Lessons are almost always learned the hard way. But not on Wednesday night.

On Tuesday night my friend, Donna, and I journeyed east to attend a Moth StorySLAM at Laugh Boston, a comedy club in the south end of the city.

The theme of the night was Animals. If my name emerged from the bag, I planned to tell the story of approving an expensive, improbable spinal surgery on my dog, Kaleigh, after Elysha and I had a lengthy discussion with the veterinarian over the phone in the middle of the night.

All while I was sleepwalking.

I have no recollection of the conversation or the decision that we made. I didn’t even know that Kaleigh’s life was in danger. When we had admitted her at the animal hospital, it was because she was constipated and therefore dehydrated, and as a result, she required fluids.

No big deal. You can imagine my reaction the following morning when the vet called to tell me that she had survived the first of two surgeries.

It’s a good story that I had told at Speak Up a year before. I liked its chances of winning. It had surprise, heart, and a little bit of humor. A good combination.

Then the fourth name was drawn from the bag, and the man who took the stage told a brilliant story about agreeing to care for a 17 year-old cat while simultaneously battling for his own life. It was fantastic. Masterfully told and utterly hilarious, but at the same time filled with real issues and tons of heart.

After deliberating, the judges awarded him two perfect 10’s and a 9.8.

This was a fairly unprecedented moment, at least in my experience. I’ve told stories in 76 Moth StorySLAMs and attended another 30 or 40 shows when my name wasn’t drawn from the bag, and I had never seen a storyteller receive two 10’s before.

In my entire storytelling career, I had only received three 10’s in total.

Even if judges love a story beyond compare, they will typically leave themselves some room in the unlikely event a better story comes along. Since he had been chosen fourth, most judging teams would’ve awarded him scores like 9.6 or 9.8, giving themselves enough wiggle room in case they needed it.

But I also understood the judges’ decisions. He had been fantastic. He had owned the room. His story was chock full of vulnerability, authenticity, hilarity, suspense, and surprise.

And the audience agreed with the judges. When the scores were announced, the room was filled with applause and hoots of agreement.

But now I found myself in uncharted territory. I had a really good story that had no chance of winning now. What to do?

Donna gave me the answer.

“Tell a different one,” she said. “Wing it. You’ve done this a million times. Tell something else and save your good one.”

I dismissed the idea as the fifth storyteller took the stage, but then intermission rolled around. I had a moment to think. It occurred to me I had another animal story. A few, in fact.

The story of the raccoon that we had for a pet when I was growing up.
The story of the horse that took off with me clinging to its mane when I was about six.
The story about the time my father brought a horse into the dining room.
The story about the time I had rescued Kaleigh from an angry, leash-less pit bull.
The story of Pirate, the dog I had unknowingly called back across the street into the path on an oncoming car.

Then it hit me. I had another story. The story of our cat, Pluto, and his recent near-death experience. It was a story with lots of suspense and humor, and it was only about three weeks old.

I could probably pull it off.

So I spent intermission putting the story together in my head, identifying scenes, finding the right first line, and memorizing possible laugh lines. Intermission had ended and the sixth storyteller had taken the stage when I finally found the final lines of my story and liked them a lot. With a beginning, an ending, and my scenes clearly set in my head, I thought I could pull it off. It wouldn’t be great, but it would be good enough if my name was drawn from the bag.

Best of all, I could save my sleepwalking story for another day.

I told Donna that I would tell the Pluto story instead. I texted Elysha, telling her the same.

When the seventh storyteller was chosen and it wasn’t me, something strange happened. I started to fall in love with the Pluto story. I felt terrible about wasting a potentially great but not-fully-baked story in an effort to preserve another.

“Can I plan a third story right now?” I wondered. “Maybe the horse story?” Then I recalled another animal story. Elysha’s cat, Jack, had despised Elysha’s previous boyfriend, and she had told me as much several times. I felt like part of that boyfriend’s eventual demise was Jack’s ongoing rejection of him, making my first meeting with her cat a high stakes affair.

Maybe I could tell that one instead? Could I plan a third story in case my name was chosen?

Then I went to the restroom between the seventh and eighth storytellers. On the way, a couple stopped me and asked if I was the guy who told the story of a chimney fire at a Moth GrandSLAM a couple years before.

“Yes,” I said. “That was me.”

They told me that they don’t attend Moth events very often but were so excited to see me in the room and hoped my name was chosen.

That was all I needed to hear. When my name was miraculously chosen tenth, I took the stage and told my sleepwalking story.

It was what I was supposed to do all along.

I like to win. In everything I do. I am a highly competitive person. But I have always believed that my primary responsibility when taking the stage at The Moth is to tell a new, well-crafted, highly entertaining story that expresses vulnerability and authenticity and attempts to connect me to my audience.

When I perform, I want audiences to know that they are going to be entertained by a great story that they have never heard before.

The same goes for Speak Up or any other show. Tell a great story every time.

I like to win. No, I love to win. But regardless of the score, I want to make the audience happy to have spent the money and time to attend the show. I want them to be entertained and moved. I want them to be thinking about my story in the days, weeks, or even months to come.

I want them to remember me, regardless of my score.

I had to tell my sleepwalking story. It was the story I had prepared to tell. It was the commitment that I had made to my audience when I dropped my name into the bag.

It was the right thing to do.

Then something unexpected happened.

I won. I received three perfect 10’s from the judges.

I couldn’t believe it.

After receiving a total of three 10’s in eight years, I had doubled my total in one fell swoop.

