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‘The Moth’ reminds us that storytelling isn't dead

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Robyn Blumner
August 24, 2009

On a recent long drive to see friends in Delaware, my husband and I became initiated into “The Moth.” It was my parents’ discovery. They had been going for years to hear the Moth’s program of live storytelling in Manhattan. They had also collected CDs of the most talented raconteurs who recounted their heartbreak, triumph, revelation and just plumb crazy doings, for the delight of strangers.


As we listened in the car to one “Best of the Moth” CD after the next, recorded live to enthusiastic crowds, it became apparent that the art of storytelling was making a comeback. In our Twitter world where C-U-L8TR counts as a conversation, being held rapt for 10 minutes by a single story is like feasting on a full-course meal after being consigned to empty-calorie snacks. People are hungry for it.


The story of the Moth starts with its founder, poet and novelist George Dawes Green, who wrote the best-seller “The Juror,” which was later a movie starring Demi Moore. Green grew up in St. Simons, Ga., where he would sit on his friend Wanda’s porch sharing stories. His storytelling group is named for the moths that were attracted to the porch lights through a hole in the screen.


In 1997, trying to re-create those Georgia evenings, Green invited friends to his New York apartment for storytelling. The sessions caught on and soon had to move to larger venues. Today, the Moth is a true phenomenon with hundreds of storytellers regaling thousands of eager listeners. Its podcast downloads have totaled 600,000 per month (www.themoth.org).


The rules are basic: Every story has to be true and told without benefit of notes. A host guides the evening, and music is played as the story reaches its 10-minute mark to remind the speaker to bring it in for a landing. Evenings are built around a theme such as “Nuclear Meltdown: Families in Fission,” “Art Attack: Stories About Wrestling the Muse,” or “Gotta Have It: Stories about Compulsions.”


On the compilation CDs, each storyteller brought their own angst to this modern confessional with the audience granting absolution through laughter and applause.


In one, satirist Andy Borowitz, a Moth mainstay, talked about being a writer for a year on the television sitcom “The Facts of Life,” which he called “the worst television show ever produced,” but the producers thought they were “doing Moliere.” Borowitz said his first script was rejected because he “didn’t get Tootie.”


Another was a father’s tale about his teenage son who refused to communicate with him except through instant message. The father claimed to quickly grasp the vernacular of the form, with OMG meaning Oh My God, and LOL meaning Lots of Love. The storyteller was touched by his son’s constant declarations of love. And the father reciprocated, sending LOL back to his son and e-mailing those sentiments to others in his sphere. Only later to learn that LOL was Laughing Out Loud and that he’d been “sardonically jeering” at people he thought he was symbolically hugging.


And in one Moth event, Jeffrey Ridell offered this description of coming out to his parents: “I remember seeing my mother come down this long hallway … and then she recognized who it was, and she turned and walked away again. … Two-and-a-half-weeks later, a black funeral wreath was delivered to me at my office with a note that said, ‘In memory of our son.’”


Storytelling is narrative. There are no flashing video montages or special effects. Just a person, a microphone and a few minutes to share a tale of “Guess what happened to me…” But that’s what life is, a collection of stories. And as the Moth demonstrates, no matter how minor the event, the proof of the story is in the telling.


Robyn Blumner is a civil liberties and labor law expert who writes about individual freedom, trade, globalization and workers’ rights. She is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla., and syndicated by Tribune Media Services. E-mail her at blumner@sptimes.com.

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