I am sitting in the audience waiting to see if Steve Almond will call my name. After years of listening to the Moth Radio Hour and going to Story Slams, I have finally gotten up the nerve to put my name in the hat at the Boston Moth Story Slam, and now is the moment of truth.
I’m prepared. I’ve practiced telling my story to myself in the mirror over and over, cutting and shaping until I can deliver it by heart. Still, I’m nervous. I haven’t actually told the story to anyone in person, and I haven’t been on a stage since starring in my third grade play. I’m not sure how this is going to go.
I consider having a stiff drink, but decide it’s not worth the risk. When Steve calls my name, I feel a little lightheaded and hurry to the stage.
Like a lot of fiction writers I began my addictive relationship with narrative by listening to the stories my family told. My grandparents were both gifted storytellers. I spent many hours of my childhood sitting at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ tiny apartment while my grandfather told me and my brother vivid tales about World War II, making us feel like we were fighting in the Pacific with him. My grandmother, on the other hand, could have a whole room of people doubled over laughing with the stories she told. She was always able to find the ridiculous in the everyday and turn it into something entertaining.
When I went to school I took my genetic propensity for storytelling and started to write stories, impressing teachers with far-fetched situations and my 1940s syntax. I loved the attention, and the joy of getting my stories into someone else’s head still drives my writing.
But getting into someone else’s ears? I hadn’t done that before, at least not with 200 strangers.
I climb onto the stage and begin telling my story. I start by setting the scene. As I look out over the audience, I can tell that they are trying to make up their minds and figure out what kind of story I’m going to tell. When I get to the part about how my mother keeps a stack of Entenmann’s crumbcakes in the trunk of her car, the audience bursts out laughing, and I know I have them. It’s a total rush.
Standing on that stage listening to the laughter I have the intoxicating experience of instant feedback, completely unlike novel-writing. I’m telling them a story, but I’m also having a relationship with them — in real time.
Novel-writing, on the other hand, is a mostly solitary vocation. You sit alone in a room for hundreds of hours, toiling over the words on the page, hoping that someday, maybe years in the future, someone might read those words and be moved.
I finish up my story with an ending that I know is good. I nail it, and the audience claps and cheers. Steve Almond calls it a “little slice of awesome.” The judges give me the winning scores. It’s all heady and exciting.
No one is clapping the next day when I open my laptop and get back to the novel, but that’s okay. Life is always a balance between brief, intense highs and long, sustained efforts. I tuck that moment away as a reminder of the fun of storytelling, and I go back to work, but not before I check what the theme for next month’s Story Slam is going to be. It feels a little like cheating on my novel, but every long-term relationship has to have strategies to keep the spark alive.