Was it the best story I’d ever told? No. Definitely not. But by awarding those two 10’s earlier in the night, the judges had put themselves in a bit of a box. If they liked my story as much as the fourth storyteller’s story, they had to give me 10’s, too. And that third judging team agreed.

Let’s be clear that recency bias also probably played a factor, too. Had I told my story in fourth position and my competitor told his story in tenth position, he may have won. That’s the reality of any subjectively judged event. I’ve won StorySLAMs from first, second, and third positions before, but it doesn’t happen often, so having my name drawn tenth probably helped.

But I had clearly made the right decision in terms of the competition by making the artistically correct decision. I gave the audience my best, expecting to lose given the scores before mine, but I was rewarded with the unexpected. My 42nd victory. A perfect score.

As I stepped off the stage, a man and woman approached me. The woman told me that they had attended the Moth GrandSLAM earlier in the year when I had told the story of taking Kaleigh on an eventful walk around the block in my boxer shorts. They were so happy to have heard another story about my beloved friend.

“That’s so weird,” I said. “I’ve told two stories about my dog in my whole life, and you’ve heard both?”

“Yes,” the woman said. “And I’m so glad.”

As I stepped away from that couple, a man approached and asked to hug me. He had lost his dog about six months before, and upon hearing me become emotional onstage about Kaleigh’s eventual death last summer after 17 glorious years made him feel “less stupid” about still becoming emotional from time to time about the loss of his furry friend.

I told him that I still cry about the loss of Kaleigh all the time. My eyes are filled with tears as I write these words.

The next day I received an email from a stranger who also sleepwalks. She was happy to hear someone speak about sleepwalking so openly and publicly. She has always found it to be a source of embarrassment but maybe a little less now.

These kind folks were reinforcers from the universe about doing the right thing. Much-needed reminders that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win unless your desire for victory compromises your integrity.

In an effort to preserve a good story for another day, I nearly took the stage and told a hastily-prepared, sub-par story. I certainly wouldn’t have won had I told the Pluto story (or the Jack story), but even worse, the audience wouldn’t have gotten my best. A couple wouldn’t have experienced the joy in getting to know Kaleigh a little more. A man would still be feeling stupid about crying over his lost friend. A sleepwalker would still be feeling alone.

Worst of all, I would’ve placed competition (and the desire to win) over art.

Sometimes you learn lessons the hard way. That has often been the case for me. Lessons come with lumps. But sometimes you learn your lesson and find yourself miraculously rewarded, too.

If only every day could be as perfect as Wednesday night was for me.

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My recommendation to you

On Tuesday night, I told a story at a Moth StorySLAM in Cambridge, MA and won.

It was my 40th victory in a Moth StorySLAM.

When I think back to my very first Moth StorySLAM - back in July of 2011 at the Nuyorican’s Poet’s Cafe in New York City, it would’ve been hard to imagine that 8 years, I would win 40 StorySLAMs and 6 GrandSLAMs.

I like to win, so it feels great, and I love entertaining audiences with stories of my life, but there were even better, more impossible-to-imagine moments from that night:

The person who accompanied me to the slam was a friend named Kevin. Kevin and I grew up in the same small, Massachusetts town on the same street - just one grade apart - yet we were never friends while growing up. But we managed to reconnect on Facebook years later, and back in 2013, when Elysha and I produced our first Speak Up show at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Kevin surprised us by driving from his home in Massachusetts to attend.

Since then, he’s attended several Speak Up events. I’ve appeared on his podcast. We’ve become friends. I never would’ve imagined becoming friends with someone from my childhood so much later in life.

Even better, the host of the StorySLAM and two of the storytellers who made it to the stage on Tuesday night have also appeared on a Speak Up stage, and two of them have also been featured on our podcast.

Moth royalty meets Speak Up.

Even better, there were at least eight people in the audience on Tuesday night who I had taught in one of my storytelling workshops. At least six of them were introduced to storytelling and The Moth via my workshops, and at least two of them had put their names in the hat.

As a teacher, it’s always thrilling to see your students engaging with the world, taking risks, and trying new things. Sitting amongst them and performing for them was a gift.

But best of all, as I was pulling open the door to my car at the end of the night, I was stopped by a young woman who had been sitting in the audience. She told me that she’s seen me perform many times in Boston, and that my stories convinced her to call her mother after years of estrangement. It wasn’t a story about my mother or anything related to parents or children that helped her make the phone call. It was just my willingness to share so much onstage.

“I figured that if you could tell stories like that to strangers, I could call my mother.”

That was the best part of the night.

In July of 2011, I went to a Moth StorySLAM in New York City with the intention of telling one story and never returning to the stage again. Instead, impossible-to-imagine things have happened.

Recently, while being interviewed for a podcast, the host asked me where I see myself in ten years. I told her that it was a ridiculous question.

Last year I was teaching storytelling on a Mohawk reservation to Native Americans. I was substitute ministering at Unitarian Universalist churches. Elysha and I had a United States Senator telling a story on our Speak Up stage. I went to work as a storytelling consultant for one of the largest advertising firms in America.

I could’ve predicted none of this.

Just this year I’ve taught storytelling at Yale, MIT, and Harvard. I had people drive from Kansas City, Maryland, Toronto, and Philadelphia to attend my workshops. This summer two people from China and a person from San Diego will be flying to Connecticut to attend my storytelling bootcamp.

It’s crazy.

Craziest of all, a young woman living in Belmont, Massachusetts is now talking to her mother again because I told some stories onstage.

