A celebration of so much more than just a book

On Saturday night, I took the stage at the release party for Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, and told five brand new stories to an audience of more than 200 friends and family.

It was quite a night. 

My friend, storyteller, and producer Erin Barker once told me never to produce a show and perform in that same show. I've been violating her rule ever since launching Speak Up five years ago, but there have been nights when I fully understood what she meant. Preparing to perform while managing the multitude of problems that can occur in the process of producing a show can be challenging.

So it shouldn't have been surprising that being the only storyteller of the night, telling five BRAND NEW stories in addition to a brief lesson after each story, is extremely difficult and mentally taxing. I've done solo shows before, many times, but never before had I taken the stage with completely new material. Stories Elysha had never even heard before. 

It was a lot to hold in my head. 

Thankfully, once I stood behind that microphone, everything quieted in my mind and I knew exactly what to do. The stories were there, just waiting for me to begin telling. 

Happily, I wasn't the only performer that evening. Andrew Mayo of Should Coulda Woulda opened the show with a reconfiguration of his band consisting of three of my former students (and his children), the parent of a former student, and the siblings of a former student. 

They were brilliant. The perfect way to begin the night. 

But the highlight of the night came when Elysha took the stage in the second half of the show and played her ukulele and sang in public for the first time.

The story that I told just before she performed was about the months following a brutal armed robbery. I was battling post-traumatic stress disorder at the time but didn't know it. I was clawing my way through life, not sleeping or eating, and oddly not able to pass from one room to another without suffering incredible fear and mortal dread. 

Then one night I found myself standing before an iron door at the bottom of a dark stairwell in an abandoned building in Brockton, MA, wondering if I could find the strength to walk through that door to the room on the other side.

I was there to compete in an underground arm wrestling tournament (crazy, I know) with the hopes of winning some money and taking one step closer to paying off a $25,000 legal bill after being arrested for a crime I did not commit. 

I found the courage to do the hard thing that night. The impossible thing, really. That was the hardest doorway I've ever walked through in my life. And even though I would continue to suffer from PTSD for the rest of my life, that doorway in the basement of that building has made every doorway since so much easier to step through. 

I wanted the audience to understand the value of doing the hard thing. I wanted them to put aside any fears that they might have. I wanted their dreams of someday to be dreams of today. I wanted them to understand that every hard, frightening, seemingly impossible thing that I have done in my life has always yielded the greatest results. 

I was terrified about taking the stage for the first time at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011 and telling my first story. But doing so changed my life. 

So I asked Elysha to perform for the first time that night to show people what the hard, frightening thing looks like. She's only been playing ukulele since February, and she's never sung in public or taken singing lessons. It was hard for her. Frightening. Yet she stepped through that door and was brilliant. 

Elysha performed Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and during the final chorus, the audience joined her in singing. When the song was over, everyone leapt to their feet in the loudest applause of the evening.  

I was so proud of her. I still am. 

It was a wonderful night for everyone involved. I can't thank everyone enough for the support.

We recorded the evening and will release the audio in two parts as episodes for upcoming Speak Up Storytelling podcasts so that you can hear the stories and the lessons and Elysha and everything else.

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. 

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. 

Dan Kennedy is right. Reach out to people whose work means the world to you.

Dan Kennedy, writer, storyteller, and Moth host, tweeted earlier this week:

 (@DanKennedy_NYC) Gonna get better at sending notes to people whose work means the world to me. Feels fanboy, but beats waiting to send an RIP tweet.

I like this advice a lot. 

I receive emails, tweets, and Facebook messages almost daily from readers around the globe who have liked my books and/or have questions about my stories. Every time I receive one of these messages, my heart skips a beat and I find myself more excited than ever about writing.

It occurs to me:

Despite all of this generosity from my readers, I've never followed their example and done the same.

In short, I'm a jerk. 

Dan says that reaching out to people whose work I love feels a little fanboy, and perhaps that's why I've hesitated from doing so in the past.

That, and I really am a jerk.

But as a daily recipient of these messages from readers - this morning from a teenage girl in Newberg, Oregon - I can assure Dan and everyone else that it doesn't feel fanboy at all from the recipient's perspective. 

