Alan Olifson is a stand-up comic; writer; host of The Moth StorySLAM in Pittsburgh; and creator, producer, and host of WordPlay, a story-telling show set to a soundtrack. He has written an award-winning humor column for The Boston Phoenix, done public radio commentaries, and writes a blog at themanchild.net.
At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Olifson will host a Mini-Moth Story Slam. In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Katie McGrath spoke with Olifson about his involvement with The Moth, learning from mistakes, and what makes a great story.
CNF: You mention in your bio that you’re a software engineer “for fun,” but I’m guessing that hobby pays some bills, too. What led you to pursue writing? What are the costs/benefits of choosing to pursue things like stand-up comedy or host The Moth Story Slam instead of writing code?
OLIFSON: Good guess. It definitely pays its fair share. For me, writing started out as almost a by-product of pursuing stand-up; something I knew I wanted to do ever since I discovered George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy in middle school (thankfully, my parents had a laissez-faire attitude about monitoring what I was doing). Pursuing stand-up led to a lot of writing, just without the need to worry about punctuation or spelling. So that's where the seed was planted. But I've also always had a very practical side, a desire for some stability, reasonable closet space … that kind of stuff. So, while I didn't do an actual cost/benefits analysis of the situation, I was an econ major. Honestly, though, the coding thing wasn't a conscious plan but more a series of fortunate events; the right part-time job that led to picking up some good skills at the right time, right when the internet became a thing. I'm that old. But I did always know, whatever my path that writing, comedy, storytelling would always be a part of what I did, even if was just doing open-mics after work into my 60s. And, you know, there's always the Rodney Dangerfield model to shoot for: try comedy, have a career, try comedy again and your persona clicks in. I guess that's my new plan.
CNF: Comedy writing and nonfiction writing have similar approaches in craft, in that they both strive to balance scene and summary and engage the audience. How would you say they differ?
OLIFSON: Pacing is, of course, a big part. What really drew me to nonfiction after years of stand-up was the room to stretch out and really build a scene or give some more context. Back when I started in stand-up, the conventional wisdom was you needed to hit a laugh every, like, six seconds or something ridiculous like that. Like there was some perfect humor algorithm out there you could tap into. Moving it to the page gives you more time. You can also have more fun with subtle turns of a phrase or wording that can really pay off in an essay but sound off-putting or just fall flat at a comedy club. Stand-up evolves, though, and I think all this is probably less true than when I was first coming up. Look at people like Louis C.K. or Mike Birbiglia; they are very literate comics. On the flip side, with stand-up, you can do a lot with delivery and attitude. Write out some of the best stand-up bits and, without the voice of that comedian in your head, they die on the page. So I guess in stand-up you can lean on your personality more. In nonfiction writing, you have to convey that with just the language. That's probably why I enjoy doing essay readings, performing nonfiction. Then you get all the benefits of both forms.
CNF: What does comedy writing require that perhaps nonfiction writing does not?
OLIFSON: Good, quick transitions. I always struggle there with stand-up. A 45-minute stand-up set can weave between so many different topics; even a five-minute set can. You have to figure out how to go from that joke about your awkward job interview to the one about your inability to find a sweater that fits, without the benefit of paragraphs. A good stand-up set, I think, should still flow logically, but the transitions have to be much quicker, especially in the standard five-minute set you have for late night shows, club auditions, etc. You need to be able to move through your best bits and make them seem like a package. And you need to/get to rely on the non-verbal. It took me years to realize I could get as big a laugh on a simple pause or raised eyebrow as I could on a carefully crafted few lines. It feels like cheating sometimes, but you need to embrace that in comedy, I think.
CNF: Can you talk about your experience when you were first exploring the idea of becoming a writer? What led you to a life of writing and storytelling?
OLIFSON: I always saw myself as a comic. I quit a job in L.A., moved to Chicago and really focused on just being a stand-up, working "the road," which meant just booking myself in every club, Holiday Inn, and bowling alley with a comedy night that I could find between Buffalo and Des Moines. Which was great in my twenties. But as I worked with more and more bitter middle-aged comics it was also kind of like a Scared Straight program. A life on the road wasn't really for me long term. So that led me to writing—initially sitcom writing, which I moved back to LA to pursue but didn't have much success with. Then I discovered essay writing. I started it as a way to mine for more stand-up material but really fell in love with the format. At the time, a lot of essay reading shows were popping up in L.A., and I was pretty much hooked from that point on.
CNF: How did you connect with The Moth? Were you a participant first? If so, what was that experience like? What story did you tell?
