The Moth: The Promise

In November of last year, I told this story about my high school sweetheart at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to have the story air on the Moth Radio Hour and their podcast a couple months later. I can't tell you what a honor and thrill that is.

I hear from listeners all the time about the stories that have aired on the radio and podcast - at least a few emails each week - but this is the story that people contact me about most often by a wide margin.

15 thoughts from a Moth StorySLAM

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). image

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.

Lessons from another evening at The Moth: Storytellers’ reactions to a loss can differ greatly. Occasionally they suck.

On Monday some friends and I attended a Moth StorySLAM at the Bitter End in New York. After winning six StorySLAMs in a row, my luck finally ran out. I was chosen to tell my story first and finished in third place. 


Still, I told a good story about the time I moved my childhood bedroom from the second floor of our home to the basement without my parents knowledge, and anytime I am able to take the stage and tell a story, I am pleased.

An odd thing happened when telling my story:

At the end of my story, when my initially amusing story was supposed to take a sad turn, the audience continued to laugh. As I described how my parents took three days to realize that I had moved to the basement, and what this meant to me in terms of the amount of parental attention that I was receiving, the audience continued to laugh out loud.

It was strange. 

This may have been the result of going first. Maybe the audience, which was comprised of many first time Moth attendees (it was a holiday week), didn’t know what to expect.

Or perhaps my story was so sad that it was funny.

Or maybe my delivery was simply off.

Audience members later told me how touching my story was, and a couple admitted to getting misty-eyed near the end, but the great majority thought the whole thing was hilarious. 

Whatever the reason, it’s more than a little weird getting a little choked up on stage while the audience continues to laugh at you.

Going first always stinks.

I suggested later on to a friend that I might be willing to give up my right pinkie finger to avoid ever going first at another StorySLAM. While this might be a little crazy, it’s only a little crazy. 

A few thoughts about storytelling that I took away from the night:


One of the best things about becoming a storyteller has been the number of friends who have subsequently taken a stage to tell a story as well. I invited Bill and Cheryl to their first Moth StorySLAM last spring, and in the fall, Bill took the stage at one of our Speak Up shows to tell a story. On Monday night, he took the stage and told his first story for The Moth.

He did great.

Since I started storytelling in July of 2011, I’ve had many of my friends take the stage at Speak Up and tell their stories, and a handful of them have taken the plunge and told stories for The Moth as well. It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to introduce something new to my circle of friends and then watch them find the courage to try it as well.

I assume they must be thinking something like:

“If that idiot can do it, maybe I can, too.”

I’m so glad to have opened up this world to so many people.

Along similar lines, my wife and I produce our own storytelling show here in Hartford called Speak Up. In addition to the joy of entertaining audiences, it’s been incredibly rewarding to give fledgling storytellers, who may not be  ready to tell a story at a place like The Moth, the opportunity to tell a story and hone their craft. Watching someone take the stage for the first time in their lives and bare their soul is an amazing thing to watch. I feel fortunate to have brought this opportunity to so many people already.



Storytellers have a variety of reactions to the competitive element of The Moth. Most experienced storytellers thrive on the competition, and at least a few (like me) would much prefer to tell stories in a competitive format.

Eliminate the pressure of competition and it simply isn’t the same.

But because this is storytelling, the judging is fairly subjective, and the judges are audience members who receive a few minutes of instruction before the competition begins. As a result, you can’t get too invested in the scoring, even though I do.

Despite these subjective factors, the scoring is almost always well done. I have always believed that if one of the top three stories of the night wins, the judges have done their well, and that has happened at every StorySLAM that I have ever attended.

But when a storyteller doesn’t win, reactions vary.

While I am often disappointed, I have always been an analytical, reflective, self-critical person. As soon as I step off the stage, I begin a mental analysis of my performance, and as the scores are announced, I compare these numbers to my personal assessment. I will spend hours after the StorySLAM evaluating my performance, and when I arrive home, I will record the results of my performance in a spreadsheet along my notes from the evening. 

It’s a serious spreadsheet.

I also seek feedback from friends and fellow storytellers who have attended the performance, poking and prodding them for as much honesty as possible.

Though I am disappointed when I don’t win, I don’t think I should always win, and I always use the results to improve.

I don’t get angry. I get better.

In fact, the only time when this analytical reaction is muddied for me is when I have to tell my story first. Winning from the first position is almost impossible, as judges often assign lower scores to the first storyteller in order to give themselves some flexibility for upcoming storytellers. And “score creep” is a real thing. As the competition proceeds, it’s easy for judges to forget the first story in light of a great story told in eighth or ninth position.

It’s just a natural human reaction. 