There is no predicting.

But what I know for sure of that none of this happens if I don’t find the courage in 2011 to take a stage in New York and tell a story. I won my first StorySLAM that night, and as satisfying as it was to win my 40th slam on Tuesday night, the victories are a lovely bonus to a life transformed and made immensely more interesting and meaningful thanks to a stage, a microphone, and a story..

Thanks to engaging with the world. Taking risks. Trying new things.

I can’t recommend it enough.

I lost The Moth GrandSLAM on Tuesday night. This is how I feel about losing.

On Tuesday night, I competed in a Moth GrandSLAM at the Cutler Majestic in Boston.

It was my 25th GrandSLAM championship since 2011, but no matter how many of these championships I compete in, the GrandSLAM never gets old for me.

It’s my favorite storytelling show by far.

I told what I thought might be the best story I’ve ever told at a Moth GrandSLAM or any story slam, but when the scores were tallied at the end of the show, I had finished in fourth place.

For a person who is exceedingly competitive and possibly obsessed with winning, I was surprisingly fine with my fourth place finish, for two reasons.

Two years ago, at a GrandSLAM championship in New York City, I drew the first spot in the show, which makes it almost impossible to win. As great a story as you may tell, recency bias will doom your chances every time. I’ve won from first position at two Moth StorySLAMs in my life, but the quality of stories in a Moth GrandSLAM make this highly unlikely if not impossible.

In fact, telling a story in the first half of a show makes it hard to win at a Moth GrandSLAM.

After drawing the #1 from the hat, I started pacing around the stage, angry and annoyed. Muttering under my breath. Snarling.

In short, I was acting like a jerk.

Thankfully, Elysha was with me that night in New York. She pulled me aside and said, “This is your 20th GrandSLAM. You’ve won six of them. For most of these people, it’s their first GrandSLAM ever. Probably the biggest stage they’ve ever performed on. Maybe their only GrandSLAM ever. So how about you stop acting like a jerk and just be grateful to be here.”

She was right. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Ever since that night, I’ve approach every one of these championship competitions with an open heart. Remarkably, I’ve stopped obsessing over winning.

I wish I could say the same for The Moth’s open-mic StorySLAMs. I’ve won 39 of them, so I shouldn’t obsess so much over winning them either, but winning a StorySLAM gains me entry into the GrandSLAM, which I love so much. So winning the StorySLAM remains important to me.

It gets me something I want.

But not the GrandSLAM. Instead of focusing on winning, I focus on having fun, telling a great story, and assisting my competitors whenever possible. If it’s their first or second time on a GrandSLAM stage, I always take a few minutes to advise them on the tricks and techniques that I’ve developed over the years to tell a story to a theater of 1,000 people. I try to ease their nerves, make them laugh, and allow them to relax enough to do their best.

Elysha was right. I should be grateful to be able to stand on that stage and tell a story, and I am.

Even better, the winner of Tuesday night’s Moth GrandSLAM was one of my storytelling students. She had spent a weekend with me at Kripalu in 2018, and the story she told on Tuesday night to beat me was a story that I had workshopped with her months ago.

In fact, I had three former storytelling students in the cast with me on Tuesday night. All three had gotten their start in storytelling in one of my workshops, and one them, Tom Ouimet, a brilliant storyteller has graced the Speak Up stage many, many times.

This also wasn’t the first time that a former student has beaten me in a StorySLAM and GrandSLAM. It’s happened several times, and I’m sure it’ll happen again. It’s also not the first time that I helped to craft and revise a story that was later used to defeat me.

As a teacher, this makes me very happy.

So I finished fourth on Tuesday night. I told a story about my lifetime struggle for faith and a moment of transcendence in a hot dog line at a minor league baseball stadium. I told the story from fourth position - not a great spot in the lineup - but I’ve won Moth GrandSLAMs from the second and fourth position in the past, so it’s certainly possible.

It really might be the best story I’ve ever told in a GrandSLAM.

But I didn’t win. That’s okay.

I saw some old friends. Made some new ones. Spoke to audience members who loved my story. I even signed six copies of my book Storyworthy during intermission, brought to the show by audience members who knew I was performing.

It was a great night. I was grateful to take the stage. I was thrilled to watch my students perform. I was honored to hear all of the amazing stories told that night.

Winning would’ve been nice, but it’s not the most important thing anymore. Not by a long shot.

Speak Up Storytelling: Erica Donahue

On episode #28 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Matthew and Elysha Dicks talk storytelling!

In our followup segment, we talk about upcoming Speak Up events, offer insight on Tasmanian Devils, respond to some listener emails about PTSD, and apologize for failing to record a new episode last week.  

Next, we talk about finding and collecting stories in your everyday life using "Homework for Life." We talk about the value of finding "worsts" in your life, then we talk about how to apply perspective to your Homework for Life in an effort to find more stories. 

Next we listen to Erica Donahue's story about attending college in rural Virginia as a fish out of water.

After listening, we discuss:

  1. The effective use of details in a story

  2. The broadening of stakes

  3. The power of contrast

  4. The avoiding of thesis statements

  5. The value of the slow reveal

Next, we answer questions about effective transitions and how and when to tell stories involving trauma. 

Finally, we each offer a recommendation.  

