Summer Storytelling

There’s a certain anxiety to speaking at a Moth StorySlam.

It’s similar to presenting in class about a project, but it’s more personal. Instead of speaking about a court case or an experiment or a book, you’re trying to convey the hilarious way your grandmother let out her frustration with your grandfather’s rehabilitation center, the feeling of isolation you felt because of a deformity, or the increasing panic you felt while lost in a foreign country. You’re attempting to share a piece of your life all in under five minutes.

This is why, in the two days preceding the Summer Session StorySlam held on July 21, two free two-hour workshops were offered to prepare students for this endeavor. The Moth, which ran both the workshops and the StorySlam, is a nonprofit organization that hosts events all over the country where anyone can come in and tell a true story from his or her life. They record the stories and later play them on their radio show and podcast. Amid the myriad of free activities available to Rutgers students staying on campus over the summer, this stood out to me as an opportunity to meet and share stories with people who aren’t in my lab.

That it was.

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On the first day of the workshop, the teachers gave us a demonstration of the Moth storytelling format. One of the teachers, Peter, a proud Rutgers dropout, spoke about the night on Easton he asked out his future wife on their first date. They then had us all discussing ideas for what we thought our stories would be. Some brave souls even got up and presented their first ideas: teacher’s first day working in a dangerous neighborhood, an immigrant’s struggle to get a work permit, and a stay at-home mother’s realization that she could be her true self without becoming her irresponsible, alcoholic mother.

The next day, we all worked in small groups, each of us telling our stories and critiquing one another. There were four of us in the group I was in–all girls–yet each of our stories was very different. One girl, who is from Greece and is working on a graduate degree in education, spoke about her struggles with TMJ. Another, who is currently working towards a degree in the performing arts, talked about her controlling father and her semester-long withdrawal from Rutgers. The third, after at first attempting to summarize her descent into heroin addiction and subsequent recovery in five minutes and not being able to do it justice, described the first time she hopped onto a moving freight train. When it was my turn, I managed to stumble through the story about a time I was humiliated at a dance performance.

All of our stories needed varying degrees of polishing, but all were interesting and, honestly, made me wish we had more than five minutes to hear everyone’s stories. Only two from our group, including myself, spoke the next night, but I’m still happy to have been able to hear those other stories as well.

The night of the StorySlam, The Moth dressed up the auditorium in the Rutgers Student Center for the show. A camera was set to record the entire thing, and almost every seat was filled with Rutgers students and faculty. Those who wished to tell their stories signed a release form and put it in a bag to be pulled out at random. Only ten stories were told, but the variety amongst them was staggering: some had you laughing the entire time while others made you want to cry. Some were farcically mundane while others seemed fantastical in how far of they were from my own experiences. There was a story about getting married and a story about escaping an abusive husband. There was one about nearly getting deported while trying to get a driver’s license, and another about freezing on a see-through bridge above the Grand Canyon. They were all so engrossing and the audience was so accepting that I forgot to be nervous when it was my turn to go.

Everyone who spoke did an amazing job and the audience was very accepting of what everyone had to say.  If you truly want to see just a sample of the variety of students, from all walks of life that Rutgers has to offer, keep an eye on the Moth’s site. Maybe you’ll see some of their stories there soon.

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