (27:57):
Okay. So thanks everyone for listening. We’ll see you same time, same place next week. Until then stay inspired.
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