What makes life meaningful for you?
Writer Emily Esfahani Smith has dedicated her latest book to answering that question, and an entire chapter to the role of storytelling. She interviewed our Artistic Director, Catherine Burns, to learn about the story crafting process.
Emily's book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters is available on Amazon. We highly recommend it! Learn more about her work at http://emilyesfahanismith.com/, and read an excerpt from the chapter on storytelling below.
As a young man, George Dawes Green, the founder of The Moth, spent many evenings at his friend Wanda’s home on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, where he grew up. He and his friends would sit around on Wanda’s porch, drink bourbon, and tell each other stories from their lives—like the time one of them, Dayton, got drunk and let six thousand chickens escape from a barn he was responsible for tending, or the time that another, Kenny, forgot to take his lithium and swam a mile into the ocean stark naked before the coast guard caught him. Kenny, the story goes, told the coast guard to leave him alone: “Oh, I’m just fine,” he insisted; “I’m a whale.” As they took turns telling stories, Green recalls, “a troupe of moths staggered around the light, while the cicadas kept time in the live oaks.”
Years later, Green was living in New York. He had published two novels, one of which, The Juror, became an international bestseller, adapted into a movie starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin. Green had made some money, was living in Manhattan, and attended fancy cocktail parties in the city. He was, from the outside, leading the sort of life that most writers dream about living.
But there was something missing. One evening, at a “particularly dull” poetry reading downtown, Green realized that he longed for those enchanting evenings on Wanda’s porch. As literary as New York was, there was no place where ordinary people, like Green’s neighbors in Georgia, could come onstage to simply deliver a well-crafted, well-told personal story. So Green decided to have some people over to his apartment, where he tried to re-create, in his New York loft, the experience he had on Wanda’s porch.
By 1997, his idea had grown into a nonprofit organization named after the moths he remembered from those nights on St. Simon's Island. Twenty years later, The Moth has become a fixture of the New York cultural scene and an international phenomenon. Today, it puts on over five hundred shows a year in cities from London to Los Angeles to Louisville—there's even been one in Tajikistan. In addition to the live shows, which have brought over fifteen thousand stories like Erik's to the stage, The Moth hosts a weekly podcast and Peabody Award-winning radio show, and in 2013, it published it's first story collection.
Under the leadership of artistic director Catherine Burns, The Moth carefully selects stories for meaning. They find these stories in a variety of ways: through The Moth’s website; at StorySLAMs—open-mic competitions where anyone can sign up; and, of course, by word of mouth. No matter the source, Burns and her team look for stories that have conflict and resolution—stories that show how the storyteller developed into the person she is today—and they look for tales of change, stories that could end the way the Irish writer Frank O’Connor ended his short story “Guests of the Nation”: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”
The most moving stories, Burns has found, are rooted in vulnerability, but they are not too emotionally raw. The stories should come, as she put it, “from scars and not wounds.” They should have settled in the storyteller’s mind so that he or she can reflect back on the experience and pull out its meaning. “Sometimes,” Burns said, “when you get on the phone with someone, they think they have a story worked out, but you’ll see that it’s not resolved.”
Once they find a good story, Burns and her team take on the role of directors. They work with the storytellers in rehearsal, helping them figure out the major narrative stepping-stones to the climax and resolution, and might suggest some subtle feedback on delivery, like pausing here or slowing down there. Burns’s intent is to make the stories resonate as strongly as possible with the audience members. But there’s a secondary effect. After working with The Moth for more than fifteen years, Burns has seen that the process of crafting a story helps the storytellers connect the events of their life in new ways, gaining insight into their experiences and learning lessons that had previously eluded them.
At a 2005 Moth event in New York, Jeffery Rudell told a story about coming out to his parents when he was a freshman in college. He expected them to be accepting, so he was shocked when they responded by burning his possessions and cutting off all communication with him. For six years, he continued reaching out, regularly calling and writing letters, but they never responded. Eventually, he decided to make one last effort to reconnect with them. He flew home, unannounced, and showed up at his mother’s office. Even then, she refused to see or talk to him. Two weeks later, he received a black funeral wreath at his office in New York with a note that said, “In memory of our son.”
As Jeffery prepared this story for The Moth, he initially thought it would be about anger and pain. How could his parents, who had taught him the importance of love and kindness, treat him with such hatred and disgust? “I had the whole anger theme primed and ready to go,” he said. “But there was a problem: I didn’t particularly feel angry at my parents.” After his family ostracized him, Jeffery had sought comfort from gay friends who assured him that their parents had also reacted poorly to their coming out—at least initially—but that they’d eventually grown more accepting and it was likely his parents would, too. All Jeffery needed was patience—and hope. He took their advice and for years held on to the hope that he and his parents would one day reconcile. As a result of that hope, though, his life “sort of came to a halt.”
As he went through different drafts of the story for The Moth, Jeffery realized that he had been so focused on trying to earn back his family’s love that he never thought about his future or his own needs. He declined job opportunities and broke up with a boyfriend who was moving to Los Angeles so that he could stay in Michigan, where his parents lived. He wanted to be nearby when they were ready to welcome him back into their lives. “For years,” he said, “my relentless hoping did nothing more than keep me in a state of emotional stasis.” Eventually, he came to understand that his hope had really been a form of denial. There was no chance of resurrecting his relationship with his parents, so he let go of that wish and moved on with his life. When he did so, he was finally able to find a sense of peace and resolution.
“The joke is,” Burns said, “that telling a story on the main stage of The Moth is like ten years of therapy.”
Excerpted from the new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 By Emily Esfahani Smith. Reprinted with permission.