WELD Artist of the Week: Matt Knisely

Career: Visual Storyteller
Website: MattKnisely.com
Mantra:  Stories are the equipment for life.
Interview by: Kristin Read

The Art of Storytelling with Matt Knisely.

In the last 16 years, I’ve had the privilege of telling over 5,980 stories. Some of those stories propelled from the television antenna into the homes of thousands while others were transmitted via the Internet or live audience. Every story mattered. And as my obsession with story grew, I realized the stories I was ruthlessly telling began to shape my own. It’s the sum of all experiences. And the ten years spent in television production became a chapter of my story. A chapter that has transformed me into the storyteller I am today.

Here’s what I’ve learned . . .

Stories Aren’t Limited to Outlets.

Four years ago, I started painting again for the first time since college. Three years ago, I started doing still work for photographers. One year ago, I started writing. I’ve learned that story can come in so many different facets. That’s why it’s so appealing to me. It doesn’t have to be niched to an image—it can be text, film, script, paint, and/or a conversation. And that’s why it’s so powerful.

Silence Offers Gold.

When interviewing someone, your subject will reach a point where they feel like they’ve given you everything. If they’re silent, ask more “why” questions, or sit and wait. That’s when the best part of a person’s story surfaces. Otherwise, we naturally tend to share these surface level stories. When in reality, the best stories are in the abyss of what makes us up—you just have to be willing to listen through the other layers to find it. Before sitting with someone in front of a camera, I normally sit with him or her to enjoy a cup of coffee. And I listen. That way when I press record, I remember the one line someone shared over coffee but won’t say in front of a camera, and I can ask a question that elicits the response they shared with me prior. Taking the time to listen pre-camera rolling allows the story to unfold on film.

Outside of that, I try to be very empathetic to every story I share. I spend time trying to understand and crawl into that story to figure out how it relates to others—fiction or nonfiction. In order to do that, I spend a lot of time in what feels like a dark room, researching every nook and cranny about that particular subject or topic. I want to have a firm understanding of the problem being conveyed, so that I know how to present the solution, and get people involved.

Honor Each Story.

Every story has its purpose. Stories can save us. The purpose of sharing them should not be to give someone their fifteen minutes of fame, but to honor them by giving their story the light it deserves. Once it’s captured, do everything possible to make sure it looks and is communicated beautifully, because it’s a part of your subject. It’s like groups of people that take trips abroad snapping a million photos—Because of their disconnect from the entirety of the story, it becomes canon-fodder. It becomes dysfunction. The truth is cheapened. But shared authentically it becomes beautiful art.

Balance Strategy and Passion.

I approach a story with a utopian mindset—with the best-case scenario in mind, yet fully prepared for Murphy’s Law to rear its head at any point. That way, the rest is just constellation, and I’m ready for it. Doing so allows my subjects to share a piece of information that can and/or will drastically change the story, and I’m able to roll with it. Instead of keeping a systematic process in mind—this plus this will equal that, I allow my utopian mindset to carry the story, and this plus that will equal whatever it needs to be.  Two plus two CAN equal six.

I also try not to get so attached to a story that I get lost in it. That’s dangerous.  There should be a very clear line between me telling the story and my living it. Historically, if I had allowed myself to get too emotionally entangled, I would have skewed the story from my own biased opinion and involvement (A perfect example of this would have been my reporting of the D.C. sniper for ABC news, back in early 2000). My compassion cannot interfere with my objectivity.

Create For The Sake of Creation.

Over the years I’ve learned that I cannot create, or find fulfillment in my work, when I’m creating for others. I have to create for the pure joy of creation. So I advise other creatives to create from your gut, be satisfied, and rest in that.

Take Emily Dickenson for example; before she was ever a well-known poet, her work was overlooked. After faithfully writing short stories and poems every night, she eventually took them to a publishing house, which wanted to change her words to make them marketable. She said no. The way they were written is the way that they were intended. So she hid them in a box under her bed. It wasn’t until her passing that the book was discovered, her work published as-is, and she is now an American legend. She created from within, and insisted it was as it should be—Regardless if her culture was ready to receive it.

Seek Balance.

I went to college wanting to be a marine biologist, because I was too obsessed with stories. It felt destructive. I was a hoarder of moments. It’s not like what you see on television where plastic cups line the walls of someone’s home, but then and now, I walk around with devices and notepads in hand, constantly thinking, listening, and collecting ideas . . . And doing so chews up the moments right in front of me. If, as a storyteller, you’re so wrapped up in the stories of others that you miss your own, you’re missing out on a lot. Don’t lose your own moments.

As creatives, we must create because we can. We have a responsibility to our passion, our craft, our story, and the stories of others that we must fulfill. If we’re creating for man or chasing recognition from others, we’re doing our art a disservice. We’re doing a disservice to others. We’re not allowing the story within us to unfold. And stories are one of the few things left in this world that we cannot mechanically create. We cannot homogenize them. They deserve to be told correctly. And we have an obligation to share them.

“The shortest distance between two people
is a well-told story.”
— Matt Knisely

Doug Klembara