Speak Up Storytelling #17: Robin Gelfenbien

Episode #17 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast is ready for your listening pleasure.

We start by talking about finding and crafting stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." We talk about the Homework for Life submitted by a listener, and I offer up three Homework for Life moments from the week and discuss why one is better than another.

Next, we listen to Robin Gelfenbien's story about finding love with the help of Marie Kondo, then Elysha and I discuss the strengths of this fantastic story as well as suggestions for improvement.

Finally, we answer a listener questions about storytelling in everyday life and offer some recommendations.

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you haven't rated and/or reviewed the podcast in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work.

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Speak Up Storytelling #15: Roquita Johnson

Episode #15 of Speak Up Storytelling is now available for your listening pleasure.

Elysha Dicks and I talk about finding excellent stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life," including moments that storytellers see but non-storytellers might not. 

Then we listen to Roquita Johnson's story about finding her calling, followed by commentary and critique, including:

  1. The components of an especially effective beginning to a story

  2. Outstanding use of dialogue in stories

  3. Variations in tonality

  4. "Seeing" your story

  5. The best moments to add description to a story

  6. Preserving surprise in a story

Then we answer listener questions about becoming emotional while telling a story, the past and present tense, and how to pitch a story to Speak Up.  

Lastly, we each offer a recommendation. 

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you're not one of the 60 or so people to rate and/or review the podcast in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work. 

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Speak Up Storytelling #14: Renae Edge

Episode #14 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast is ready for your listening pleasure.

Elysha and I start off this week's podcast by talking about finding and crafting stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." I talk about how small and seemingly insignificant a storyworthy moment can sometimes be unless you're keeping your eyes open and looking for those moments. 

Next, we listen to Renae Edge's story about an important moment in the front seat of a sedan. Then Elysha and I discuss the strengths of his fantastic story as well as suggestions for improvement, including:

  1. The effective use of backstory in a story
  2. Outstanding transition strategies to and from the past
  3. The power of the present tense
  4. The components of an effective beginning
  5. Singing in storytelling
  6. The potential power of specificity in a story

Finally, we answer a listener questions about flashbacks in storytelling and strategies for successful wedding toasts and offer our recommendations. 

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you haven't rated and/or reviewed the podcast in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work.

They also make Elysha so happy. 

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An anonymous note about a possible murder

I arrived at Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires, on Sunday night with a bag full of my novels, magazine columns, and comic books. I spread them on the table for my students to see, and then I stuffed them back into the bag and tossed the bag into the corner of the room.

It sat in that corner, untouched, for a week.  

On Friday, I grabbed the bag as I was packing up to leave. Tucked into my copy of Storyworthy was a sheet of paper. Written on the paper was this: 

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Crazy. Right?

In addition to my ten students, the room had been used by several yoga classes, and on our final evening together, my students performed for a group of friends, family, and folks staying at Kripalu that week. I had also performed for a group of about 70 people earlier that week, telling stories and teaching lessons after each, including a lesson on the importance of telling stories. 

A lot of people on campus knew who I was, what I did, and where I could be found. 

There's no telling who left that note in my book or why.

But it seems as if the note might have been left for me and might apply to the work I do. In addition to our organization being called Speak Up, I spend enormous amounts of time convincing people that they have stories to share. Stories that need to be shared. Stories that the world wants to hear.  

This note would seem to fall along those lines. 

I cannot find a Rosalie Gomez who was murdered on the internet. Maybe this is referencing something that happened pre-internet. Maybe it's fiction. I have no idea who Rosalie Gomez might be or if she's even real. 

But I've often said that odd things happen when you begin telling stories. Strange coincidences. Surprising connections.

Earlier that week, while my friend and teaching assistant, Jeni, were swapping stories, we learned that I had been the DJ at her cousin's wedding 20 years earlier, and she had attended that wedding. She barely remembered the day, but I remembered a lot, including details that she couldn't believe I recalled.

"Just think," I said. "Twenty years ago, we were in the same room, at the same wedding. You were 17 and I was 27. Now we're sitting here today at a yoga center in the Berkshires as friends."

That kind of thing happens to me all the time. Tell a story to 100 or 200 or 500 people, and you will find someone in the audience who somehow connects to that moment for often than you would expect.

