This is a recap. This is not an insightful analysis. You said on Facebook and in my inbox that you wanted to know why I went and what it was and what sessions I attended and what my takeaways were. You got ’em.
My college roommate Rebekah told me about Story Chicago years ago–before I started blogging–and we agreed we’d go together one day.
Then I started a blog and met all these cool people on the internet who talked a lot about some conference in Chicago.
Those two worlds collided last week when I attended Story Chicago, a conference for Christian creatives that founder Ben Arment describes as “fuel for the creative class.” It’s a place to connect and learn and be inspired. This year’s theme was “a sense of place.”
Rebekah and I got into Chicago Wednesday afternoon, which gave us enough time to get settled in our digs, meet up with another college friend, and have dinner with some awesome people of the internet before the conference began.
The sessions and my takeaways
Opening night took place in an old cathedral. They wowed us with a really cool visual display (imagine a thunderstorm on the cathedral ceiling) and then showed the Sundance award-winning documentary Blood Brother.
Thursday night’s ceilings
Nashville band Paper Route opened Thurday morning’s session at the House of Blues, then Ben Arment spoke on fear and failure and what it means to entrepreneurs and creative types. (Takeaway: you can never recover that which you never tried.)
After that, beatboxer Tom Thum took the stage and blew everybody away.
A short routine he did at Story Chicago begins at 8:45. (The trombone bit is my favorite.)
Thum said an average beatboxer imitates other beatboxers’ sounds, a good one will imitate and build upon others’ work, an amazing beatboxer creates his own noises. But the best of class do all three: they imitate, build upon, and create their own sounds. Takeaway: so many implications for creatives in every field.
Howard Lichter and Dennie Wendt of Nike spoke next on “what we talk about when we talk about Nike.” While I was a little ambivalent about some of their ads, they articulated some good stuff: You say obsessed like it’s a bad thing. Maturity is overrated. You are what you start. Yes.
Rebekah had a personal connection to the next speaker, Scott Harrison of Charity Water, and her enthusiasm was contagious. When Rebekah adopted her son Eli from Ethiopia, he had a belly full of parasites because of the pond water he drank there. When he was baptized in 2011, they collected donations for Charity Water in lieu of gifts.
Harrison spoke about Charity Water’s origins and its dual mission to solve the water crisis in his lifetime and to reinvent giving. Those goals are completely audacious, but actually doable.
I was floored by how they’re harnessing technology show people exactly what their donations are going for, and where. (Examples: you can see where your donation is being used via GPS. If your money goes towards purchasing a drilling rig you can follow the rig on twitter. Twitter!)
Harrison quoted Nick Kristoff, who said, “Toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication that all the world’s life-saving causes,” but Charity Water’s campaigns are nothing if not emotionally intelligent.
Rebekah and I attended the photography and design break out session in the afternoon, held in the gorgeous Ivy Room.
I didn’t recognize Chuck Anderson’s name, but I recognized his work. (While he was showing us his portfolio, Rebekah leaned over and said, “We have those folders!”) He based his talk on a great Charlie Parker quote: “Master the instrument, master the music, then forget that s— and play.”
Anderson loved taking pictures as a kid, but he grew up in the Chicago suburbs, which he said made for really boring pictures. So he’d load them into photoshop and play with effects to make them interesting. He did this for years, learning the skills, honing his style.
He also tossed out a quip I loved: “Side projects are the new resumé.” Exactly.
Brooke Shaden’s photography on the cover of the conference guide
Brooke Shaden spoke next about her work as a fine art photographer. She creates surreal photos that resemble paintings in a style she describes as “creepy.” (Yep. Some are cringe-worthy and some are gorgeous, but they’re all definitely creepy.) She described her creative process (careful planning, plus a ton of photoshop) and how she got started (with self-portraits, a 10-second timer, and a $5/shoot budget).
While Brooke was showing us examples of her work, she offhandedly mentioned that she’d spent forty hours in Photoshop to get the result she wanted. I was stunned. I know intellectually that her style of photography requires hard work, but I never would have dreamed a single photo would have taken her–an experienced artist–40 hours post-production. That one comment was so encouraging to me.
at the House of Blues
Thursday night Kristin and Ed organized a dinner that gathered writers attending Story plus Chicago-area writers and it was easily one of the highlights of the week, and definitely my fastest two hours of the conference. I got to meet twitter friends and a few longtime readers.
Thursday night was a concert back at the cathedral and more crazy ceiling displays.
Drew and Ellie Holcomb opened Friday morning back at the House of Blues. I’ve been listening to their album Passenger Seat on morning runs so I was ready for them. They were good, y’all. (They have two free downloads on NoiseTrade right now–go get ’em.)
Gillian Farabee of Cirque du Soleil Media presented next, and I didn’t think I cared about her company but I was hooked from the second she described dance as nonverbal storytelling. She articulated things I’d never considered about the value of entertainment as an experience, and what is necessary in order to do it well. (Create believable magic. Layer the senses. And never forget the importance of absurdity.)
Alexander Chen of Google Media labs spoke next about his work on transforming something inherently visual–like a doodle–into something musical. At mta.me (pictured above), he explores what an old NYC subway map “sounds” like as every departing train becomes a member of the orchestra. (It’s my kids’ new favorite website.)
Chen is a huge fan of testing new ideas by creating bare bones prototypes (sometimes called minimum viable products in startup land).
I won’t know for months what my enduring takeaways from the conference will be, but those are my first impressions from the event.
A few thoughts
I know I said this wasn’t a critique, so I’m going to keep this part brief. This year Story Chicago was structured very differently than it has been in years past. What I kept hearing was, “It was better last year.” I had a great experience and I’m definitely glad I went, but that was a little discouraging.
This year’s conference suffered seemed to suffer from a lack of framing. I think it’s important to put things in perspective, but it lacked the intros and outros that could have provided that. And I was surprised there wasn’t a wrap-up talk to close the weekend–not even a 5-minute one.
I was also very surprised at how few opportunities I had to interact with the people I didn’t set out to meet. There was no opportunity for that kind of serendipity, no common space to just bump into the other attendees. Which is a shame, because I would expect Story to gather an interesting crowd.
Finally, I wish the presenters had been more diverse. I believe that’s important, and was disappointed that only one woman presented on the main stage.
Those are my caveats, but I thought it was all in all a good event, and one I’d return to.
Have you ever been to an event like Story Chicago (or Story itself)? Would you ever consider going to something like this?