I arrived at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Friday night to a sold out show where people were buying T-shirts and CDs as if at a rock concert. And in some sense of the word, we were at one— the Moth, an organization that specializes in live memoir, had come to Stanford for a special edition of its showcase program, the Moth MainStage. Usually put on only a couple of times a year in just the major cities, the Moth MainStage is the Capital B Big Time, drawing rock stars from all corners of the creative and expressive worlds to do what they love doing in its purest, most primal form: storytelling.
This past weekend was my dunk into the deep end of the art of oral narrative. The MainStage show was Friday night, and on Saturday, my Narrative Design class got to spend three hours with the producers of the program, learning how to draw a succinct, powerful story out of a memory in front of a live audience. If I couldn’t manage to do it myself by Sunday night, maybe I’d at least be able to offer a more understanding thumbs-up from the peanut gallery to whoever could.
“We wanted to expose the campus to that particular narrative form,” explained Jonah Willihnganz, the director of the Stanford Storytelling Project and the man who spearheaded the effort to bring the Moth to Stanford. “Because it’s very simple. There’s no scoring, no sets. It’s just one person speaking. It’s storytelling stripped down to the studs— just bare storytelling.”
The show ran like clockwork: five storytellers took turns at the lone mic in the middle of the stage, owning the room for roughly ten minutes each, with a stand-up comedian/ moderator serving as the connecting glue and a helpful violinist sitting off to the side, ready to play the storytellers offstage if need be. There was rarely the need though: nothing dragged, the highs and lows of each narrative were pitch perfect, and when I looked at my phone at the end of the show I was surprised that two and a half hours had gone by so inconspicuously.
The speakers for the evening were writer Cole Kazdin, Moth superstar Scott Sanders, self-described fake parenting expert and author of Go the Fuck to Sleep Adam Mansbach, writer Jessica Lee Williamson, and neural scientist and memory expert Wendy Suzuki. Each of them made us laugh and then carefully sliced the humor with pointed, poignant reflections, ultimately closing on something meaningful that they had learned. They each pulled us into specific memories, carried us with them through the emotions, and dropped us off at a carefully chosen ending.
These carefully crafted endings weren’t always comfortable or fairytale-esque. Sanders, who told of his experience being kidnapped and tortured for six hours while traveling in China, ended not with an action-packed, Liam Neeson-style victory shootout, but rather with a disconcerting note of existential dread. “For six hours I was making all sorts of deals to get out of there, and now here I am, out on the street, and I don’t feel as happy as I think I should.”
The emptiness of this ending, especially following a story reminiscent of classic Hollywood adventures, made it all the more powerful. It was an intentional lack of genre-specific payoff. And it stuck with me.
The next day, faced with a very large and very empty whiteboard in the d.school for our storytelling workshop, I was still abstractly wondering about what makes some stories stick. Some moments in life are obvious stories, when you look back at them. And then there are those moments that feel important, but you aren’t sure how to narrativize them. The process becomes a sort of disciplined sculpting, as you do away with the details that will distract from the main thing you want to express. At the same time, you try to fit narrative principles, a unifying theme, and a strong ending to a series of events that didn’t necessarily follow any type of logic as they happened.
What makes the Moth so effective is that their storytellers and producers know this. They focus on accepting and embracing this tension between the honest, possibly inconvenient and uncategorizable things that make an experience worth remembering in the first place, and the narrative design elements that make it easily digestible for a listener. It takes real skill to unite them in an entertaining way while remaining true to the essence of the story.
“Sometimes when we’re trying to tell a story, we lose sight of what actually happened,” said one of our workshop leaders. “Not all stories have to have a happy ending. In fact, the ambiguous endings are my favorite ones.”
It’s satisfying to put a little bow at the end of a story. And it’s comforting to think that in twenty years, you’ll have a compact, delightful little narrative that you can whip out at dinner parties or for Open Mic Night at the local coffee shop. It suggests that at some point in the future, you will have successfully wrapped your head around the complexities of life and fit them neatly into a Classical, Aristotelian narrative symmetry, complete with a morally satisfying coda at the very end.
Some stories are like that, and they are satisfying indeed. Mansbach’s story, about the hilarious aftermath of his surprising literary success, ended with him realizing that no one is really a “parenting expert,” and that we should remember that “the things that bother you now are the things you’ll look back on with nostalgia.” Listening to him was like snuggling up by the fire and eating spaghetti: comfort food.
But it’s the stories with the ambiguous endings that sit in your stomach long after you’ve heard them. There’s something undecipherable about them, something un-neat and unplaceable.
In writing, in filmmaking, and in acting, you can show what you want to express. You don’t have to say it outright— you don’t even have to know what “it” is. You can recreate a feeling you once had without actually having to precisely articulate it.
That subtlety doesn’t fly in oral storytelling. There’s no way for the audience to flip a page back and marvel at a beautifully crafted sentence in search of nuance. On stage, the directness forces you, as the storyteller, to confront things that otherwise could be left in the spaces between the words.
“Most people, when they rehearse, find that they discover something about themselves that they didn’t recognize,” Willihnganz said. “The initial reason they wanted to tell the story changes— they find a different reason for it by the time they tell it. It becomes a vehicle for better understanding yourself.”
With only your voice and about ten minutes of the audience’s time, you have to say what you mean. There’s no hiding, no allusions, no room for subtlety.
You are very much standing under a spotlight alone at a microphone, and everyone’s ready to hear you.