The world is a surprisingly small place.

But this note is beyond a simple coincidence or unexpected connection. It's something else. Perhaps a bit of fiction scribbled on a piece of paper and tucked into a book called Storyworthy on a whim.

Maybe something more. 

Sadly, I'll probably never know. 

"Tears in the Rain" monologue captures it all

When all is said and done, we are the sum of our experiences. Our thoughts and feelings - who we are and what we believe - are the result of the memories that we carry forward of a life lived. Our minds are a vast storehouse of the millions of minutes that we have been alive.

This is why the loss of someone like my mother was so tragic. Every question that I failed to ask my mother will remain forever unanswered. Every memory that I failed to pry from her mind will never be spoken again.  

My children were born after my mother had passed away, so as I experienced fatherhood for the first time and began to wonder if the things I see in my children were also present in me as a boy, I must resign myself to the fact that I will never know. The person who carried this information is gone.

When a person dies, it's like the wiping of a precious hard drive. The loss of valuable data. Memories so strong and so true gone forever.

It's awful. 

Even worse, so many of us plod through life, careless with our memories. We experience a moment of beauty or grace. Someone says something that causes our heart to soar. We experience a moment with our spouse or child or parent that we never want to forget. But instead of seeing the priceless nature of these moments and holding onto them with all our might, we discard them like trash. A brilliant, beautiful moment that feels as important as anything that has ever happened to us is forgotten three weeks later as life continues to pile up and we fail to reflect, record, and preserve. 

Our minds of filled with memories, but the number of memories that we have allowed to fade away is astronomical. We forget so much more than we remember, even when these forgotten moments are profoundly beautiful or incredibly moving.  

This is why I do Homework for Life. It's the most important thing I do. This is why the collection of storyworthy moments from my life that I have amassed over the past five years is the most valuable thing I own. 

Seeing, recognizing, capturing, and preserving the most meaningful moments from my life takes less than five minutes a day, yet it is the most important thing I do every day. 

If you're not familiar with Homework for Life, you want watch my TED Talk on the subject here: https://bit.ly/2f9ZPne

A reader who also does Homework for Life recently pointed me to the final scene from Blade Runner, known as the "Tears in the Rain" monologue. In the scene, the dying replicant Roy Batty delivers the speech to Rick Deckard moments after Batty saved his life despite Deckard being sent to terminate him. 

In five simple sentences, the replicant makes it clear that he also understands how life is but the sum of our experiences. He understands the value of a lifetime of memories. And he certainly understands the inherent tragedy of death, not only in the loss of the person, but also in the loss of the sum of their experiences. The deletion of their memories forever.  

It's s devastating scene. Terrible and tragic. You need not watch the film or even understand the nature of the memories that the replicant lists to understand the sadness and tragedy of the moment.

A replicant is engineered to remember everything. It has a super-human mind. It is a Homework for Life machine.

For the rest of us? We need to stop discarding our moments of beauty, poignance, heartbreak, and discovery like trash. We need to see, recognize, capture, and preserve. 

We are the sum of our experiences. Make that sum as large as humanly possible, and you will be a more thoughtful, more complete, and a happier human being.

Why a poached egg is funny

I performed in a show in Maine earlier this week called Sound Bites. In addition to telling a story, I also served as the emcee for the evening, introducing storytellers and bantering a bit between stories.

Doing my best Elysha Dicks impression. 

During one of the stories, a storyteller talked about how she can't cook a poached egg. When her story was done, I took the stage and told the storyteller that not only could I not cook a poached egg, but I don't actually know what a poached egg is, which is sadly true. 

The audience roared with laughter.

Later on, I asked myself why.

Why was that funny? I knew it would be funny, and I knew if I delivered it well, it would be really funny, but why? 

I've become a little obsessed with humor recently. Doing standup and constantly being asked in workshops to assist storytellers with being funny, I've become interested in looking closely at what makes things funny.

Here's what I think about my poached egg joke:

I think it's funny because it's a moment of surprising vulnerability. I think it was a combination of unbridled honesty, uncommon authenticity, and a willingness to speak about something that most would not.  

Yes, it's also a self-deprecating comment, which is often funny, but I think it's more than that. 

