When it was announced last year that The Moth would be coming to Madison I was ecstatic. I’ve been a longtime fan of The Moth Story Hour on public radio, and a few years ago I got to attend a Moth Story Slam in person, in New York City. (There are also books and a podcast, which are worth checking out.)
Basically The Moth is a storytelling extravaganza — the set up is that normal, everyday people are invited to come up to the mic to tell stories that are true, less than five minutes long, and performed without notes. You can sign up to tell a story around a specific theme, or you can hope to be pulled out of the audience to give it your best shot. It’s not stand-up. It’s not acting. It’s something that happened to you, that only you can talk about.
When done well, the performances are nothing short of astonishing. And even when the telling is average, the experience of hundreds of people gathering in a theater to listen to a lone person talking about an event in their life on a bare stage. . . that is an amazing moment of community and care and empathy. And it is rare. A throwback to our ancient ancestors talking around a fire late at night, it’s an intimate form of communication and it’s captivating. And for a theater person, it’s a great reminder that amazing stories can have a huge effect on an audience without sound cues, lighting, costumes, props or scenery. It’s really all about the story.
So Madison’s first Moth GrandSLAM on October 27th was an undeniable success. The Barrymore Theatre was packed with people—mostly older, white couples who probably make up the base of the WPR listening audience. The crowd was supportive. The judges — chosen from audience members — were fair. There were ten stories that had all previously been judged the winner of a smaller Moth gathering, and the resulting “cream of the crop” was diverse; some were funny, some were odd, some were horrendously sad. All addressing the theme “A Fish Out of Water,” they touched on issues of race, gender identity, immigration, loss, failures in communication, and compatibility. My hands-down favorite was a story told by Chicagoan Nestor “The Boss” Gomez, an immigrant from Guatemala, who talked about trying to learn English quickly as a kid so he and his brother could assimilate into their American neighborhood and American schools as fast as possible. And how renting movies in English from the video store, helped the boys transition to their new life, but not without some trepidation and sadness from their mother. It was a beautiful portrait of a really specific moment in time; happy and sad at once, personal and universal.
Kevin Lamar Willmott II also told a very compelling story about being an “other,” a half-black, half-Causcasian man in ultra liberal Madison, where racial aggressions ranged from micro to major, and frequently dealt with his hair. Danielle St. Louis told a bizarre and wonderful tale about dating a professional pot farmer, and feeling awkward on the fringes of the drug culture. They were very good. A few other storytellers had amazing moments but their stories needed some work structurally. A lot of them reminded me of the golden rules of writing a great 10-minute play, which I’ve been teaching at Edgewood High School this semester.
Make no mistake; creating and delivering an awe-inspiring short story, whether it’s in prose, spoken word, or short play form, is really difficult to nail. Here are some of the things my students and I have been discussing this fall, that apply to Moth stories. If anyone aspires to take their place behind the microphone in the future here is my advice:
1. Don’t be boring. Sounds easy enough. It’s not.
2. Grab the audience. Grab them by the collar in your first sentence. Get their attention and don’t let go. Gotta have a killer opening.
3. The dinosaur rule: start as close to the end of the story as you can.
4. The airplane rule: there’s got to be a journey.
5. The chocolate chip rule: only include the very best stuff. All chocolate chips — no room for cookie filler.
6. The cowboy rule: if I recognize your characters as archetypes, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to surprise me.
7. The “everyone’s pet dies” rule. Yes, everyone’s pet/mother/grandparent dies. That makes your story universal, but not interesting. Tell me something about it that’s extraordinary.
8. The twist. I don’t want to see the end of the story coming. Subvert my expectations.
9. The Hamlet rule. You’ve got to have a killer last line. Stick the landing.
10. Make it Matter. Why do I care? Are the stakes high enough? Is the conflict interesting enough? Why is it important that you tell me this now?
If it looks like I’ve got this all figured out, that’s not the truth. I wish all my writing adhered to these lofty goals, but it doesn’t. Not yet. I actually have a Moth story on my desktop that I wrote several years ago — it has a good beginning and a killer last line. It’s poignant and personal. But the truth is I haven’t had the guts to work on it. . . practicing it out loud and making sure it’s all chocolate chips and easy for the listener to follow. But now that I’ve seen some of the local competition, maybe I will. Maybe I’ll be inspired to head up to the microphone in 2018 and do my best to share a story that’s real and true, and means more than it sounds like at first.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll go to another Moth.
For more info, visit themoth.org.