It's a joy. A blessing. A spark that often arrives at the moment I needed it most. 

Next month I begin deciding upon my goals for 2018, and I think this will be one of them. I will write to at least one person per month whose work I admire every month in 2018. 

It's a good goal. 

As a warm-up for 2018, I'll mention that Dan Kennedy - dispenser of this excellent advice - is someone who I admire a great deal.

I first heard Dan's voice back in 2008 when Elysha and I listened to his memoir Rock On: A Power Ballad together in the car. We loved that book. I listened to it again a few years later on my own.

I heard Dan's voice again in 2010 on The Moth's podcast. Each week he delivered new stories to my ears.

In July of 2011, I met Dan for the first time when I took the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and told my first story for The Moth. By then he was an icon in my mind. I couldn't believe I was standing beside him. Dan hosted my first Moth GrandSLAM a few months later (I lost to Erin Barker, someone else who I admire deeply and will probably write to in 2018), and then slowly, over the years, I've gotten to know him better and better as I attended and performed in more and more Moth events. 

Eventually we performed together on The Moth's Mainstage. I listened to him tell stories for the first time about the death of his therapist and his ill-advised trip to find an enormous snake, and I was blown away. Those stories are still trapped inside my heart. 

Dan is a brilliant performer. An incredibly gifted storytelling host. A talented storyteller. 

But it's Dan's most recent novel, American Spirit, that I love most. I listened to that book on the way back from Maine last year, and I have never laughed so much by myself. There are certain books that are so exquisite that you remember exactly where you were while reading or listening to them, and American Spirit is one of those books for me.

I will never forget that too-bright sun, that impossibly blue sky, the blessedly open road, and Dan's voice, making the miles melt away.

It's a hilarious, poignant, brilliant book. You should read it. 

Thank you, Dan, for sharing the book and your voice with the world.

I hope this doesn't feel too fanboy.  

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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.

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.

One person is listening. Perhaps more, but at least one. I'm so pleased.

I was asked by many people on Monday morning about the AFC championship game that I attended on Sunday night. One of the most frequently asked questions was:

"What time did you get home?"

I arrived home on Sunday night around 1:00 AM, but I explained that it was fairly early given the fact that I often arrive home from night games well after 3:00 AM.

Most people have a hard time understanding how I manage this. They also question my sanity when they learn that I will drive to a Moth StorySLAM in Brooklyn, downtown Manhattan, or Boston on a weeknight to maybe tell a five minute story and arrive back home after 1:00 AM.

I have always been a proponent of saying yes when opportunities present themselves, regardless of the sacrifice required.

I am also a proponent of living your life with the perspective of the 100 year old version of yourself.

I know that this advice is good. I know it would make people considerably happier if they followed it. I know that I'm right.

So often, I wonder if anyone is ever listening.

A couple years ago I met a teacher while speaking at her school. Over the past year, she's begun to listen to my advice and take it to heart.

She began by saying yes to taking the stage and telling of a story for Speak Up. This was not an easy thing for her to do, but since then, she's become a Speak Up regular and fan favorite.  

Shortly thereafter, she went to New York and told her first story in a Moth StorySLAM. The next day, she wrote to me about my philosophy of saying yes regardless of the sacrifices required:

"It's the greatest lesson you ever taught me. I'm trying so hard to fight my natural instincts to say no and just say yes. It's annoying how right you always are."

Needless to say I enjoyed that email a lot. 

Last weekend she traveled to Washington, DC to participate in the Woman's March. 

On her way home, she wrote:  

"Learning to live life the Matthew Dicks way. Man, your way is exhausting."

It's true. It can be exhausting. It's not always easy. And it doesn't always work out. Sometimes I drive to Brooklyn for a Moth StorySLAM and never take the stage. Sometimes the Patriots lose a big game, and the long, late night drives home become much more difficult. Sometimes I say yes to something that I must later change to a no when I realize how much I hate it.  

But the willingness to take risks, step outside your comfort zone, brave the elements, forgo sleep, face uncertainty, and suffer possible failure are all superior to a lifetime of regret.

One of the most common regrets expressed by people at the end of their lives, recorded by hospice workers, is this:

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

From Business Insider:

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

The question people didn't ask me about the AFC championship game (but should've asked me) was this:

What will you remember most about the game?

