Speak Up Storytelling #23: Laura Terranova

On episode #23 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Elysha Dicks and I talk storytelling!

In our followup segment, we discuss a brand new rule for The Moth's StorySLAM series. We also talk about why storytelling is a superpower and the many doors that being an effective communicator can open for you. 

Next, we talk about finding and collecting stories in your everyday life using "Homework for Life." We discuss the possibility of incorporating Homework for Life into a daily to-do list, discuss Homework for Life advice from a listener, learn how a child is now doing Homework for Life, and review how a moment that didn't seem like much initially might be storyworthy after all. 

Then we listen to Laura Terranova's story about finding herself in a hospital bed, unable to communicate to the outside world.

After listening, we discuss:

  1. Elements of an effective beginning

  2. Outstanding transition strategies

  3. Character building throughout a story

  4. Elements of an effective ending 

  5. The power of a name in storytelling

Next, we answer questions about the dangers of dominating conversations when you have many stories to tell and how to handle the moment when you thought you were funny but the audience did not. 

Finally, we each offer a recommendation. 

If you haven't rated or reviewed Speak Up Storytelling on Apple Podcasts, PLEASE do! Reviews and ratings help others find our show.

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Storyworthy in my hands!

One of the many most exciting moments as an author is the moment when the first copy fo your book arrives at your doorstep. This was the fifth time that I experienced such a moment, and I remember each of them with perfectly clarity. 

The tearing open of a box. The ripping of a mailing envelope. The nervous excitement as you reach for an object that took years to create. 

Behold. My first nonfiction title. I couldn't be more excited.

The forward is written by my hero, author and storyteller Dan Kennedy.

It's dedicated to the founder of The Moth, George Dawes Green, the host of The Moth's podcast, Dan Kennedy, and the storytelling genius and creative guru of The Moth, Catherine Burns.

It was written on the shoulders of Elysha Dicks, who supports everything that I do. 

Hidden within the pages is the editorial wisdom of so many of my friends, including Matthew Shepard, David Golder, Jeni Bonaldo, Amy Miller, C. Flanagan Flynn, and others who I am forgetting. 

It's filled with the lessons of storytellers who have stood beside me on stages around the world and students who have joined me in workshops to learn the craft of storytelling.

Each one of them has taught me so much and contributed so much to this book.   

Now it's real. It's been transformed from idea and thought to a device that is capable of conquering the barriers of time and space.

Think about it:

Ten years from now, in some city in northern China (where we recently sold the foreign rights to the book), a future storyteller will pick up this book and read the words of a writer living half a world away who wrote those words a decade ago.

Books are magic. I'm holding magic in my hands. I'm so excited.   

Don't be selfish. Tell a story.

I tell people to tell stories a lot. I know. It's my clarion call.  

But allow me to say it again. 

Last Wednesday night, I performed in The Moth GrandSLAM at the Cutler Majestic in Boston. My plan was to take the stage and tell a story that was a lot more humor than heart. It was a story about meeting my girlfriend's father for the first time and trying desperately to bridge the gap between his traditional, hulking masculinity and my inability to do anything traditionally masculine. 

"He's the kind of guy who can take down trees, and if necessary, put it back up again. I play Miss Pacman on Friday nights at the arcade and read Shel Silverstein poetry."

A funny story, filled with amusing contrasts and healthy doses of self-deprecation, but not something that pulled at heartstrings.

I honestly didn't think it would be a winning story.

Then something amazing happened. It shouldn't have seemed amazing in retrospect, since these things happen all the time, but I still find myself surprised every time. 

Three young men approached me at different times during intermission and at the end of the show to tell me how much my story had meant to them. In each case, these were men who struggled in environments where traditional masculinity is prized above all other things. Each young man described himself as someone who did not represent traditional masculinity in any way and often felt unappreciated and even unloved as a result.

Each of these men were so grateful for my story. One of them was teary-eyed as he spoke to me.  All three hugged me before stepping away. 

This is why we tell stories. This is why authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability are so important. I take a stage planning on telling an amusing story about soft hands that can't change the oil in a car or repair plumbing, and I unexpectedly touch the hearts of at least three people in the audience that night. 

I tell a story that, in the words of one man, "means more to me than you'll ever know."

