Please welcome . . . Graham Shelby!
The emcee gestures toward me, and the applause begins.
I don’t normally get stage fright. Never have. I don’t even entirely understand it. But this situation is a little different: here I am, a guy from Kentucky, about to take the stage at The Players, a Manhattan club co-founded by Mark Twain in the 1880s. The room is full of New Yorkers, some of whom have paid as much as $400 to hear me and four other tellers perform ten-minute stories
This is The Moth Mainstage, the flagship series for the Peabody and MacArthur award-winning nonprofit. My story will be recorded and maybe someday broadcast to the roughly one million weekly listeners of The Moth Radio Hour.
What’s my first line again?
Live storytelling may be humankind’s oldest art form, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. If my Moth experience is any guide, storytelling still offers writers valuable lessons in craft and discipline, because to tell a live story well demands equal measures of courage and restraint, balance and abandon.
I should note that I may be new to The Moth, but I’ve been telling stories in front of live audiences for fifteen years. I’ve performed mostly for children, in schools, libraries, museums, and festivals. I tell folk tales and ghost stories from Japan, where I used to live. Some of these stories I’ve never fully written down. I also tell personal experience stories, but never anything quite as personal as the story I have planned for tonight. That’s another reason I’m nervous.
There’s something powerful about telling a roomful of strangers about your most private thoughts and experiences, but doing so in a way that manages to avoid confession or therapy and become art.
Sometimes people assume Moth tellers are either speaking extemporaneously or reciting a personal essay they’ve committed to memory. Both of those have happened, certainly, in the Moth’s seventeen-year history, but neither demonstrates storytelling at its purest or most powerful. Tellers strive to sound focused and articulate, but also spontaneous and conversational.
That’s because live audiences have different expectations of a story than readers do. In an interview aired on The Moth Radio Hour, Moth storyteller and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik described it this way: when it comes to language and word-craft, “Readers are not forgiving of imperfection.” By contrast, Gopnik says, a live audience doesn’t need a teller to speak in finely polished sentences; rather, “[l]isteners are totally unforgiving of insincerity.”
Phrasing that looks artful on the page can sound pretentious and off-putting in person. Rote memorization poses the same problem. If I’d tried to memorize the entire story, I’d be onstage in front of 264 people, trying to recall the words to the story instead of the experiences and feelings at its heart. In Moth-speak, this is called “Head in the Desk Drawer Syndrome”; it means the teller’s not 100 percent emotionally present in the rendering of the story, and the audience can sense that.
And so, I haven’t read the text version of my story in days. Back at my table is a notebook with my first and last lines, as well as a few transitions, written out verbatim. The rest is outline.
Looking out at the crowd, I find that opening line in the back of my throat, and now I’m saying the words I’ve gone over with senior producer Jenifer Hixson, who invited me here. We met two years ago, when she came to Louisville to help set up the local edition of The Moth StorySLAM, a series of open-mic storytelling competitions in seventeen cities around the country.
In the last few weeks, Jenifer and I have gone over my story in wide-ranging phone conversations that involved laughter, tears, profanity, and hardcore story nerd chat. We talked about structure, exposition, setup, and payoff, and she taught me another Moth term: hijacker—a piece of information that’s relevant to the story but also threatens to sidetrack the audience. For example, in the context of this article, a hijacker might be the substance of my actual story, which is about my late father, a man I first laid eyes on when I was twelve and he was the subject of a feature story on the CBS Evening News.
Sounds weird, huh? I know. That’s why I pitched it to The Moth.
As Jenifer and I discussed the details of the story, she often asked, “How’d you feel about that?” We could both hear the hesitation in my responses.
It turns out that to be emotionally present on stage, you have to know what your emotions are, and you have to own them. Honestly, I thought I’d done that with respect to my father. Instead, I realized it’s much easier to fool yourself and your audience in stories told through ink and pixels than it is when you’re standing in front of them. It’s a good test for a creative nonfiction writer—really, probably for any writer. Could I stand in front of people and tell this story and not flinch or hedge or worry that someone would ask a question I didn’t want to answer?
When Jenifer thought I was ready, she arranged for me to tell my story over the phone to her boss, The Moth’s artistic director Catherine Burns, who says they want tellers to be “real, but not raw.”
Here’s another Moth axiom: Tell stories from your scars, not your wounds. They’ve seen tellers break down on stage or start improvising material, particularly when telling a story about someone who’s died—although, to me, this is one of the great joys of live telling. As Catherine says, “It’s a way of bringing them back to life. For a few beautiful minutes, sharing the truth and beauty of this loved one’s life with a rapt audience. To then tell the audience about their death can feel like killing them.”
I’m going through that process onstage in this story. I let the audience first see my father, as I did, in that odd way, on TV; then later, together, we meet him, know him, lose him, remember him, all in about ten minutes. I watch the reactions color the faces of strangers. I hear the deep, nourishing silence of their listening. People think that the teller is putting on a show for the audience; the truth is that when storytelling works, I feel like the audience is putting on a much better show for me. And it makes me feel strong and humble and so, so lucky.
When the last words—Thank you—come out of my mouth, I exhale, and the applause feels like rain. The emcee—Peter, a big fellow—embraces me and says something about his own father. I return to my seat, met by handshakes, backslaps, and smiles. Jenifer and Catherine each hug me.
I love writing. I do. But it can be isolating. When we’re writing in our rooms, it’s easy for our eventual readers, unknown in name or number, to remain abstract. So easy to focus on what we want, rather than what they need.
Live storytelling never lets you forget about the audience.
The form offers one more gift, as I see it, one that springs from the very aspects of storytelling that sometimes keep writers away: it’s public, it’s interactive, and you have to go somewhere to do it.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, that means you leave the house with one story, but you come home with two.
Listen to Graham perform “The Man of TV.”