The list is long. Tom Brady's flea flicker, the way Legarrette Blount carried half of the Steelers team to the goal line, and the huge goal line stand by the Patriots defense will always remain in my mind.

But my favorite part?

Midway through the third period, with the Patriots in the lead, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" began booming through the stadium during a timeout. The entire stadium became to sing. A second later, the big screens showed Jon Bon Jovi in one of Gillette Stadium's luxury suites, singing along with us. The crowd roared. Bon Jovi raised his hands and began conducting the crowd as if we were his orchestra. When the music stopped as the Steelers broke the huddle, 60,000 people continued to sing a cappella, finishing the song as Pittsburgh ran a play. 

It was a joyous moment. One of the happiest moments I've experienced in a stadium where I have watched games for more than a decade.

Had I been sitting on my couch at home, warm and dry instead of wet and cold, I would've missed that moment, and what a tragedy that would have been.

Perhaps others have tried to adopt the "Matthew Dicks way" over the years. Maybe they've listened to me speak or watched my TED Talks and changed the way they approach life. 

At least one person has, and for today at least, that is enough for me. 

This is the worst thing you can do to a storyteller

As a storyteller - and perhaps a human being - one of the worst things that can happen to me is for someone to doubt my story.

I have stood on stages all over the world and shared some of the most difficult and painful moments of my life. Embarrassing situations. Despicable decisions. Immoral acts. Heartbreaking, life altering events. And I've also shared the occasional triumph. Important revelations. Those tiny steps forward.

I don't hold back. I always share the truth. The uglier, the better. 

Nevertheless, five times in my life, someone has expressed doubt in one of my stories. 

At a Moth StorySLAM in 2014, I told the story of cheating in my high school's science fair and placing third, propelling me onto the state finals at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After leaving the stage, a man approached and said, "Good story, but I don't know if it's true." 

After telling a story at Speak Up about the time I taught my students to lie in order to win a school-wide penny drive, a man said, "Funny story, but I have a hard time believing it." On that night, my former principal - who played a key role in the story - was in the audience. I offered to bring the man to my former principal for verification, but he passed. Not surprising.

A magazine editor once rejected one of my stories, claiming that she doubted that my moment of revelation was as succinct and powerful as I made it out to be. 

I won't go into details regarding the other two incidents (though one story involves my best friend, who remains annoyed about someone doubting our adventure to this day), but rest assured that all five expressions of doubt cut me to the bone. Not only did they hurt me in the moment, but they lead me to wonder if they are just the tip of the iceberg.

How many more people out there doubt my stories?

People who take my storytelling workshops quickly understand how and why I have so many stories to tell. I teach strategies and exercises designed to find and develop stories from our lives. I've dedicated my life to finding these story-worthy moments, and as my wife is fond of saying, I am often able to turn many seemingly small moments into fully realized stories. 

I've also led a story-worthy life, which is not necessarily a great thing. I was homeless. Jailed. Arrested for a crime I did not commit. I went through a windshield. Died and was brought back to life following a bee sting. Rescued from a burning home by firefighters. I was the victim of a horrific armed robbery and an unprecedented attempt to slander my reputation and destroy by career. I have witnessed and experienced violence that most people only see on TV and film. I suffered through crushing poverty more than once in my life.  

It's not the life I would have necessarily chosen, but it is mine. It's my truth. It's me.  

So to doubt my stories is to doubt my life. To doubt my truth. Doubting my stories means that the struggle and pain and terror and embarrassment that I have suffered is called to question. It means that my scars - both physical and emotional - are irrelevant. That the vulnerability I am willing to brave onstage is meaningless.

It hurts. It hurts more than you could imagine. 

I have been to hundreds of storytelling shows, and I have heard a few stories that I doubt. Perhaps more than a few. But I always listen with an open heart and mind, and if I doubt the veracity of a story, I keep my mouth shut, because I don't know for sure. I will never know for sure. And I know how much it hurts to doubt a story that is true. 

It requires courage to stand on a stage and share your most private and painful moments.

It requires almost nothing to stab that storyteller in the heart with a dagger filled with doubt. 

