the moth, a cool concept –> reality

Last year for my best friend’s birthday, I found a book called: “All These Wonders, True Stories About Facing the Unknown”. Knowing that she shares my appreciation and love for getting a little glimpse into someone else’s human experience through a story, I was excited to gift the book and get to read it myself, too. Turns out, this book was a curated collection of impactful stories from “The Moth”, just transcribed on paper instead of on the radio or in a podcast.

Reading these stories and now, seeing a live The Moth event has ignited my love for this genre of storytelling. I love the raw, real, nature of these stories, the vulnerability that goes into standing in front of a crowd and sharing something deeply personal. I love finding connections to my own life, relating to someone standing in front of me and not feeling so alone. I love extrapolating grand themes about the world from a five minute rendition of a man thinking he lost his bike, when it was really just behind him the whole time.

Like at a concert, the feeling of sharing an experience with a few hundred strangers sitting all around gives the art itself a new meaning. At the Moth, everyone is sitting together, experiencing the same piece of writing with completely different lenses, and that sense of togetherness gives the story a different power. Some of the stories that were shared at the event were very personal, but the support from the community around me left me feeling empowered rather than defeated.

This environment leads me to want to share my own story with The Moth one day. Before the event, this idea intimidated me, but I learned that even if I don’t execute my story perfectly, or even if it doesn’t have a perfect arc, I will have a community supporting me, interested in hearing my story.

Moth!

As the story is told, I believe the power of storytelling is found when people are most moved by two things: vulnerability, and their ability to see themselves witnessing the story first-handed. It is a legitimate genre as it is most difficult to successfully tell a plot, while incorporating tidbits of character development, as well as making it interactive, asking questions, comedic relief, etc.

 

I listened to “Stranded on a Desert Island” among others. This one stood out to me because there was sort of a plot line: the progression of his high school relationship. Nothing, however, was pinpointed. It felt like some guy just randomly had a microphone stuck to his face, and he was forced to tell a story. He did seem comfortable, so much so, that he took his time, allowing space for the audience to laugh. This is important!

 

I do have a desire to write my own Moth story. I probably would not share it; I feel too insecure in what I have to say, to be completely honest. The Moth has definitely opened my eyes to writing about anything—the whole gist of conversing about a one worded theme is quite difficult, and would be a great exercise to do everyday. Journaling about random topics may stretch the brain and creativity, to create linguistic arts.

Moth Mania: My Favorite Stories from Three Consecutive Hours of Listening

So I think I overdid it a little. I was unable to attend the local Moth Radio Hour last Tuesday, so I started listening to the Moth Radio podcast for the first time. Before I knew it, it was three hours later and I had barrelled through five episodes. Here are some of my favorite stories and what they taught me:

“A Sign, A Satire, and a Scandal” by R. Eric Thomas
A mix of humor, seriousness, and emotion, this was a great first-ever Moth story! The storyteller takes us along for the ride as he writes a satire piece about a Black History Month sign, only for him, an African-American college student, to be called a racist. His story heavily features his own internal monologue, so the audience empathizes with him from the beginning and always knows what to feel. Thomas has an easygoing rapport with the crowd and I could practically hear him feeding off of their energy as he spoke. This story taught me that the level of detail you choose to share with the audience drastically affects their perception of the tale and of you. It also taught me that the energy you bring to the stage can make or break your story.

“Mug Shot” by Steve Osborne
The host introduced the storyteller as a retired New York City police officer, adding “…and yes, that is his real voice.” As Osborne began to speak, I understood why: he had a “feg-ed-aboud-it!” New York accent you only hear on TV. He himself was a dynamic character, making his story just as dynamic. He told a story about a criminal he was about to nab, only to discover that he had died weeks ago. The perp’s mother, who was living in the apartment the cops investigated, asked to keep a copy of her son’s mugshot, a photo Osborne described as one “only a mother could love” earlier on in the story. That subtle foreshadowing brought everything together, making the ending all the more touching and cathartic. The storyteller also achieved the amazing feat of making the audience feel for the mother of a criminal while simultaneously rooting for the cop after him. This story taught me that half the story depends on the identity and attitude of the storyteller, and that foreshadowing can turn an interesting story into an astounding one.

