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.