"I needed this more than you could imagine," he told me. 

You never know who is waiting for your story. You never know who needs your story. You never know when something amusing or incidental or seemingly benign will touch a heart, change a mind, and perhaps make a real difference in the life of a human being.

We tell our stories for many reasons, but perhaps the least selfish reason of all is the possibility that something we say might make a difference in the life of another human being. 

Run to The Moth. Allow stories to lighten your load.

Here is my suggestion:

Run to The Moth. On the radio, the podcast, or a live show. 

As you probably know, The Moth changed my life. It gave me a stage to tell stories. It provided me with a platform to be noticed. It opened the door to a new career. A bunch of new careers. Storyteller. Teacher. Consultant. Inspirational speaker. Producer. Most recently stand up comedian and the author of an upcoming book on storytelling.

In many ways, these careers (alongside my writing career) have allowed Elysha to stay home with the kids for these last nine years. For that, I will be eternally grateful.  

Seven years after telling my first story at a Moth StorySLAM in New York City, and after having traveled the country and the world, performing on stages and teaching and consulting with individuals, nonprofits, schools and universities, the clergy, hospitals, museums, and more, one of my favorite things in the world is still to go to a Moth StorySLAM, drop my name in the bag, listen to stories, and hope to be called. 

But even if your dreams do not include performing, I still say to run to The Moth. Listen to the podcast. Tune into The Moth Radio Hour. Go to a live show. The magic of The Moth (and excellent storytelling in general) lies not the opportunity to stand on a stage and perform but in the opportunity to listen to another human being tell a story and realize that you are not alone in this world.

Case in point:

On this week's Moth Radio Hour and podcast, Daniel Turpin tells a story tells a story about an encounter with a armed man that was eerily similar to my own experience in a McDonald's restaurant 25 years ago. Listening to the story triggered my PTSD and guaranteed me a long night of nightmares, but in listening to the story, I found another human being in this world who understood my experience. 

Suddenly I was not alone. 

Though I have spoken at length about my robbery, first to a therapist for years and then on a Moth Mainstage, there have always been parts of the story that have remained locked away. Aspects that I have never spoken about. Moments that I was still unwilling to admit. 

Included in those locked away parts was the guilt I have always felt about not fighting harder for my life. Not battling to the death and the dirt. The paralyzing fear and inexplicable surrender to men who I knew were about to kill me. 

This is the first time I have ever admitted to this to anyone, and it is because Daniel Turpin did so first. He spoke the words that were hidden away in my heart.  

Near the end of this story, Turpin says:

"I stared at the ceiling and I'd go back to that moment, that moment when he told me to get on my knees and feeling that gun press up against your head, that gun loaded with lethal possibility. And the sorrow that I felt, the shame of my inaction, its a guilt that doesn't go away. I couldn't under stand how I gave up on my life so effortlessly. 

But there was I was, kneeling on the floor. I wasn't pleading I wasn't struggling, I was waiting. Waiting for this stranger to kill me. People try to make you feel better. They say everything happens for a reasons. And I understand the sentiment, I do. But I don't agree with it. When they say that, it sounds like there's some arcane justification for senselessness. There's some cosmic fatalism at play. What I believe is that everything happens. And it's our job to give reason to it. To give reason to the inscrutable. 

I'm a little more suspicious today. Maybe a little more guarded, because moments like that - they shape you. They change you. You never forget them and that's the terrible beauty of the past. You remember the good and the bad."

I wept when I heard those words. Something hidden inside of me that I had thought was mine alone was suddenly less ugly. Less frightening. Less terrible. 

Daniel Turpin opened a door to my heart. I feel lighter today because of it. Less burdened. Happier. The anger, disappointment, and guilt over my surrender on that greasy floor on that terrible night is gone, not because anything in my past has changed, but because I feel less alone in the present.

Run to The Moth (and if you live in Connecticut, run to our show, Speak Up, too). Listen to stories. Open your heart. You'll feel better for it. 

The best birthday gift for a teacher might surprise you

Here's one of the beauties of being a teacher.

Last night I had the opportunity to perform at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston as a part of The Moth's GrandSLAM championship.

