Story Report: First Trip to The Moth

Moth people.

I don’t like the competitive aspect of The Moth but last night there I was, wondering if my name would be called and simultaneously hoping I wouldn’t embarrass myself and also that I’d win. I did neither.

The host, Peter Kim, made us laugh and then pulled a name out the bag and it was mine.

Good news: I was onstage before I could even get nervous. Bad news: I felt like the first pancake. My mom used to say, you always throw out the first pancake, it never cooks right. But I found the mic and started my story.

“Last year our dog Django died…”

And right there, I wish I had paused to take the temperature of the room. Don’t worry, the story went well and I got fine numbers and lots of warm comments from strangers afterward. But the nugget I want to share with other storytellers is:

When you tell a story, allow some space in your opening to accommodate where you are in the running order and to check in with your audience.

My focus, in contrast, was the clock. My inner monolog was Please oh please don’t let me go over time. So although at that moment I heard a little “Oh…” after I said “died” and felt the audience think: “This is going to be a serious one,” I didn’t pause and say something like:

“It’s okay. She’d had a good long life and went about as well as she could without being magically parachuted to Heaven straight from the dog park.”

or something to lighten the mood. Instead I pushed through to what I’d seen as the first joke:

“And the day we got home from putting her down all I wanted to do was clean the house. (pause) Which was weird because the house was already clean.”

To me, that’s funny—a grieving person cleaning an already clean house. But because I had plowed through according to my initial agenda, it took me a few minutes of reshaping the story to reveal the humor in the gap between what I think of as normal grieving and my obsession to erase every trace of loss with Lemon Pledge and Windex.

Story review: If I tell this story again, I will weave in Dave’s role in the events more, because it speaks to what was at stake in cleaning or leaving that dog-smudged window. Also, I’ll time myself more so that I am less panicky about going over.

As it was, I think the story was about four minutes long, so I had more time than I thought. But I’d rather be under than over.

And it was a great night of stories. Some really strong performances including the winner, who made us laugh and cringe over her incredible string of bad gynecologists; Nester Gomez, whose story of becoming the man in the family at 12 years old really hit me; the woman whose stories I’d like to hear more of who talked about a difficult foster care experience; Pearl Ochoa, who told a story about gardening with a happy ending—shocker! …and many more.

So to my friends who have seen me waffle about going to the Moth, here’s my takeaway:

I still don’t love the competitive thing, but I think the rigid time limit and the open judginess provide a good opportunity to sharpen your skills and sensitivity to how a story is living in the moment.

Before’s and after’s

trimming trees
Durings.

This morning when I was out walking the dog, we passed a woman I’d seen at a wedding over the weekend. I don’t know her but I see her all the time, walking her dog or with her kids or out running. Always with her hair pulled back, a scrubbed-looking face, in jeans or running shorts or dog-walking gear like she had on this morning, a Labradoodle by her side. I can’t believe Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize Labradoodle.

But at the wedding she was stunning. Simple dress, hair down, just a little makeup, luminous. I couldn’t place her at first, until my friend said, “You know her. She’s got the Doodle.” When we passed each other, the dogs sniffing in other directions, I said, “Now I know what you look like all glammed out.” I realized too late that it sounded creepy. Like I had something on her. All I meant was that I hadn’t realized how beautiful she was. But that’s also sort of creepy. Like, who cares? We don’t even know each other.

The fruit trees in our yard got trimmed yesterday. We’ve been waiting and waiting for that to happen, because they were far too high, their spindly branches reaching well above the power lines that run along the back fence line in the alley. There were all sorts of delays, even after we’d booked the tree guys, because of ComEd and scheduling and weather. But finally yesterday, in all that wind, they came and reshaped them into the small dwarf fruit trees they were meant to be. I’ve always had a hard time saying dwarf. I’m still not sure which is right. Do you pronounce the “w” or not?

Afterward I went out into the yard, expecting to bask in the glow of our newly proportional surroundings. Instead, the yard felt suddenly smaller and more bleak. The garbage cans in the alley seemed closer, crowding into view. The yard felt sad. “What happened?” I asked. “It’s supposed to look nicer now.” Dave didn’t answer. He was inside. It was freaking windy and cold outside.

At the reading last night, I was almost stupidly nervous beforehand. I keep telling myself I don’t get nervous at these things because you get to hold your script and you’re only being yourself. But still. Dave and I got there early as instructed, and I introduced myself to the hosts. One of them said, “Yeah, we met before, when you did a story at This Much Is True.”

“It’s the same story,” I joked.

“Really?” he looked at me seriously.

“Yeah, I just have the one,” I said. I backed away before I could say anything else. Luckily Syd came in. I tried to talk to her normally but my nervousness kept twisting my tongue. She opened a shopping bag to show me a gift-wrapped box. “You get a goff?” I asked. It was loud enough that she didn’t seem to notice. “Yeah, I’ve been running errands,” she answered.

Another friend walked up and remembered meeting Syd at our old book club. Syd said, “I’m going to see if I can find my book club book before it starts.” I didn’t want this friend to think we were excluding her from our no longer existent book club so I said, “Syd now in real bockup.” The friend smiled and went to her seat.

A third friend showed up and gave me a peaceful incense talisman she got at a retreat over the weekend. I sniffed it a few times before I went up. And after I went up I wasn’t nervous anymore.