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. 

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.  

Dan-Kennedy.jpg

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.

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. 

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.

The secret to great storytelling: Make the big moments incredibly small. Or find your tiny moments and tell just them.

Last night I was fortunate enough to win The Moth's GrandSLAM in Somerville, MA.

I told the story of my decision to confess to a crime I did not commit after a $7,000 deposit went missing from the McDonald's that I was managing in Bourne, MA, and a police officer made the decision that I had stolen the money. It's a story about the series of interrogations leading up to my decision to confess to the crime rather than risk jail time, and the moment in the police station, while standing in a mop sink in a dark closet, that changed my life.

After the show, three people - two storytellers and an audience member who is a fan of my work - all approached and said almost the same thing:

"I can't believe you hadn't told that story yet."

A year ago, one of The Moth's producers - a woman who knows many of the stories from my life that I have yet to tell - said almost the same thing to me: 

"I can't believe how many of your big, crazy, unbelievable stories that you haven't told yet." 

It's true.

In five years, of storytelling:

  • I've competed in 43 Moth StorySLAMs and won 21 of them.
  • In those same five years, I've competed in 14 GrandSLAMs and won four of them.
  • I've also told stories at half a dozen Moth Mainstages, almost 50 Speak Up events, and many, many other shows throughout the country and around the world.

Yet it's taken me all this time to tell the story about the time I was arrested for a crime I did not commit.

Kind of a big story to keep under wraps for so long. Right?

But this is the secret that I tell people when I'm teaching them about storytelling:

Everyone has a story, and oftentimes, your biggest stories are not your best stories. Those enormous, unbelievable, insane, life changing moments from your life are probably not as compelling as the smaller moments that happen all the time but go unnoticed by so many of us. 

Some of the stories that I have told that people love most take place at my dining room table, in my bedroom, while standing in a line at a baseball game, and while sitting across from a friend in a restaurant. Seemingly tiny moments like these - when recognized, captured, and crafted well - are oftentimes so much more compelling than the life-or-death moments that I've spent in police stations or hospitals or jail cells. 

Don't get me wrong. There'a a way to tell those big stories, and I've told many of them.

  • A car accident two days before Christmas that left me dead on the side of the road.
  • A horrific, armed robbery that still plagues me to this day.
  • A vicious and unparalleled attempt to assassinate my character and destroy my career by a group of anonymous cowards.
  • A bee sting that left me dead in my dining room when I was a boy.
  • The story of my homelessness.

The key to telling these big stories is to forget why they are "big" and instead find the tiny moments within them. The moments to which people can connect.

My car accident story is not so much the story of the accident. It's about a moment in the emergency room between me and my teenage friends that still lives in my heart today.

The story of the robbery isn't so much about the horrors of that night.  It's about the way that events of that night have changed the way I see my children and the world today. 

The story of the attempt to destroy my teaching career isn't as much about what those people did to me, as unbelievable and unprecedented as it was. It was about the moment when parents, students, and colleagues stood up for me and let me know that I meant something to children when I had begun doubting myself and my career. 

The story of my death by bee sting isn't so much about the way I died and was brought back by paramedics. It's about the connection that my mom and I created in that moment - a connection that was finally broken (or perhaps not) on the day she died.

The story about my homelessness isn't about my means of survival on the streets. It's about the shame associated with being helpless and alone and being saved by people who discover a truth you're unwilling to admit to anyone in your life (even yourself).

And last night, the story wasn't about my decision to confess to a crime I didn't commit and my subsequent arrest. It was about a moment in a closet in a police station, while standing in a mop sink, when I asked a question aloud, received an unexpected answer, and discovered that perhaps I wasn't as alone as I thought. 

Big stories made small by avoiding the focus on the unbelievable and instead finding the part that everyone can understand. The part that everyone else has experienced and connected to. 

Not everyone has gone through a windshield, but everyone one knows what it's like to be disappointed by parents and saved by friends.

Not everyone has experienced character assassination on an enormous scale, but we have all experienced moments of doubt about ourselves and our life choices.

Not everyone has decided to confess to a crime they did not commit, but we have all experienced the sense of being so alone that it hurts. 

The good news about all of this is that you don't need to have led a life of unending disaster in order to be a great storyteller. You simply need to open your eyes to the tiny, incredibly meaningful, oftentimes missed or forgotten moments that people love. 

Find them. Capture them. Craft them. Tell them.

I still have some doozies left. Some enormous, unbelievable, life changing stories. And eventually I'll get around to telling them. But don't hold your breath. I have a million tiny moments, too, and I can't wait to tell most of them.

The Moth brought me and my elementary school principal back together

Earlier this month, I told a story at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn about a time in my life when I had to face down the principal as a third grader. After stealing a classmate's stamp catalog, I was forced to admit to the theft or risk allowing my entire class to be punished for my crime.

Walking into the principal's office and telling him the truth that day remains one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday, and I think about it often when faced with the need to speak a difficult truth or admit to a mistake.

It was a lesson for a lifetime. 

It wasn't a typical story for me. Too long for a Moth slam, I stripped the story down to its bones and retained more humor than heart. Not my unusual strategy in storytelling, and especially in competitive storytelling, but I enjoyed telling it just the same. I don't often go for the laugh as often as I did that night, and I probably swore more on the stage that night than all the stages I've ever stood on combined. 

It was a different side of me as a storyteller. Not my most effective side, but a fun alternative.