In that moment, most people don't admit to not knowing what a poached egg is. It's not some rare Tibetan cuisine or a fruit that only grows in the South Seas. It's a poached egg. I've heard about poached eggs all my life, as have most people, and yet I have no idea what that is. Most people would worry about sounding foolish or naive or even dumb to admit this, especially when standing before more than 100 people. When I acknowledge this surprising truth, they laugh. But they don't laugh at me. They laugh at my unexpected vulnerability.

I see this at comedy open mics all the time. A comedian is bombing, but with a minute to go in his set, he says something like, "I didn't realize how silent not laughing can be" or "Thank God I don't have any friends to invite to these disasters" and the audience (mostly comics themselves) roar with laughter. Sometimes they don't even say these comments to the audience. They are speaking almost under their breaths to themselves.

Yet it's the funniest moment in their set. 

Unplanned moments of vulnerability. Unexpected peeks into a comedian's soul.  

Yes, the content is also amusing, and their facility with language is strong, but it's when the comedian drops his guard, ceases his schtick, and stops cracking jokes when we laugh. 

This is why people laughed at my poached egg comment. I was shockingly vulnerable. I said something that most don't say. I spoke to a place in the hearts of the audience where they hide their own shame. Their own poached egg ignorances. I opened that door and let in a little light. Made them feel a little less foolish. Perhaps even a little happier with their own state of being. 

Most important, I made them laugh.

It's not funny that I can't identify a poached egg. It's funny when I tell you that I can't identify a poached egg. 

There's a lot more I could say about comedy, and there is a mountain for me to still learn, but this I know is true:

The best comedians speak the truth. When they say something like, "I was talking to my girlfriend the other night..." they were really talking to their girlfriend the other night. Not the girlfriend of a friend whose story they heard five years ago but have taken on as their own because it's funny.  

They are speaking the truth. Because of this, they have the opportunity to be vulnerable with the audience. Surprisingly, so. With that vulnerability comes the opportunity for a laugh. A big one. A memorable one. One that might even touch the hearts of their audiences, too. 

I love storytelling because I am afforded an opportunity to speak my truth, and when that truth is unfortunate, embarrassing, shameful, or disastrous, even better. People want this. They crave the failures and disappointments. They want to hear about our epic disasters and moments of awkwardness and shame.

Finding someone to brag about themselves in this world is not hard. Finding someone who is willing to tell on themselves is much harder to find. This is why people are drawn to the art and craft of storytelling.

It's honest, authentic, and vulnerable.    

The more unfortunate the moment, the more vulnerability required to tell it. 

Admitting that you have no idea what a poached egg is in front of an audience of 100 people is an act of vulnerability.

It's also funny. For that very reason, I think. 

Listen to smart people plus me

I appeared on two podcasts recently that I really enjoyed. Both are hosted by people who I could talk to forever. 

You can find both podcasts wherever you get your podcasts, or you can click the links below to listen online. 

Slate's The Gist with Mike Pesca 

Mike and I speak about storytelling, film, Bruce Springsteen, and other sundry topics.

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Roxanne Coady's "Just the Right Book"

Roxanne, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers, and I have an expansive conversation on storytelling, books, productivity, happiness, and much more. 

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Speak Up Storytelling #6: Special Storyworthy book launch episode

Episode #6 of Speak Up Storytelling is now ready for your listening pleasure.

This week's special episode features live audio from the book launch for Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling.

In this episode, you'll hear me tell three BRAND NEW stories, never before told at Speak Up (and two never before told on any stage anywhere). followed by short lessons on the finding and crafting of stories. 

Next week we'll feature the second half of this book launch event, including two more BRAND NEW stories, Elysha's debut performance on ukulele, and the question-and-answer session from the evening.  

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you're not one of the 30 or so people to rate the podcast and 20 to review it in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work. 

It also makes Elysha smile. Isn't that incentive enough?

Speak Up Storytelling #5: Renata Sancken

Episode #5 of Speak Up Storytelling is now ready for your listening pleasure.

On this week's episode, we talk about finding and crafting stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." I describe how I discovered two important things about myself that apparently everyone else already knew. 

Next, we listen to a hilarious story by Renata Sancken about ghost hunting in the south. Then Elysha and I discuss the strengths of his fantastic story as well as suggestions for improvement.

Finally, we answer a listener question about telling a good anecdote, and we each make a recommendation.  