It's only happened to me five times in five years, and yet each one of those expressions of doubt still hurts me today. I remember them like they are yesterday. 

It's hard to live a hard life and be told that you are not believed. It's no fun to work on a story for days, weeks, months, and even years, only to be told by someone that they don't think it's true.  

Words so rarely hurt me anymore. A lifetime of fight and struggle have blunted most of their power to me. But these words of doubt - these small moments of skepticism - are piercing and permanent to me. 

I went to the bathroom alongside a bunch of ladies, and something surprising happened.

I competed last night at a Moth StorySLAM at The Oberon in Cambridge, MA. 

The Oberon has two restrooms. When I started performing there in 2013, these restrooms were identified by placards as "Men" and "Women."

About a year ago, the "Men" and "Women" placards were replaced with placards that read "All Gender." Since then, I had only found myself in the restroom with a woman once, and it was alongside several other men. Though the placards had changed, people for the most part continued to segregate themselves according to sex.

Last night, however, I found myself in the restroom at one point with one other man and three women, and when that man exited the restroom ahead of me, I was the only man in the restroom with these women. I almost didn't notice, but as I stood at the sink washing my hands alongside two of the women, it occurred to me that I was using a public restroom with a majority of women for the first time in my life.

Also, none of us cared a bit.

At the end of the night, I returned to the restroom and found myself alone with one other woman. As we approached the sink together, we began talking. I had won the StorySLAM, and she had recognized me from my previous victories and wanted to know how I managed to win so often. As we washed our hands, I gave her a few storytelling tips, and she told me about her battles with stage fright and her desire to tell a story someday. 

I was back on the street, walking to my car, when I realized that I had just engaged in my first conversation with a woman in a public restroom, and I couldn't get over these two facts:

  1. It was no big deal at all. 
  2. So many dumbass jerk faces (I'm looking at you, North Carolina) think it's a very big deal.

If your opposed to allowing people to use the restroom of their choice, it's time to put on your big boy or big girl pants and grow up. Sooner than you think, "all gender" or "gender neutral" restrooms will be the norm, and people will wonder why gender segregation was once required in order for people to sit on toilets and wash their hands. 

After last night, I'm wondering it myself.

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:

Resolution update: October 2016

PERSONAL HEALTH

1. Don’t die.

I have fluid trapped behind my eardrum, making it hard to hear, but I don't think it will kill me. 

2. Lose 20 pounds.

I gained two pounds in October. Fifteen down and five to go. 

3. Do at least 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups five days a week.

Done.

4. Practice yoga at least three days a week.

I should really get going on this soon.

WRITING CAREER

5. Complete my fifth novel before the end of February.

Done!

6. Complete my sixth novel.

I have two novels that are more than halfway finished and one that is finished but requires a complete re-write. However, I'm not sure if any of these will be my next novel. I am still completing final revisions on my next book, so I can't make that decision until the process is complete. 

Looking unlikely that I will complete this by the end of the year. 

7. Write a proposal for a middle grade novel.

Done! The editor and her team love the book. Some minor revisions are needed, and then we hope to have an offer.

We are already discussing a possible followup. 

8. Write at least three new picture books. 

One of my now former students and I are writing a picture book. Now that we are back in school, work has commenced again. I am also editing two previously written picture books.

The other new picture books will be written during this school year, but I'd better get moving.

9. Complete a book proposal for a book on storytelling.

Done! Five chapters are finished now, plus an outline and comparisons have been re-sent to my agent. She LOVES it. Hopefully a publisher loves it just as much.  

10. Write a new screenplay

No progress yet.

11. Write a musical for a summer camp

Done! I had the pleasure of watching the musical performed at the summer camp at the beginning of the month, and it was fantastic.

12. Publish at least one Op-Ed in The New York Times.

I've submitted two Op-Ed pieces to the New York Times and been rejected both times.

I am now working on a new piece. 

13. Publish an article in an educational journal.

No progress yet. 

14. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.

No progress yet.

15. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.

I spent a week backing my car into parking spots (which initially struck me as insane) and wrote about it in August. It actually received a lot of attention from readers.

In September I engaged in a month of daily affirmations. I will be writing about this experience in October. 

