Monday, June 6, 2011

Girl Walks Into a Bar: My Experience with The Moth

In my past life (meaning, up until my early twenties), I was a performer. I lived and breathed theatre, music and dance and dreamed of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) way before Tracy Jordan made it a thing, Liz Lemon. Even when I put aside my artsy-fartsy dreams for the more realistic path of law school, I took dance classes to keep myself sane and even directed a production of The Vagina Monologues, one performance of which was in a parking lot, which is another story for another day.

Performing took a backseat in my mid- to late twenties, as I was doing the whole figuring-out-my-life deal. I came back slowly: in 2008, I started taking dance again. In 2010, I was in two flash mobs. Also last year, I branched out into burlesque and took part in a group performance, which was one of the most terrifying and electrifying experiences of my life thus far.

This past Tuesday, in the very same bar where I'd bared my bod, I bared my soul.

I did it. I told a story for The Moth.

I was first introduced to The Moth by my coworker Megan, who attended a StorySlam event with one of her friends. "It's so cool and you'd love it," she gushed to me the next day. "You put your name into a hat and if you get chosen, you have to tell a five-minute story in front of everyone, with no notes. In front of a sold-out room of people."

"My God, that's scary," I said, and promptly forgot about it.

Late last year, however, I was fighting a bout of depression and for some reason, listening to podcasts helped, so I asked my friends for recommendations. That's when I learned more about The Moth: like Megan said, it consists of true stories, told live, without notes. The mainstage events are in New York City and often feature published authors, musicians and other celebrities. However, there are StorySlams in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, where regular folks like me can take part. Each event has a theme and your story has to fit into that. If you put your name in and are chosen to go up, you have a 45-second warning, so you better be ready.

The podcasts mainly consist of the famous people, though StorySlams sneak in every now and then. And the stories, famous or not, are phenomenal. Joyce Maynard, one of my favorite authors, did one about being a mother that brought tears to my eyes as I walked along Clark Street. A recent favorite explored her relationship to two religions: evangelical Christianity and Mary Kay cosmetics. And one of the best, in my opinion, involves a middle-school drama teacher with an attitude problem.

When I found out about the latest StorySlam here in Chicago (theme of the night: Confusion), I invited Megan. Unfortunately, she had to bail at the last minute, but I decided to go anyway. The morning of the slam, I was walking to work listening to the latest podcast.

And I had an idea.

Up until then, I'd thought I had no stories in me. Nothing true, anyway. My life hasn't been all that interesting. And five minutes with no notes, my own experience in my own words? No way. I can make up stories or follow a script with the best of 'em, but I'd never be ready for The Moth.

But something happened several months ago. Nothing horribly traumatic. Nothing terribly unique. However, maybe that was the point. And if I told it, to a room full of strangers, maybe someone could relate. And maybe I'd feel better.

On my lunch break, I wrote out the story. I got to the bar early and couldn't find a seat, so I propped my notebook up against the wall and muttered the important stuff. Oh, and I put my name in the hat.

I may not have known anyone, but the audience members around me were incredibly supportive when they found out I might be going up. One had me tell him the story, which assuaged my nerves considerably. Another said, "I walked over here when you were telling it and I thought, 'I want to hear more.' So if you're up there and you get nervous, just look over here, because I want to hear more.'"

Ten people would be called up that night.

I was number five.

It was nerve-wracking. Again, these were my own words, my own experiences. There are real people involved--even though no names are revealed, and none of them were there that night, that's still a big deal. I'm not exactly the anti-heroine in the story, but I come off very, um, human. Very imperfect.

According to the emcee for the evening, I "hit it out of the park."

I had a beer bought for me. People came from across the bar to tell me I was good. One set of judges (that's the other thing, people volunteer to be judges and score you) gave me a low score and THE WHOLE BAR BOOED THEM.

More importantly, I understood why people, well-known and not, choose to reveal their histories, their flaws, and their heartbreaks to a waiting crowd.

Forgive me for sounding corny, but it's damn therapeutic.

And that's how I found myself standing in front of a sold-out bar, taking a deep breath, and saying my opening line into the microphone:

"I spent my whole life trying to avoid cliches, only to end up in the supermarket parking lot three days after the blizzard."


  1. Hey-I know that story! Good for you. I've been planning to do this but life got in the way. I'm sure you were awesome!

  2. That's really impressive, there's not much I could think of that's scarier! Well done

  3. Thank you both! Molly, that story was so well-received in your class I thought it might be worth revisiting. The one I told goes into another relationship as well. And a portion of it shows up in an essay that won me a writing contest!