It was the 20th GrandSLAM in my storytelling career, and on my birthday no less. 

The Cutler Majestic is a spectacular theater that seats 1,200 people, and last night the theater was packed. I was telling stories alongside some of my favorite storytellers from the Boston area and some new storytellers who were spectacular. One particular woman told the story of raising a baby pig that sent my spirits soaring and broke my damn heart. 

It was perfection. A story that I will remember forever.

The host of the evening was the brilliant Bethany Van Delft, who I am always thrilled and honor to share the stage, and the producers of the show were also some of my favorites.

I even adore the sound guy. 

I had many friends in the audience. Folks from Connecticut and locals from my days of living in Massachusetts. Storytellers from the area who I am so proud to now call my friends. Elysha Dicks was sitting beside me. It was a grand night.

I told a story about my love for the New England Patriots, and my choice of the Patriots over a woman. It's a story I love to tell. It always brings me such joy to tell stories from that period of my life just after high school, when I was living with my best friend, struggling to survive. Those were such great days. 

At the end of the night, I was declared the winner of the GrandSLAM. It was my fifth GrandSLAM victory. As several audience members pointed out, I've got as many wins now as Tom Brady. It was sweet. 

A perfect birthday.  

Here was my very first thought when I awoke this morning:

"Linda was so good."

Linda Storms, a woman who first heard me on The Moth Radio Hour years ago then started coming to my storytelling workshops and performing for Speak Up, was also competing in the GrandSLAM last night. She told the last story of the night, and she did so brilliantly. She was vulnerable and eloquent and funny. Her story was perfectly crafted and so honestly told. She could not have been better. She was fantastic. 

That is what I thought first when I awoke today. I thought of Linda, my friend and student, shining on that beautiful stage like the star that she is.

This is the beauty of teaching. You have the opportunity to experience so much joy in the success of those who you have taught, and oftentimes that joy in a student's success can be more important and meaningful than your own. You sit in quiet rooms and teach the skills and strategies to help someone realize their dream, and when you're really lucky, you get to sit back and watch that dream realized right before your eyes. 

Watching Linda on that stage last night was the perfect end to a perfect birthday for me.   

Moth StorySLAM: Clara Wants a Sister

This summer I took about 30 young ladies from Miss Porter's School to a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, MA as part of a weeklong program on writing and storytelling. 

It was kind of a magical night for these young ladies, who came from all over the country and the world to attend this program. As fate would have it, eight of the ten storytellers were women. The host of the show, the brilliant Bethany Van Delft, as well as the producer, Gina James, were also women. 

Such a great opportunity to show these young ladies how women can take and own the stage. 

I told a story that night about the birth of our son, Charlie and the problems that his sister, Clara, posed during the process. 

How can you possibly have so many stories?

It's a question I get a lot. Whether it's stories that I'm sharing on the golf course or at the dinner table or on the stage, I always have a new story to tell.

A small part of this is the unusual life that I've led, filled with chaos, bad luck, and at times, disaster. My friend and the Artistic Director of The Moth Catherine Burns has said to me, "You either have a good time or you have a good story."

A much larger part of it is the system that I use to find stories in my life called Homework for Life. People who use my system with fidelity and rigor find themselves awash in stories about their lives. It works.

But having many stories to tell also has a lot to do with the understanding that a story is not always a series of fantastic events or shocking developments. You need not move mountains to have a great story to tell. A story can be small. Infinitesimal, really, if it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.

That's why I love Bill Bernat's story "Oreo Relapse," which was featured on The Moth Radio Hour last week. Bill's entire story - more than five minutes long - takes place in a grocery aisle as he tries to decide if he will purchase a bag of Oreo cookies and thus fall off his dietary wagon.

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That's it. If I were to summarize the story, I would say, "Man battles his inner cookie demons as he tries to decide if he should purchase a bag of Oreos."

And yet the story is filled with humor and heart. It speaks to something universal in all of us:

The power of temptation. The fragility of will power. Our constant inner battle of right vs. wrong. The shame of not having full control over our desires.

Bernat's story is brilliant in its simplicity. Very little happens in the story, yet when he is finished, I feel like I have been offered an honest, unflinching look at the man's soul. I feel connected to the man. I love the guy.

