The New Storytelling

by Tim Sommers

Sometime in the near future I hope you will find yourself in New York or London, Pittsburgh or Sydney, Detroit or Portland in a music venue, a theater space, or a bookstore attending a “storyslam”. They happen in at least 25 cities in at least 4 countries and attendance varies from under a hundred people to several hundred people. Many, probably the bulk, are associated with The Moth organization – which sponsors many other events including an NPR Radio Hour featuring stories (often from slams). First-Person Arts in Philadelphia has its own large and lively scene – and there are many smaller organizations and slams elsewhere, including, for example, Chicago’s Story Club. And there are many more out there in bars and pubs and bookstores. In the era of New Media, storytelling – maybe, the oldest media of all – is making a comeback.

Most storyslams follow some version of the Moth’s basic template. A theme is announced and advertised well ahead of time. Themes I have heard include Walls, Envy, Love Hurts, Detour, Heat, Magic, and Public Transportation. The night of the slam wanna-be storytellers put their names in a bag or a box or a hat. There’s a host (usually a stand-up comedian or a storyteller), often a musical guest, and the host pulls names out of the hat over the course of the night and these random strangers make their way through the darkened space to a bright stage with a mic and they tell you a story for around five minutes.

If you are the storyteller, you are supposed to tell a story that is true, about you, and relatively short. No one facts check, of course. Usually, you are judged, however. But not, you know, in a very judgey way. Unlike comedy open mic nights which tend to be brutal, storyslam crowds are warm and supportive – in an NPRish kind of way. And there’s no prize. Art, Nietzsche would tell you, just needs to be judged. Plus, many of the slams have grandslams at the end of the year featuring all of the winning storytellers from earlier slams telling stories on a new theme.

The stories you will hear will be conversational or feature poetic touches. They will all be off-the-cuff or at least not read or told from notes. Frequently, they will be funny, sometimes confessional, occasionally dark. Some are narratives or thrilling little adventures. Although, who’s to say what’s thrilling? I heard a young man with physical challenges relating how he found himself, almost unintentionally, bribing a Bulgaria train conductor. He described the experience as “exhilarating”. Other stories are more psychological – maybe about struggling with mental illness or addiction. It’s hard to say what they all have in common except that they are told live by this person, right there, sometimes pausing for a moment to remember, usually a little nervous, but often telling you something compelling and interesting that happened to them.

Theses are not stand-up bits. I have seen comedians go on stage at storytelling events and do stand-up. It usually falls flat. I have also seen some of them master the form and come back pretty quickly to tell some of the best stories. These stories are not mere anecdotes. They’re longer for one thing. They need a little plot. They need an arc. They are not quite short stories though. They need immediacy, different words somehow.

My own personal theory is that, more than anything else, Ira Glass’ Chicago Public Radio show This American Life is the inspiration for the form. Storyslam stories have a similar kind of self-consciousness as TAL-stories for one thing. And two of TAL’s best loved contributors, Mike Bribiglia and David Sedaris seem to me like professional versions of prototypical storyslam storytellers.

Full disclosure. I am not offering an objective, impartial account of the scene. I’ve told stories at slams in New York, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere – including, very often, in Pittsburgh. I’m a participant and a fan – not a reporter, much less a critic. My take is a product of the vagaries of my own participation.

The Moth was started by the writer George Dawes Green in his home state of Georgia. He brought it from there to a friend’s loft in NYC. They went public around twenty years ago. Since then, The Moth has grown into a huge organization including, as I mentioned, a radio show and other live events. One of my own best storyslam experiences happened the first time I was ever in London – which just happened to be when the first-ever UK Moth was being held in the basement of a bookstore in Shoreditch. I went with my wife, but the show was sold-out. My wife convinced them, or they pretended to believe, that we had come all the way from Pittsburgh to go to the Moth in London. Anyway, they let us in. One guy told a story about being a culinary student and traveling to France to stalk a famous chef to convince him to let him make dinner for him, another about being harassed over appearing twice on a television quiz show by jealous neighbors. George Dawes Green himself was in the audience that night acting as one of the three judges. Something I have never seen before or since happened. A three-way tie for first place between a woman told a story about surviving cancer, a Nigerian refugee told a story about coming out in Nigeria, and me telling a story about locking my keys in my car outside a dive bar in East St. Louis. The Moth organization was generous enough to invite all three of us back two years later to a grandslam that was won, if I remember it right, by an actress who described watching a television show about prison with her estranged father – who had just been released from prison. My wife thinks it was the Nigerian guys’ story about meeting Obama. I can’t say for sure.

I’ve been trying to think of how best to catch the flavor of a storyslam. It occurred to me that the thing to do is to give you an example. Here’s a story I once told when the theme of the night was “Detour”.

Some time ago, I was working as a courier out of St. Louis when I had an unfortunate encounter with two subcontractors on a meth-binge and in charge of a very large truck. I was told at the scene of the accident by an EMT with the bedside manner of a Southern physician at Andersonville that I quote, “Probably wasn’t going to make it”. I did. I guess you can see that. More or less. Anyway, I spent six months in the hospital and had to learn to walk again. Well, to stand up again too, really. But one good thing came out of it. I reconnected with my college sweetheart, Stacey, and later moved to Pittsburgh to be with her.  After I was walking, but while I was still hobbling on a cane, Stacey said to me, “I may go to Europe this summer for work, so, if you could go anywhere in Europe, where would you go?”

And I said, “Iceland.”

She said, “Is Iceland in Europe?”

And I said, “Sort of.”

It’s not, of course. But Stacey took me anyway.

