the living art of storytelling in Massachusetts

The Moth’s Story Slam or: How Not to Judge
By Queequeg
June 2nd, 2009 @ 9:35 AM Commentary, East Side, Events, West Side

800px-tragic_life_storiesOne of the worst things I did in college and post-college was go to poetry slams. They sound so great in theory, but the reality is, the ones I went to completely failed to build and strengthen community (which I thought they were supposed to actually do). Instead, these slams were self-affirming forums to bolster rather privileged slammers and their enormous, and enormously frail, egos. Enter The Moth, which offers an alternative: the short story slam. The deal is this: prior to every bi-monthly show held in either Silver Lake or Venice, The Moth releases a theme, sort of like Iron Chef’s featured ingredient. Aspiring slammers sign up to tell a 5-minute short story in accordance with this theme (only ten are randomly picked). Expectant listeners pony up the $6 fee and find seating in front, or on, the stage. Audience members who I thought aspired to Pauline Kael, if Kael could live by a 10-point rubric, sign up as judges. The highest-scoring winner is crowned at the end, and moves on, American Gladiators style, to compete at the next level, the LA GrandSlam.

I attended Memorial Day’s StorySlam at Air Conditioned (theme: falling) with high hopes that slamming short stories would be better than slamming poetry. I’m not sure why I thought that. Like a good short story, this event is only as good as its individual components. If the storyteller can barely tell a tale to a 2 year old, if the audience is too polite, or if the judges can only count backwards from 10 to 8, the momentum of the slam is slowed to the insignificance of a tap.

It started off well – someone had a hilarious story about his game show accomplishments (or not), but by the 4th story about falling, I was ready to leave. The stories quickly became, in order: 1) tenuously related, mildly offensive, and definitively lackluster mini-short stories (dude-in-fedora went from living in San Francisco’s Mission district and admiring his impoverished neighbors to y/mucking it up in Europe); 2) innocuous but disappointing (an earnest story about wrestling started off well, but ended poorly); 3) barely interesting (something about a guy wearing a corset for a court case, but I lost interest about 2 minutes in); and 4) another middling Europe story, this time about the running of the bulls.

Who knew a story about detasseling corn would redeem a night?

Thankfully, the entire night was redeemed by one certain former corn detassler. In a tale that was brilliantly hilarious, and brilliantly sad, she recounted her channeling of Vanessa Williams: losing one crown (homecoming) and gaining another (detassling). She was followed by a guy who recounted a good story of falling 1.5 miles down a steep switchback in pitch dark. At last, the $6 admission fee was worth it.

In the end, what was most frustrating was not the short storytellers – in any contest like this, of course, there are bound to be mediocre contestants – but the judging. To some audience members’ consternation, including mine, the judges were less Simon Cowell-Paula Abdul-Randy Jackson and more Paula-Paula-Paula. This was certainly to the storytellers’ detriment: if this is an exercise in literary and oratorical abilities, one would benefit from a healthy critique or, if so timely, a large horizontal cane. Alas, all of the stories, even the worst of the bunch, received a score of 8.0 or above.

I appreciate that executing a short story is difficult, but it’s like taking the SATs: sure, you get some points for showing up, but you shouldn’t walk away with a 2400 that easily. For those considering the prospect of short storytelling, I pulled away a few characteristics that differentiated a really great short story from a bad-borderline-offensive one:

1. The story should not be one long run-on sentence. We can tell where the paragraph breaks are, or should be.
2. The story should not be a stand-up routine, modified slightly to play like a short story – because it doesn’t. Instead, it sounds like one, long run-on sentence (see rule #1, above).
3. Spending time in Europe does not automatically make one interesting.
4. A pity story is the worst type of story.
5. Don’t expect laughter at jokes or punchlines. The ensuing silence is awkward for everyone.
6. The story is not a vehicle to arrive at a beautifully crafted last line or theme. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all equally important.
7. The short story is not a book report.
8. Nor is it a diary entry.

Would-be Vanessa Williams’s tale didn’t fall into any of the above 8 pitfalls. And, to the judge’s credit, she did win in the end. What a great story! There will always be ho-hum stories rolling in the barrel; here’s to hoping that the next go-around features more accurate judging and less boastful travels-in-Europe tales. For now, for a real 10.0 of a story – what storytellers at the The Moth have the potential to be:

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Grand Prize for South Shore Grand Slam Story Slam generously donated by Nicolette Heavey and Stories In The Streets (A Maine Get Away)

Stories in the Streets in an outreach literacy program that focuses on families in at-risk areas and fosters community engagement in storytelling by: 1) Creating opportunities for public storytelling wherever families gather — a farmer’s market, laundromat, or food line; and, 2) Offering storytelling workshops that raise family engagement in literacy, cultural awareness and community understanding.  The program is currently active in Lawrence, Brockton and Randolph.


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