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My hands are moving. Why are my hands moving this much? I hadn’t practiced it with my hands moving, but they won’t stop. Who’s telling the story—me or my hands? For the briefest of seconds my thoughts divert from my windmill-like appendages to the fact that I’m standing in front of a microphone surrounded by some 200 strangers in a bar in Brooklyn to tell a story for a Moth StorySLAM. The mic is picking up every tiny breath, every seeming imperceptible movement.
The story I’m about to tell is about the death of my mother. In present day, I’m a 33-year-old educator in New York City, but for tonight—I’m ten. I’m in a hospital in Kansas. It’s midnight. My cancer-inflicted mother lies in front of me with my family all around. As I navigate through the story of that night, the audience surprises me. They laugh at a line that I don’t particularly find funny. The glow from the stage lights reveals the warmth in their faces. With the story coming to an end, I take a deep breath. They breathe with me.
As I return to my seat, the host speaks about the importance of storytelling and grief. “When we lose someone, it’s hard,” he tells the audience, “But no one truly dies because they live on through our stories.” He invites the entire audience to collectively say the name of someone they’d lost. Through hearing the Carols, the Daniels, and my own Patsy, I discover one thing in that bar: I am not alone.
The Importance of Storytelling
Storytelling builds community. The prolific playwright, Neil Simon, wrote about using his own experiences in his work: Writing about it in a play or on this page doesn’t lessen the pain, it allows you to look at it from a distance, objectively instead of subjectively, and you begin to see a common truth that connects us all. The deeper and more detailed a story, the more there is for the audience to grab ahold of.
While watching the rest of that evening’s programming, I relate to the “common truth” from so many storytellers. I connect with the young man from Harlem scared of losing his neighborhood friends. I connect with the Southern girl who won’t stop practicing the piano because she wants to impress her teacher. We are not alone.
The founder of The Moth, George Dawes Green, once said: “People respond to personal stories. It’s such a primal communication. … There’s nothing more human than being able to tell and hear stories.” Storytelling is communicating. You establish your setting with a time and place. You introduce your characters. You set up stakes—what you’ll win or lose. Then you find your way to a lesson. You’ve changed. You’ve grown. And in telling that story at a dinner party, in a classroom, or in a bar in Brooklyn, maybe someone has grown along with you.
What I Learned from The Moth
It’s been over a year since I first stepped onto that Moth stage, but I’ve been back several more times since then to listen to someone take a room full of people on a journey or just to tell another story. I return for the community that the Moth builds; the familiar faces taking the stage, the strum from the violin letting the storyteller know the grace minute has begun, the conversations with strangers in between stories bring me back time and time again. I return for the empathetic faces staring back at me when I’m on stage.
Whether telling a story about my father and I dealing with the loss of my mother—or a student from my first year in the classroom—I look out onto my newfound friends willing to listen and understand my perspective. They nod. They laugh. We breathe together.
Though I’m still relatively new to the Moth, I recognized the power of storytelling when I first entered into the education world almost eight years ago. In my first year teaching, I was often encouraged by a mentor to explore my “story of self.” I would ask myself what life experiences brought me to work as an educator, how my upbringing affects the way I run my classroom, and what keeps me committed to ensuring that every student gets an excellent education.
I’ve imagined a Moth StorySLAM where every single person in the audience comes up to the stage and shares his or her own “story of self.” They describe their past, and how it relates to their future. Granted, it would be one long evening. But I think it would be worthwhile to gain that much of an understanding of each others’ perspectives and how they approach what is most important to them. After a long night of storytelling, we walk out with a new “common truth” to share with the world.
Stephen Ferrell is a schoolteacher and writer in Brooklyn, New York who lives with his wife and his puppy. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram for more, and to stay up to date with his public storytelling schedule.