I don't know Bill Bernat, but I bet he has lots and lots of stories to tell.

"Nothing interesting ever happens to me."
"My life is boring."
"Nothing too terrible has ever happened to me."

Refrains I hear all the time to would-be storytellers who worry that unless you've died on the side of the road or been arrested for a crime you didn't commit or lived on the streets, you won't have any good stories to tell.

Not even close to true.

If you are willing to speak honestly, embrace vulnerability, think introspectively, and share a part of you that most would not normally share, you will have more stories than you could ever imagine.

Do your Homework for Life.

Listen to Bill Bernat's story.

Become the person who always has a new story to tell.

As long as you're not as sexually repressed as the Vice President, the gender-neutral restroom is working just fine

During intermission at last night's Moth StorySLAM at The Oberon in Cambridge, I went to the restroom.

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The Oberon has converted its formerly gender-specific restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms. When I entered what was once a men's room, I was greeted with the typical line that can be found during intermission, except that this line contained both women and men. 

Nine people in all. Five women and four men were queued up in front of the four urinals and three stalls. Some were chatting while waiting. Others scrolled through their phones. As far as I could tell, no one thought this odd or inappropriate.

And why would they?

Women used the stalls. Men used the urinals or the stalls.  

One of the women in line actually knew me from previous performances and asked me for some storytelling advice while we waited to pee. 

For someone like the Vice President, who can't have dinner alone with a woman who isn't his wife or drink a beer when his wife is not present, I would imagine that this scenario might cause him to blow a gasket. His seemingly admitted inability to control his lustful desires might erupt into an uncontrollable fervor at the mere thought of a semi-naked woman behind a thin restroom partition.   

But for the majority of Americans who operate as normal human beings and who aren't so fearful of temptation that they must quarantine themselves from the opposite sex without a marital chaperone, this gender-neutral reconfiguration is working out just fine.      

Perhaps in the future the restroom design could be differentiated this way:

Gender-neutral restrooms

Single use restroom for the perverse who can't control themselves when genitals are exposed privately but in the vicinity of their own genitals

Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

Sharing your vacation photos is lovely, but how about some wisdom and insight to go along with it?

On Thursday night I had one of those nights at a Moth StorySLAM where two sets of judges thought I did quite well and awarded me high scores, but the third judging team disagreed severely (earning a rarely heard chorus of boos from the audience), thus ruining my chances at winning.

Always frustrating.

I've been fortunate enough to win 30 Moth StorySLAMs, but winning a slam never gets old.

As I was leaving, a fellow storyteller stopped me. He told me that something that I had written about a month ago about the power of incremental progress has really made a difference in his approach to life. He was sincere, thankful, and sweet. 

It almost made up for the frustrating night with the judges. Almost.

But here's what I thought as I walked to my car:

When I wrote that post on incremental progress, I didn't think it would have any real impact on anyone. I write these things as much for myself - as sort of a personal mantra - as I do with the hope that someone might benefit from the tiny bits of wisdom that I've gleaned over the years.

I send my thoughts, ideas, and experiences into the world, through books, magazines, blog posts, social media, and live performances, and more often than you could ever imagine, something good and oftentimes surprising comes back.

Sometimes it's a day later. Sometimes it takes a month. There have been times when it's been five years later. It's pretty amazing. 

But I'm certainly not the only person who has gleaned a little wisdom over the course of his lifetime. Everyone has, I suspect. We all know things that have helped us to survive and succeed and thrive. Insight, ideas, strategies, personal experiences, and more. 

You should share your wisdom with the world. Truly. 

Create a blog. Post for Facebook. Write a book. Share your insight at the next dinner party.

We all know stuff that could help others. We've all learned lessons that are worth sharing. We all have ideas and insights worth sending into the world.

You never know when you can help to change a life. Truly. 

Sharing your vacation stories with the world is lovely. Baby pictures are always appreciated. Please don't stop sharing your foibles and faux-pas. You successes and failures. 

But every now and then, perhaps you could also share some wisdom, too. A life lesson. An understanding of this world that perhaps only you know. A strategy or insight that has helped you survive and thrive.

If you do this, good things will come back. I believe this, because I have experienced it in abundance.

