Over the last year I have seen the name Keith Ecker appear in reading series line-ups, press release and all over the interwebs. He is the host of Essay Fiesta and a founding member of the Chicago Story Collective. He is a talented writer, a fine storyteller, and an increasingly relevant mover and shaker in the Chicago scene. Recently Keith was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Chicago Subtext (CS): Essay Fiesta is one of the more popular series in town, where did the idea come from to create this type of reading series?
Keith Ecker (KE): I studied journalism at the University of Missouri. My favorite pieces to write were personal essays and profiles. I just love reading and writing about people’s lives. I then moved to Chicago and did stand-up comedy for a few years. I realized that stand-up, the best stand-up, incorporates the same principles as a good personal essay. It conveys the speaker’s unique point of view, it’s honest and there’s a high degree of vulnerability. I thought I could take the writing style of a journalistic personal essay and combine it with the flare of a stand-up show. What resulted was Essay Fiesta.
CS: Storytelling is becoming an increasing relevant player in the literary landscape with several series here in town, but also on a national scale with The Moth, Risk, and so on, Why do feel storytelling is gaining in popularity the way that it is?
KE: I could say we’re all voyeurs, that storytelling is popular for the same reasons that have made reality television popular. But I don’t think that’s true. Sharing our experiences helps foster a deep-rooted understanding between individuals, which in turn serves to minimize the constant existential pain of loneliness we all sub-conciously feel. And who doesn’t love casting off existential pain? If I tell a story about how my dad forced me to play baseball and how I submitted because I wanted to make him proud, that’s something that strikes at the core of the human experience. After all, we all know what it’s like to sacrifice our happiness to please someone else. That’s what storytelling is all about. Getting in touch with the universal through individual experience.
CS: In what ways do you feel storytelling differs from stand-up comedy? For me, at times, it feels like a more engaging form of comedy when done well.
KE: In stand-up, the joke is the point. In storytelling, the story is the point. Humor serves a secondary function in storytelling, a function that engages the audience and encourages them to keep listening. Stand-up also often lacks the raw vulnerability of an essay. Clever turns of irony are used in stand-up to subtly convey the truth whereas essays peel back the jokes and just convey the truth. I think it’s that rawness of a story and the vulnerability of the storyteller that can make essays more engaging than stand-up. However, the best stand-up is just as vulnerable. Ellen Degeneres and her “phone call to God” bit is a prime example of that.
CS: You recently posted your predictions for the future of Publishing, and some of your points seem to be leading towards a method that will allow storyteller to be published. Do you feel that inactive print editions of The Moth or story slams may be possible if they combine audio, print and visuals?
KE: First, thanks for reading my blog. Second, publishing is going through an amazing revolution right now. If you’re not looking at electronic publishing, then you’re going to be left in the dust. There are exceptions to this. Publishers like McSweeney’s and Featherproof Books have the right idea when it come to publishing “tree books.” Their products are a work of art unto themselves, which means there’s more value then just the content inside. But yes, storytelling will invade the electronic space. It already is. Check out Atavist.net. I was actually looking at creating an iTunes-like store for personal essays. Unfortunately, after conducting hours of research, I realized the entry into the market is just too cost prohibitive for me. However, if anyone has a ton of money sitting around, let me know. I’d be glad to put it toward my idea.
CS: You are in the continuous processes of redefining who you are as a writer and transitioning from improv to writer. How has your approach to writing and cultivating ideas changed since making that transition?
KE: Approaching comedy is like trying to conceive a sentence. It’s short and conveys a single point. Approaching essay writing is like trying to conceive a paragraph. It’s broad and conveys a moment or an era, which in turn serves to represent a point. Joke writing for me has always come naturally for whatever reason. Essay writing is more difficult. It forces me to really reflect on my life and sometimes face certain truths I don’t want to face. I call it self-therapy. Comedy is also therapeutic, but it’s like punching a punching bag. A quick release of adrenaline, something that pacifies the symptoms. Essay writing gets to the nexus of your problems.
CS: What do you like most about be a part of the Chicago literary scene?
KE: I love everything about it! It’s so eclectic. From the poets to the fiction writers to the essayists. I love the live performance element. There’s a bajillion reading/poetry series out there now. And I’m all for it. It just goes to show that this is a form of entertainment that people want to see. I love the independent publishers and self-published authors who are side-stepping the legacy publishing world and carving a new frontier. And I love the let-do-this-together attitude. Everyone I know helps promote each other. Essay Fiesta always welcomes talent from other reading series. We also recently promoted Knee-Jerk Magazine’s essay contest in our newsletter and This Much Is True’s collaboration with STEEP Theatre on our blog. It’s totally a love puddle.
CS: What’s next for Keith Ecker?
KE: I have a huge project on the horizon. In fact, this is the first time I’m mentioning it in print. I’m starting my own marketing agency. Hungry Eyes Marketing will cater specifically to self, small and mid-size publishers. The agency will offer a wide variety of services, including publicity, social marketing, promotional videos, graphic design and event planning, among others. I’ll be looking to partner with authors and publishers from all over the country. I have a lot of experience in this arena, and I will be joining forces with some very talented writers, videographers and designers as well. To get off the ground, I’ll be offering my services at a dramatically reduced rate to the first several clients. Your readers should definitely get in touch with me if they’re interested in learning more.