As a result, analyzing my scores from the first position is difficult. I’ve had to tell my story from the first position three times in my life, and I have finished those competitions in second, third and third place.

Could I have won any of those StorySLAMs had I not gone first?

Maybe? I really can’t tell.

Other than the incongruous first position results, my reaction to a loss has always been an obsessive desire to improve based upon the feedback provided.

Most storytellers are just happy to have the chance to take the stage and tell their story. Many are relieved that they didn’t embarrass themselves by falling apart in front of 300 strangers. Most consider the opportunity to tell a story reward enough. They care nothing about the scoring.

I don’t understand this sentiment, but I respect it.

There are storytellers, however, who become angry, despondent or belligerent when they lose or when their scores don’t reflect what they believe they deserved.

There aren’t many of these people, but there are enough. They are not enjoyable people to spend time with after a performance.

In the past, storytellers have told me that they can’t stand the subjectivity of the scoring and never want to take the stage again.

Storytellers have told me that they become depressed when they don’t score well and require a great deal of time to overcome a loss.

The most common negative reaction to a performance is to blame the judges and accuse them of incompetence. Storytellers will accuse the judges of favoritism based upon sex or race. They will complain that the judges favor one particular type of story over another. They will claim that judges lend greater credence to crowd favorites who take the stage often and who they have seen before. They will argue that judges don’t understand the rules of the competition or have misinterpreted the rules. They will assert that you need to be funny rather than simply a good storyteller in order to win a StorySLAM.

None of this is true, but I understand that in the heat of competition, it’s difficult to remain unemotional.

Still, I find this reaction distasteful at best. Blaming the judges may be an effective way of avoiding the reality of losing, but it only serves to make the storyteller look petty and insecure. It will never help a storyteller to improve.

In my experience, it is also a decidedly male reaction. 

There is also a thankfully tiny number of storytellers who, upon losing, will accuse the winning storyteller of telling an untrue story. They may hint at this belief by questioning the details of the story or come right out and accuse the storyteller of fabrication.

While I am sure that there have been storytellers who invent stories for the stage, I have never heard a story that sounded untrue, and the thought that a storyteller had done such a thing has never crossed my mind.

I find this particular reaction especially repugnant.

It is also a decidedly male reaction.

A tale of two story slams

On Thursday night, I performed alongside four other storytellers at The Wilbur Theater in Boston as part of a Moth Mainstage. We told stories to a sold out audience of 1,200.

It was an amazing night.


Last night I hosted a story slam at Word Up, a small, community bookstore in Washington Heights run by volunteers and stocked primarily with used books. Nine brave storytellers were courageous enough to stand on a makeshift stage of pallets and plywood to share their stories to an audience about about 40 people. Almost all were first-time storytellers.

It was also an amazing night.


The two events could not have been more different.

In Boston, five storytellers underwent weeks of revision and an evening of rehearsal with experienced and skilled producers in preparation for the event. We arrived at the theater early for a sound check and publicity photos. We enjoyed food and drink in a well-appointed green room, which was adjacent to the green room of Saturday Night Live star and future host of the Tonight Show Seth Meyers, who was taking the stage immediately after us.

Last night’s storytellers did not revise and rehearse their stories with talented producers. They did not have a mic check prior to the show, and as a result, they fought with the microphone stand all evening long. There was no green room. There was no Seth Meyers.

Two completely different shows in terms of scale and sophistication, yet I’m not sure which was better.

Yes, the stories in Boston were more polished, and the storytellers were better prepared and more poised onstage. The audience was enormous and enthusiastic. The laughter and tears were more plentiful.

But the storytellers in Washington Heights were incredible, too, despite their overall inexperience. They were honest. Compelling. Revealing. Amusing. Diverse. Surprising. At least two of their stories were more than capable of winning a Moth StorySLAM.

If given the choice, I’d always choose the audience of 1,200 over the audience of 40, but in the grand scheme of things, the size your audience or the opulence of your venue are irrelevant. In the end, it’s about the stories and the people willing to share them.

Everything else is window dressing.

Marital advice courtesy of a Moth StorySLAM victory

A friend and I attended The Moth’s StorySLAM at the Bitter End last night. He’s about 15 years younger than me, and while we waited in line outside the club, we talked about his recent experiences with dating in New York. I advised him that above all else, he should avoid getting married before the age of 30.

“It’s the best advice I can give you when it comes to getting married,” I said. “If I look at the people who I know who got married before 30 and the people who got married after 30, the after-30 crowd tends to be much happier in their relationships.”


Later on in the night, I was fortunate enough to have my name was drawn from the tote bag. I took the stage and I told my story, and I was fortunate enough to win.