“C’est La Vie” by Terrance Flynn
Hoo boy, this one was a doozy! Probably my favorite one so far. The storyteller takes care to set the scene of his nights at a gay bar called C’est La Vie, complete with all the sights, sounds, and smells. He describes an attractive man, a key figure, in intricate detail, from his windswept blond hair and dirty work boots to the way he always smelled like chocolate. Only much later in the story is it revealed that this man, who Flynn pined after for years but never obtained, was freakin’ Jeffrey Dahmer. HOLY PLOT TWIST, RIGHT? When this bomb was dropped, I (and, I assume, the rest of the audience) wondered how I didn’t see it before: blond, skinny, sketchy man at a gay bar in Milwaukee in the 1980s? Crazy. Not every story can have a jaw-dropping moment like this, but it certainly helps to keep people engaged. This story taught me that if you’ve got a plot twist, build up to it! It also taught me that tiny details can make a story surprising and special.

Would I write a story for the Moth Radio Hour? I’ve certainly listened to enough of ’em to have the practice. Seriously though, while I’ve never been a New York cop or been centured by my college’s Black Student Society or almost gone home with a cannibal, I might have some stories to tell. They don’t have to be super crazy: as long as I use vivid detail, empathetic narrative, and play off my audience, I think I might be able to pull it off.

Marvelous Moth Moments

On Tuesday, I was able to go to The Moth live in Ann Arbor. I had listened to a few Moth stories online before, but this was my first time experiencing it live. I can confidently say that the experience exceeded my expectations, and my friends and I already have the next one marked on our calendars.

As far as being an audience member goes, I think the host made it very clear as to how we were supposed to behave, which was pretty in line with the expectations I had for being an audience member. We were supposed to listen and engage with the storyteller, which I also did not think I was going to have any issues doing (which, for the most part, is true). However, one aspect of being an audience member is realizing, and somewhat acknowledging, that we were supposed to act collectively as an audience when listening to the storyteller. It was different than when, for example, I am reading a book or watching TV because in those situations, I am experiencing the story by myself. Experiencing stories as a collective audience made the environment feel warm and welcoming, something that I personally can’t feel when on my own.

 

In my opinion, to tell a good story is to not only know the story, but to know yourself and what you have learned from the story you’re telling. For many of the performers, specifically the winning one, I could see how the experience that they had shaped them as a person. This, I think, is the power of storytelling – after five minutes of hearing one story about a stranger, I felt as though I already understood them.

 

As I’m sure many people felt, I was surprised at the ratio from men:women speakers. About halfway through the night, when I noticed that there were way more men storytellers than woman storytellers, I looked around the room to see if there were just way more men than women there. To my disappointment, it seemed as though there were an equal amount, and that more men were just deciding to share their stories. I don’t know if this was just because it was an off night or if it was for any other reason, but the entire rest of the night I was left wondering why so many more men spoke.

As I mentioned in class, I spent the entirety of class thinking about what story I would share for distance…nothing came to mind. Then, I started thinking about other stories that I could share just in general, like, events that have shaped me to become the person I am…nothing came to mind. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t think my life is super exciting or if it’s because I’m just too hard on myself, but I literally have no idea if I have any stories that would be of interest for anyone to hear. Definitely something that I want to think about. I can’t be THAT boring, right?

A Story is Not an Essay

I ended up listening to the podcast, and I think I didn’t do exactly what the assignment dictated and listened to individual stories instead of a single episode. They were from different themes and regions, I believe, but they were all very interesting.