It can turn a frustrating night at The Moth into a good one. It will bring unexpected joy to your heart. It might even create a memory that you will never forget. 

Seven and counting...

One of our Speak Up storytelling shows earlier in the year featured four former storytelling workshop students who have gone on to tell stories at Moth StorySLAMs in New York, Boston, and Burlington, VT. 

 In fact, two of them competed in the same StorySLAM in December of last year in New York, unbeknownst to them.

I don't have the actual count of former workshop students who have gone on to perform for The Moth, but the number easily exceeds two dozen. 

Even more thrilling, six of my former workshop students have gone on to win Moth StorySLAMs. If I include a rabbi from a recent retreat where I taught, the number is now seven. 

One of them has even won a GrandSLAM.

The fact that almost all of these people live in Connecticut makes this number even more surprising. Moth StorySLAMs are held on week nights, meaning these folks committed significant time and resources in order to travel to Boston or New York on a work night to compete in a Moth StorySLAM and arrive back home well after midnight. 

I've also had many of my friends - more than a dozen - go to The Moth and tell stories. Friends who have seen me brave the New York or Boston stage and then followed in my footsteps.

One of my former fifth grade students has gone to The Moth with me and told a story. 

Many, many more friends and workshop students have also told stories on Speak Up stages. 

All of this thrills me. I like to think back to that July evening in 2011 when I stepped into the Nuyorican's Poets Cafe in New York City to tell my first (and what I thought would be my last) story for The Moth. It was a hinge upon which my life has turned forever. It was a moment that ultimately enriched my life and Elysha's life in ways we could never have predicted. It has introduced us to so many remarkable people. Made us so many new friends. Brought me to stages around the country and the world. Launched a business that has us producing shows throughout the state and beyond and has me teaching storytelling to individuals, schools, universities, corporations, and more.

It's been a surprising and remarkable journey. 

But when I think about the multitude of ways that my life changed on that July night in 2011, I often think first about all the other people who I have brought to the stage to share their stories, open their hearts, speak their truths, and kick some Moth ass.

Watching so many people follow in my footsteps into storytelling has been one of the most rewarding parts of all. 

The Moth: The Robbery

In March of last year, I told this story at the Brooklyn Academy of Music about an armed robbery that I experienced in 1993. It was the hardest story I've ever told but also one of the most important for me. 

Post traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem for many of our veterans returning from war and many other Americans in general.I was fortunate enough to get the help I needed but many do not. If you know someone who is struggling, please let them know that therapy works.   

My three greatest acts of storytelling cruelty

I like to think that I have been a supportive and positive force on the thousands of storytellers who I have performed alongside over the years, but I've also had moments when my judgment and disposition was less than ideal.

My three most despicable moments as a storyteller:

1. On Thursday night at Infinity Hall, as our first storyteller was being introduced by Elysha, I sat beside her behind the curtain and demanded that she start her first novel. "Write a sentence a day," I said. "And then make it a page a day. Write a page a day, and after a year, you'll have a novel."

"You're alway berating me for not accomplishing enough," she said. "It's never enough for you."

I started lecturing her on the importance of goal setting when I heard Elysha reaching the end of her introduction, and I realized that this woman is about to take the biggest stage in her life, and I spent the last minute before her performance hassling her. 

As she rose, I tried to tell her how impressed I am with everything that she does. Teacher. Storyteller. Mother. I don't think she heard a word as she stepped into the light. 

She performed brilliantly. Truly. She was vulnerable and hilarious and heartbreaking. She was beautiful.

But it wasn't any thanks to me.

2. During soundcheck at a Moth GrandSLAM in New York a couple years ago, a woman who was performing in the championship for the first time stepped away from the microphone, walked to the edge of the stage, sighed deeply, and said to me, "That was scary. This place is huge. And there isn't even anyone in the audience yet."

"Yeah," I said. "The real scary part is knowing that when it comes time to perform, you'll be standing out there on your own. Practically on an island. No one in the world able to help you. You're entirely alone, depending on yourself to survive, while hundreds of people stare into your soul."

At that point, I had competed in 18 GrandSLAMs and won four of them, so these championships were old hat for me. I was speaking the truth - unintentionally - but it was not a truth this woman needed to hear. I realized what I had done as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I gasped, apologized profusely, and assured her that she would be fine.