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you're not one of the 15 or so people to rate the podcast and 11 to review it in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work. 

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A celebration of so much more than just a book

On Saturday night, I took the stage at the release party for Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, and told five brand new stories to an audience of more than 200 friends and family.

It was quite a night. 

My friend, storyteller, and producer Erin Barker once told me never to produce a show and perform in that same show. I've been violating her rule ever since launching Speak Up five years ago, but there have been nights when I fully understood what she meant. Preparing to perform while managing the multitude of problems that can occur in the process of producing a show can be challenging.

So it shouldn't have been surprising that being the only storyteller of the night, telling five BRAND NEW stories in addition to a brief lesson after each story, is extremely difficult and mentally taxing. I've done solo shows before, many times, but never before had I taken the stage with completely new material. Stories Elysha had never even heard before. 

It was a lot to hold in my head. 

Thankfully, once I stood behind that microphone, everything quieted in my mind and I knew exactly what to do. The stories were there, just waiting for me to begin telling. 

Happily, I wasn't the only performer that evening. Andrew Mayo of Should Coulda Woulda opened the show with a reconfiguration of his band consisting of three of my former students (and his children), the parent of a former student, and the siblings of a former student. 

They were brilliant. The perfect way to begin the night. 

But the highlight of the night came when Elysha took the stage in the second half of the show and played her ukulele and sang in public for the first time.

The story that I told just before she performed was about the months following a brutal armed robbery. I was battling post-traumatic stress disorder at the time but didn't know it. I was clawing my way through life, not sleeping or eating, and oddly not able to pass from one room to another without suffering incredible fear and mortal dread. 

Then one night I found myself standing before an iron door at the bottom of a dark stairwell in an abandoned building in Brockton, MA, wondering if I could find the strength to walk through that door to the room on the other side.

I was there to compete in an underground arm wrestling tournament (crazy, I know) with the hopes of winning some money and taking one step closer to paying off a $25,000 legal bill after being arrested for a crime I did not commit. 

I found the courage to do the hard thing that night. The impossible thing, really. That was the hardest doorway I've ever walked through in my life. And even though I would continue to suffer from PTSD for the rest of my life, that doorway in the basement of that building has made every doorway since so much easier to step through. 

I wanted the audience to understand the value of doing the hard thing. I wanted them to put aside any fears that they might have. I wanted their dreams of someday to be dreams of today. I wanted them to understand that every hard, frightening, seemingly impossible thing that I have done in my life has always yielded the greatest results. 

I was terrified about taking the stage for the first time at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011 and telling my first story. But doing so changed my life. 

So I asked Elysha to perform for the first time that night to show people what the hard, frightening thing looks like. She's only been playing ukulele since February, and she's never sung in public or taken singing lessons. It was hard for her. Frightening. Yet she stepped through that door and was brilliant. 

Elysha performed Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and during the final chorus, the audience joined her in singing. When the song was over, everyone leapt to their feet in the loudest applause of the evening.  

I was so proud of her. I still am. 

It was a wonderful night for everyone involved. I can't thank everyone enough for the support.

We recorded the evening and will release the audio in two parts as episodes for upcoming Speak Up Storytelling podcasts so that you can hear the stories and the lessons and Elysha and everything else.

Speak Up Storytelling: The Podcast available today!

Elysha and I are thrilled to announce THE FIRST EPISODE OF OUR NEW PODCAST SPEAK UP STORYTELLING. 

Unlike most storytelling podcasts, which offer you one or more outstanding stories to listen to and enjoy, our podcast seeks to entertain while also providing some specific, actionable lessons on storytelling.

Each week we will bring our expertise in storytelling to you!  

In every episode, Elysha and I will listen to one of the many stories told and recorded at Speak Up over the last five years, followed by a lesson on storytelling based upon what we just heard. We'll talk about the effective strategies used by the storyteller. We'll offer tips on things like humor, stakes, transitions, suspense, and the ordering of content. We'll also suggest possible revisions to make the story even better.

Whether your goal is to someday take the stage and tell a story or simply to become a better storyteller in the workplace or your social life, this podcast is for you.  

In addition to story and instruction, we will also talk about finding stories in your everyday life, answer listener questions, offer recommendations, and try to make you laugh. We may also interview storytellers from time to time, as well as provide feedback on stories you submit to us. 