 

I think one thing I wasn’t expecting was exactly how I would negatively react to some of the stories. I don’t really want to go into detail because it’s a bit personal, but there was one particular story which bothered me. The reason that it bothered me stuck with me throughout the entire story, but there wasn’t really a way for me, as a listener, to voice this and get it off my chest. I listened to the whole story (which was around 10 minutes) and couldn’t get my mind off this one thing. Whenever the storyteller said something pertaining to this problem, I just felt angry.

 

This initially pissed me off and I almost didn’t want to finish listening to the story — I think going into listening, I had this mindset that all the stories I would listen to would move me deeply and emotionally, in a good way. They would open my eyes up to the world, connect me to humanity, etc, etc. My experience was honestly anything but.

 

I ended up finishing the story and thinking on it, and although it still doesn’t quite sit right with me, I realized how brave it is to tell stories as personal as it was. I’m sure the storyteller realized that this story would garner some negativity, simply because of its subject, but they still told it, and they told it in its rawest form. The point of storytelling, I realize, is not necessarily to gain an audience’s approval, but to bring something personal into the open and to reflect.

 

The other stories I listened to were much more lighthearted, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. One of them was about a young man’s experiences with his family in an airport, and I laughed aloud for a few moments — he describes how his family always forces him to carry baggage, and to take advantage of certain airport loopholes to bring as many bags onto the plane without paying for carry-on as possible. The story didn’t necessarily have a deeply stirring message for the audience — it was more of a reflection than anything else. In the very end of the story, he states his realization that he had inaugurated into adulthood in his family’s eyes because of the latest airport incident. The story was refreshing because it didn’t try to bring me into the light or elicit any particular emotions from me — it was just one individual’s story, and it allowed a listener to glean their own shared experiences from it.

 

I think that throughout my academic writing career, I’ve always been taught that my pieces must have some particular meaning, that they must persuade a reader, or come to some clever conclusion. I realized that I hadn’t made sure to check this attitude at the door when beginning to listen to the Moth — the entire time I listened to the stories, my mind was perpetually trying to gather evidence on the piece’s essayistic qualities. By the end, I realized that there were little to none essay characteristics in all of the pieces, and that this was intentional. Stories are not essays. Essays can be told in stories, but to boil a story down to simply an essay is to do it a great injustice.

 

I think I’m going to listen to an episode again this weekend, and this time listen solely for the sake of listening. Reactions, however negative, aren’t bad — essays may require some objectivity, but stories do not, which is something I’ve picked up on from listening to the audience’s reactions.

Please, Sit Here With Me, and Hear My Story

The night at the Moth blew me away. I have missed listening to stories, for the academic rigor of the college education often leaves little room for anything that doesn’t require an MLA/APA/Chicago citation.

I loved the entire experience of the live storyslam. There’s something so unique about having 200 people sitting in the same room, all united with the purpose of engaging with a story. It wasn’t just about the stories, every part of the Moth event contributed to the experience as a whole. There was the audience warm up by the oh-so-charismatic host with an amazing laugh, there was the excitement of drawing names from the hat, the performative aspect of the stories, the judging process, the use of mini-stories between the big stories, all of that built up to a very refreshing evening. I honestly felt like I got more in contact with my emotional/human side, which often gets slighted in favor of posh objective academic discourse (you feel me?). I think the rules of the Moth added to the overall vibe of intimacy and authenticity. 5-minute stories kept things concise and almost like a conversational story, rather than a ted talk lecture, and making it true+ YOUR story to tell made the experience of listening to them so authentic, knowing that the stories were real and from the mouth of the one who had been through it.

But why would I want to pay money to attend the live event when it is all uploaded in podcasts and story hours anyway?

