Hope springs at the start of a story. That was the feeling on a recent Thursday night at the grand Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor as 1,000 flushed spectators sat fanning themselves with their programs, waiting for a live performance of The Moth, the popular first-person storytelling series out of New York City. The show was part of the annual Ann Arbor Summer Festival, which on previous days had featured performances by Esperanza Spalding, Ira Glass, and Rufus Wainwright — each a more certain pleasure than the lineup of amateur raconteurs we’d come to see that night. But if one sensibility united everyone in the crowd it was this: We’d all come to take a chance.
The first performer was a young woman named Erin who looked girlish in blue jeans and tennis sneakers. Erin’s story was about how when she was 12, her mom got pregnant with a third child. Erin described happily sharing the news with all her friends, even as she hinted that, unknown to her, this was not a pregnancy to be celebrated.
One day Erin’s dad takes her out for ice cream and makes the situation plain: Her mom has been cheating; the baby isn’t her father’s; divorce is coming. Erin realizes that by trumpeting the news of a new sibling, she’s really been broadcasting her father’s shame. Erin told the audience how she vowed out of allegiance to her dad to hate this new baby and to hate her mom, but about how it turns out that that kind of hate is nearly impossible to sustain regardless of how badly one’s mom has behaved.
I’ve been to a number of open-mic storytelling nights at bars up and down the East Coast. Erin’s story was funny, nicely tuned, and better delivered than most. But in other ways it was in keeping with the type of tales that seem to predominate at storytelling events — stories that fall under the general category of “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and come wrapped at the end with an uplifting insight or hard-won truth.
After Erin finished I started to think about why it is that people gravitate to the most tragic or dramatic moments of their lives when given a chance to tell a story. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that the storyteller feels an obligation to give his audience something novel — a story we’ve never heard before — which leads him to alight on the most singular experiences in his life. The second is that the worst moments in our lives are precisely the ones we want to be able to capture in a narrative, to master through the process of sharing them with other people.
The second storyteller was a large man named Peter. He wore jeans and a beige suit jacket over an untucked button-down shirt and he had a beard and shoulder length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Peter began his story in media res, as many Moth storytellers do, describing himself riding up an escalator in Penn Station, 34th Street, to meet his mom.
Peter’s explained that they were meeting to take a trip to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where Peter’s wife, who has epilepsy, has been admitted in the hope that her doctors might be able to observe her having a grand mal seizure and from those observations gain some insight into how to treat her. Peter and his mom arrive just as his wife’s parents are departing. Peter walks his father-in-law to the elevator and confides in him that he’s feeling overwhelmed by the situation and needs some help. His father-in-law replies, “She’s your wife,” and the audience gasped. The evening had its first villain.
During this visit, Peter’s wife seizes, just as they’d been hoping she would. Peter watches her spasm in the hospital bed and feels simultaneously compelled to help her and relieved that they’ve finally managed to get a seizure “on tape,” as it were. Peter’s description of his bifurcated feelings in that moment was one of the most moving parts of any of the stories told on stage that night.
His wife receives an IV dose of Ativan. After she’s restored, Peter and his mom leave the hospital to go home. They wait on the subway platform and his mom can tell he’s still shaken by the experience. She says to him, “I know what you’re going through” (in reference to the fact that Peter’s younger sister had seizures as a child).
This is exactly what Peter does not want to hear. He screams at his mom, tells her that she “doesn’t fucking know” what he is going through, because it is just him, all by himself, with no one else to help him. The outburst is so loud and extreme that Peter judged it necessary to conclude his bio in that night’s program with the line, “He loves his mom.” And indeed, such reassurance was necessary. When Peter finally finished reenacting his outburst, no one in the audience breathed.
Peter took the audience’s breath away, but not in a good way, and his story demonstrated why it can be hard to pull off the-worst-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me kinds of stories.
The first pitfall of these kinds of stories is this: The more sensational the content of the story, the less attention, I’ve noticed, storytellers pay to the actual craft of storytelling. If you’re telling a story about walking your dog it’s plainly obvious that you’re going to need to spin it well in order to keep anyone’s interest. But when the content of your story is on its face interesting, it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is “lay it out there” and people will be gripped, which isn’t true at all.
There were several fine moments in Peter’s story, but overall the content ran roughshod over the form. The last minute of Peter’s story was a muddle, alternately despairing (“I’m alone”) and enlightened (“I’m not alone, because I’ll always have my wife”) which suggested to me that he had not gotten his hands around exactly what it is that makes his relationship with his wife interesting as a story to share with other people, rather than just as a profound fact of his own life.
The second pitfall is even more damning: Intensely personal stories have a tendency to crowd out the audience. I said that at the end of Peter’s eruption no one in the crowd breathed. That wasn’t because he’d taken our breaths away with the artistry of his performance; it was because he’d sucked up all the oxygen in the room. The best storytellers meet their audiences halfway, engaging them, pushing them, and calibrating their emotions while also leaving room for listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences into the act of listening.
But I guarantee you that no one in the audience was thinking about his own marriage when Peter finished his story. He’d monopolized the emotional energy in the room, which made it hard to think about anything but him.
(I’d add that the emotional imbalance between Peter and the audience was also evident in what he screamed at his mom: “You have no idea what I’m going through” is probably the single worst premise, from an operational point of view, that a story can have.)
After Peter there were three more stories, including one that also fell into the WTTEHTM category (about how, while volunteering at a suicide hotline, the storyteller listened over the phone as a girl killed herself). The best was by Eli, a woman in her early 30s who told the story of her three-year project to animate a documentary about how domestic violence affects homeless women. Her delivery was plain and natural and contrasted with the performances of the other four storytellers that night, all of whom presented more like actors, which is a fine thing if you are indeed acting but which confuses the listening experience when the whole premise of the evening is that you’re there to hear real people telling real stories.
As my friend and I walked out of the theater into the late-evening swelter, it wouldn’t be fair to say that I was disappointed by the night’s returns. After all, I’ve encountered enough stories in my life to know how rare a great one is.
Still, I was unsettled. I thought about Peter’s performance and I realized that a failed story gets under my skin because it reminds me of our more endemic human weaknesses: Our failures to understand ourselves, to inhabit other people’s perspectives, to make sense of the worst things that happen to us in life. In this sense, first-person stories are usually illuminating even if often they’re not well-told.
Image Credit: Flickr/JacobEnos