Thirty years ago I flirted with the idea of quitting my day job and writing the Great American Novel. I had this story — a true incident in my life — that I could use as the centerpiece from which I could flesh out characters and build a book.
Back when I was 16 and living in Denver, Colo., I was invited by my friend Laurie Stuart to be her escort to the junior debutante ball. My overprotective Jewish family, fearing for their only child driving the family car for the first time — to an exclusive Protestant country club cotillion — followed me for the entire night. And when I say family I mean my mother, father, aunt and uncle, a humorous memory of mortification.
So I jumped ship, dived into the research, constructed characters and settings with verve and anointed myself with the earnestness of being important. I knew the story smacked of some kind of universality. Every time I told it, listeners laughed. I was encouraged.
After accumulating 400 disorganized pages, I decided to take on a new day job and put the novel aside, where it lingered in a vegetative state until it took on the smell of literary mildew.
But the writing bug continued to gnaw on me. So I began thinking of turning the story into a play. That form and process would at least be shorter and faster. However, I was spared more agony when I received a call late spring from someone identifying herself as a director for The Moth. My story had managed to flutter by their window.
Launched in 1997, The Moth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. According to their website, “it is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it.” In the early days of the group, they talked on summer nights on screened-in porches where moths, attracted by the light, flew in to join the listeners. Hence, its name. Performances are now held on stages around the world. The Moth’s directors work with each storyteller to find, shape and present the truth as story.
The Moth lady asked me to try my story out on her. I prepared a one-minute version and pitched it. She caught it, liked it and told me to structure it as a 10-minute piece for their next Island performance scheduled for August 9 at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.
I began writing the story not to be read but to be spoken, and spoken as if it were not written. Not as easy as it sounds. I was writing it down so I could determine what 10 minutes sounded like. I knew this story backwards and forwards. I knew where the high points were, where the twists were. What was scary was the spotlight. At show time, there would be no notes and no props. Just a microphone on a lonely stand.
My experience as a cast member on Says You!, the NPR comedy quiz show, for the past 18 years, you would think, would prepare me for The Moth. In some way it did, but you could have fooled my stomach. Says You! is all ad-lib, but now I was in the throes of memorizing and controlling my timing and my time. The Moth gave me butterflies.
The day before the Tabernacle performance, the five storytellers met to rehearse before a panel of Moth mentors. One by one we got up on a confined sunlit terrace and gave it our shot. Each one of us exceeded the time limit. Editing needed to be done. On Saturday afternoon, the day of the performance, I went for a long walk and ran my story four times, making cuts.
That night, I got to go first. I watched WCAI’s Jay Allison, producer of The Moth, introduce the show. He did two things I noted. First, he grabbed the microphone like a crooner, every once in a while swapping hands, so his fingers had something to do, besides scratch or twitch. Then he made a joke about a proposed radio station motto. I took a large exhale. I now knew how to break my own tension.
Up on stage to tell my story, I grabbed the mic and started with my own motto anecdote. Years ago on our show, Says You!, we came up with a nifty catchphrase: “More radios are tuned to this show than any other appliance.” The audience laughed and I was ready for my story. Buoyed by more laughter, I cruised to the end. Once there, a little interior voice marveled how quick the end had come. I left the stage refreshed and relaxed enough to enjoy the other storytellers.
Now I wait to find out if my story is approved for radio broadcast. If my performance does not air, I may be forced to reconsider telling it as a poem or a country western song. How would you vote? Our operators are now standing by. Then again, maybe they’re not. Got a day job?
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.