It’s my fifth StorySLAM victory in a row, which is an incredibly lucky streak. While my performances have all been solid, many other factors come into play when competing in a Moth StorySLAM, including the order that your name is chosen from the bag, the storytellers whose names are not drawn that night and the demographics of the judging teams.

I’m not attempting to be humble in any way by saying that winning five in a row requires an enormous amount of good fortune.

Still, my performances had to be good, too.

After leaving The Bitter End, I texted the good news to my wife, and she texted three words back to me:

You are unbeatable.

I turned to my friend. “Forget my over-30 advice. It still applies, but I have something better. Find a girl who you want to spend the rest of your life trying to impress.”

I turned the phone to him so he could see my wife’s text.

“Find a girl who can say something like this to you and make you forget everything that anyone else has ever said to you. Find someone whose words mean more to you than anyone else. When the happens, you’ll know you’ve found the right girl.”

Winning five StorySLAMs in a row has been a wild ride that will surely never be repeated, but those three words that my wife texted to me last night means more than all my victories.

Ten years after we started dating and seven years into our marriage, and I’m still trying like hell every day of my life to impress the girl who became my wife.

That is the key to a successful marriage.

Moth Radio Hour appearance!

Exciting news! One of the stories that I told onstage for The Moth’s GrandSLAM championship last year has been chosen for The Moth Radio Hour this week. It will be airing on over 250 stations nationwide from Wednesday through Sunday.


The show will be airing in the Hartford area on WNPR at 9:00 PM on Sunday.

It’ll be airing in New York City on 93.9 WNYC on Wednesday night at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm, and then on WNYC's AM station, 820, on Saturday at 7pm.

It will be airing in Los Angeles on KPCC Sunday at 11am, on Chicago Public Radio Saturday at 2pm, and on WBUR and WGBH in Boston on Thursday at 9pm, and Saturday at 2pm, respectively.

If you are in a market not mention, click here to see if it’s airing in a city or town near you.

You can also listen to the episode online as well on The Moth Radio Hour website.

Just as exciting, this episode of The Moth’s Radio Hour will also be featured as The Moth’s weekly podcast, which is how I was first introduced to The Moth and live storytelling three years ago. The Moth podcast has more than 70,000 subscribers and is downloaded more than a million times each month. If you’re not already listening, I can’t recommend it enough.

You can download the episode featuring my story starting on Tuesday from iTunes or whatever service you use to listen to your podcasts.

My storytelling secret: I’m a small, frightened man onstage. Always.

I’m off to New York tonight to compete in another Moth StorySLAM. I have been exceptionally fortunate enough to win the last five StorySLAMs in which I have competed, including my last four in New York.


I am not attempting to be humble in any way when I describe this recent streak of consecutive victories as exceptionally fortunate. A great number of factors come into play when competing in these events. In addition to a storyteller’s actual performance, the order that the names are chosen from the hat plays an enormous role. You can tell the best story of the night, but if you are the first or even second storyteller of the evening, you have almost no chance of winning.

The judging is also very subjective. While the judges typically do an excellent job, the difference between the winning story and the second or third place story is often slim.

Sometimes nonexistent.

So a story that may have easily won in last week’s competition might not place second or third the following week, depending on who has been chosen to judge and the level of competition.

It’s also extremely helpful when the names of some of the best storytellers in the house remain in the hat, as was the case when I won last week. When three champion storytellers are unable to the the stage because of bad luck, your chances of winning increase considerably.

You need to tell a good story, but you need some luck on your side, too.

I’ve been telling stories for The Moth for two years now. I’ve told stories in 20 StorySLAM competitions so far and won 10 of them. I’ve done well and am admittedly proud of my success.

But here is the truth:

Last night a friend said to me, “It must be exciting winning all of these competitions in a row. You probably want to win tomorrow night and keep your streak alive. Huh?”

While it’s true that I would love to win tonight’s competition, the real truth is that as much as I always want to win, I’m much more worried about not making a fool of myself onstage. No matter how many times I take that stage and tell a story, and no matter how many times I win one of these competitions, the possibility that I will stand before that microphone and make an idiot of myself remains my primary concern.

It’s odd. I love storytelling, and I especially love storytelling for The Moth. I love the audiences and my fellow storytellers and the competitive aspect of the event. I love it all. I would take the stage every night and tell a story if I could, and yet it still scares the hell out of me. Perhaps a little less now than it did my first night two years ago, but when I am telling a story, I feel like I am walking on a high wire.

If I perform well, I have the chance to thrill an audience.

But there is also the ever-present possibility that I will fail, and if so, I will fail in front of an audience who were depending on my to entertain them for five minutes. Even worse, I will fail in the midst of sharing something meaningful or intimate about myself.

