Last night, I went to a story slam. Those who know me know that I generally steer clear of literary events that involve the word “slam.” Cue Leslie Knope.
But this was The Moth, a podcast often referred to in reverent tones by trusted friends and of which I’d heard short, funny, and interesting clips on NPR’s This American Life. So when a few coworkers suggested we go after work on a Monday night, I happily agreed to tag along. When we arrived an hour before the event, the bar was already packed; the walls were lined with people in tall chairs, groups of friends sipped beers around crowded tables, and the bar was abuzz with waiters scurrying back and forth between customers. My coworkers and I found an open space on the hardwood floor where we sat cross-legged in front of the low stage. A microphone stood alone at its center. Behind it, a small poster board sign announced the rules of the event.
1. Your story must be true.
2. It must be on topic. Each StorySlam has a different theme to which the storytellers are strictly bound.
3. It must have stakes.
4. It must be your story to tell.
5. And, lastly, it must be on time. Each storyteller has 6 minutes to tell their story and not a second more.
The sign also made it clear that the Moth was not a place for stand-up routines, rants, confessions, or gratuity. Instead, it was a place to tell a truly good story, one that makes us care about the storyteller, explores fears and desires, introduces conflict, and, more than anything, demonstrates that the storyteller has been truly changed.
Three groups of ordinary listeners were designated as judges, and then the storytelling began. The theme of the night was snooping, and while many of the stories followed the conventional story line—purposely reading a significant other’s emails to see if they are cheating or accidentally finding a loved one’s porn stash—a few others resisted the ordinary and stepped into truly wonderful territory. One storyteller, a medical student, described the “snooping” he’d done to discover who his med school cadaver had been before death and the touching facts you can discover about a person’s life through the small details of their appearance. Another woman told us of the time she snooped through her neighbor’s encyclopedias when she was in 5th grade, frantically searching for more information on a topic that her family refused to talk about: the ominous arrival of her period. Another woman detailed the awkwardness that ensued when her husband discovered that their son and his girlfriend had exchanged nude pictures. Finally, my coworker’s husband riveted the crowd with a story of how spying on the cops led him to an active crime scene and a misunderstanding that left him in handcuffs.
Some of the stories had clearly been rehearsed, told and retold aloud until the teller could say the lines without thinking. However, the ones I liked most were off the cuff, stuttering, a bit halting, both serious and funny, casual and yet structured. As the night drew on, I also discovered that the stories that truly captivated me were the ones that made me worry. I wasn’t worried for the guy who recounted the series of supposedly funny occurrences that led him to discover that his couch surfing host was gay. There was nothing at stake, and so I was indifferent from the beginning. However, I did worry for a number others—that they wouldn’t finish their stories in time and I’d never hear the ending or that they’d be caught in the act or that a simple misunderstanding would lead to physical harm. My anxiety deliciously crested as the storyteller zigged and zagged towards an ending that I simultaneously craved and dreaded.
After every story, the judges presented their scores, which were inconsistent at best. They often awarded points based on sympathy and a well-rehearsed delivery when I would’ve awarded points based on the amount of stillness in the crowd, whether or not the story made us collectively draw a breath, the vivid details that can only come from a lived experience and truly give life to the story. I walked away from the event disappointed with the chosen winner—a Guatemalan guy who told of every sadsack story about cheating that I had ever heard while living in Ecuador—but I was still deeply satisfied with the experience. What a luxury to be so thoroughly riveted by strangers’ stories. What a privilege to live in a culture where StorySlams even exist. I’ve already taken to the internet in search of other storytelling events. Hopefully I will soon be a teller as well as a listener, because I, too, have stories that are just waiting to be told, to strike a quiver of anxious energy in the listener, to draw others into the unique set of circumstances that makes my experiences so different and yet so utterly human.