You can download the podcast wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Stitcher, Overcast, Google Play, or you can listen to the first episode here

We'd love to hear what you think about the podcast and any questions you'd like us to answer on the podcast, so please send any questions or comments to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com

We would also love for you to rate the show. Ratings help other listeners find the show, so please take one minute to jump over to Apple Podcasts (or wherever you listen) and give us a rating and/or comment. 

This podcast has been a long time in the works. We hope you enjoy!

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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. 

I performed in the dark. Without amplification. The results were surprising.

The worst experience I ever had while telling a story was on election night 2016 at a live show of Slate's The Gist. I was telling the story about my run for the Presidency of my college when things started to turn in the election returns and eyes quickly shifted from me to phones. 

Trump was winning. The world was ending. People were literally hugging one another in the audience. And I was still blabbering onstage. There was a moment in my story when I nearly said, "I should stop. This is ridiculous. You don't want to laugh. I want a hug, too."

I persevered, but I'm quite certain that no one has the faintest recollection that I performed that night. Deservedly so.   

My second worst onstage experience was during the Mayor's Charity Ball years ago. I was emceeing the event, and while the entire evening was lovely, but no one was terribly interested in what the emcee had to say. It was nearly impossible to get anyone's attention, and once again, I'm fairly certain that no one has the faintest recollection that I was even there. 

I thought that last night might go just as poorly. I was scheduled to tell stories at a benefit for a local television network, but strong wins from the Northeaster had knocked the power out about an hour before I was set to perform, depriving me of a microphone or any light save candlelight. The room, which I have performed many times as a DJ, minister, and storyteller, isn't easy even with a microphone. It's long, cavernous, and unforgiving. 

Trying to get the attention of 200 people with no amplification in the dark was not going to be easy.

One of the organizers proposed that we just scrap my performance. People were laughing, drinking, and having a good time already. No sense in disturbing their fun in these conditions.

"Yes!" I thought. "Cancel me. This isn't going to work!"  

Ultimately it was decided that I should give it a try, so reluctantly, I slid two wooden boxes over to the center of the room, climbed atop them, asked a few people to point their cellphone lights at me, and I started speaking.

Loudly. 

Instead of telling three stories covering 30 minutes, I told two stories that filled about 15 minutes before my voice wasn't going to allow me to tell a third. Though I didn't capture the attention of the entire room, I managed to grab a sizable portion and made them laugh with two stories that I punched up on the fly.

I wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. People listened and laughed.

When I was done, I sat down beside a woman who I know but hadn't seen in years. It turns out that she hosts a show on the TV network now with three friends. She asked me appear as a guest.

As I was leaving the building, an attorney stopped me in the lobby and asked if I would be willing to consult on storytelling and communications with his firm.

Someone in the parking lot then stopped me and thanked me for the laugh. A tree had fallen on his house that night, and he was heading home to inspect the damage. "I didn't think I'd be laughing at all tonight. I really appreciate it."

I'm constantly counseling people to say yes when an opportunity presents itself, even when that opportunity is less than ideal. I know people who would've refused to perform under those conditions last night, and honestly, I wouldn't have blamed them. It was an awkward, almost impossible situation. Had they asked me to cancel my performance, I would've happily obliged.

But I agreed to entertain an audience, so when they proposed that I give it a shot, I said yes. I stood up on those precarious wooden blocks, spoke with all the volume I could muster, and told two funny stories 

It wasn't perfect, but people laughed and enjoyed the performance. I received an offer to appear on a television show, an offer to consult at a local law firm, and I brightened the evening of a man who was having an otherwise very bad day. 

Not bad for performing in the dark, without amplification, under the light of a handful of phones. 

Five sausages and a good story

The New England Patriots defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium. It was the eighth AFC championship game that I have attended in my lifetime.

Patriot fans have indeed been blessed over the last 16 years. 

Prior to the game, about ten of us gathered in the parking lot across the street from the stadium for our traditional tailgate. My friend, Tony, does this cooking. My friend and seat mate, Shep, brings tables, grill, and a TV. 

I hand over money and thank them for taking care of me.

