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Northwestern Storytellers Discuss Their Art

Dumas Domain Dinner features writers and producers from a variety of disciplines

“In the end, understanding the world through the eyes of others is absolutely essential to a good narrative. ” – Alex Kotlowitz
EVANSTON, Ill.  -- In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion, five of Northwestern University’s top storytellers discussed their craft and creative process during the recent Lawrence B. Dumas Domain Dinner “Storytelling Across Media.”

Organized and moderated by screenwriter David Tolchinsky, the writers discussed everything from why beginning a story is like “trying to get through a series of closed doors” to how writing can change the world.

The event drew more than 100 Northwestern faculty members from both the Chicago and Evanston campuses. In addition to Tolchinsky, the award-winning panel featured playwright Rebecca Gilman, documentary filmmaker Debra Tolchinsky, author Stuart Dybek and journalist/non-fiction author Alex Kotlowitz.

Domain Dinners, which are designed to inspire thoughtful interdisciplinary discussions, have been hosted by the Provost and Office of Administration and Planning since 1989. Prior dinners have included topics ranging from "The Possibilities of Big Data" to "The Future of Healthcare." Here's how to submit a proposal.

Excerpts from the lively discussion follow:

On beginning:

Screenwriter David Tolchinsky: “Finding out the story is like trying to get through a series of closed doors.  I only know so much about my story when I start, and I have to push against what I imagine to be closed doors to get to the next part.”

Playwright Rebecca Gilman: “What is your inciting incident? What’s the thing that gets your story going? I always use Hamlet. The inciting incident is his father’s murder.  Everything follows from that.”

Journalist/author Alex Kotlowitz: “I’m dealing with the authenticity of people’s lives, and so I'm both liberated and constrained by just that, that what I write must be genuine, it must be real, it must be grounded in fact, which I know sounds rather prosaic.  But that's the challenge to somehow make literature out of facts. For me, chronology is a comfort.”

On conflict:

Documentarian Debra Tolchinsky: “There has to be friction. Conflict in a visual medium is not necessarily two characters or two organizations butting heads. It’s often visual or sonic. So it could be shallow space versus deep space or loud sound versus soft sound. It’s often the way these elements intersect that creates conflict.”

On empathy:

Alex Kotlowitz: “In the end, understanding the world through the eyes of others is absolutely essential to a good narrative. Empathy is the centripetal force of storytelling.”

On ethics:

Rebecca Gilman: “I tend to write plays that include enough social issues so that people can have a constructive conversation. Sometimes I look at work that’s apolitical or there for entertainment or commercial value, and I feel that if it’s not asking difficult questions about the way the world is run, then there is something unethical about that work. It either enables or endorses the status quo and contributes to a cultural hegemony that can be very bad for people.  Apolitical work in fact makes a political statement. It says, ‘the world is OK as it is, and I hope it stays that way.’”

On the power of storytelling:

Poet/fiction writer Stuart Dybek: “The power of stories is that they can push people to think about themselves and the world a little bit differently. If it leads to change, great. A story reaches places you wouldn’t go otherwise. It introduces us to people we wouldn’t meet and ideas we otherwise might not have thought about.”

Alex Kotlowitz: “I'm modest in my ambitions as a storyteller. I hope that the stories I choose to tell will get people to look at themselves and the world just a little bit differently. And if I'm lucky maybe it'll get people to act. In the end, what drives me is the simple notion that life ought to be fair.”

On different storytelling mediums:

Stuart Dybek: “The medium I learned a lot from is music. (On this panel) we’ve got nonfiction, poetry and four ways to write. Each one is in a different mode, a signature mode. Expository, lyrical, the narrative, the dramatic. Yet when someone writes a poem or a story or a piece of fiction or a play, all those different modes from all those different mediums are actually working in the same piece. And that’s one way you can find enormous richness in different kinds of stories. I’d like to bring something beautiful into the world. I feel very close to poetry.”

David Tolchinsky: “We screenwriters capture moments of conflict or change, that we then visualize in a way that is immediate and memorable. So in a sense, we screenwriters are writing graphic novels – but the pictures are drawn with very simple words.”

On why they write:

Debra Tolchinsky: “Of course you want to impact the world and that’s great. But I think more about how I change myself. When you’re doing this work, it changes you. When you’re able to deeply immerse yourself in something or understand somebody differently, you completely do a 180 in how you look at something by the time you’re done. And that becomes significant. I guess changing yourself is changing the world.”

David Tolchinsky: “For me, writing is about dark dreams and working things through. It could be my childhood or an aspect of my personality, and I’m just intrigued and I can’t stop thinking about it.  It’s like a disease I’m trying to rid myself of.  Similarly, I think about my characters as being diseased, and by the end of the story – if all goes right – they’re healthy.”

Rebecca Gilman: “I write in the style of Naturalism which says we behave in the way we do for very particular reasons. If we want to have better lives and treat one another better, we need to change the environmental factors that determine our behaviors. That means we have to look at society as a whole. Figure out what we’re doing wrong and try to do something different.”

Alex Kotlowitz: “I look for intimate, personal stories.  The smaller the story, the more powerful. The stories I tell, often about those on the bottom, I hope push us to reflect on the fissures in the landscape. People don't like to be lectured to or pandered to, and hence the power of story. It lets you find your own way.”

About the participants:

  • Screenwriter David Tolchinsky is a professor, and chair of the department of radio/television/film in the School of Communication. Tolchinsky also is director of the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage. His latest work looks at health and illness in the modern world.
  • Playwright Rebecca Gilman is a professor of radio/television/film and a core faculty member in Writing for the Screen and Stage.   She also is an artistic associate at the Goodman Theater. Her newest play “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976,” will receive its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theater in June.
  • Documentarian Debra Tolchinsky is associate professor of radio/television/film and the founder and director of the MFA in Documentary Media program in the School of Communication. Her work has been seen at the Sundance Film Festival, The John F. Kennedy Center, the Gene Siskel film center and other venues.
  • Poet and writer Stuart Dybek is a distinguished writer-in-residence and visiting professor of English in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the author of five books of fiction and two poetry books. His latest work, “The Selected Stories of Stuart Dybek,” will be published this year.
  • Journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz is a senior lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Kotlowitz also is writer-in-residence at the Center for the Writing Arts. Kotlowitz is the author of “Never a City So Real,” “The Other Side of the River” and the national bestseller “There Are No Children Here,” selected as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century.

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