The principal's name was Fred Hartnett. I had not seen or spoken to him since elementary school, though a few years ago, I discovered that the new middle school in my hometown - built on the street where I grew up - bears his name. I thought it was the perfect choice of name given how much that man still lives in my heart and mind almost four decades later. 

I assumed that Mr. Hartnett had probably passed away years ago, given that he was my principal back in 1979 and already seemed old to me even back then, but when I mentioned on Facebook that I was telling a story about him, a former classmate sent me a message informing me that Mr. Hartnett is alive and well and passed along his email address.

Since then, Mr. Hartnett and I have exchanged emails.

I can't believe it. 

In addition to the message I sent him, I attached a recording of the story made at a Speak Up event, where I had first told the more complete version of the story.

He replied:

"I certainly do remember you as well as other members of the Dicks family. I must admit, however, I do not recall the incident you referenced. That having been said, I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation."

He went on to expound on the fates of several people in the story, including my teacher and a classmate who plays a significant role in the tale.

In regards to the new school bearing his name, he writes:

"As for the middle school at BMRSD, it was my responsibility as superintendent to construct it, The school committee announced the dedication at graduation in 2003, the year I retired. I was, and sometimes remain, uncomfortable about it, though relieved it's not posthumously! On occasion, when I drive in I reflect it's similar to seeing one's name on a tombstone."

The man still has it. 

Remarkable how the power of The Moth has once again brought someone back into my life and re-established a connection that means so much to me. Mr. Hartnett and I continue to exchange emails. A man who once lived only in my heart and mind has come to life once again for me. We have discussed our teaching, writing, and course of our lives.

It's been remarkable.  

Tell your stories. On stages or in living rooms or at dinner table. Share them with friends and family and people willing to listen. You never know what may happen.

Resolution update: February 2016

PERSONAL HEALTH

1. Don’t die.

I finished my physical therapy last week. This, in combination with a lowering of my cholesterol by almost 40 points, is a good indicator of future health.

A recent health survey also indicated that I can expect to live until 95.

I'm killing it. 

2. Lose 20 pounds.

Seven pounds down. 13 pounds 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.

Physical therapy is complete. I have one more month of strengthening at home, then I will set up an appointment with my yoga instructor for a complete refresher. 

WRITING CAREER

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

The due date has been pushed back to March 21. 

6. Complete my sixth novel.

I have two novels that are more than halfway finished and one that is finished but requires a re-write. One of these will likely become my sixth novel. 

7. Write a middle grade novel.

I read two middle grade novels in February that were exceptionally informative in terms of this project and have exchanged emails with my editor. Nothing proceeds until the novel due on March 21 is complete. 

8. Write at least three new picture books. 

No progress yet. 

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

The book is outlined, and most of the proposal is written. I need to write two sample chapters to complete the proposal. Work on this will begin once the novel is complete. 

10. Write a new screenplay

No progress yet.

11. Write a musical for a summer camp

I'm in the process of outlining the musical so my partner can begin work on the songs, 

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

No progress yet.

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 another week backing my car into parking spots (which initially struck me as insane). I am writing about my experience now. 

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

I gained 18 subscribers in February. My total stands at 940. 

If you'd like to subscribe, you can do so 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.    

STORYTELLING

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

We produced one show at the Noah Webster House in February, bringing our total number of Speak Up shows to two.  

19. Deliver a TED Talk.

Done! I spoke at TEDxNatick in January on the topic: Live Your Life Like Your 100 Year-Old Self. 
As soon as the video is posted, I will be sure to share it.

I will also be speaking at another TEDx conference in April.

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

I attended a StorySLAM at Housing Works and a GrandSLAM at the Music Theater of Williamsburg, bringing my total number of events in 2016 to two.   

21. Win at least three Moth StorySLAMs.

I was called first in the only StorySLAM in which I competed in February. I placed fourth. 
Going first is the pits. Nearly impossible to win from the first couple positions.   

22. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

I competed in a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn in February. I was randomly assigned the second spot in the show, which is also the pits. Once again I finished fourth.

I will be competing in a Boston GrandSLAM at the end of March. 

23. Launch at least one new podcast.

I've chosen the next podcast and determined the format. It will not be launched until after the novel is complete.  

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

Work does not begin on this project until the novel is complete. 

NEW PROJECTS

25. Host at least one Shakespeare Circle.

No progress.

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

No progress.

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

No progress.

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. 

Likely a summer project. 

30. Set a new personal best in golf.

No golf was played in February for obvious reasons. 

31. Play poker at least six times in 2016.

I have a game of poker scheduled in April with friends. 

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

Done. February was free of negative speech about another person's physical appearance (except for my own).

Honestly, this is not a difficult goal. Everyone should adopt it.  

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

Done.

The Moth: A Strip Club of my Own Making

I have never entered a strip club.

Sitting beside my male friends and watching women who want nothing to do with me remove their clothes has never appealed to me. 

Unified public, unsatisfied arousal is just not my thing. 

I attended a bachelor party at a strip club once, but when we arrived at the establishment, I told the guys that I would be waiting in the car, reading Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. They thought I was crazy, but when I told them that they could drink and carouse all they wanted, and I would be happy serve as their designated driver, they relented. 

The one exception to my avoidance of strip clubs took place about 25 years ago in a McDonald's crew room, but in that case, it was sadly a strip club of my own making. 

Here is the story: