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Friday, January 15, 2016

Will You Go Out With Me?: Telling Stories

Posted By on Fri, Jan 15, 2016 at 10:16 AM

click to enlarge Ryan in line at The Moth - ANGELA ARSENAULT
  • Angela Arsenault
  • Ryan in line at The Moth
Most couples who have been together for the better part of 15 years will say there are just some issues that are never resolved. I’m not talking about the big stuff, but rather those small, often inconsequential differences of opinion that, over time, become more like a running joke than an actual disagreement.

One such debate in my relationship centers around the art of storytelling. I’m guessing it’s not as common an argument as putting the seat down, but it’s very real to us. Given that I write stories for a living, and Ryan tells them regularly on stage to hundreds or thousands of people at a time, the skillful weaving of a story is something we both think a lot about. The point we most often disagree on is the amount of detail that should go into a great story. I tend to appreciate, and include, way more specifics, while Ryan takes a more minimalist approach.

So in our case, a night out at The Moth StorySLAM was kind of high stakes. On the Moth Radio Hour, which airs weekly on NPR, people tell true stories that range from the hilarious to the traumatizing. Naturally, the stories that make it on air are the best of the lot. Ryan was skeptical about the caliber of tales we’d hear at The Skinny Pancake in Burlington on a snowy Tuesday evening. His doubts were rooted in his belief that good storytelling is exceedingly difficult, and that, generally speaking, people are bad storytellers.

We were poised to find out as we stood in line outside the Skinny Pancake waiting for the doors to open. (Sidenote: if you go, arrive well before doors open to get a decent seat. It’s worth spending 30 minutes in line so that you don’t spend two hours standing up during the show.) A woman in a Moth t-shirt worked her way down the line, handing out a tiny strip of paper and a pen to everyone she encountered. I froze for a second, thinking it might actually be a rule that every attendee place their name in “the hat” for a chance to tell their own story.

“I don’t want to tell a story,” I said, as soon as she approached us. “Nope, me neither,” Ryan said. For two people who care so much about the recipe for a great story, we were admittedly uninterested in actually telling one. To our collective relief, the strips of paper had an optional question that you could answer and then place in a different hat to potentially be read by the event’s host, Autumn Spencer, in between storytellers.

Every StorySLAM has a theme — in this case, it was “Strict,” — and so the question printed on that tiny strip of paper was, “Tell us about a time you broke the rules.” Not surprisingly, Ryan answered the question in six words. SIX. I whittled my answer down to three run-on sentences.

We scoped out a great pair of seats in the back corner once the crowd was allowed in, then ordered crêpes from the limited menu and marveled at the fact that neither of us knew more than two people in the room. When does that happen in Burlington?

After almost an hour, the Slam got underway. The 5-minute unscripted stories came fast and furious. Autumn did a great job of keeping us chuckling between storytellers, and I learned that I’m not the only one who couldn’t answer that question about breaking the rules in the limited space provided. One of the strips she read from was covered in ink on the front and back.

In the end, a Slam champion was crowned, based on scores given by three groups of audience judges. The stories — most of which centered around school or religion (namely Catholicism) — were good. A couple were even great. (The winner told an unexpected tale of getting an oil massage in a women’s prison in Thailand.) The gently enforced time limit helped keep everyone on topic and supported Ryan’s “less is more” theory of the craft.

But I’m still a sucker for details, especially the emotional details of a story. Which is why I’ll spend some time telling you that the most important takeaway for me had nothing to do with the stories told on stage, or the fact that The Moth format might favor Ryan’s method of storytelling to mine. All of this storytelling got me thinking about Our Story — Ryan and mine — and I realized: I like that our story includes this silly point of contention. It’s a detail that speaks to how well we know each other. And it reminds us that even when we disagree, we can laugh about it. Nobody has to be right. The debate rages on indefinitely because we’ve got that kind of time.

Visit The Moth's website to find out about Burlington StorySLAM events for the next four months. Tickets go on sale one week before the event. February's theme is "Love Hurts."



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