There’s so much to an evening at a live story slam that just doesn’t come through if you’re listening to the stories from your own bed. Not that I wouldn’t, I feel like that is a wonderful experience in itself, but the evening at the slam itself is completely different. One thing I really loved was hearing the mini-stories in between the big stories. These were short, anonymous responses to a prompt on a slip of paper, related to the theme. Tuesday’s theme was “Distance” and the mini-stories prompt was “Tell us about a time you went all the way”. I loved hearing the quirky, different interpretations of this, and the way people condensed it into a few poignant sentences. This is especially because I just finished an experiment in writing microfiction, and these mini-stories I heard reminded me so much of microfiction, in that a lot of the good ones still had that sense of beginning, middle and end, and alluding to something larger, even in the small form of a few sentences.

I’m definitely putting the future storyslams on my calendar. I’ve already made a date with one of my friends for the 4th December one! I am so excited!

Listen

My grandmother loved stories. I spent the first six years of my life at her feet, in a tiny agricultural village in Andhra Pradesh. My earliest memory features me, being eaten alive by mosquitos at twilight, listening as she retold village gossip to her friends. There was always boisterous laughter, gasps of shock, and definitely some clucking of disapproval.

Every morning before sunrise, as my grandfather headed off to the fields, she would drag me to the village temple. I would be bleary-eyed and starving, sulking the whole way. We would sit on those cold concrete floors while the priest would sing beautiful mythological hymns for us. I don’t think these songs would be beautiful by today’s standards, but they often brought brought tears to my grandmother’s eyes. They are hundreds of thousands of stories, overwhelming even the thousands of gods – some are sung, some are told, some can’t be told before a certain hour, some can only be told at a in the presence of a certain person. These rules wrangled the sheer volume of stories to a manageable list for our listening pleasure.

I could not understand these hymns, and to be honest I did not care to. The prayer songs are usually sung in a specific dialect that even my devout grandmother could not fully understand, a secret language taught only to the caste of priests. I would sit there, nodding off, as the priest would chant and sing and conduct his puja. The sun would rise, and my grandmother and I would walk back home in the rising heat. The whole way, she would retell everything that was sung. I always liked her versions better.

There is something about listening to people tell stories that I love. As I was listening to Moth, I came to the realization that I really felt no desire to get up on that stage myself. Sitting, listening, is what comes naturally to me. Being a good listener is something that I have always prided myself on, but I never really thought that it came from loving listening as opposed to…I don’t know…being a good friend?

I think storytelling is an art, whether it is performative or not. The Moth stories are rehearsed and refined in some way. Still, I feel that same intimacy listening to strangers talk about their stories as I feel when my friends are telling me about their days. Stories are a huge part of what makes us human. Humans are  social creatures, and we have always used stories as an essential way to connect with one another. I think Moth capitalizes on that innate desire to gain a glimpse into someone else’s world, to look through their eyes for even a few minutes.

I know that my grandmother would have wanted me to create, but I do not think I have a story that needs to be told. I think I am happy listening in, watching someone else explore their world for a little while. At least for now.

Vulnerability & Empathy in Story-Telling: A Night at The Moth

This Tuesday night, I attended The Moth, a platform for artists & writers to share personal stories based around this night’s theme of Distance. With eleven speakers to share a 5-6 minute story relevant to the topic of distance, each came with a different approach to their tone, content, and usage of comedic relief for their stories. Complemented by a highly interactive audience of 200+ people, the speakers and audience became ingrained in the same experience of vicariously reliving the stories.

Source: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/michigan/files/styles/medium/public/201603/the-moth-sl2-6536364cec.jpg

With a plethora of genres intersecting with one another, all shared the features of being non-fictitious and personally experienced narratives. Although some stories may have been performed on-the-spot whereas other pieces may have been carefully tinkered with prior writing preparation, all pieces shared the story-telling aspect. Just like any form of writing, being able to convey your primary meaning to your audience is the most valuable component to any writing. With story-telling, the composition of the audience is highly variable, so being able to communicate fluidly is crucial. Despite the importance of clear communication at The Moth, several performers often had unclear stories which made me feel lost about what was happening. This was probably one of the worst feelings: when you know the artist has a phenomenal story, but you just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, a lack of clarity was a rarity. Many performers spoke compelling stories, driven with emotions. The comedic stories gave a lighthearted and funny narrative, whereas the more serious stories honoured my presence and allowed me to put a face to social issues. For instance, the judged winning speaker that night discussed the conflicting intersection of child molestation and family, providing me an outlet to empathise with the speaker’s experiences. Not often do we have individuals able to willingly talk about such personal and traumatic experiences in public.