I need to select one more behavior that I oppose before the end of the year. Suggestions are welcomed. 

16. Increase my author newsletter subscriber base to 1,000.

Done! My subscriber list now stands at 1,192 readers. My list has grown by more than 30% in 2016. 

If you'd like to join the masses and receive my monthly newsletter, which contains a writing and storytelling tip, an Internet recommendation, book recommendations, free giveaways, and more, subscribe here:

17. Collaborate with a former colleague on an educational book.

This project has been cancelled. After meeting with my collaborator, we determined that I am not best suited for this project.  

Oddly enough, that collaborator is now my principal. 

STORYTELLING

18. Produce a total of 12 Speak Up storytelling events.

Done! We produced shows at the Infinity Hall and The Mount in October, bringing our total number of shows to 16 in 2016.

19. Deliver a TED Talk.

Done twice over! 

I spoke at TEDxNatick in January. The title of the talk was "Live Your Life Like Your 100 Year-Old Self." 
Here's the recording: 

I also spoke at the TEDx conference at The Country School in Madison, CT in April. The title of the talk was "Speak Less. Expect More."  
Here is the recording:

20. Attend at least 15 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.

Done! In October, I attended Moth StorySLAMs at Oberon in Cambridge and and Town Hall in Flushing. This brings my total number of Moth events in 2016 to 23.

21. Win at least three Moth StorySLAMs.

Done! I attended two StorySLAMs in October and won both times (three slams in a row now), bringing my total number of wins to three.

After a bad run of luck at the beginning of the year, it seems as if things are finally turning around.  

22. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

Done! I won the Moth GrandSLAM in Somerville in March. 

23. Launch at least one new podcast.

I have a name. I essentially need a good logo and I'm ready to go.

24. Launch a storytelling project that I will otherwise remain vague about here but will become a primary focus of 2016. 

Work on this project is specifically tied to the sale of my storytelling book. 

NEW PROJECTS

25. Host at least one Shakespeare Circle.

No progress.

26. Learn to cook three good meals for my wife.

I cooked two new meals for Elysha in August thanks to Blue Apron and a friend who was kind enough to pass on meals to me.

I made barbecue pork burgers with onion straws and corn on the cob. I also made curried catfish with coconut rice, green beans, and a raisin chutney. 

I could easily make both again. 

One meal to go. 

27. Plan a 25 year reunion of the Heavy Metal Playhouse.

I'm still seeking a location for the reunion near the Heavy Metal Playhouse (since the apartment complex does not have a room to rent) and will then decide upon a date.

MISCELLANEOUS

28. Replace the 12 ancient, energy-inefficient windows in our home with new windows that will keep the cold out and actually open in the warmer months.

No progress. 

29. Optimize our television for a streaming service. 

I'm still hoping Elysha will take care of this during the fall.

30. Set a new personal best in golf.

I played five rounds of golf in October and never shot below 50.

As stated previously, I have begun a serious and committed change of my swing under the guidance of a friend who also happens to be an outstanding teacher. As a result, I am hitting the ball farther, higher, and less consistently.

I also have a new grip that I will practice all winter long. 

31. Play poker at least six times in 2016.

I played one game back in April. I need some people who want to play.

32. Do not speak negatively about another person's physical appearance except when done in jest with my closest friends. 

Done. I came close to commenting on a teenager's appearance when he annoyed me, but I refrained. 

Here's a potentially new idea for next year: 

I will not comment on physical appearance - good or bad - in any way unless I am speaking to my wife and children. I already adhere to this policy in the classroom as a teacher, so why not expand it throughout my life? 

My goal is to reduce the amount of attention paid to physical appearance in this society, shifting attention to things that truly matter: words and actions. I understand that one man's crusade may not change the world, but perhaps it will change my world and influence those around me. 

Change often starts small, many times with one person. And I believe in this cause.  

I'm not sure about this goal yet, but I'm considering it. Thoughts?

33. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.

Done.

The Moth: The Promise

In November of last year, I told this story about my high school sweetheart at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to have the story air on the Moth Radio Hour and their podcast a couple months later. I can't tell you what a honor and thrill that is.

