I told a story on Wednesday night at The Moth’s StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York City. The theme of the night was Secrets. I was lucky enough to win with a childhood story about discovering that Santa Claus wasn’t real (and uncovering an even worse secret as a result).
Here are some thoughts from the night:
1. I have been fortunate enough to win 11 Moth StorySLAMs since 2012. It never gets any less exciting to win, even knowing that so many factors (in addition to your actual performance) play a role in determining who finishes first.
Winning requires a great deal of luck.
Even so, it’s always a thrill.
That said, it’s also a little bit disappointing when my wife is not in the audience when I win, as was the case on Wednesday night. I went to the slam alone, and though I have many Moth friends to keep me company, it’s never the same when she’s not by my side.
2. Two storytellers approached me after the show to comment on the double arc in my story. I was aware of the double arc (and was worried that it might confuse the audience) but had no idea that anyone else would notice. It’s incredible to be around people who understand your craft at least as well as you do and probably better.
3. At the end of a StorySLAM, before the final scores are announced, the storytellers whose names weren’t drawn from the hat take the stage and tell the first line of their story. I hate this part because I always hear amazing opening lines that make me want to hear the rest of their stories, as was the case on Wednesday night. I’m still thinking of Nathaniel Bates’ opening line and wishing that I had heard his story (and relieved that I didn’t have to compete against it).
4. I almost never have a great first line to a story. I usually open my story with my age at the time of the story and my location. I think it’s important to ground the audience in your experience as quickly as possible. Let them begin to formulate images in their mind immediately. That said, I love a great opening line and wish I had them more often.
5. Moth audiences are the best. One storyteller lost her place in the middle of her story and suffered through a painfully prolonged pause, longer than any I’ve heard or seen before. I thought she might just step off the stage and abandon the story at one point, but the audience rallied her spirits and kept her going to the finish. It was a beautiful thing.
6. A distinct advantage to not memorizing your story is that you will never find yourself struggling for the next sentence and will probably never suffer from the pregnant pause. You lived the moment, so it’s not as if you’re going to forget what happened, but it’s easy to forget a memorized line.
Not memorizing allows you to edit your story while onstage, which I did a lot on Wednesday night. I was forced to drop two entire sections of the story for the sake of time and found a much better ending sentence than the one I had originally planned. None of these “in the moment” revisions would be possible had I memorized my story.
7. That said, if you actually memorize your story, or come close to memorizing it, you’ll always know how long it is. I never know. “It feels like five minutes,” is as close as I often get to knowing before I take the stage. Thankfully, my estimate is usually close, and my wife will time me for GrandSLAMs and other, more important shows when people are depending on me to be as close to perfect as possible. On Wednesday night, my estimate was not close. I probably had an 8 or 9 minute story when I took the stage. It required a lot of quick thinking. Not fun. Not memorizing your story is a bit like walking a high wire at times.
8. I don’t write my stories down, either. When I write a story down, it doesn’t sound like me anymore. I lose my speaking voice and end up sounding formal and academic. But writing my stories down would probably help with timing, too, and most of my favorite storytellers (people far better than me) always write their stories.
9. The woman sitting in front of me who shushed the two idiot women sitting to our left at least three times throughout the night was the true hero of the slam. I’ve never seen audience members engaged in full blown conversations in the middle of a storyteller’s performance before.
10.. It’s become impossible to leave your backpack unattended in a public space anymore without looking like a terrorist. I nearly went onstage last night with the damn thing.
11. Parking in SoHo is amazing. Where else in New York can I always find a parking spot in front of my destination?
12. Two strangers hugged me after the show. Didn’t say a word. Just hugged me and walked away. Independently of each other. It was a little strange but beautiful, too. Storytelling is amazing.
13. A female storyteller told a hilarious story about her propensity for flatulence that I will never forget. I have not laughed so hard in a long time. Though I know that certain people may have been turned off by this kind of story (including the two idiot women to my left who said as much), those people suck and wouldn’t know the first thing about audacity, honesty and courage.
14. The importance of a great host cannot be overstated. It makes the storyteller’s job so much easier. Dan Kennedy manages to keep the audience laughing and engaged throughout the night through the use of tiny slips of nearly indiscernible scribbling that he somehow transforms into stories themselves. He’s a master in the art of hosting.
15. Storyteller and Moth host David Crabb taught me that whenever I am faced with danger or fear, I should tell people not to worry by letting them know that “I’m a storyteller.”
I don’t know if this will work, but it will make me feel good. And stupid.