LINKS

New York City Public Library appearance registration

Homework for Life: https://bit.ly/2f9ZPne

Matthew Dicks's website: http://www.matthewdicks.com

Matthew Dicks's YouTube channel:
https://www.youtube.com/matthewjohndicks 

Subscribe to Matthew Dicks's weekly newsletter: 
http://www.matthewdicks.com/matthewdicks-subscribe

Your geographic opposite: 
www.antipodesmap.com

This Is Going to Suck:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3J4Q5c1C1w

RECOMMEDATIONS

Elysha:

Matt:

A bittersweet moment for a storyteller, and a magical night for all of us

Thought I'd share this little moment of beauty with all you:

Last night I competed in a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn. It was an evening filled with fantastic storytellers, a hilarious host, and a world class violinist, but the storyteller who stole the show was not on the stage at all.

After winning a Moth StorySLAM earlier this year and thus gaining entry into the GrandSLAM, one of the storytellers was deported after more than 15 years in this country as a result of changes in immigration policies by the Trump administration.

After living and working for years as a New Yorker, first as a student and then as a legal resident, this Iranian-born former resident of South Africa was forced to leave the country.

He's currently residing back in South Africa.

The Moth decided to allow this storyteller to compete despite his inability to attend the GrandSLAM. Instead of standing on the stage, he told his story via Skype to the theater full of people. Though none of us could see the storyteller, we listened intently to his story, and at the end of the night, the judges declared him the winner.

It was one of those evenings of Moth magic that I was so happy to witness firsthand.

That's the beauty of storytelling. Last night I competed in my 24th Moth GrandSLAM, yet it never, ever gets old. Magic can happen at any moment. A storyteller can touch your heart in ways you never expected. You can find yourself gasping or laughing or crying at the most unexpected moments.

And last night, we had the chance to listen to a storyteller from half a world away tell a story of beauty, pain, and hope.

It was one of those rare nights at The Moth when everyone's favorite story was the same story, and that was a truly beautiful thing.

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Speak Up Storytelling #23: Laura Terranova

On episode #23 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Elysha Dicks and I talk storytelling!

In our followup segment, we discuss a brand new rule for The Moth's StorySLAM series. We also talk about why storytelling is a superpower and the many doors that being an effective communicator can open for you. 

Next, we talk about finding and collecting stories in your everyday life using "Homework for Life." We discuss the possibility of incorporating Homework for Life into a daily to-do list, discuss Homework for Life advice from a listener, learn how a child is now doing Homework for Life, and review how a moment that didn't seem like much initially might be storyworthy after all. 

Then we listen to Laura Terranova's story about finding herself in a hospital bed, unable to communicate to the outside world.

After listening, we discuss:

  1. Elements of an effective beginning

  2. Outstanding transition strategies

  3. Character building throughout a story

  4. Elements of an effective ending 

  5. The power of a name in storytelling

Next, we answer questions about the dangers of dominating conversations when you have many stories to tell and how to handle the moment when you thought you were funny but the audience did not. 

Finally, we each offer a recommendation. 

If you haven't rated or reviewed Speak Up Storytelling on Apple Podcasts, PLEASE do! Reviews and ratings help others find our show.

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Storyworthy in my hands!

One of the many most exciting moments as an author is the moment when the first copy fo your book arrives at your doorstep. This was the fifth time that I experienced such a moment, and I remember each of them with perfectly clarity. 

The tearing open of a box. The ripping of a mailing envelope. The nervous excitement as you reach for an object that took years to create. 

Behold. My first nonfiction title. I couldn't be more excited.

The forward is written by my hero, author and storyteller Dan Kennedy.

It's dedicated to the founder of The Moth, George Dawes Green, the host of The Moth's podcast, Dan Kennedy, and the storytelling genius and creative guru of The Moth, Catherine Burns.

It was written on the shoulders of Elysha Dicks, who supports everything that I do. 

Hidden within the pages is the editorial wisdom of so many of my friends, including Matthew Shepard, David Golder, Jeni Bonaldo, Amy Miller, C. Flanagan Flynn, and others who I am forgetting. 

It's filled with the lessons of storytellers who have stood beside me on stages around the world and students who have joined me in workshops to learn the craft of storytelling.

Each one of them has taught me so much and contributed so much to this book.   

Now it's real. It's been transformed from idea and thought to a device that is capable of conquering the barriers of time and space.

Think about it:

Ten years from now, in some city in northern China (where we recently sold the foreign rights to the book), a future storyteller will pick up this book and read the words of a writer living half a world away who wrote those words a decade ago.

Books are magic. I'm holding magic in my hands. I'm so excited.   

Don't be selfish. Tell a story.

I tell people to tell stories a lot. I know. It's my clarion call.  

But allow me to say it again. 

Last Wednesday night, I performed in The Moth GrandSLAM at the Cutler Majestic in Boston. My plan was to take the stage and tell a story that was a lot more humor than heart. It was a story about meeting my girlfriend's father for the first time and trying desperately to bridge the gap between his traditional, hulking masculinity and my inability to do anything traditionally masculine. 

"He's the kind of guy who can take down trees, and if necessary, put it back up again. I play Miss Pacman on Friday nights at the arcade and read Shel Silverstein poetry."

A funny story, filled with amusing contrasts and healthy doses of self-deprecation, but not something that pulled at heartstrings.

I honestly didn't think it would be a winning story.

Then something amazing happened. It shouldn't have seemed amazing in retrospect, since these things happen all the time, but I still find myself surprised every time. 

Three young men approached me at different times during intermission and at the end of the show to tell me how much my story had meant to them. In each case, these were men who struggled in environments where traditional masculinity is prized above all other things. Each young man described himself as someone who did not represent traditional masculinity in any way and often felt unappreciated and even unloved as a result.