Experiences like The Moth need to be experienced by everyone, and at least several times. Story-telling is an opportunity for us to share personal experiences and thus bring awareness to issues that often go hidden. By creating a vulnerable and open space with an inclusive audience that is excited to listen, speakers also can find a unique opportunity to share with a highly supportive audience. All in all, The Moth is a phenomenal way to spend a night, not only learning but also being entertained.

Source: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/michigan/files/styles/large/public/201808/mouth101-1.png

Moth’s are pretty too

Hi there!

Unfortunately, I was unable to tend the Moth Story Slam at Zingerman’s Grayline. I would have much preferred to be there over my Statistics review session. I would story slam over calculating confidence intervals any day of the week.

Anyways, I instead tuned into a Moth story hour radio episode all about Transit.

The first story was about a young male’s role in his family’s sneaky airport practices. A fun, lighthearted story told in a fun manner actually transforms itself into a fascinating look into a culture and the way in which generations change in America.

The second story was all about kicking yourself in the ass until the real you shows up. This guy’s story juggled the ideas that you can’t have something good without getting kicked in some other way. It was a little sad to listen to, but he maintained a strong composure and used humor in a slightly deprecating manner that made it more enjoyable.

When I finished listening to this story, I took a break and did a little research on the Moth genre. I wanted to understand better where each story was coming from and what the guidelines were. As we discussed in class, there are actually rules for the moth genre. The story has a time limit (depending on the level), it must pertain to the theme, and it must have a beginning middle and end. This last rule is what I imagine is the hardest. Especially after spending time in class today trying to come up with our own story, I realize how complex a genre this is. The stories always have a purpose. They aren’t just “I walked to the ice cream store. I bought ice cream. I walked home.” Rather they are simple stories that speak to character, values, and morals. It can be hard to verbalize these ideas in the form of a story.

After my research, I finished up the moth hour and in all honesty, I would try and put my notes into sentences, but I was half asleep. I have already downloaded two more hours of stories to listen to on my next road trip though. They’re like mini-narrative Ted-Talks. I keep thinking back on that first one I listened to and how effective it was. It incorporated cultural tradition, family dynamics, personality, humor, and of course a form of transit. It also held my attention throughout, which I admit can be hard to do. I like the formal informality of them. That may sound stupid, but there is something about speaking a story in front of people that is very formal and eloquent. Yet the audience allows for informality. It is comforting and new.

I’m excited to think more about Moth storytelling and I definitely plan on attending one of the next two to see it in action. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a story of my own by then!

 

Community at The Moth

During the live event last night, I noticed that a major part of the live storytelling genre (and of Moth performances, more specifically) is community. The hosts tried to make the audience members feel part of a group, cracking “inside” jokes about NPR listeners and speaking familiarly with the crowd. Also, I think the inclusion of the mini stories built community, since the stories showed that  the audience members had their own interesting experiences to share. This created a sense of us all being there not just to hear the stories of a select few performers, but to share our stories too. In a similar vein, I found that the most emotionally impactful stories were those with relatable or sympathetic elements.

I think that the community-building aspect of the Moth is what makes people keep returning to shows — they feel like they’re part of something collective and constructive. This is also what keeps people telling their stories (I wouldn’t want to open up unless I had a familiar, supportive audience). Community is not only important to the Moth genre, but to storytelling in general. We tell stories to find commonalities, relate to one another, and learn from one another. If the audience isn’t willing to participate in the storytelling in some way, it’s not going to be as effective.