So if you see me on stage tonight or at any point in the future and think I look exceptionally poised and confident in the midst of my performance, please remember that there is also a small, frightened man on the stage as well, hoping like hell that the audience will like him and terrified that he will fail miserably.


My wife played an enormous role in my recent Moth StorySLAM victory. Here’s how.

On Tuesday night I told a story at a Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York City and was fortunate enough to win.


On Facebook and Twitter, I expressed gratitude to my wife for the role she played in helping me to craft the story. A lot of people responded with  questions like “How does that work?” and “What did she do to help?” and “Did you perform for her in the living room?”

They were genuinely curious about how we collaborate on projects like this, so I thought I’d explain a little bit about how Elysha and I work.

Let me begin by saying that I am fortunate to have someone as involved in my creative life as my wife. My friend, Kim, has always said that the most important decision you will ever make in life is your choice of spouse.

She couldn’t be more correct. Not only is Elysha willing to be involved, but she is skilled and intelligent in her approach to creativity, too. So much of my success is the result of her influence on my work. 

I have won a total of 5 Moth StorySLAMs during my two years of storytelling, and Elysha has been involved in 4 of those victories (and many, many second place finishes). In one instance, she actually convinced me to change the story I was planning to tell about five hours before the show. I thought she was crazy, but she was adamant. After some moments of indecision, I took her advice and prepared an entirely different story during my lunch break.

And I won. It was probably the best story I’ve ever told.

I’ve learned to listen to m wide whenever possible.

The theme of Tuesday’s StorySLAM  was Summer. My story was about a doomed romance during the summer of 1993.

I didn’t perform the story for Elysha in the truest sense of the word because I don’t memorize my stories. They are always true stories from my own life, so I don’t worry about getting lost or mixed-up during my performance. I actually did these things, so I should damn well remember what happened.

I also like the organic nature of storytelling that comes from a story that is not memorized or overly prepared. It allows me to make adjustments on stage, pushing or pulling back on certain aspects of the story based up audience reaction. If the humor isn’t playing well, I can shift to the heart. If the audience thinks I’m hilarious, I can take some risks and push the humor even more.

In at least two instances, I found entirely different and much better endings to my stories in the midst of telling them. In one case, I returned to my seat and Elysha asked if I’d been keeping the real ending to the story a secret from her for some reason.

“No,” I said. “I found it while I was up there.”

At another non-Moth performance, I found a way of turning a sad ending into a funny one. The producer of the show, who had vetted my story beforehand and knew it well, was backstage and not really listening to my performance. When the audience erupted into laughter and I turned to leave the stage, she asked, “What happened?”

“I found a better ending,” I told her.

Had I relied on memorization, I don’t think either of these moments of unexpected discovery could’ve happened.

As a result, every time I tell a story, it sounds a little different, so performing for Elysha in the living room would be silly and unproductive.

It would make me feel silly, too.

But even without memorization, I do have some strategies to get me through the story:

  • I find important transition points in stories and memorize those specific sentences so I have stepping stones to the end.
  • I find moments of potential humor and try to find the funniest way of delivering those lines.
  • I memorize my first 2-3 sentences of my story.
  • I try to memorize my last line of my story, though that last line often changes while onstage.    

I don’t write my stories down anymore, and I don’t time them before the performance. Writing them down has become unnecessary. If I simply run through the story in my mind dozens of times and consistently hit those stepping stones, I’m much better prepared than if I had a sheet of paper in front of me.

The Moth’s 5 minute time limit stressed me out when I started telling stories, but after two years, I’ve developed an innate sense of what a 5 minute story sounds like, and since I don’t memorize the story, I can always edit the story if needed once I receive the first warning bell.

I do almost all my thinking about my stories in the shower now. It sounds crazy, but it’s where I do my best work. It takes about a week’s worth of showering to finalize my story in my mind, and only then do I tell Elysha the story, usually while I am driving.

It makes me feel less self-conscious than simply staring at her and telling the story at the kitchen table. 

But rather than telling her the story, I speak about the story aloud. I start to tell the story, usually getting through the first few lines, but then I stop in order to explain what I’m trying to achieve with a specific line or bit of detail, and I ask her to think about whether or not it’s working. Or she stops me to ask a question or comment on something. I think through my story as I tell it to her, including her on the internal debates I’ve been having over how to deliver a line, how to transition through time or space, and what to add or remove. I rarely tell her the story straight through.

Instead, I tell and we talk. Stop-and-go. Simultaneously.