Each of these men were so grateful for my story. One of them was teary-eyed as he spoke to me.  All three hugged me before stepping away. 

This is why we tell stories. This is why authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability are so important. I take a stage planning on telling an amusing story about soft hands that can't change the oil in a car or repair plumbing, and I unexpectedly touch the hearts of at least three people in the audience that night. 

I tell a story that, in the words of one man, "means more to me than you'll ever know."

"I needed this more than you could imagine," he told me. 

You never know who is waiting for your story. You never know who needs your story. You never know when something amusing or incidental or seemingly benign will touch a heart, change a mind, and perhaps make a real difference in the life of a human being.

We tell our stories for many reasons, but perhaps the least selfish reason of all is the possibility that something we say might make a difference in the life of another human being. 

Run to The Moth. Allow stories to lighten your load.

Here is my suggestion:

Run to The Moth. On the radio, the podcast, or a live show. 

As you probably know, The Moth changed my life. It gave me a stage to tell stories. It provided me with a platform to be noticed. It opened the door to a new career. A bunch of new careers. Storyteller. Teacher. Consultant. Inspirational speaker. Producer. Most recently stand up comedian and the author of an upcoming book on storytelling.

In many ways, these careers (alongside my writing career) have allowed Elysha to stay home with the kids for these last nine years. For that, I will be eternally grateful.  

Seven years after telling my first story at a Moth StorySLAM in New York City, and after having traveled the country and the world, performing on stages and teaching and consulting with individuals, nonprofits, schools and universities, the clergy, hospitals, museums, and more, one of my favorite things in the world is still to go to a Moth StorySLAM, drop my name in the bag, listen to stories, and hope to be called. 

But even if your dreams do not include performing, I still say to run to The Moth. Listen to the podcast. Tune into The Moth Radio Hour. Go to a live show. The magic of The Moth (and excellent storytelling in general) lies not the opportunity to stand on a stage and perform but in the opportunity to listen to another human being tell a story and realize that you are not alone in this world.

Case in point:

On this week's Moth Radio Hour and podcast, Daniel Turpin tells a story tells a story about an encounter with a armed man that was eerily similar to my own experience in a McDonald's restaurant 25 years ago. Listening to the story triggered my PTSD and guaranteed me a long night of nightmares, but in listening to the story, I found another human being in this world who understood my experience. 

Suddenly I was not alone. 

Though I have spoken at length about my robbery, first to a therapist for years and then on a Moth Mainstage, there have always been parts of the story that have remained locked away. Aspects that I have never spoken about. Moments that I was still unwilling to admit. 

Included in those locked away parts was the guilt I have always felt about not fighting harder for my life. Not battling to the death and the dirt. The paralyzing fear and inexplicable surrender to men who I knew were about to kill me. 

This is the first time I have ever admitted to this to anyone, and it is because Daniel Turpin did so first. He spoke the words that were hidden away in my heart.  

Near the end of this story, Turpin says:

"I stared at the ceiling and I'd go back to that moment, that moment when he told me to get on my knees and feeling that gun press up against your head, that gun loaded with lethal possibility. And the sorrow that I felt, the shame of my inaction, its a guilt that doesn't go away. I couldn't under stand how I gave up on my life so effortlessly. 

But there was I was, kneeling on the floor. I wasn't pleading I wasn't struggling, I was waiting. Waiting for this stranger to kill me. People try to make you feel better. They say everything happens for a reasons. And I understand the sentiment, I do. But I don't agree with it. When they say that, it sounds like there's some arcane justification for senselessness. There's some cosmic fatalism at play. What I believe is that everything happens. And it's our job to give reason to it. To give reason to the inscrutable. 

I'm a little more suspicious today. Maybe a little more guarded, because moments like that - they shape you. They change you. You never forget them and that's the terrible beauty of the past. You remember the good and the bad."

I wept when I heard those words. Something hidden inside of me that I had thought was mine alone was suddenly less ugly. Less frightening. Less terrible. 

Daniel Turpin opened a door to my heart. I feel lighter today because of it. Less burdened. Happier. The anger, disappointment, and guilt over my surrender on that greasy floor on that terrible night is gone, not because anything in my past has changed, but because I feel less alone in the present.

Run to The Moth (and if you live in Connecticut, run to our show, Speak Up, too). Listen to stories. Open your heart. You'll feel better for it. 

The best birthday gift for a teacher might surprise you

Here's one of the beauties of being a teacher.

Last night I had the opportunity to perform at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston as a part of The Moth's GrandSLAM championship.

It was the 20th GrandSLAM in my storytelling career, and on my birthday no less. 

The Cutler Majestic is a spectacular theater that seats 1,200 people, and last night the theater was packed. I was telling stories alongside some of my favorite storytellers from the Boston area and some new storytellers who were spectacular. One particular woman told the story of raising a baby pig that sent my spirits soaring and broke my damn heart. 

It was perfection. A story that I will remember forever.

The host of the evening was the brilliant Bethany Van Delft, who I am always thrilled and honor to share the stage, and the producers of the show were also some of my favorites.

I even adore the sound guy. 

I had many friends in the audience. Folks from Connecticut and locals from my days of living in Massachusetts. Storytellers from the area who I am so proud to now call my friends. Elysha Dicks was sitting beside me. It was a grand night.

I told a story about my love for the New England Patriots, and my choice of the Patriots over a woman. It's a story I love to tell. It always brings me such joy to tell stories from that period of my life just after high school, when I was living with my best friend, struggling to survive. Those were such great days. 

