Two weeks ago I went with Jen Lee to this Moth Storytelling Slam downtown. It took place at a small venue downtown, so audience members and storytellers were lined up for an hour before the show, in the freezing cold, just to get a seat. As Jen and I waited, she introduced me to her friends. She is a semi-regular. During my conversations with some of these storytellers, I was amused by the sub-culture that has grown up around these “slams.” As bloggers, we’ve become so used to chatting about WordPress and plugins, gibberish to outsiders. Well, every sub-group has their own insider lingo.
“You going into the hat tonight?” some hipster guy asked me.
He explained to me that those who wanted to tell a story put their name into a hat, and ten storytellers are randomly chosen.
As he spoke, he gave me a aggressive look, ready to pounce on me if I said, “Yes,” as if this was the storyteller’s equivalent of a new blogger arrogantly thinking he was going to make as much money as Dooce in his first year of blogging. I assured him that I was just a visitor to this strange storytelling world, which eased the tension.
The line for the show was snaking around the block. There was a hodgepodge of social activity going on — networking, flirting, competitor bantering, cold stares, and camaraderie, while the intense loners stood apart, practicing their stories on a mini-recorder, praying to God that they be picked to present their story that night, catapulting them to literary success, allowing them to quit there job selling bathroom plumbing at Home Depot, and enabling them to give a big “f**k you” to all the less-talented wannabees on line next to them.
Sound familiar? Exactly! Like an invitation-only party at BlogHer.
Finally, the doors to theater opened and we were let in out of the cold. Jen and I found good seats. As the show began, I could feel a nervous tension in the air. The MC, a storyteller himself, pulled a name out of the hat and that individual was invited to come to the front and tell his story. Since no one knew who was going to be picked next, those waiting for their name to be called were always at the edge of their seats. The female storyteller in front of me, dressed in the 1970′s Annie Hall look, was tapping her foot the entire evening, waiting for her big moment, like a teenager waiting for the phone to ring to be asked to the prom. Sadly, the boy never called. At the end of the night, she was the first one out of the bar, on her way home to sulk.
Each night of storytelling revolves around a new theme. The subject is broadly defined, so the storyteller can almost mold any story into the current theme. The night’s theme was “cars.”
Smart writers know that there are two genres that always sell — sex and coming of age stories. Or both. It didn’t surprise me that the first five stories contained these elements, whether it was a story about a woman losing her virginity in the back of a 1970 Mustang or a man’s having a remembrance of the family trip to Disneyworld in the Chevy Nova.
The sixth reader to be picked from the hat was an Asian-American man of about forty, with black cropped hair. His story was different than the others. He began his story by telling the audience that when he was in his thirties, he worked in Silicon Valley, slaving away for twelve hour days. One night, as he was driving home, he had a heart attack. He then proceeded to tell us all the specific details of what it feels like to have a heart attack. He described the tightening of the chest, the discomfort, and the fear.
I found it extremely difficult to listen to his story. I could feel my own chest tightening. Suddenly, there was a cry for help. An audience member, just five rows ahead of us, a fiftyish man with his family, had slumped over in his chair.
The MC ran to the microphone.
“Call 911! Call 911! We need a doctor,” he shouted.
Everybody fumbled with their phones, because the MC had made us shut them off when the show began. There were no doctors in the house, since the audience was mostly thirty-ish writers with soul patches, but someone ran up to the slumped man and relaxed his shirt.
I should remind you that the venue was jammed. Audience members were sitting in the center aisle. If the fire department had seen the way storytellers had to climb over people to reach the front stage, the entire venue would have been fined, or closed down.
“Everyone in the center aisle has to leave,” said the MC. “We need room for emergency.”
“I’m calling an ambulance!” cried someone in the first row, his phone dialing.
The audience in the center dispersed. Since Jen and I had our seats, we remained seated. The Asian storyteller hid in the corner, horror on his face, wondering if his Moth Slam story had just killed a man.
After ten minutes of chaos, the slumped man sat upright, like a zombie awakening from sleep. As the emergency workers entered the theater, the newly-awake man stood up and said that he was OK. The audience sighed with relief. The formerly-slumped man was now red-faced, not from illness, but from embarrassment. He walked over to the stage and asked the MC if he could say a few words to the audience, including those who were re-entering from outside. The audience was confused, wondering if this was some sort of stunt. But it wasn’t.
“I’m sorry to scare you,” said the man. “I fainted. This was not the first time this has ever happened to me. Whenever I hear stories of people in pain, I become so sensitive to their pain, that I begin to feel the sensations themselves and stop breathing. I once fainted in the middle of church. When this storyteller started telling his story about his heart attack, I had a feeling that this was going to happen, and I tried not to listen, to think about something else, but I could hear his words, and I felt compelled to listen, and as he described the pain in his heart, I felt a pain in my heart and — I’m sorry. Maybe I should go home.”
The audience clapped, and the fainting man left. The Asian storyteller returned to the stage and continued with his heart attack story, but the magic was gone. None of the remaining storytellers could match the real life drama. The fainting man both proved the power of storytelling — his intense reaction to another’s intense story — and WAS the best story of the night, because it happened in front of our eyes.
This little true life tale encapsulates — for me — blogging during 2009. We all put our blog posts into the hat, hoping that they get noticed by others. We listen to each others stories. Some tell funny stories. Some tell sad stories. Some stories are more popular than others. Some of us are not community-oriented at all. Some of us just tap our feet, waiting for OUR chance to be on stage so we can tell our story. At times, we are confronted by real drama — like having someone collapse right in front of us — right in the middle of our story. It is times like these, that we put aside our competitiveness and bickering, and offer support to those who need it. And then, there are those moments that overwhelm us, when we get so involved in the lives of others that we feel dizzy and faint.
The only solution for that is to apologize to everyone, take a breather, and come back refreshed.
Writing, Reading, Laughing, Caring, Overwhelmed. That was Blogging in 2009.
See you in 2010.