After the game, the group gathered back in the parking lot for a post-game tailgate. Since we remained in the stadium to watch the championship festivities on the field, we knew it would be at least an hour before we could exit the parking lot, so burgers, dogs, and the first half of the Eagles-Vikings game was on tap. 

That is, until we realized that one of our friends decided to skip the post-game festivities, flee to the parking lot, and escape the traffic. This would have been fine except he took all the food with him, knowing full well that a post-game tailgate was planned.

Needless to say the eight remaining souls were not pleased to discover that all we had to eat were five sausages and a little cornbread. 

Not exactly a meal for eight people who had just spent five hours standing in the stadium, cheering on their team.

After speaking about our departed friend in the most vile of terms and declaring him dead to us now and forever, we decided to take the one item we had in abundance - alcohol - and attempt to barter for meat from our fellow tailgaters.  Before long we had traded hard liquor, beer, and space around our TV for a little bit of chicken, two pieces of steak, a small army of pigs in a blanket, potato chips, and more. A couple people came over with cooked food and brownies, offering us some of their food out of pity for our miserable condition. Our huddle mass of eight grew to as many as fourteen at one point, and I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with some fellow Patriots faithful.

Don't get me wrong. Burgers and hot dogs would have been fantastic, and they should've been there, damn it. You don't leave early with the food when you know that a large group of hungry football fans are expecting to eat. 

Leaving with the food was not cool. It will not be forgotten. 

But the result - bartering for food, the chance to meet new people, and the collective, creative resentment for a single individual - was kind of great. A otherwise ordinary post-game tailgate turned into something memorable and meaningful under the sodium lights of that dirt parking lot.

There's a phrase that my friend, Catherine, uses about storytelling:

"You have a good time, or you have a good story."

In this case, we were lucky. We got both. 

When cowards hide behind digital walls and hurl grenades...

Someone did something rotten to me a few weeks ago.

A person who I have never met but who performs in the same New York storytelling community as me, who knows many of the same storytellers that I do, and who was connected to me via Facebook, decided to block me.

I didn’t notice. Though I post to Facebook regularly, I don’t routinely scroll my feed. Even if I did, I have more than 1,300 Facebook friends and 1.400 fans. It’s unlikely I would’ve noticed the departure of someone who I had never actually met.

Once I was blocked and unable to see any of her content, she wrote a scathing post about me. 

Already disenchanted with me (thus the block), this person had seen my post on an NYC storytelling group promoting my monthly author newsletter (which includes storytelling tips), and this had apparently sent her over the edge. She took to Facebook, calling me, among other things, obnoxious, egotistical, self-important, average, and “Mr. Full of Himself.”

She didn’t name me directly but included enough biographical info to make it perfectly clear it was me. “Produces his own show.” “Published author.” Multiple Moth StorySLAM winner. Other details very specific to me.  

There was no doubt over who she was writing about.

It was a cruel and scathing post that painted me as a self-absorbed, opportunistic narcissist who treats the storytellers in my shows with contempt. She called for someone in the community to “sit me down” and inform me that I’m “not all that.”

“He needs to STOP,” she wrote.   

There were also factual inaccuracies in the post. Some of her accusations were simply untrue. She was criticizing circumstances that she did not fully understand.

All of this was upsetting, but I’m a grown man. I can accept criticism, as unfounded and unhinged as it may be. After a decade of publishing novels, magazine columns, podcasts, and a blog, in addition to performing on stage hundreds of times around the world and writing and producing my own musicals, I’ve received my share of criticism. I can accept that. I’ve grown a very thick skin.

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But there’s one important difference here.

Because this person blocked me on Facebook before posting her diatribe, I could not see (and would never see) this otherwise public post that was fully visible to my colleagues, friends, competitors, and business partners in the storytelling community. Rather than addressing me directly or posting something on the public network that I could also see, she attacked me behind my back. 

It was an act of cowardice. She called for someone in the community to "sit me down" and make me stop while conveniently and cowardly hiding behind her Facebook wall. 

Had multiple friends in the community not sent me screenshots of her post and cut-and-pasted the text of the post into emails to me, and had she not mistakenly remained Facebook friends with Elysha (whoopsie!), I would have never seen this scathing, libelous attack.

