|Photo by Cara Lopez Lee|
A few nights ago, for the first time, I stepped in front of an audience of more than a hundred, without book, paper, or index card in hand, without a memorized song, dance, or play in my head. Just the mic and me. The place was in Los Angeles. The theme was Heat. The event was StorySlam. An organization called The Moth puts on these competitive events all over the country. The premise is: “True Stories Told Live”… no notes.
Are you kidding?!
When I first heard of StorySlam it sounded petrifying. I didn’t even want to watch. Why? It might be like watching amateur trapeze artists perform without a net: could be beautiful, could be painful.
Then I started taking long drives to visit my sister, and on the way back I listened to The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. These storytellers mesmerize. Each spends 10 to 15 minutes revealing their most frightening, embarrassing, grief-stricken, weird, dysfunctional moments. Their stories are inspiring, hilarious, intimate.
They call it The Moth because humans are attracted to stories like moths to flame. This is old-fashioned community: gathering around a fire to connect.
Or maybe it’s like a circus, where the aerialists are my favorite. I’m too old to join the circus, but this I can do. Oral stories are my tightrope without a net.
At StorySlam, most people just listen. That’s what I did my first night. But if you dare, you can prep a five-minute story on the night’s theme, hope your name is one of the ten picked, tell your story to a crowd plied with drinks, and let three sets of amateurs with no credentials judge you.
Why would anyone do this?!
My second night, I entered the lottery. Every time someone pulled a name from the sack, my heart lurched. “Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not! Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not!”
Five times I spent days-on-end practicing. Five times they did not call my name.
Phew! Then again: Come on!
One night, a performer delivered her first line, froze, and gave up. What if that happened to me?
For my sixth try, I prepared a story about fireworks for the theme Heat. I wasn’t feeling it. I originally wrote the story for print, and oral stories have a different rhythm, as I’ve discovered walking around my house talking to an invisible audience. I told my husband, “Maybe I’ll just listen this time.” Then, the night before, I remembered another story, about visiting India during a heat wave.
I knew better than to tell a story with so little time to prepare.
When I entered my name that night, I met a guy who produces literary salons in L.A. He was excited to learn I was an author, “but I don’t invite speakers until I’ve heard them perform.” I began to sweat.
The host called my name. My heart began a countdown to self-destruct.
The lights were so bright I couldn’t see the audience. This was not a relief. When I do public speaking, which I normally enjoy, I seek friendly faces to connect with. Here there was only ominous breathing.
I told a story for the next six minutes and fifteen seconds. Remember, it was supposed to be five? I didn’t factor enough time for filler words when I lost my place, or for unexpected laughter. But the laughter was good.
Then someone played a flute sound that means, “Wrap it up!” They give you an extra minute if you need it, and many storytellers use it. Then came the second flute sound. That’s when they deduct points. I had three more sentences. Even then, I didn’t hit my planned ending, just one that made sense.
My scores weren’t bad, but I was closer to the bottom of the pack than the top. All the stories were strong, so no shame in that. Still, the shame spiral went on for 24 hours: Did I score lower for going into overtime? Because I didn’t hit my stronger ending? Because my nerves showed? My story was weak? I’m not cut out for this?
But hey, I did it!
But hey, I did it!
Next time, I’ll plan a 4.5-minute talk, so if I go over I’ll still finish on time. Next time, I’ll say my planned ending. Next time, I’ll do better. I’ll keep turning up the heat till I win, whatever that means. In storytelling, I’m always seeking the next challenge to reach an audience. In storytelling, what scares me is good.
|Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, Rivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.|