By Bo Emerson
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — One day, Catherine Burns was sitting in the passenger seat of her friend Alex’s car, parked in a convenience store, waiting for him to come out with a cup of coffee.
Bored, she wanted to listen to the radio. The keys were in the ignition. She reached out and gave them a twist.
Mistake. Alex’s car was a standard team. He had left it in first gear. The starter drove the car over a small concrete curb and over the 10-foot cliff at the edge of the parking lot.
The police officer who arrived shortly after at the nose-down vehicle asked the question, “Who was driving the car at the time of the accident?” leading Burns, who was unharmed, to reply, “No one, sir.”
This story (and this innocent but funny exchange) delivered to a small audience at a New York Moth StorySLAM in 2000, helped Burns qualify for first place in his first competition.
It also propelled her into the Moth organization, where she volunteered to help the nonprofit with communications and education, and where she eventually became the artistic director of The Moth.
This year, Burns, a native of rural Alabama, co-wrote a book, “How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from The Moth” (Penguin Random House, $28). The post is one of many events celebrating The Moth’s silver anniversary this year.
What is the moth? It’s the brainchild of novelist and Georgia native George Dawes Green, who, after moving to Brooklyn, pondered a favorite childhood experience: sitting late at his St. Simons home, listening to his older parents tell stories. (Later, when Green was a young adult in Brunswick, story time included flying nocturnal insects, which gave The Moth its name.)
Green somehow transplanted that experience to his New York apartment and created a regular gathering of storytellers.
“That first Moth was a magnificent mess,” founding board member Melvin Estrella recalls in the new book. “The stories were so long, we ran out of wine!
Green tinkered with the ground rules. Each Moth meeting had a curator, a different theme, and sometimes an exotic location. Participants would respect a time limit. The stories would be true. There would be no notes and no interruptions.
In 25 years, The Moth has grown exponentially. It hosts StorySLAMS in 28 cities including London, England, Melbourne, Australia, and Atlanta. These are open-mic invites where anyone can put their name in the hat to be randomly selected to tell a story on a specific theme.
There’s also The Moth Mainstage, a traveling show that has hosted storytellers such as Mike Birbiglia, Rosanne Cash, Elizabeth Gilbert, Malcolm Gladwell, Amanda Gorman, Lin Manuel Miranda, Molly Ringwald, John Turturro and many more.
The Moth Radio Hour, presented weekly by PRX on more than 575 radio stations, and The Moth Podcast, downloaded 90 million times a year, reach large audiences. And there are Moth storytelling workshops for high school, college and adult students.
At The Moth, it’s an article of faith that learning to tell a story is an essential skill, a tool of self-discovery, and that stories can rewrite the way a community, even a nation, sees itself.
Above all, telling a personal story, in a room of attentive listeners, is a path towards a unique union. “Some of the best nights at the Moth can feel like the storyteller and everyone in the audience are breathing the same breath,” the authors write.
Moth stories heard on the main stage or on the radio show and podcast come from the heart of the storyteller, but are cultivated with the help of a Moth director. Moth staff members spice up the storyteller with questions, they help find the emotion behind the anecdotes, and help the storyteller distill meaning from events in their own life.
For those of us at home, the authors of “How to Tell a Story” suggest using the book itself as a guide to unearthing and refining the personal story inside each of us.
Here are some of the guidelines:
Mainstage stories are limited to 10-12 minutes. StorySLAM participants only have five minutes.
Practice out loud
Tell your story to a friendly listener before presenting it at the next dinner party.
Don’t try to be the hero
“We teach in the book: be prepared to reveal yourself,” Burns said. Focus on “not the moment you saved the day, but the moment you might have messed up. People identify with you a lot more.”
“The only people at The Moth who ever stopped their story and didn’t continue were people who memorized their speech,” Burns said. “If you have it memorized, you have to remember the words. If you haven’t memorized it, you just have to remember the beats.”
Exception: memorize your first and last lines:
The intro and teardown are crucial.
Your story must be true
“But there are always embellishments along the way,” Green said. “We don’t have a police force, we don’t have the Moth Investigative Agency,” so The Moth depends on its speakers to fit, more or less, to the facts.
Green, 69, said 25 years ago the idea of patrons paying to sit in a room and listen to the stories of non-famous people was considered strange, even revolutionary.
“When I went to see my friends, everyone was skeptical.”
They asked him: don’t you need music? How about a single story? Why not focus on children’s stories? “Nobody had ever organized an evening of personal stories.”
Now, he says, there are hundreds of presentations a month. “We are possibly the biggest theatrical production company in the world, if you consider all the shows we produce. I once saw someone write somewhere that The Moth was the first global movement to come out of South Georgia since the Girl Scouts.”
Speaking the day before The Moth’s annual Moth Ball – a Silver Ball this year – held in New York with David Byrne as guest of honour, Green acknowledged there can be a dark side to power stories. They can be used to generate false narratives and manipulate others for nefarious purposes.