This is one of the insidious parts of social media that doesn’t receive enough attention. As an elementary school teacher for 20 years, I have witnessed firsthand the rise of cyber bullying and know all too well how terrible it can be. It’s devastating to see ugliness, hate, and lies published on a network for the world to see.

But this is different. It hurts to hear that someone despises you and is publicly critical of your craft, but to know that everyone who is important to you professionally can read and respond to the accusations but you cannot is downright insidious and terrifying. To think that this person could continue to attack me again and again, behind my back, in such a cowardly, despicable manner, without me knowing or having any recourse, is scary as hell. To know that your community is reading such hateful comments while you are unable to respond is both enraging and unsettling.  

Elysha didn’t sleep well for days after seeing this post. She couldn’t understand how someone who I have never met could be so angry to attack me online in such a nefarious way.

I can’t either. I can’t begin to imagine her motives or what she hoped to gain from this bit of nastiness.

In response, I wrote to the woman, asking to speak on the phone. I promised to be open-minded and polite. I offered to let bygones by bygones in hopes of finding a middle ground of understanding. And I meant it. I'm nothing if not forgiving. 

Not surprising, she refused. Instead, she sent another screed, calling me among other things a liar. She also widening her target package to include Elysha, who she referred to as a “ditz and a flake.”

It’s an email filled with anger and cruelty and stupidity, and I am so pleased to be in possession of it if I decide to take action someday or (even better) simply post our exchange of emails online for entertainment purposes.

It makes for a fun read. Perhaps a holiday gift to my readers. 

But at least the attack was directed at me this time instead of behind my back. At least I knew what was being said about me. At least I had an opportunity to respond. Defend myself. Challenge her blatant inaccuracies with stubborn little facts.     

Human beings have undoubtedly been speaking behind the back of other human beings since the beginning of time. This is nothing new. It’s awful but unavoidable. But with the ability to block people on platforms like Facebook, we can now speak poorly, cruelly, damagingly, and libelously about another person without their knowledge and reach an audience of thousands with a single click. We can malign a person within their own online community without them ever seeing the insult. We can besmirch their reputation. Levy false allegations. Damage their means of making a living.

All without the victim ever knowing.   

This level of behind the back cowardice is new, and it is terrifying.

The good news about my situation is that the community came to my defense. They did the right thing. They alerted me to the post and offered to respond on my behalf. Elysha was then able to find the post and take screenshots as well. 

It’s important that we all do this.

Public criticism, as harsh and even unfair as it may be, is something that I’m willing to accept. As an author, storyteller, podcaster, playwright, and blogger, I accept my position as a public figure. Criticism is part of the deal. Those who create understand this reality. 

But insidious, behind-the-back criticism that allows critics to block their victims while taking advantage of a network effect that allows them reach large online communities must be rejected and repulsed every time. You have a right to know if someone is criticizing you, fairly or unfairly, on a platform like Facebook. You have a right to know if someone is writing scathing, libelous content about you that can be read and shared by the masses.

When we see these things happen, we must stand up and say no. We can’t accept this level of cowardice and cruelty.

I’m grateful that my community rose to my defense, but then again, I wasn’t surprised. Storytellers are good people.

Most of them, at least.

How I delivered an inspirational talk at a human trafficking conference (while knowing nothing about human trafficking)

I was speaking to some of my former storytelling students - children of Holocaust survivors who had gone through a workshop series with me  that culminated in a storytelling performance.

One of them told me, "Now I see stories everywhere. Everything is a story."

While I don't agree that everything is a story, I knew exactly what she meant. Our lives are filled with storyworthy moments. More than you would ever imagine. Those who mine their lives for these moments and develop them into a treasure-trove of stories constantly add depth and breadth to our lives and their own. 

We are the ones who remember our lives best. We remember our lives through story. 

But possessing so many stories has an added value. When you have a lot of stories, you have the potential to inspire, amuse, entertain, or change minds, regardless of circumstances. No matter the context or need, you'll always have something to say. 

A couple years ago, I was in Indiana, speaking and performing at a variety of events at college campuses in and around Purdue University. I spoke about storytelling, writing, and personal productivity, and I produced and hosted a story slam for students.

A large conference on human trafficking was also underway on campus. I was asked if I'd be willing to close the conference with a speech to the attendees. 

I agreed.

Two weeks before the speech, one of the organizers called and asked about my expertise in human trafficking.

