Sunday night Diana and I went with some friends to see Ira Glass. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s the co-creator and host of This American Life, one of the best storytelling programs on radio. There is some good news coverage on the show, but it’s also a showcase for commoners like us telling personal stories, sometimes amazingly well. I’ve known critics who say it’s a little too produced at times, with its cute musical breaks and the like. For me, I love This American Life. Story Night, the monthly storytelling event I host in Bremerton, owes some of its existence to it. The show is probably my favorite thing on radio, and for one year I tried to do podcasts that borrowed heavily from it.
Glass’s night this week was called “Seven Things I’ve Learned.” I couldn’t tell you in order what they were; I wasn’t taking notes. He started, though, with how to tell a story. He outlined what he’d learned growing up and being dragged by his mother to musicals, particularly annual viewings of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The story arc in those musicals is the same that appears in some of This American Life’s best stories.
That was just the start. Again, I can’t tell you everything, or much of anything, in some part because I don’t remember. Secondly, to tell you would be stealing from Ira Glass. Third, I want to keep it to myself. We paid $33 a seat to be miles from the stage. I earned the right to be stingy. I will get to one thing, though.
That I would withhold the rest of it is rich, because before going to the event I had no idea what it would be about. I hadn’t read earlier reviews of the show. I had just heard Ira Glass on the radio enough times to figure he wouldn’t steal $33 and two hours of my life. That his presentation, which so often was ad libbed, would focus so much on storytelling surprised me. I’m not sure why. Duh.
Perhaps the most important benefit is that it gave me a great appreciation for what we do at Story Night. I hesitate to say that, because it could come off as back patting. “Our events are the best. Really, they’re terrific. You wouldn’t believe it. It’s amazing, easily the best event in all the Seattle area.” But this discovery came to me by accident. I didn’t know what I had when I finally got the nerve to get Story Night started. I liked being on stage talking to an audience. I wanted to get good at it.
Over the two plus years we’ve been doing it, though, I’ve been so moved by you. I’ve come to recognize that the stories that move me the most are the ones where people get real about their challenges. There is humor in our stories, but we’re not doing stand-up. There is often redemption, but we are not motivational speakers. The best stories are about those moments we are real, when we reveal our own weaknesses, our failings, or at least our heartaches.
It took me a long time to get that. Once I did, it forced me to consider whether I had what it took to get good at storytelling. I had wanted to get by on performance. Part of it was because I just didn’t think my life had been all that difficult, or even interesting. Some of it was also because I worried that telling my own stories about my own challenges could look like whining. Most of it, though, was because while I admired those who had been vulnerable and took in so much from their bravery, I wasn’t sure I could be that courageous.
I participated in three Bainbridge Island Story Slams and they give prizes to the top three storytellers, something we used to do. I told decent stories, but nothing of any real substance, and I didn’t place once. Then one night here, a little over a year ago I told the story about my youngest son falling into a pool and the fears and the story that overcame me as I swam to get him. It was probably the most vulnerable I had been on this stage, and the story landed.
A few months later I went back to Bainbridge Island and told a story at a Story Slam about the biggest challenge Diana and I ever encountered. It wasn’t the day our oldest child told us he was transgender. It was the 18 months before that day. It was a story I constantly question whether I should tell, because it’s more Josh’s story than mine. But I usually opt to reveal, because it isn’t just the baby who is affected by birth, it isn’t just the players on the field who have a story about the game, it isn’t just the soldier affected by the war and you don’t have to be an immigrant to be an outsider. Not all of our struggles are huge and not all of them are obvious but they all have value worth sharing with the rest of us. So I decided to tell that story, and for the first time ever I won a storytelling competition.
The truth is, though, the winning is in the telling. The biggest gift I received that night was a captive audience willing to take in someone else’s story and take whatever value they would. Here at Story Night we give a medal because I think it’s fun to give those away and I learned on Bainbridge that it’s fun to get a little recognition. And if you have a competitive streak in you at all it might motivate you to work on your story before you get up on stage here.
But the real winning is in the telling. It’s tied with the winning that comes from the hearing.
Ira Glass didn’t dwell on the stuff I’m going on about here. He just talked about telling stories, by telling stories. And it was fascinating. Stories teach us and they move us. Sometimes they bore us when they get too long or too repetitive. But I’ve come to believe that it’s the stories that bind us, that make us care, that reveal how much alike we are.
So, of course, I’ll finish this with a story. When I was a Mormon missionary and had been in Chile for a few months and could adequately speak and hear the Spanish language, I decided to do what you do when you’re living a religiously pious life. I told a highly inappropriate joke related to the holocaust.
The guy I told the joke to didn’t laugh, but not because he was offended for the 6 million victims. “I like the Nazis,” he said.
His response floored me, but I recognized that I was living in a country ruled by a dictator and not the sensitive place where I had grown up. I wrote my parents later that week and related the story. My mother wrote back, telling me I shouldn’t tell those kind of jokes, because the Chileans were sensitive people. Wait, I thought, Chileans are sensitive, but one of them just told me he likes the Nazis? I became angry with my mother, and I let her know that Chileans are people. Some of them, probably not most, would have laughed at my joke. Most of them; not all of them, obviously; didn’t like the Nazis. “People are people,” I told my mother. Maybe Chileans have different general traits than we superior United Statesians had, but individuals could be as different as Joe Montegna from Joe Montana.
I only knew this, though, because through my own choices and the dictates of 15 elderly white men in Salt Lake City, I was sent to a foreign country where part of what I would do on a regular basis was hear stories. My new friends might have been Chilean, but more than that they were people. I could have made assumptions about them like I could about those filthy Argentines not far enough away on the other side of the Andes. Or I could listen to them, and recognize myself in their stories.
There were no medals there for that. When I came home I did get what’s called an “honorable release,” some pats on the back and some new clout with Mormon women. But the winning was in the going, in the living there, in the telling, and in the hearing. It was in the story. And that’s one thing I’ve learned.