At the end of the night, I was declared the winner of the GrandSLAM. It was my fifth GrandSLAM victory. As several audience members pointed out, I've got as many wins now as Tom Brady. It was sweet. 

A perfect birthday.  

Here was my very first thought when I awoke this morning:

"Linda was so good."

Linda Storms, a woman who first heard me on The Moth Radio Hour years ago then started coming to my storytelling workshops and performing for Speak Up, was also competing in the GrandSLAM last night. She told the last story of the night, and she did so brilliantly. She was vulnerable and eloquent and funny. Her story was perfectly crafted and so honestly told. She could not have been better. She was fantastic. 

That is what I thought first when I awoke today. I thought of Linda, my friend and student, shining on that beautiful stage like the star that she is.

This is the beauty of teaching. You have the opportunity to experience so much joy in the success of those who you have taught, and oftentimes that joy in a student's success can be more important and meaningful than your own. You sit in quiet rooms and teach the skills and strategies to help someone realize their dream, and when you're really lucky, you get to sit back and watch that dream realized right before your eyes. 

Watching Linda on that stage last night was the perfect end to a perfect birthday for me.   

Moth StorySLAM: Clara Wants a Sister

This summer I took about 30 young ladies from Miss Porter's School to a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, MA as part of a weeklong program on writing and storytelling. 

It was kind of a magical night for these young ladies, who came from all over the country and the world to attend this program. As fate would have it, eight of the ten storytellers were women. The host of the show, the brilliant Bethany Van Delft, as well as the producer, Gina James, were also women. 

Such a great opportunity to show these young ladies how women can take and own the stage. 

I told a story that night about the birth of our son, Charlie and the problems that his sister, Clara, posed during the process. 

How can you possibly have so many stories?

It's a question I get a lot. Whether it's stories that I'm sharing on the golf course or at the dinner table or on the stage, I always have a new story to tell.

A small part of this is the unusual life that I've led, filled with chaos, bad luck, and at times, disaster. My friend and the Artistic Director of The Moth Catherine Burns has said to me, "You either have a good time or you have a good story."

A much larger part of it is the system that I use to find stories in my life called Homework for Life. People who use my system with fidelity and rigor find themselves awash in stories about their lives. It works.

But having many stories to tell also has a lot to do with the understanding that a story is not always a series of fantastic events or shocking developments. You need not move mountains to have a great story to tell. A story can be small. Infinitesimal, really, if it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.

That's why I love Bill Bernat's story "Oreo Relapse," which was featured on The Moth Radio Hour last week. Bill's entire story - more than five minutes long - takes place in a grocery aisle as he tries to decide if he will purchase a bag of Oreo cookies and thus fall off his dietary wagon.

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That's it. If I were to summarize the story, I would say, "Man battles his inner cookie demons as he tries to decide if he should purchase a bag of Oreos."

And yet the story is filled with humor and heart. It speaks to something universal in all of us:

The power of temptation. The fragility of will power. Our constant inner battle of right vs. wrong. The shame of not having full control over our desires.

Bernat's story is brilliant in its simplicity. Very little happens in the story, yet when he is finished, I feel like I have been offered an honest, unflinching look at the man's soul. I feel connected to the man. I love the guy.

I don't know Bill Bernat, but I bet he has lots and lots of stories to tell.

"Nothing interesting ever happens to me."
"My life is boring."
"Nothing too terrible has ever happened to me."

Refrains I hear all the time to would-be storytellers who worry that unless you've died on the side of the road or been arrested for a crime you didn't commit or lived on the streets, you won't have any good stories to tell.

Not even close to true.

If you are willing to speak honestly, embrace vulnerability, think introspectively, and share a part of you that most would not normally share, you will have more stories than you could ever imagine.

Do your Homework for Life.

Listen to Bill Bernat's story.

Become the person who always has a new story to tell.

As long as you're not as sexually repressed as the Vice President, the gender-neutral restroom is working just fine

During intermission at last night's Moth StorySLAM at The Oberon in Cambridge, I went to the restroom.

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The Oberon has converted its formerly gender-specific restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms. When I entered what was once a men's room, I was greeted with the typical line that can be found during intermission, except that this line contained both women and men. 

Nine people in all. Five women and four men were queued up in front of the four urinals and three stalls. Some were chatting while waiting. Others scrolled through their phones. As far as I could tell, no one thought this odd or inappropriate.

And why would they?

Women used the stalls. Men used the urinals or the stalls.  

One of the women in line actually knew me from previous performances and asked me for some storytelling advice while we waited to pee. 

For someone like the Vice President, who can't have dinner alone with a woman who isn't his wife or drink a beer when his wife is not present, I would imagine that this scenario might cause him to blow a gasket. His seemingly admitted inability to control his lustful desires might erupt into an uncontrollable fervor at the mere thought of a semi-naked woman behind a thin restroom partition.   

But for the majority of Americans who operate as normal human beings and who aren't so fearful of temptation that they must quarantine themselves from the opposite sex without a marital chaperone, this gender-neutral reconfiguration is working out just fine.      

Perhaps in the future the restroom design could be differentiated this way:

Gender-neutral restrooms

Single use restroom for the perverse who can't control themselves when genitals are exposed privately but in the vicinity of their own genitals

Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

Sharing your vacation photos is lovely, but how about some wisdom and insight to go along with it?