She also performed brilliantly. But no thanks to me.

3. At my most recent GrandSLAM championship earlier this year, I reached into the bag and drew the number 1, indicating that I would be telling my story first. This is a terrible position to tell a story. Very hard - if not impossible - to win. I've competed in 54 Moth StorySLAMs in the past six years, winning 29 of them, but only one of those wins came from first position. 

It's an unlucky draw. And it's a number I draw quite often. 

After drawing my number, I tossed it aside, stepped off the stage, and pouted like a little baby. I complained and groaned and huffed and puffed. I stalked the theater, muttering under my breath and acting like a petulant jerk.

After a few minutes, Elysha stepped over to me and whispered, "This is you're 20th GrandSLAM, Matt. For most of these people, it's their first. Maybe you could stop acting like a baby and just get ready to tell your story."

It's always good to have a spouse willing to speak the truth to you.  

Those storytellers didn't need to see someone like me pouting and whining. So many of them had already expressed their admiration and respect for me and my reputation as a storyteller and competitor.

How did I repay their kindness?

I acted like an ass. 

They all performed brilliantly that night, no thanks to me.

In fact, the winner of that GrandSLAM also performed on the Infinity Hall stage on Thursday night for us, and she was brilliant once again.

No thanks to me.

Famous people who I've met thanks to storytelling

Louis CK: I said hello to him at The Moth Ball, an annual fundraiser for The Moth. He was the guest of honor that night.

He nodded in my general direction. 

David Blaine: I met David Blaine at The Moth Ball. I told a two minute version of my GrandSLAM winning story, which Blaine later asked me to tell again so he could record it with his phone. Then he did a mind numbing trick for me that convinced me and the New Yorker reporter who was standing beside me that he has made a deal with the devil.

Then he told me that he might want to speak to me in the future and said, "I'll give you my business card."

"Okay," I said.

"You already have it," he said. "Left breast pocket."

Low and behold, it was there, a playing card with his contact information hidden within the details of the card. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer: I met Dr. Ruth backstage at a TED conference in the Berkshires where we were both speaking. I said hello. She asked me how my sex life was. When I said "Fine," she told me that fine is a sad description of a sex life and offered me five tips for improving it.

Steve Burns (The Blues Clues guy): Steve has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed. We spent time backstage chatting before both shows. In all honesty, I never watched Blues Clues, so my friends and my children have always been more excited about me meeting Steve than I have been.

Samantha Bee: Samantha Bee and I performed in a Slate Live Show at The Bell House together and spent time backstage chatting. Her new show on TBS was starting soon, so we spoke at length about what she envisioned for the project. 

There is also a group of decidedly less famous people who I have met thanks to storytelling who I was at least as excited about meeting as anyone in the above list. They include

  • Author and Moth host Dan Kennedy, who has become a friend
  • NPR and This American Life's Zoe Chase, who I've appeared with on several occasions
  • NPR's Adam Davidson, who I met at a Slate Live show
  • Moth host, author, and comedian Ophira Eisenberg, who has become a friend
  • Slate's Mike Pesca, who has become a friend
  • The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, who has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed

Stories are so damn important.

Few things have felt truer to me than this quote from the late Alan Rickman:

I cannot tell you how many times a person has told me at the end of one of our shows that they feel like they have been renewed by an evening of storytelling. Their heart has been filled. Their mind has been put at ease, at least for a couple hours, and perhaps longer. 

Storytelling is magic. It is medicine for the mind. Food for the soul.

I've been telling stories all over the country and the world since 2011, and here is one of the strangest things that has happened to me in the course of my travels:

Twice I have stepped off the stage after telling a story at The Moth in which I expressed great vulnerability and been approached by a woman who needed to tell me about her recent miscarriage. In both cases, the woman had yet to tell anyone in her life about her loss but had somehow decided in that moment that I was the right person to tell.

When I told Elysha about this craziness (the second incident happened just recently), she said that it wasn't crazy at all. There is unknowable amounts of emotion wrapped up in the tragedy of a miscarriage. Grief, guilt, shame, despair, and unspeakable loss. Women oftentimes have great difficulty talking about a miscarriage, even to people who they know and love most.