Elysha doesn’t hold back. She doesn’t attempt to be gentle. She doesn’t equivocate. Her comments are often pointed and opinionated. It hurts, but it helps. It's tough medicine.

All of the work we did for Tuesday’s story was done in the car during our 3 hour drive to the city. Until we climbed into the car, she had almost no idea about the story I planned to tell.

Elysha eliminated two sections of detail in the beginning of the story that were unnecessary and slowed things down. I was overly attached to one section because it represented a bit of personal suffering, but it wasn’t needed. A woe-is-me moment. 

I thought the other section was funny. She disagreed.

Ironically, Elysha almost never laughs at any of my stories while we are working on them. Based upon her initial reactions, none of my stories are amusing in any way. She may say that something is funny, but the actual laugh does not come until I am performing onstage.

This can be disconcerting, but I’ve learned to accept it.

She also identified two key lines in the story and transformed them into stepping stones for me. One line summarized my thoughts on an issue succinctly, and she thought the other was both insightful and funny. She thought both lines were important and should not be dropped, so I committed them to memory. 

She also found the all-important last sentence of the story, which I had been struggling with all week. Much of storytelling is decision-making. What to tell and what to leave out?

In this case, the question as where to end my story.

Do I end my story here, or do I tell my audience about what happened during the following week as well? Or the following month? 

I ran through the ending several times with her, trying a variety of approaches, and when finally I hit upon the right line, she knew it immediately. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s the last line. Stop there.”

She was right.

She also identified areas where I could emphasize the theme of the night better. In truth, she tried to convince me to change my story completely. Since I spent most of my childhood summers at Boy Scout camp, she didn’t understand why I hadn’t chosen any of the dozens of stories I have from my years at Yawgoog Scout Reservation. I went so far as to tell her one of my camp stories in the car and nearly switched to it before deciding to stick to my guns and tell the story that I had prepared. 

In this case, I was right and she was wrong. This almost never happens.

These minor changes made an enormous difference in my story. They allowed me to maintain momentum onstage. They kept the story focused on only those elements that were important to the narrative. They eliminated unfunny bits that would’ve fallen flat. They kept the story under the 5 minute time limit without the need for any onstage editing.

Most important, she helped me end my story at just the right moment.

That, in considerably less than a nutshell, is how we work.

Had Elysha been here when I wrote this post, I’m sure she could’ve made it better, too.

A victory at The Moth Boston

Elysha and I attended the Moth StorySLAM in Boston last night, and I was fortunate enough to squeeze out a victory by a tenth of a point over two worthy competitors for my fourth StorySLAM victory. It was my first time telling a story in the state where I grew up, and it was a lot of fun.

I told a story about my realization as a child that hard work, effort and creativity cannot always overcome the material shortfalls and economic disadvantages associated with of poverty.

At its heart, the story was about the time when my childhood friend received a new ten-speed bike for his birthday and my subsequent realization that I would never defeat him in a bike race again, no matter how hard I tried, as long as I continued to ride my ancient, knobby-wheeled Huffy hand-me-down.

I managed to defeat two outstanding storytellers who both told hilarious and compelling tales from their youth as well. One told a story about how be became a vegetarian for five years just to win a bet against his older brother. The other told a story about the way in which Quentin Tarentino helped her try to win the heart of her high school English teacher.  

Both stories were equally deserving of the win.

Thoughts from an evening:

1. This was my third attempt to attend a Boston StorySLAM. My first two trips were canceled due to a blizzard and the marathon bombing, so when hail the size of acorns began pelting our car on the Mass Pike, I began to wonder the universe was urging me to stay away from Bean Town.

Thankfully, we make it to Boston safely, though I thought Elysha was going to kill me when I refused to pull off the highway in the midst of the storm.

2. Attending The Moth in Boston was a lot like attending my first StorySLAM in New York back in July of 2011. I stepped into The Oberon not knowing a soul, much the same way I entered the Nuyorican Poet’s Café on my first night of storytelling almost two years ago. When I attend a StorySLAM in New York today, I always have friends in the audience. Many are fellow storytellers, Moth staff and producers, but there are also audience members who recognize me as a storyteller and make me feel at home. As loud and crowded and seemingly intimidating as a New York Moth event may be, it’s also a warm and inviting place for me to tell a story.

I was a complete stranger to the Boston audience. In truth, it was the first StorySLAM for most of the people in the audience last night. The Moth opened its doors just six month ago in Boston, and though their shows are consistently selling out, the audiences are still new to the format, and they are just beginning to build a base of regular attendees.

3. As the show began, there were only seven names in the hat. Unlike a New York StorySLAM, where there are always at least ten names in the hat and almost always many more, producers encouraged audience members to put their names in the hat at intermission to fill the ten storytelling slots for the evening, and they did. The number of names in the hat eventually swelled to 13, and in many ways, the second half of the show was much stronger than the first.