OLIFSON: The Moth was one of those great moments of serendipity. I had just moved to Pittsburgh and someone suggested I check out what was then called a MothUP at the WYEP Community Broadcast Center. This was before Pittsburgh had an official Moth StorySLAM. The MothUPs were a (now defunct) way for unaffiliated cities to hold Moth-like storytelling shows and send the videos to the Moth in New York. Embarrassingly, I had actually never done the MothSLAMs in L.A. By the time they came around, I had a newborn and, honestly, my nights out to perform were so precious I couldn't spend one on a night I couldn't be sure I'd get up. But I'd been to Mainstage shows, listened to the radio show—I was a fan. Anyway, I showed up and it was a modest, summer crowd. I got called up and told a story about my nephew's bris—the horror and joy of the whole thing. It was a fun, intimate show. A few months later, they announced the launch of the official Pittsburgh SLAM. They hired the woman who was producing the MothUP, Kelly Flanagen Dee, to be the producer, and when they needed a host, my name came up. I was actually lukewarm on the idea, at first. I mean, I was flattered, but I was thinking, "I don't want to host, I want to tell a story and win!" But it's ended up being the most fun gig I've ever had. I get to tell stories and do a bit of stand-up-ish kind of stuff every month, to an amazingly supportive, invested, literate, smart crowd. And I don't have to worry about what my score is going to be.
CNF: What is your decision-making process like for The Moth StorySLAM in terms of what stories make it into the show?
OLIFSON: The StorySLAM is really an open mic. People sign up before the show and we draw ten names at random. So, given that, it's a small monthly miracle the caliber of stories we get. But as far as what the New York office chooses to make it onto the podcast or radio, I can't officially speak for them, but I think they really like a good arc. A "the moment when" kind of story. As in, "… and that was when I realized I wanted to be a monk." A story where something, no matter how small, transforms you.
CNF: What are the challenges to live storytelling? What are the benefits?
OLIFSON: Similar to stand-up, you don't have as much of the benefit of time, I think. You need to grab the audience faster and keep them more. And you have the same issues with transitions; you can't rely on a new paragraph or chapter to break things up for you. You need to make your story flow; it's like filming a movie in one take, kind of. But the benefits are huge, especially if you're doing humor. You get the instant feedback. For me, that is unparalleled. Getting that laugh on the joke you weren't sure of or, even better, that unexpected laugh on the line you've reworked so many times you forgot it was actually funny. And, as I mentioned, you now have your delivery and non-verbal tools at your disposal; You can sell it. It's kind of like getting a director’s cut of your story, you know. If you write it and let someone else read it, you're at the mercy of the pacing and tone they bring to it. When you're doing it live, you control everything.
CNF: What advice do you have for storytellers for how to get readers to care about their stories? How does one make the personal universal?
OLIFSON: You make the personal universal by making it more specific. That's something I was taught, and I find it very true. The details of our lives aren't as unique and personal as we may think they are. And so the more you really dive into the details—what did the furniture look like, what song was playing, what smell—that stuff can draw your reader in, even, I think, if their experience is totally different. Because we all know the details of lives outside our own, right? Whenever I'm stuck trying to describe a situation or feeling, I go back to the actual details I remember, and that unlocks a lot.
CNF: What is something that you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
OLIFSON: That's tough. I don't think anything. Which I know sounds horribly self-satisfied. See, this is one of those moments where I'd like to read this answer to people, so I can make sure they're getting my tone. But, really, I'm very content with my life's balance now and the direction I'm going. And I'm where I am because of every mistake I've made. Which is a really smug answer, isn't it?
CNF: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? That you’ve ever given? How about the worst?
OLIFSON: Have a backup plan you like. That may also be the worst advice I've ever given. I think some creative people thrive on living without a net. They want to be a writer, and a backup plan makes them soft, less hungry. "Donating plasma, that's my backup plan!" But for me, having software development as my "day job" has given me the room to make decisions I'm comfortable with. And just being out in the work world gives me more interesting things to write about than if I wrote for a living. It's a cliché because it's true.
Worst advice I've ever given is easy. I was the middle act at a comedy club in Milwaukee. The opening act was a local guy, probably five or so years younger than me. He was funny, but mostly did impressions, which, in the world of stand-up, is a step above juggling. We were out for drinks after the show and I said, "You're a funny guy. Just lose the impressions, they're a crutch." The guy was Frank Caliendo. Famous for his Madden and Seinfeld impersonations. He went on to MADtv and I think now has his own show in Vegas. I could double check, but every time I Google him, I die a little inside. So, really, don't listen to anything I say.
CNF: How do you handle rejection in your writing life?
OLIFSON: It always sucks. It always feels personal. But I like to collect stories about all the people I respect who suffered hundreds and thousands of rejections. I try to remember the people doing the rejecting are just one voice, one opinion. Of course, when I'm accepted, I like to forget that and think the person doing the accepting speaks for all of humanity.