"I have none," I said,

I'll never forget what he said:

"I guess that's what Google is for?" he said nervously. "Right?"

Wrong. 

It turns out that when you have a treasure-trove of stories, you can speak to almost any audience regardless of the topic, purpose, or need. 

Besides, after three days of speeches, breakout groups, and seminars on the topic of human trafficking, did his audience really want one more speech on human trafficking from a guy who had to conduct a Google search on the subject?

Instead, I told a funny story about how I helped a shy student emerge from her shell after years of withdrawal, and in doing so, I came to realize that although I had "saved" this one girl, there were many other shy, silent children who I had not, primarily because I had stopped trying. I had given up on them. I had presumed that someone else would come along and fix their problem. 

Once the story was finished, I explained that when engaged in important work like teaching or seeking to end human trafficking - people work - we can never give up. We can never quit. We cannot assume that someone else will solve the problems.

More importantly, we can't afford to act slowly. We are not making widgets or selling keepsakes. The quality of a human being's life is in our hands. The very last thing we can do is allow bureaucrats, politicians, and ineffective administrators tell us that meaningful change takes time. Institutional transition can't happen overnight. We can't allow ineffective leaders to tell us that large ships don't change their direction overnight. 

This might be fine if you're selling real estate, building furniture, or coding an app, but when you're dealing with the lives of human beings, these passive, placating statements cannot be allowed to stand. 

As a teacher, I cannot be slow to action when a child's future is at stake. I cannot stop trying to save a child simply because every tool in my belt has failed.

Like me, the people who work to end human trafficking cannot afford to move slowly. Cannot waste a moment of time. The people of the world who choose to make a career out of saving lives must be the fastest, hardest, most dedicated people possible. They must be red tape destroyers. Bureaucratic assassin. Fast moving missiles of good.

I knew nothing about human trafficking except that it was too important to not work like hell to bring it to an end. Happily, I had a story that applied similarly and was filled with stakes, humor, and heart. 

It went over very well. The organizer called me the following week to tell me that it was the only time all week that anyone laughed and that my message was heard loud and clear by conference attendees:

We are human saving warriors. We must move at lightning speed. We cannot allow anyone to stand in our way or even slow us down. Human lives are at stake.   

If you are a person with a treasure trove of stories, you can speak anywhere about just about anything. It's hard for me to imagine someone calling tomorrow and asking me to speak on a topic that I couldn't find an entertaining, enlightening story and associated message that would work.    

Want to become a person full of stories? I recommend Homework for Life:

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.

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.

A possible (though not advised) replacement for heart medication

I spent a week at Kripalu Institute for Yoga and Health last week, teaching storytelling to a dozen remarkable people. 

On Tuesday night I performed my one-man show, and on Thursday evening, ten of the storytellers from class took the stage and performed.

It was an extraordinary night.

One of my storytellers had not spoken to a group of people in more than 15 years after suffering a terrible embarrassment in high school. Just standing in front of 50 people was an enormous accomplishment for her. I felt so honored to give her the space and support to help her conquer this enormous fear.

Then she proceeded to make the audience roar with laughter with a hilarious and moving story about her childhood. It turns out that she's a storyteller. 

Several of the storytellers stood before this audience of strangers and told stories about parts of their lives that they had never shared before. Hard parts. Haunting parts. The parts that require more bravery to tell than most people can muster.

There was laughter and tears. Gasps and guffaws. Hilarity and heartbreak. There were lines that I will never forget. "Golden sentences" one of my storytellers dubbed, and she was right. It was 90 minutes of beauty nestled in the quiet mountains of the Berkshires. It was dark outside, but each storyteller shone bright that night. 

After the show, a man approached me. He reached into his pocket, removed a small container, and held it out for me to see. He explained that he suffered from a heart condition, and this was his nitroglycerin. The medication he needed if his heart started "acting up."

"But I feel like I should throw this away," he said. "My heart doesn't need medication. It needs what you did on Tuesday night and these people did tonight. I've listened to all these stories, and my heart hasn't felt this good in twenty years. This is what people need. This is what I need."  

I suggested that he keep the nitroglycerin close in the event a storyteller is not available when his heart started "acting up" again, and he agreed. 

But he was right.

Stories are good for the heart and good for the soul.