Iceland had been haunting my imagination since grade school when I first heard the myth that it was named Iceland as a trick to keep people away and send them to Greenland instead. That is a myth by the way. History tells us, or rather Wikipedia does, that while “Greenland” may have been named that by Erik the Red (who was exiled there from Iceland) to fool potential settlers, “Iceland” is just Icelandic for “island”. Oddly enough, I had hung out once in St. Louis, before my accident, with an all-girl punk band from Iceland, called “Vicky”, and the lead singer had told me that Iceland had a smaller population than Peoria, Illinois. Which surprised me. I mean that a punk rock singer from Iceland knew the population of Peoria. She also told me that Bjork’s mother was a much better singer than Bjork and that Bjork not having a last name was not an affectation – like Madonna or Rihanna – but simply reflected the fact that people in Iceland don’t have last names. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but I’ve only got five minutes here, so Google it, if you must, for Pete’s sake.) But, anyway, what I was most fascinated by, at least since Middle School, were these basalt plateaus that seem to litter Iceland. In photos they are always shrouded with mist and have these amazing, thin waterfalls coming off then. They look like the one with the dinosaurs from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”. I wondered what was up there. Until I finally saw the top of one, I would still pretty sure that it was going to be dinosaurs.

On the third day of our circumnavigation of Iceland, while in the fjord country just northeast of the Vatna Glacier, we were watching Puffins on a cliff face above a black-sand beach pounded by the north Atlantic, when I suggested that, despite my limited mobility, we try to climb down to the beach. Stacey said “No. In the guidebook it says that if you are caught on the beach at high tide you will be swept out to sea and killed.” I didn’t believe her. I checked the book. It didn’t say “maybe” or “probably”, it said you will be killed. Later, as the tide came in, I could see why.

So, I should have believed the same book when it also advised us not to leave Route 1, the so-called Ring Road.  Or, at least, I should have believed the rental car company. There was a map of Iceland hanging from the rear-view mirror with a huge blotch covering the middle of the island that said in several languages, “Do not take this car into these areas.” But the Ring road followed the natural, fractal contour of every fjord on the eastern coast and it was making me dizzy. More importantly, this little detour was the first that seemed to take you over the top of one of these plateaus that I had come all this way to see.

It was a little worrying when we discovered the road wasn’t paved and that the turn off was marked by a sign that was just a giant exclamation point.  No shit. Just a big exclamation point. I still don’t know exactly what that means. But I don’t think it’s a good sign. Immediately there was this beautiful waterfall. I drove past it, but Stacey said we should stop at it. The road was too narrow to turn around on, and so steep, we slid as much as backed, up. There was a French family having lunch there. And a German couple taking pictures. We took a few ourselves. As we got back in the car and started up the steep grade again, the German guy ran toward us waving his arms and shouting, in perfect English, “Not that way! Not that way!”  (Full disclosure. When I practiced telling this story to Stacey yesterday, she said, she didn’t remember the German guy yelling at us and she made fun of me for the arm waving part. So, for the sake of balance, I am going to say I am sure that he yelled, but maybe he wasn’t really waving his arms.) In any case, we went on and up.

We were soon engulfed in an impenetrable fog.  We were on a one-lane gravel road with an incredible grade to it, a rock wall on one side, and a cliff on the other and now we could only see a few feet in any direction. I shifted into low gear and kept on. Then we started sliding. At first maybe a car length back for every two forward. Then so much so that it was hard to know if we were making progress anymore. The fog cleared a little then. Which was good and bad. It was good because I could see the edge now. But it was bad because I could see the edge now. We were on a ledge slightly larger than the width of a car about a thousand feet up next a completely sheer drop off onto jagged rocks below. I did sort of a reverse slalom. I cut the wheels towards the edge and gunned it. Then slammed on the brakes. Then cut the wheels all the way towards the wall and gunned it. And slammed on the brakes. And we worked our way up slowly, higher. I told Stacey not to worry, that we would make it. She said, “What I want to know is why you look so happy?”

I shrugged and kept on and after a minute there was kind of ledge on our left and so if we went over, we wouldn’t fall all the way to the bottom. I told Stacey that. She couldn’t see over it so she asked me if she thought the fall would kill us. To which I could only reply, “Probably.”  She asked me if there was paper and pen somewhere in the car so she could leave a note to be found with her body for her daughter.

Suddenly, we were at the top. And Stacey said, “My god, it’s another planet.” And it was. I can’t really do justice to the top of a basalt plateau in Iceland. But the clouds are so close that if you get out of the car and stand up your head is lost in them. Even sitting in the car little wisps of fog drift across the landscape like cartoon ghosts. The ground is bumpy but flat. Like the surface of a scab. Which I guess is what it is: a sort of volcanic scab. The top of every bump is covered in bright green, hyperchlorphyllinatied moss and lichen – the trough of every one is filled with water.  Water flows in every direction, a vast and expanding web of water so that a thousand little trickles become a noisy song. Nothing moves up there but water.  No animals, no birds, not even insects. I wondered if this is what the world looked like at the beginning.

I don’t know whether the top of a basalt plateau in Iceland was worth risking our lives for, but I can tell you this. When I had that accident and EMTs, doctors, and nurses kept telling me to make peace with the fact that I might not “make it”, the voice in my own head had said, “Make it! Make it!” Through months of pain and discomfort and boredom in the hospital, that voice had changed to, “You survived!  You survived!”, but it wasn’t until halfway up that cliff in Iceland, when Stacey asked me why I looked so happy, that I realized that the voice had finally begun to say, “You’re alive! You’re alive!”