I hear from listeners all the time about the stories that have aired on the radio and podcast - at least a few emails each week - but this is the story that people contact me about most often by a wide margin.

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. 

Go to The Moth and tell a story. And not "someday." Go soon.

Just this past week I heard from listeners who heard one or more of my stories on The Moth's podcast, The Moth Radio Hour, and/or The Moth's website in:

Cape Town, South Africa
London, UK
Columbus, OH
Hartford, CT
Western Australia
Hong Kong
New Hampshire
New York City
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Blackstone, Massachusetts

The idea that people across the globe are listening to me tell stories about my life is incredible. The power and reach of The Moth cannot be overstated. 

And you could do this, too. If you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM (and there are many throughout the country and the world), you should go and tell a story. Drop your name in the tote bag and wait for your name to be called. Perform well, and your story might travel the world someday, too.

And everyone has a story. If you don't believe me, start doing my Homework for Life and you'll soon discover that you have more stories than you could have ever imagined. 

So choose a true story from your life, take the stage at a Moth StorySLAM, and speak into the microphone. Tell your story. It need not be funny or sad and suspenseful or perfect. It simply needs to be a story. The Moth actually offers some tips and tricks to help your performance. And there is no better place in the world to tell a story than at The Moth. The men and women who host and produce these shows are remarkably supportive and exceptionally professional. The sound equipment is second to none. And best of all, the audiences are warm, kind, and more accepting than you could ever imagine.  

And who knows? It could change your life. 

It changed mine. 

July 11, 2016 will mark my five year anniversary in storytelling. On that day in 2011, I took a stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and competed in my first Moth StorySLAM. I told a story about pole vaulting in high school and managed to win the slam. 

 

That story eventually made its way onto The Moth Radio Hour and podcast. 

My original plan was to tell one story on a Moth stage and never return. Do it once and put it behind me. Check off the box marked "The Moth" and move on. 

Instead, I fell in love with storytelling. I worked hard and got better. Today storytelling is an enormous part of my life.

In the past five years, I've competed in 43 Moth StorySLAMs, winning 23 of them. I've also competed in 17 Moth GrandSLAM championships, winning four of them. I've performed on stages small and large throughout the country and around the world for The Moth and many other storytelling organizations.

In 2013 Elysha and I launched Speak Up, a Connecticut-based storytelling organization with the goal of bringing the art of storytelling to the Hartford area. By the end of 2016 we will have produced more than 40 sell-out or near sell-out shows throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. We've partnered with theaters, museums, art spaces, and more, performing for audiences ranging from 150-500 people.

I've also taught storytelling to thousands of people, both in workshops that I run and in my role of storytelling expert on Slate's The Gist. Recently, I've begun performing solo shows at places like The Pound Ridge Storytelling Festival, The Lebanon Opera House, and Kripalu, and I've begun delivering keynote and inspirational addresses for a variety of organizations.   

My wife has been able to stay home with our children for the past seven years in part because of storytelling.

All I wanted to do when I began this journey was tell one story for The Moth.

And I am not special. I did not grow up in a family of storytellers. I didn't learn to tell stories from some master storyteller. I didn't spend nights in coffee bars and at open mics honing my craft. I just went to The Moth and told a story. Then I did it again and again and again. 

So if you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM, you should go and tell a story, too. As frightening or daunting or nerve wracking or impossible as that might sound, you should go. Since I began telling stories for The Moth, about half a dozen of my closest friends (including one former elementary school student) have gone to The Moth to tell a story. Many of my former storytelling students have taken the stage at a Moth StorySLAM and performed.

Dozens more have told a story for us at Speak Up.

If you live near a city that host a Moth StorySLAM, go and tell a story. I can't imagine what my life might be like today had I not conquered my fear and told my first story. 

And if you live in the vicinity of me, I'd be happy to take you to one. Climb into my car and we'll drive together to New York or Boston and listen to ten strangers (and perhaps me) tell a true story from their lives. The stories will be honest, funny, heart-wrenching, surprising, suspenseful, and more. Some will be told exceptionally well. Some less so. 

It won't matter. You will have a fantastic evening of entertainment and human connection.

Maybe you'll even tell a story yourself. You should. You never know what may happen.