Unraveling the Connective Tissue of Storytelling at Burning Man

The Significance of Connecting the Burning Man Experience Through Our Stories

Is there a connective tissue among the stories that have arisen from the multiverse of the Burning Man Experience?

Let’s call the Burning Man Experience ‘BMX’ for short. Identifying, defining, clarifying and bringing this connective tissue to the surface may allow us to have more intentionality and directionality in the way we shape our individual BMXs into those nuggets of stories that build the tapestry which connects us all. Because this tapestry has become multi-varied and incommensurable, creating a container for our interwoven stories, it may be a great way to shape our collective journeys and identities into a more congruent and coherent whole. Once we have created this story container, the sharing of our stories may contribute more effectively to our community’s evolution and, ultimately, to the transformation of the world. 

Bringing the BMX Connective Tissue to the Surface

How do we bring the BMX connective tissue to the surface? How do we identify it? Is it a thread? Are there many threads? How do we shed light on them? How do we choose a focus, an intention, a direction? Who decides? Before answering these questions, it makes sense to take a look at what has already been written about storytelling frameworks, plots, templates, and techniques. These are basic models that we can use to deconstruct any story and shape new ones. 

The Seven Basic Plots 

A classic story framework is the one provided by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004). These seven plots are found in most cultures, and they are:

  • Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) that threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

  • Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

  • The Quest: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or reach a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

  • Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.

  • Comedy: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker stresses that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.

  • Tragedy: The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake, which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.

  • Rebirth: An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better individual.

Most stories around the world fit into one of these plot categories. It is useful to have them available in our minds as we look at the structure of our own stories in our respective Burning Man experiences. There are other story framework models, but most of them refer back to the seven basic plots, in one way or another. 

Eight Engaging Storytelling Techniques 

Another way to look at storytelling is to consider the way we actually structure our stories for verbal delivery, for a presentation or a speech. This adds another layer of complexity to this process. The Sparkol website describes eight classic storytelling techniques for engaging presentations. Each technique carries a different intention, therefore accomplishing a different result. The summary table below names each technique and summarizes its intention. (Refer back to the article linked in this paragraph to read detailed descriptions and see some video examples.)

These eight techniques will allow us to establish an intention for our story, which will likely fit with at least one of the seven basic plots described earlier. 

Transformation as Our Story Container

Now we almost have our storytelling container into which we can pour our BMX stories. We still need to identify the connective tissue underneath the ocean of stories that shape our community. In order to do so, we would need to collect thousands of stories and analyze them. Fortunately, this work is already in progress. Burning Stories, lead by burner and researcher Dr. Jukka-Pekka Heikkilä from Aalto University in Finland, has been collecting these stories since 2015:

The aim of Burning Stories is to study the global Burning Man community and, in particular, the participants of Black Rock City. We seek to explain the processes through which community membership of Burning Man participants evolves across time and space, and how this, in turn, affects their experience of the collective Burning Man identity. There is a very limited understanding of how Burning Man’s immersive experiences transform individuals, let alone society. That is precisely what we aim to find out with this project.

Based on how Heikkilä describes Burning Stories, and based on what most Burners say about their BMX, transformation seems to be at the core of it. Other researchers collected data on Burners’ transformative experiences and shared their initial results in 2016. They said:

…almost 20% of people said they “absolutely” had a transformative experience at Burning Man, and more than 75% of people said they had an at least “somewhat” transformative experience. … Furthermore, over 85% of people said the change they experienced was “still persisting” during the days and weeks after leaving the playa…

Our connective tissue seems to be the BMX as a transformative experience that impacts the ‘default world’. We can now plug in any theme that surfaces in this context of transformation, and choose a plot and/or a technique that best fits our personal story. Some BMX themes to consider could be love, leadership, connection, perception, collaboration, or any of the 10 Principles.

A Perfect Example 

An Arctica manager — school teacher in the default world — inspires volunteers every year to come back and continue to volunteer at Arctica in Black Rock City. She is able to continually assess volunteers and place them in roles where they feel most successful. Volunteers feel that they grow and learn, have fun, and are part of a community that supports them. Because of this record with very low volunteer attrition, this manager is scouted by a company looking for someone who can do the same in a large event company. She accepts the job offer, which not only means a lot more money for her, it also allows her to redefine leadership and workforce development in the default world by introducing a sense of community and identity into her new supervisees at this company.

This story seems to be about leadership, and fits nicely with the Voyage and Return plot, as the individual in this example has spent time on a strange land (Black Rock City) and returned with pearls of wisdom. In terms of the techniques she used when telling me her story, she started with her work at Arctica and how she worked with her volunteers. She told me about her philosophy and how her main goal was getting Arctica volunteers to have so much fun that they want to come back again the following year. After that, she told me about her life as a school teacher and how her BMX helped her get this new position as a program events manager in a big company. Whether or not she knew it, her story is an example of the In Media Res technique, where the audience is dropped into the most exciting part of the story, in this case the Arctica manager’s work with volunteers in Black Rock City.

Finally, there is a key difference between telling stories and storytelling: 

To be a storyteller instead of someone who tells stories, your story does not have to be grotesque, grandiose, or sophisticated. It has to be your authentic truth.
Moriah Kofsky, The Difference Between Telling Stories And Storytelling

Without authenticity and without leaving the ego behind there is no story to tell. 🔥


(Cover photo by photographer Philip Safarik features Baba Yaga’s house at Burning Man, 2018)

About the author: Gustavo Campos

Gustavo Campos

Gustavo is the Education Project Manager for Burning Man Project and has a Bachelor's degree in social anthropology, and a Master's in both human development and instructional design. In his previous life, Gustavo worked as a trainer for Public Health and Human Services organizations and helped professors build courses at UC Berkeley. He has helped to launch Burning Man Hive, designed and produced online courses therein, and he currently supports learning design projects at Burning Man Project.

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