Often when we talk about story, we focus on structure. But we talk less often about storytelling—that connection between the author and the reader and all the ways the two can connect. Lately, Alan Gordon (“The Aldrich House,” December 2013) has been stretching his wings a bit with oral storytelling, which comes with certain challenges, for sure. But for a fiction writer, oral storytelling focuses the author on the telling as much as the story.
“Tell me a story, Vince.”
That was the first line of my first published short story, “A Dry Manhattan Story,” in the April, 1991 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I have always loved the voice in fiction of one character telling a story to another. It gives life to both the teller and the listener, allowing for narrative and commentary simultaneously. It is best done on a journey or by a roaring fire. (I have used both in The Widow of Jerusalem and An Antic Disposition,and arguably those are my two favorite books among those that I have written.)
Fiction writers have it easy in one sense. We are limited only by our imaginations and our talents. We can set a story anywhere, anytime, restricted only by what our aesthetic dictates. Selecting the restrictions and imposing them is part of the fun.
But what if someone else imposed the restrictions? What if they were the following: A. The story has to be told orally, not in writing. Okay, I know how to talk. B. The story has to relate to a one or two word theme that will be given to you. No problem—that can trigger my imagination in interesting new ways. C. It has to be five minutes long. Uhh, tougher. Sometimes getting me to shut up is more difficult than getting me to write. D. The story has to be true, drawn from your own life.
Enter The Moth. Founded in 1997 in NYC by George Dawes Green, The Moth holds story-telling evenings, open to all. Hundreds of people jam into a café or bookstore for the weekly StorySLAMS, and a few dozen intrepid (or narcissistic) souls drop their names into a bag. Ten are selected at random. An emcee, usually a comedian, holds forth in between the tales, and panels of volunteer judges score the tale-tellers on a scale of one to ten. The highest score earns the teller the right to compete against other winners in a quarterly event called the GrandSLAM, held in an even larger venue. The winner gets—nothing but bragging rights.
The program has expanded across the nation, adding events with longer stories and a radio show on NPR, earning a Peabody Award along the way. It remains one of the best bangs for the buck anywhere. And it’s a rush, as I can attest from experience.
I had been approached early in The Moth’s history about participating, but felt that my talents were better suited to fiction. Two years ago, however, I thought of one story from my past. I came in, was picked—and won on my first time out. Since then, I have been in two more StorySlams and two GrandSLAMS.
I have found that it takes a different set of gears for true life tale-telling. The narrative voice belongs to a character named “Alan Gordon,” who is an aspect of me slightly larger than my daily persona. The Procrustean nature of the time limit becomes a major factor—do I stretch or do I cut? I usually shape it in my head rather than committing to paper for the freedom to improvise if inspiration pops up mid-performance, as it frequently does.
My second StorySLAM win was for a theme that you’d think would be in my wheelhouse: Mystery. But mysteries in fiction are common. Mysteries in real life—not so much. Yet it was musing upon the paradox of a mystery writer lacking mystery in life that led me to the winning story, which I literally composed on the subway ride from Queens to the Manhattan venue. What was it? Well, it’s a tale best told out loud—and it will be. It’s going to be featured on the radio show and podcast sometime in 2014. The details will eventually be posted at www.themoth.org. Until then, you can check out the site for events near you, the radio schedule, and current podcasts. And if you have a tale to tell, come on down and give it a try.
But remember—you only have five minutes. And it has to be true.