In both of these instances, Elysha explained, these women likely saw me as a person willing to open my heart and share something sacred about my past. I shared a story about my life in a way few people are willing to do so openly. In the eyes of these two women, I became the perfect person to unburden themselves of their secret. Someone who they could trust. Someone who possessed an open heart. But also someone who they would never see again. In that way, I was safe. They could speak their truth and then leave it behind. 

Admittedly, I was surprised and confused when these women revealed their secret to me, but each encounter ended with a hug and many tears. And perhaps a bit of relief from something that these women were carrying alone before they met me.

Rickman was right. We need to tell stories about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.

Now more than ever.

I thrive in possibly inappropriately competitive situations.

Next month I will be teaching storytelling at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. This will be my second year teaching at Kripalu and I'm already scheduled to teach there in 2017 as well.

The fact that I teach at Kripalu astounds many. Though my students at Kripalu have assured me that my teaching and beliefs closely align to Kripalu's philosophy and mindset, there are also many way in which I do not seem to fit:

I skip their world class meals and pick up burgers and fries and Egg McMuffins at McDonald's instead.

I was told that I "walk aggressively" and swear more than anyone in Kripalu history.

At silent breakfast, it turns out that even when I don't speak, I still make more noise than anyone else in the room.   

Though I take advantage of their sunrise yoga class, I found the whole thing slow, tedious, and devoid of any competitive incentive. 

This has been my problem with yoga:

 No one wins at the end of a class. 

In fact, it's the competitive element of The Moth that probably helped me to initially fall in love with storytelling and eventually turned me into a teacher of the craft. It's always an honor and a thrill to stand on a stage and perform for an audience, but when my performance is assigned a numerical value and there is a chance to win or lose, I tend to enjoy the experience a lot more.

In fact, if given the chance, I think I'd rather compete in a Moth StorySLAM than perform in any other show. Give me a couple hundred New Yorkers crammed into a used bookstore with teams of strangers poised to judge my story over a beautiful, acoustically pristine theater filled with a couple thousand attentive audience members and zero competition.

Crazy. I know. But probably true on most nights. 

This is why I was thrilled to discover the sport of competitive juggling. No longer are jugglers permitted to just stand and entertain. Juggling is now a full contact physical sport, complete with strategy, teamwork, and body-on-body physicality.

Competitive juggling is tough. And there are winners and losers after every match.

See for yourself:

The Moth: A Mop Sink and Maybe God

In March of 2016 I told the story of my interrogation and arrest for a crime I did not commit at a Moth GrandSLAM at The Somerville Theater. The theme of the night was Now or Never.  

I won the GrandSLAM that night.

I've since told this story for Speak Up and other shows and found kernels of improvement, so once again, this isn't my best. Eventually I'll tell the story of my post-arrest jailing and arraignment and my trial, but those are hard stories for another day. 

The Moth: She Held My Hand

In August of 2015 I told the story of my first date with my wife at a Moth StorySLAM at The Bitter End. The theme of the night was Guts. 

I won the slam that night, but being the hyper-critical person that I am, I hear a lot of room for improvement in the story. It's not my best.

Frankly, I get annoyed at myself during the story for some of the choices I make. 

Still, it's about Elysha and me and our beginning, and, so here it is, in all its imperfection.

Five years ago, I took the stage and told my first story. The most important thing about that night: I was afraid.

Yesterday marked my five year anniversary in storytelling. 

On July 12, 2011, I went to New York to tell a story on a Moth stage. I went there mostly because I told my friends that I would, and I had avoided it so long that I began to feel ashamed of myself. 

My friends pointed me to The Moth and suggested that I go. One of my friends said, "You've had the worst life of anyone I know. You'll make a great storyteller!"

She was probably referring to my two near-death experiences, my arrest and trial for a crime I didn't commit, my homelessness, the robbery that left with with more than a decade of untreated PTSD, the anonymous, widespread, public attack on my character and career, and more.

It hasn't been the worst, but it hasn't always been easy. 

So I said yes. "I'll go and tell a story." But honestly, I had little intention of ever doing so. I was terrified about the prospect of taking the stage and telling a story. It was almost unthinkable. But my friends didn't forget my promise, and nor did I, so Elysha and I made out way into NYC so I could tell what I thought would be the one and only story of my life. 