On Thursday night I had one of those nights at a Moth StorySLAM where two sets of judges thought I did quite well and awarded me high scores, but the third judging team disagreed severely (earning a rarely heard chorus of boos from the audience), thus ruining my chances at winning.

Always frustrating.

I've been fortunate enough to win 30 Moth StorySLAMs, but winning a slam never gets old.

As I was leaving, a fellow storyteller stopped me. He told me that something that I had written about a month ago about the power of incremental progress has really made a difference in his approach to life. He was sincere, thankful, and sweet. 

It almost made up for the frustrating night with the judges. Almost.

But here's what I thought as I walked to my car:

When I wrote that post on incremental progress, I didn't think it would have any real impact on anyone. I write these things as much for myself - as sort of a personal mantra - as I do with the hope that someone might benefit from the tiny bits of wisdom that I've gleaned over the years.

I send my thoughts, ideas, and experiences into the world, through books, magazines, blog posts, social media, and live performances, and more often than you could ever imagine, something good and oftentimes surprising comes back.

Sometimes it's a day later. Sometimes it takes a month. There have been times when it's been five years later. It's pretty amazing. 

But I'm certainly not the only person who has gleaned a little wisdom over the course of his lifetime. Everyone has, I suspect. We all know things that have helped us to survive and succeed and thrive. Insight, ideas, strategies, personal experiences, and more. 

You should share your wisdom with the world. Truly. 

Create a blog. Post for Facebook. Write a book. Share your insight at the next dinner party.

We all know stuff that could help others. We've all learned lessons that are worth sharing. We all have ideas and insights worth sending into the world.

You never know when you can help to change a life. Truly. 

Sharing your vacation stories with the world is lovely. Baby pictures are always appreciated. Please don't stop sharing your foibles and faux-pas. You successes and failures. 

But every now and then, perhaps you could also share some wisdom, too. A life lesson. An understanding of this world that perhaps only you know. A strategy or insight that has helped you survive and thrive.

If you do this, good things will come back. I believe this, because I have experienced it in abundance.

It can turn a frustrating night at The Moth into a good one. It will bring unexpected joy to your heart. It might even create a memory that you will never forget. 

Seven and counting...

One of our Speak Up storytelling shows earlier in the year featured four former storytelling workshop students who have gone on to tell stories at Moth StorySLAMs in New York, Boston, and Burlington, VT. 

 In fact, two of them competed in the same StorySLAM in December of last year in New York, unbeknownst to them.

I don't have the actual count of former workshop students who have gone on to perform for The Moth, but the number easily exceeds two dozen. 

Even more thrilling, six of my former workshop students have gone on to win Moth StorySLAMs. If I include a rabbi from a recent retreat where I taught, the number is now seven. 

One of them has even won a GrandSLAM.

The fact that almost all of these people live in Connecticut makes this number even more surprising. Moth StorySLAMs are held on week nights, meaning these folks committed significant time and resources in order to travel to Boston or New York on a work night to compete in a Moth StorySLAM and arrive back home well after midnight. 

I've also had many of my friends - more than a dozen - go to The Moth and tell stories. Friends who have seen me brave the New York or Boston stage and then followed in my footsteps.

One of my former fifth grade students has gone to The Moth with me and told a story. 

Many, many more friends and workshop students have also told stories on Speak Up stages. 

All of this thrills me. I like to think back to that July evening in 2011 when I stepped into the Nuyorican's Poets Cafe in New York City to tell my first (and what I thought would be my last) story for The Moth. It was a hinge upon which my life has turned forever. It was a moment that ultimately enriched my life and Elysha's life in ways we could never have predicted. It has introduced us to so many remarkable people. Made us so many new friends. Brought me to stages around the country and the world. Launched a business that has us producing shows throughout the state and beyond and has me teaching storytelling to individuals, schools, universities, corporations, and more.

It's been a surprising and remarkable journey. 

But when I think about the multitude of ways that my life changed on that July night in 2011, I often think first about all the other people who I have brought to the stage to share their stories, open their hearts, speak their truths, and kick some Moth ass.

Watching so many people follow in my footsteps into storytelling has been one of the most rewarding parts of all. 

The Moth: The Robbery

In March of last year, I told this story at the Brooklyn Academy of Music about an armed robbery that I experienced in 1993. It was the hardest story I've ever told but also one of the most important for me. 

Post traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem for many of our veterans returning from war and many other Americans in general.I was fortunate enough to get the help I needed but many do not. If you know someone who is struggling, please let them know that therapy works.   

My three greatest acts of storytelling cruelty

I like to think that I have been a supportive and positive force on the thousands of storytellers who I have performed alongside over the years, but I've also had moments when my judgment and disposition was less than ideal.

My three most despicable moments as a storyteller:

1. On Thursday night at Infinity Hall, as our first storyteller was being introduced by Elysha, I sat beside her behind the curtain and demanded that she start her first novel. "Write a sentence a day," I said. "And then make it a page a day. Write a page a day, and after a year, you'll have a novel."

"You're alway berating me for not accomplishing enough," she said. "It's never enough for you."

I started lecturing her on the importance of goal setting when I heard Elysha reaching the end of her introduction, and I realized that this woman is about to take the biggest stage in her life, and I spent the last minute before her performance hassling her. 

As she rose, I tried to tell her how impressed I am with everything that she does. Teacher. Storyteller. Mother. I don't think she heard a word as she stepped into the light. 

She performed brilliantly. Truly. She was vulnerable and hilarious and heartbreaking. She was beautiful.

But it wasn't any thanks to me.

