As Elysha and I celebrate our first anniversary of Speak Up, our Hartford based storytelling organization, we have many reasons to be thankful.
Since May of last year, we have produced seven storytelling shows. We had about 150 people at our first show (about 100 more than we expected), and since we moved into a bigger space and began ticketing, all of of our shows have been sell outs. with most selling out a week before the door even open.
We’ve recently been contacted by outside venues who would like us to bring Speak Up to their audiences, which has been both surprising and thrilling.
We have made many new friends over the past year thanks to storytelling. Fans of our show who fill the seats, participants in our workshops, and the storytellers themselves, some experienced and most brand new, who have all come together to build this thriving community.
This has been the most surprising part of storytelling for me. When I took the stage for the first time at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011, I had no idea about the people who I would meet and the friends that I would make as a result of becoming a storyteller. In the past three years, I have gotten to know some amazing and accomplished people, and I am proud to call many of them my friends.
But it’s the people who unexpectedly reach out to me who often surprise me the most.
Last week, I told a story at a Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York City.
Since then, almost a dozen people who were present in the audience that night have reached out to me via social media or email.
About half contacted me simply to compliment me on my story or tell me how much it meant to them. It was the story of my first kiss, but embedded within that story was also a story about bullying, which seemed to resonate with a lot of people.
Two others have seen me tell stories many times before and reached out to compliment this most recent performance but also discuss my overall success as a storyteller. One commented on how much she has gotten to know me just through the stories that she has heard onstage and on the radio and my YouTube channel.
Here was the most interesting part:
Two people who I don’t know reached out to criticize the story. Both were fairly gentle in their criticism but still offered pointed critiques.
One person who is “very familiar” with my work felt that last week’s story did not compare to others that he has heard in the past from me. He said that he’s always excited when my name is called at a StorySLAM but felt a little let down on Tuesday night by my story.
The other felt that my story was flawed in that I attempted to wedge the story of my first kiss and the story of bullying “into one space” and that it took away from both stories. “It should’ve been two separate stories,” he said. “Fix it.”
As bold as it may have been to offer such unsolicited critique, I think that both of these critics are right. My wife, who didn't hear the story before I left for New York (which almost never happens) agreed. After hearing the story in preparation for Speak Up, where I told it again, she commented that it wasn’t as tight as my typical story, and that it tried to do too much.
A friend who attended the slam with me told me that my story was slightly amorphous. “An off night for you.”
Upon reflection, I think they all hit the nail on the head. In attempting to tell the story of my first kiss, which took place on stage during an elementary musical and was orchestrated by our vocal music teacher, I took my audience off that stage and down a dark path for a good portion of the story instead of keeping them in the moment that mattered most.
I felt it, too. As I build my story, I anticipate moments of audience reaction, and I’m usually correct in most of my predictions. But when I was onstage that night, the audience reacted in ways I did not expect. As I made my way back to my seat, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. Though my scores put me in a tie for first place after seven storytellers, the eighth storyteller edged me out and the tenth storyteller crushed us both.
In truth, the tenth storyteller would’ve beaten anyone that night. She was masterful. One of the best stories I’ve ever heard.
But my friend was right. It was an off night for me. Flawed construction doomed my story.
But here’s the beauty of storytelling:
Even with its flawed construction, more than half a dozen people reached out to me because my story meant something to them. Warts and all.
A couple more liked it enough to comment on my storytelling career.
And two people apparently take storytelling seriously enough to offer salient criticism of my story.
In a world where time is precious and no one seems to have enough of it, these people took the time to email and Tweet their opinions to me, and in the end, no one was mean-spirited, hurtful or cruel.
How often can you say that about the Internet?
So I will take my critics advice and “fix” my story. Break it into two parts and retell each part someday at a future slam. I’m grateful to these critics for their sage wisdom, but I’m especially grateful to storytelling audiences, at The Moth, Speak Up and all the other places where I tell stories, for being present, willing, attentive, and sometimes, incredibly generous with their words and their time.