Even after putting my name in the hat, I tried to avoid taking the stage. When Dan Kennedy called my name, I froze, realizing that no one in the place knew me. If I remained quiet and still, they would have to eventually call someone else to the stage. 

Instead, Elysha made me go. 

Happily, miraculously, I won the StorySLAM. 

The next day, I wrote a blog post about my experience, which included these words:

I know it sounds a little silly, but in the grand scheme of things, the birth of my daughter was probably the most important day of my life. Next comes the marriage to my wife, and then the sale of my first book, and then maybe this. It was that big for me.

Perhaps I’ll tell more stories in the future, and The Moth will become old hat for me, but on this day, at this moment, I couldn’t be more happy.

It was a big night for me, and one I will never forget.
— Matthew Dicks

I was remarkably prescient while writing that post. It seems as if I already knew that I had found something special.

And I was right. It was a big night for me. Since that night:

  • I have competed in 45 StorySLAMs, winning 24 of them.
  • I've competed in 17 GrandSLAMs, winning four of them.
  • I've told stories for The Moth and other storytelling organizations in cities around the country to audiences as large as 2,000 people. 
  • I've become a teacher of storytelling, teaching in places like Yale University, The University of Connecticut Law School, Perdue University, Trinity College, Kripalu, Miss Porter's School, and many, many more. I consult with businesses, school districts, industry leaders, college professors, and individuals around the world about storytelling.
  • Last summer I traveled to Brazil to teach storytelling to an American School in Sao Paulo.  
  • In the last year, I've begun to perform my one-person show.
  • Storytelling has landed me in the pages of Reader's Digest, Parents magazine, and more. 
  • I've met some incredible people thanks to storytelling and made some remarkable friends. 

In 2013, Elysha and I launched Speak Up, our own storytelling organization. We've produced nearly 50 shows since our inception, in theaters as large as 500 seats, and we have sold out almost every show. I teach storytelling workshops locally, and we partner with schools, libraries, museums, and more to teach storytelling to our community.  

Last night Elysha and I worked with a group of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, teaching them to tell the story of their previous generations. Tonight I'll be competing in a StorySLAM in Boston. The beat goes on.  

So much has happened in five short years. My life has changed in ways I would've never predicted. Elysha's life has changed, too. The fact that Speak Up is a partnership between the two of us might be the best thing about it.

Storytelling has helped make it possible for Elysha to stay home with the kids for the past seven years, and it will help to keep her home for one more year until Charlie enters kindergarten. 

But here is what I want you to know:  

The important part of my story to never forget how afraid I was when I began this journey. It's important to remember how I tried to avoid storytelling at every turn, not because I thought it was a bad idea or a waste of time, but because I was afraid. Even though I wanted to tell a story and suspected that I might even be good at storytelling, I tried my hardest to avoid it. 

It's important to note that had it not been for my friends' prodding and Elysha's final push to get me out of my seat that night, I might have never taken the stage to tell a story. 

It's easy to see someone who is successful and confident and believe that they have always been that way. We often see the end result of a journey and assume that the person standing in front of us is the same person who began that journey. 

This is never true. I was afraid when I began my journey into storytelling. I doubted my ability. I was almost certain that I would fail. Fear kept me off the stage for more than a year, and it almost kept me off the stage forever. 

Fear holds us back so often in life. It keeps us from realizing our untapped, unseen, impossible-to-predict potential. It blocks us from opportunities. It stops us from being daring. I keeps us away from new things and forces us to reside in the familiar.

Thoreau said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

I believe that. I believe it wholeheartedly. 

If fear is holding you back from trying something new, taking a risk, or realizing a dream, I encourage you to rise above it. Push that fear aside long enough to take a leap. Find people who will support you, encourage you, and even force you to try.

I think about how close I came to avoiding the stage, and it terrifies me. 

Frank Herbert said this about fear, which I also believe wholeheartedly:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
— Frank Herbert

I shudder to think about what my life would be like today had I not taken that stage five years ago and told my first story. I hate to think about how fear nearly held me back.      

I nearly went to the grave with a song still inside me.