A Seat at the Grownup Storytellers’ Table

I had won a Moth Story Slam, I reminded myself, and had just as much right to be at this Grand Slam as the others.  But sitting backstage reading their bios, I began to drown in a wave of self-doubt. 

 I had gone into my first Story Slam with no other expectation than simply surviving.  And, incredibly, I won!  But beginners’ luck comes with a price. 

Sleepless nights preceded my second slam.  Was it because I felt less sure of the story?  Or because I told myself I must win again?  All I know is that I enjoyed the experience much less. 

My third time on the Atlanta Moth stage threw me some curveballs.  I had to go first, the worst position.  Then I was told to start over but the timekeeper didn’t restart the time, so I had to rush the ending of one of my favorite stories. It felt like failing an old friend. 

I wanted to rewind my feelings, to approach this Grand Slam as I had my first Moth experience – as a fun learning opportunity and nothing more. 

The Moth offers coaching for Grand Slams and it was delightful. The coach’s insight was astonishing.  She listened carefully and pinpointed what needed punching up.  If I had feedback like that regularly, I’d be the next David Sedaris for sure. 

Friends texted to wish me luck, I slept well, and felt calm going into the big event.  Then I read those bios and felt like a phony, a wannabe.

It is no exaggeration to say my fellow storytellers were half my age with at least twice the experience.  These were professional actors, writers, and poets.  Many of them had won Story Slams more than once.  I was the imposter old lady, like the misshapen M&M that sneaks through quality control. 

My reaction was to sit alone and read.  Then I called my better half and told him how I felt.  Hearing myself say out loud that I was avoiding meeting anyone, I realized I would regret this tomorrow.  I recalled something I used to tell my children:  shyness and rudeness look much the same. 

So I walked into a room where a guy and girl were talking.  They were discussing other Moth events they had been to and seamlessly included me in the conversation, as confident people do.  I learned that Renita had been on the Moth Mainstage and Tate was the host of a popular monthly poetry slam.  I began to relax. 

The ten storytellers pulled names out of a bag to determine stage order.  I got number four. I watched the faces and could tell Scotty pulled number one.  His face filled with disappointment.  I considered telling him to be sure to stand close to the mic but guessed he knew this already. 

The first five storytellers were told to line up backstage and we listened to Jon warming up the crowd.  We visited quietly and then it was showtime.

Scotty’s story was about a class field trip.  It’s hard to hear from backstage but he got laughs and it seemed to go well. Tate told a story about receiving a mysterious box – another crowd-pleaser.   Renita shared a tale about her grandmother which elicited more than one “aw” from the audience.  Then it was my turn. 

I was shaky when my name was called.  This venue is much larger than any at which I’ve performed. 

The man in the third row beamed at me, laughing when nobody else did.  He kept me going, just as he has done for more than four decades.  I never would have made it this far without him.  It’s saying something to show that kind of support while I tell 300 strangers about his mother. 

At first, I talked too quickly.  I looked over the heads of the audience to quell my anxiety but finished with big motions and clear voice.  It was done.

I sat in the theater to watch the second half of the show.  Jonathan, married 10 years, told about having his mother-in-law living with them for the past nine years.  The Nigerian woman who won told about pretending not to have a television during a visit in order to get her family to interact. 

I got my video and don’t like the way I look at all.  Bad lighting?  Anxiety showing?  This is what 65 looks like?  Who can say?   

Now that my first Grand Slam is in the books, here is what have I learned:

  1. Keep pressure off and fun on.  Winning cannot be the point.
  2. Engage with other storytellers.  They are usually friendly, entertaining, and knowledgeable.
  3. Relax, speak slower than you feel compelled to.
  4. Engage with the audience.  Talk TO them, not AT them. 

    The Grand Slam felt more like show business and less like storytelling.  Story Slams are relaxed and fun.  This was more like a performance – lots of waiting around for 5 minutes of stage time.

Does this mean when I go to my next Story Slam I won’t hope to win?  Let’s not go quite that far ; )

Here I am on my big night. Thanks for reading!