2. During soundcheck at a Moth GrandSLAM in New York a couple years ago, a woman who was performing in the championship for the first time stepped away from the microphone, walked to the edge of the stage, sighed deeply, and said to me, "That was scary. This place is huge. And there isn't even anyone in the audience yet."

"Yeah," I said. "The real scary part is knowing that when it comes time to perform, you'll be standing out there on your own. Practically on an island. No one in the world able to help you. You're entirely alone, depending on yourself to survive, while hundreds of people stare into your soul."

At that point, I had competed in 18 GrandSLAMs and won four of them, so these championships were old hat for me. I was speaking the truth - unintentionally - but it was not a truth this woman needed to hear. I realized what I had done as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I gasped, apologized profusely, and assured her that she would be fine.

She also performed brilliantly. But no thanks to me.

3. At my most recent GrandSLAM championship earlier this year, I reached into the bag and drew the number 1, indicating that I would be telling my story first. This is a terrible position to tell a story. Very hard - if not impossible - to win. I've competed in 54 Moth StorySLAMs in the past six years, winning 29 of them, but only one of those wins came from first position. 

It's an unlucky draw. And it's a number I draw quite often. 

After drawing my number, I tossed it aside, stepped off the stage, and pouted like a little baby. I complained and groaned and huffed and puffed. I stalked the theater, muttering under my breath and acting like a petulant jerk.

After a few minutes, Elysha stepped over to me and whispered, "This is you're 20th GrandSLAM, Matt. For most of these people, it's their first. Maybe you could stop acting like a baby and just get ready to tell your story."

It's always good to have a spouse willing to speak the truth to you.  

Those storytellers didn't need to see someone like me pouting and whining. So many of them had already expressed their admiration and respect for me and my reputation as a storyteller and competitor.

How did I repay their kindness?

I acted like an ass. 

They all performed brilliantly that night, no thanks to me.

In fact, the winner of that GrandSLAM also performed on the Infinity Hall stage on Thursday night for us, and she was brilliant once again.

No thanks to me.

Famous people who I've met thanks to storytelling

Louis CK: I said hello to him at The Moth Ball, an annual fundraiser for The Moth. He was the guest of honor that night.

He nodded in my general direction. 

David Blaine: I met David Blaine at The Moth Ball. I told a two minute version of my GrandSLAM winning story, which Blaine later asked me to tell again so he could record it with his phone. Then he did a mind numbing trick for me that convinced me and the New Yorker reporter who was standing beside me that he has made a deal with the devil.

Then he told me that he might want to speak to me in the future and said, "I'll give you my business card."

"Okay," I said.

"You already have it," he said. "Left breast pocket."

Low and behold, it was there, a playing card with his contact information hidden within the details of the card. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer: I met Dr. Ruth backstage at a TED conference in the Berkshires where we were both speaking. I said hello. She asked me how my sex life was. When I said "Fine," she told me that fine is a sad description of a sex life and offered me five tips for improving it.

Steve Burns (The Blues Clues guy): Steve has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed. We spent time backstage chatting before both shows. In all honesty, I never watched Blues Clues, so my friends and my children have always been more excited about me meeting Steve than I have been.

Samantha Bee: Samantha Bee and I performed in a Slate Live Show at The Bell House together and spent time backstage chatting. Her new show on TBS was starting soon, so we spoke at length about what she envisioned for the project. 

There is also a group of decidedly less famous people who I have met thanks to storytelling who I was at least as excited about meeting as anyone in the above list. They include

  • Author and Moth host Dan Kennedy, who has become a friend
  • NPR and This American Life's Zoe Chase, who I've appeared with on several occasions
  • NPR's Adam Davidson, who I met at a Slate Live show
  • Moth host, author, and comedian Ophira Eisenberg, who has become a friend
  • Slate's Mike Pesca, who has become a friend
  • The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, who has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed

Stories are so damn important.

Few things have felt truer to me than this quote from the late Alan Rickman:

I cannot tell you how many times a person has told me at the end of one of our shows that they feel like they have been renewed by an evening of storytelling. Their heart has been filled. Their mind has been put at ease, at least for a couple hours, and perhaps longer. 

Storytelling is magic. It is medicine for the mind. Food for the soul.

I've been telling stories all over the country and the world since 2011, and here is one of the strangest things that has happened to me in the course of my travels:

Twice I have stepped off the stage after telling a story at The Moth in which I expressed great vulnerability and been approached by a woman who needed to tell me about her recent miscarriage. In both cases, the woman had yet to tell anyone in her life about her loss but had somehow decided in that moment that I was the right person to tell.

When I told Elysha about this craziness (the second incident happened just recently), she said that it wasn't crazy at all. There is unknowable amounts of emotion wrapped up in the tragedy of a miscarriage. Grief, guilt, shame, despair, and unspeakable loss. Women oftentimes have great difficulty talking about a miscarriage, even to people who they know and love most.

In both of these instances, Elysha explained, these women likely saw me as a person willing to open my heart and share something sacred about my past. I shared a story about my life in a way few people are willing to do so openly. In the eyes of these two women, I became the perfect person to unburden themselves of their secret. Someone who they could trust. Someone who possessed an open heart. But also someone who they would never see again. In that way, I was safe. They could speak their truth and then leave it behind. 

Admittedly, I was surprised and confused when these women revealed their secret to me, but each encounter ended with a hug and many tears. And perhaps a bit of relief from something that these women were carrying alone before they met me.

Rickman was right. We need to tell stories about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.

Now more than ever.