Tuesday, August 30, 2016

StorySlam and Stage Fright

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
A few nights ago, for the first time, I stepped in front of an audience of more than a hundred, without book, paper, or index card in hand, without a memorized song, dance, or play in my head. Just the mic and me. The place was in Los Angeles. The theme was Heat. The event was StorySlam. An organization called The Moth puts on these competitive events all over the country. The premise is: “True Stories Told Live”… no notes.

Are you kidding?!

When I first heard of StorySlam it sounded petrifying. I didn’t even want to watch. Why? It might be like watching amateur trapeze artists perform without a net: could be beautiful, could be painful.

Then I started taking long drives to visit my sister, and on the way back I listened to The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. These storytellers mesmerize. Each spends 10 to 15 minutes revealing their most frightening, embarrassing, grief-stricken, weird, dysfunctional moments. Their stories are inspiring, hilarious, intimate.

They call it The Moth because humans are attracted to stories like moths to flame. This is old-fashioned community: gathering around a fire to connect. 

Or maybe it’s like a circus, where the aerialists are my favorite. I’m too old to join the circus, but this I can do. Oral stories are my tightrope without a net.

At StorySlam, most people just listen. That’s what I did my first night. But if you dare, you can prep a five-minute story on the night’s theme, hope your name is one of the ten picked, tell your story to a crowd plied with drinks, and let three sets of amateurs with no credentials judge you.

Why would anyone do this?!

My second night, I entered the lottery. Every time someone pulled a name from the sack, my heart lurched. “Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not! Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not!”

Five times I spent days-on-end practicing. Five times they did not call my name.  

Phew! Then again: Come on!

One night, a performer delivered her first line, froze, and gave up. What if that happened to me?

For my sixth try, I prepared a story about fireworks for the theme Heat. I wasn’t feeling it. I originally wrote the story for print, and oral stories have a different rhythm, as I’ve discovered walking around my house talking to an invisible audience. I told my husband, “Maybe I’ll just listen this time.” Then, the night before, I remembered another story, about visiting India during a heat wave.

I knew better than to tell a story with so little time to prepare.

When I entered my name that night, I met a guy who produces literary salons in L.A. He was excited to learn I was an author, “but I don’t invite speakers until I’ve heard them perform.” I began to sweat.

The host called my name. My heart began a countdown to self-destruct.   

The lights were so bright I couldn’t see the audience. This was not a relief. When I do public speaking, which I normally enjoy, I seek friendly faces to connect with. Here there was only ominous breathing.

I told a story for the next six minutes and fifteen seconds. Remember, it was supposed to be five? I didn’t factor enough time for filler words when I lost my place, or for unexpected laughter. But the laughter was good. 

Then someone played a flute sound that means, “Wrap it up!” They give you an extra minute if you need it, and many storytellers use it. Then came the second flute sound. That’s when they deduct points. I had three more sentences. Even then, I didn’t hit my planned ending, just one that made sense.

My scores weren’t bad, but I was closer to the bottom of the pack than the top. All the stories were strong, so no shame in that. Still, the shame spiral went on for 24 hours: Did I score lower for going into overtime? Because I didn’t hit my stronger ending? Because my nerves showed? My story was weak? I’m not cut out for this?

But hey, I did it!

Next time, I’ll plan a 4.5-minute talk, so if I go over I’ll still finish on time. Next time, I’ll say my planned ending. Next time, I’ll do better. I’ll keep turning up the heat till I win, whatever that means. In storytelling, I’m always seeking the next challenge to reach an audience. In storytelling, what scares me is good. 

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, Rivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

20 comments :

  1. I listened to a couple of storytellers at a conference last year and really enjoyed the experience. I'd rather be in the audience than on the stage. After many speeches over the years, I still get the shaking knees thing.

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    1. I hear you, Patricia. The first time I gave a reading of my creative writing, I was seated and my knees shook so violently it was clearly visible to the audience. And that was after I'd spent ten years as a TV news anchor/reporter and several years in amateur theater. It can be both exciting and scary sharing our most private thoughts and ideas with a crowd.

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  2. I'm with Patricia. Shaky knees, shaky voice. In high school I got the lead in the school play, then wondered how I was going to get up in front of everyone and perform. Something happened in front of the audience, and I became someone else. But all these years later I wouldn't dream of doing what you did, Carla. Brava. You are a brave woman.

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    1. Thanks, Polly. I've waited years for it to stop being scary. Still waiting. For a moment there it felt like I was actually about to have a heart attack. Now that would have given the audience a show!

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    2. Polly, you are right, becoming another person is the key for acting in a play and not getting stage fright. I learned that the first time I was in a play. But the thought of this story-telling with just me and the mic makes my knees wobble.

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  3. Wow. That takes guts! I wonder if I could ever do something like that. Seriously! :)

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    1. Thank you, Morgan. It's nice to know the scary part was not my imagination. Sometimes I'm tempted to tell myself, "Ah, that wasn't so hard was it?" Um, yeah it was! But worth it!

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  4. I'm better since taking the heart medication Inderal for a few years. It's a beta blocker, and eliminates the jitters mentioned. Once I knew what it was like to speak in front of a group without the symptoms, I could do it in later years without the medication. Darn-near interesting. :D

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    1. Wow, Dani, that's fascinating. Part of me thinks, oh man, get me some of that medication! ;) On the other hand, part of me likes the jitters, the adrenaline rush, all that - I feed off the energy and use it as part of the performance. I both love it and fear it, but one thing for sure: being onstage is not a normal feeling for me.

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  5. Kudos, Cara, for getting up there and doing it! As a member of the open mic circuit, I can relate to the nervous tension and sense of accomplishment you felt. Some people are born to perform and some of us have to be forced up there with a cattle prod ... I fall into the latter group ... and have the burn marks to prove it ... but the rewards are always greater than the pain, eh what?

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    1. I feel both ways about it, Christopher: born to perform some days, need a cattle prod others. And the rewards are indeed worth the pain - usually. 😉

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  6. I'm with Christopher on this one -- cattle prod and all -- and the shaky knees with Patricia and Polly too. I admire your gumption, Cara. You're a braver soul than I am.

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  7. I love that word - gumption - Linda. Thank you! Just hope the gumption is accompanied by some performing chops. I like that word too: chops. 😄

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  8. Good for you for having the courage to do the story slam. I love The Moth and listen to the podcasts regularly. Maybe I'll hear your story there one day. Hugs!!

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    1. I listen their podcasts all the time, Maryann! I always get excited to discover a fellow fan of The Moth. Thanks, I'm hoping you hear one of my stories there one day too...

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  9. Sounds like a WIN already for the bravery to get up there and give it a try! CONGRATULATIONS!

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    1. Thanks for declaring me a winner, Kara. I'll now tell people, "I won The Moth StorySlam. My friend Kara says so!" Then, they'll be all like, "But aren't YOU, Cara?" And I'll be all like, "Oh, then that makes two of us!" ;)

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  10. So you can prep your story in your head but can't have it written out? Wow. I'd be terrified my memory would go AWOL right in the middle. Kudos to you for getting up there.

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  11. I must have a cheat sheet with me when I speak. I'm not long-winded, and don't think I could handle the pressure of being before an audience without a crutch. An index card or piece of paper, and I can get along fine. Good for you that you accepted and conquered this challenge!

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  12. I must have a cheat sheet with me when I speak. I'm not long-winded, and don't think I could handle the pressure of being before an audience without a crutch. An index card or piece of paper, and I can get along fine. Good for you that you accepted and conquered this challenge!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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