4. Even though it was my first time in Boston, I already started making friends with my fellow storytellers. It’s quite remarkable. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life in which I want to absolutely destroy my competition while at the same time hope they do exceptionally well.

Winning a StorySLAM is an amazing feeling, but losing to great stories doesn’t hurt so much.

At the end of the show, I found myself chatting with storytellers onstage, sharing insight and advice when asked. Storytelling is new for many of them, and upon learning that I tell stories in New York, many were eager to pick my brain for tips. Unlike any other competitive situation, I gave willingly. 

5. My name was the fifth drawn from the hat, which is much better than first or second but still a tough spot to be with such strong storytellers in the second half of the show. Of the four times that I have won a StorySLAM, my name has been drawn tenth, second, ninth and fifth.

6. During intermission, a guy sitting next to me asked if I was feeling more relaxed now that I had told my story. I said no. I explained that I truly love telling stories onstage, so when I tell my story during the first half of the show, my favorite part of the evening has come to an end.

While I am always grateful to have my name chosen at all, I often find myself sitting through the second half of the show thinking about what my next story will be for my next StorySLAM.

In short, when I’m finished telling my story, I already can’t wait to get back onstage again. 

The Moth: Science Fair Cheater

On August 23, 2012, I took the stage at The Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in Manhattan to tell a story. The theme of the night was Yin/Yang.

I told a story about cheating in my high school science fair and unintentionally doing well.

I placed second on the evening, losing by a tenth of a point to Moth legend Steve Zimmer. It was the second StorySLAM in a row that I had lost by a tenth of a point to Zimmer.

Here a recording of the story I told that night:

The three day, three month, three year test

Last year the New England Patriots played the Kansas City Chiefs on a Monday night in Foxboro. My fellow season ticket holder could not attend the game for less than acceptable reasons, and I could not find a soul who was willing to attend the game with me.

The freezing temperatures and the probability of arriving back home in Connecticut well after 2:00 in the morning (if we were lucky) deterred anyone from wanting to take the extra ticket and join me.

I hemmed and hawed all day about going to the game alone, knowing that if I went, I would be driving home from the game in the dead of night by myself. I’d also be watching the game from the icy confines of Gillette Stadium without the benefit of a friend’s companionship or a pre-game tailgate party.

In the end, I chose to remain home.

Last week I planned on attending a Moth StorySLAM in Manhattan. I had a story prepared and was ready to make the trip on my own (again, no one was willing to join me), but at the last minute, I chose to stay home. I had spent 5 of the last 6 days on the road, camping with my fifth graders, attending the Patriots home opener and traveling to Troy, NY for a book signing. With so much time spent on the road, I decided that I would be better off staying at home rather than enduring another long, late night drive on my own.

In the past two years, these two decisions represent two of my greatest regrets. I’m completely annoyed with myself for each decision, and I cannot foresee a time when I will not feel this way.

When it comes to making decisions like these, I use a “three day, three month, three year” test.

As difficult as it might be to travel to and from Gillette Stadium or New York City on my own, late at night, will I regret my decision three days later? Though I may be tired or even exhausted the next day, how will I feel about my decision three days from now, when I am well rested? Will I regret not having chosen the more difficult road?

What about three months later? When I look back on the missed opportunity, will that restful evening at home come close to matching what could have been? Will I even remember what I did on the night that I could have spent watching Monday Night Football or telling a story on a Moth stage?

What about three years later? What will mean more to me?

A forgotten evening at home amidst a thousand other evenings at home or the memories from a rare Monday Night football game?

Or the missed opportunity of taking the stage at a Moth StorySLAM and entertaining an audience of strangers with a story from my life? Perhaps even winning the StorySLAM and earning the right to perform in another GrandSLAM?

I am not implying that an evening spent at home with my wife and children is a forgettable, wasteful experience. Those evenings are some of the most cherished moments of my life. But I also believe that we must take advantage of the considerably less frequent opportunities like a Monday Night Football game or a Moth StorySLAM when they present themselves. The time we spend with our families and friends creates the fabric of our lives, but those moments we spend doing things that so many do not punctuate our lives and create the bright, specific memories that last a lifetime. We cannot allow a few hours of lost sleep or chilly temperatures or the promise of a bleary-eyed day at work prevent us from doing those things that so many people skip in favor of an evening in front of the television or surfing the Internet.

When making a decision about whether or not to do something that is hard, we cannot allow the subsequent 24 hours to dictate our decision. We must look ahead, three days, three months and three years, to see how we might then feel about our decision.

Perspective is a powerful tool in decision-making. While we can never know for certain how we will feel, we can predict how hindsight might make us feel. This is what I do when deciding between something that is easy and something that is difficult.

Tomorrow doesn’t matter. I can always survive tomorrow.

Will I regret this decision in three days, three months or three years time?

In terms of last years Monday Night Football game and last week’s StorySLAM, the answer is decidedly affirmative.  

Psychoanalyzing my Moth GrandSLAM performance

Last Tuesday night I performed at The Moth GrandSLAM, and while I did well, finishing in second place, I also failed to tell my story in the way that I had planned for the first time in my brief Moth career. It was also the first time I had ever taken the stage for any occasion (and there have been many) and not felt entirely in control. My almost six-minute story ended in less than five minutes, and it was only through luck and a bit of verbal jujitsu that I was able to string together  enough facts to keep some semblance of the actual story.

I assumed that it was because I had become emotional onstage, but there have been other times when emotions have gotten the best of me before. This time was different. I had also lost all focus onstage. I had begun to tremble. To be completely honest, I couldn’t keep track or entirely remember what I was saying. The words were coming from my mouth, but it was as if I was only half aware of what they were. Rather than telling the story, I had somehow drifted into the story and was listening to it as it was being told.

That’s not quite right, but it’s as close as I can get to describing the feeling.

It was all very strange, and ever since that night, I have been concerned that I had somehow lost my onstage mojo. I wondered if my inability to remain calm and focused in front of a large group of people was a sign of things to come. I worried that this may happen every time I took the stage to tell a story, and if that were the case, my brief storytelling career would be over.

Regardless of the scores that I received for Tuesday’s performance, I never wanted to feel that way again, and I was afraid that I might.

I wrote about my Moth experience a couple days after the performance, and a friend and psychologist who knows the story that I told onstage well weighed in on my experience. Her words brought immediate understanding and comfort to me.

She wrote:

With all you've been through, those events were among the most traumatic, if not the most. And the body remembers trauma, even when the mind has figured it out. For whatever reason, the Moth triggered some PTS.

What (Tuesday night and the actual experience) had in common were you as the focus/center of attention in both cases. While that's usually fine, in fact you’re very comfortable in that place, you haven't talked about that subject in front of a lot of people. I think the crowd plus the topic triggered your PTS. And it wasn't simple PTS, it was prolonged, intense, potentially destructive, scary, icky, despicable, so-called "complex PTS " in my business. It's as if you had a body flashback.

I have suffered with post traumatic stress disorder since surviving an armed robbery in 1993. For years I would wake up every night screaming, and my nerves have always been on a hair trigger as a result. For more than a decade, my life was governed by a complex set of rules and precautions designed to keep me safe and in charge of my environment. I was an over-planner and hyper-vigilante to a level that is difficult to imagine.

When I met my wife, she finally convinced me to receive treatment for the condition, and after two years of incredibly hard work, I managed to recover. The nightmares, for the most part, have stopped. While I am still easily startled and remain more alert than most people, the rituals that I once undertook upon entering a new environment in order to feel safe have fallen by the wayside. Most important, the deafening click of an empty gun being fired, which used to fire off in my head at several times throughout the day, is thankfully no more.

But when my reputation and career came under attack in 2007, many of my PTS symptoms returned, and I went back to my therapist for a while in order to deal with the issue. It was a brief and surprisingly manageable flare-up, but my friend is right. The anonymous, public attack on me and my wife during the summer of 2007 was one of the most traumatic events in my life, and when I took the stage last Tuesday night to describe them, it was almost as if I were experiencing it all over again. 

I find great comfort in this newfound awareness. While experiencing a post traumatic stress attack on stage is not something that I would ever want to happen again, it is unlikely that it ever would, since there are only a small handful of stories that I could tell that might trigger my PTSD. The story of the robbery, perhaps, which I have yet to tell, and possibly the car accident that nearly took my life in 1988. These two events have been identified by my therapist as instances that triggered my first bouts with PTSD, and so they are likely the only stories that might cause a similar reaction onstage. Even so, now that I am aware of this potential, I think I can be better prepared for it and manage it more effectively than I did on Tuesday night.

My hope is to tell the story of the summer of 2007 onstage again someday, and hopefully in a longer format. Ideally, I would need 10-12 minutes to tell the story in its entirety, and though I initially thought that I might never want to speak of it again in any context, the understanding of what happened on Tuesday night has already ended my concerns about taking the stage again and has me convinced that next time, I will likely become emotional again, but those emotions will not be accompanied by the lost, unfocused, detached, harrowing sensation of Tuesday night.

My hope is to be able to tell that story again someday, with all the emotion of Tuesday night, but to also tell the story in its grim but ultimately triumphant entirety.

Thanks to the understanding that my friend has provided, I think I can do that now.    

Thoughts from my second Moth GrandSLAM

Thanks so much for all of the interest in my performance at The Moth’s GrandSLAM on Tuesday night. Sorry it’s taken all day to sit down and write about it, but we arrived home late after the show and have been running around ever since.  

Suffice it to say that it was an odd evening for me. I finished second in terms of the competition, which is thrilling considering the caliber of competition on the stage that night but also frustrating after coming so close and losing by a few tenths of a point. 

But I also felt quite fortunate considering I did not come close to executing the story as I had planned.

As I took the stage to tell the story about an anonymous person’s attempt to destroy my teaching career, I became unexpectedly emotional, almost to the point of being unable to tell my story at all. I had to stop and start at least twice during the story, and at one point I thought I might not be able to continue. What was supposed to be an almost six minute story ended up coming in at less than five minutes as I found myself dropping entire paragraphs as a result of my inability to focus and concentrate.

I never expected to become so emotional about this story. I have told it many times before, and though it is still something I live with on a daily basis, I haven’t been emotional about it in a long, long time.

For the first time in my life, I felt like a mess onstage. This is not a feeling I wish to repeat ever again. While I work hard to bring an emotional component to my storytelling, I never want my emotions to get the best of me. It was a miracle I even made it through to the end with some semblance of the narrative intact.

Thankfully, it was the emotion that I managed to convey while butchering the actual story that appealed to both the judges and the audience in general. Several people told me that they had been moved to tears while listening to me, and the overall theme of my story seemed to connect with a great many people. 

While winning would have been great, I was fortunate to have done as well as I did. I will hopefully have an opportunity to tell that story again someday, perhaps in all its agonizing detail, and while I would like to convey the same emotion as I did last night, I would also like a chance to tell the story as I had originally planned.

This was my second GrandSLAM appearance, and my sixth Moth appearance overall in my short career of storytelling. In fact, I didn’t realize it at the time, but Tuesday night’s performance came within a couple days of marking my one year anniversary with The Moth. On July 12 of last year, I told my first Moth story at the Nuyorican Poets' Café in Manhattan and was fortunate enough to win.

I competed in the GrandSLAM in October of that year and finished third and went on to win another StorySLAM at the Bell House in Brooklyn this past April and finish in second place in two other StorySLAM competitions.

The most amazing part of The Moth, and the one I least expected when I began this journey, is the number of remarkable people who I have met while participating in these events. Many of the Moth producers, hosts and storytellers are people who I now call my friends, and the relationships I have built with them have opened doors into new and amazing opportunities for me.

Fellow storyteller Erin Barker, for example, offered me advice while preparing for last night’s competition, and her words proved to be more prescient than I could have ever imagined. She knew exactly which details to include in the story and which to remove. She predicted when the audience would laugh when a one second pause would be worth more than one hundred words in terms of dramatic effect, and in each and every case, she was right. She is a master storyteller, and I have learned so much from her in such a short time.   

If you’d like to hear Erin (and Josh Blau) tell a story, you can listen here.

My next two attempts at a StorySLAM will take place on August 14 and 23, both at Housing Works Bookstore Café in SoHo. The themes of the shows are “About Time” and “Yin/Yang.” If you’d like to join me for the event or have a suggestion for a story that might fit the theme (it must be a true story from my own life, but oddly enough, my friends are better at suggesting stories than I am at choosing one on my own), please let me know.

Competing against my hero

Storyteller Steve Zimmer is a hero of mine. I’ve listened to him several times on The Moth’s weekly podcast and have heard him tell stories live at Moth events around the city. I adore this style of storytelling and am always impressed with his performance.

But Steve is also my competitor at the upcoming Moth GrandSLAM Championship in July, which I find both exciting and daunting.

Steve has told stories at more than 75 StorySLAMs and has been to 10 GrandSLAM championships.

By contrast, I have told stories at four StorySLAMs, and this will be my second GrandSLAM championship.

In the experience department, Steve has quite a leg up on me.

I’ve always wondered how veteran storytellers prepare for competition, and in this short video, Steve discusses several of his techniques, as well as admitting to the level of nervousness and competitiveness that he experiences when he takes the stage.

Overall, I suspect that I am slightly less nervous than Steve when I take the stage but at least as competitive, if not more. As much as I enjoy taking the stage and telling a story, the competitive side of The Moth has always appealed to me as well.

But competing against one of my storytelling heroes next month will probably increase my level of nervousness considerably.