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Podcast #73: The Moth on the Power of Storytelling

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In 1997, The Moth began hosting storytelling events around the country, and in 2013, we were lucky enough to share in The Moth experience at LIVE from the NYPL. On that night, The Moth founder George Dawes Green (RavensThe Juror), writer Andrew Solomon (Far from the TreeThe Noonday Demon), and The Moth's long-time Artistic Director Catherine Burns joined us. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present The Moth on Storytelling.

George Dawes Green, Andrew Solomon, Catherine Burns,  and Carly Johnstone.


Most of us are used to experiencing narrative primarily on the page, but Catherine Burns discussed the way in which oral storytelling offers different rewards: the rewards of connecting through listening:

"I do think that as a culture we have sort of forgotten how to listen. Since we’re talking about mamas, I’ll talk about my mama. One of my first memories as a child, when I was four years old, this nice lady novelist mama said had come to do research in my hometown and so mama, one of my first memories is being four years old sitting down for pimento cheese sandwiches with my mother and Harper Lee. Which at the time I was four, like fine. So cut to ten years later, I’m fourteen, I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school and all of a sudden I realize that Harper Lee was at our house, and I was completely freaked out by my mother, like, by her kindness, yes, but also by her audacity. I was like, 'Mama, you just invited Harper Lee over for lunch? She had just won the Pulitzer Prize.' Mama was like, 'Well, I don’t know about that, but she was new in town, and you got to get to know your neighbors, because you never know what’s been going on with the person in the line behind you at the supermarket.' And there’s something about that that I think is fundamental to what we’re trying to do with the Moth."

For many who've considered storytelling, the most daunting aspect is memorizing an entire narrative. Yet, Catherine Burns discussed the way in which great raconteurs mix a degree of preparation and flexibility:

"The ideal thing is we want them to prepare enough that they know their story very well and that gives them the confidence to go up there and actually sort of interact with the audience in a way, you feel that energy when these guys are onstage, and it takes a certain amount of preparation to be free in that way, but also there’s also the reality of within ten minutes—that’s not a lot of time... It’s not easy, so I think the best Moth stories dance on that line of being prepared but not so prepared that you can’t go out there and really seek into it in an organic way, and just let it fly when you’re onstage."

Andrew Soloman explained how he approaches memorization by considering the way that sections of narrative dovetail with subsequent sections:

"I have an unbelievably terrible memory, and my fear, whenever I do a story is of forgetting some part of it. The idea that kind of gets me through is that each part of it flows in some reasonably natural way from the part before, so each of them reminds me of the next one, there’s also a certain amount of repeating it... I probably would memorize my stories if I could, it’s completely outside my skill set. When you start to tell the story, and it changes as you’re telling it, and little bits come in that you would never have planned, and it grows, and I find that the thing that works best, when it really is a storytelling, there’s really an organic process going on, it’s emerging in response to the audience."

This organic process is one that Soloman described as a way of more closely inhabiting human experience than simply relaying facts and figures:

"I think that we live in a time in which there is a kind of tyranny of facts and numbers. The news when you read it tends to consist of a compendium of facts or else some of the time a compendium of outspoken opinions that get wedged in between the facts. But I don’t think that actually human experience unfolds in facts, I think it unfolds in narratives, and that the loss of the narrative element in our experience of our own lives, in our experience of what’s happening in the world, even in our experience of history, is very distorting. And sometimes people say, well, was the story completely accurate? Well, it was largely accurate perhaps, or perhaps it wasn’t so largely accurate, but its trajectory, the emotion that was contained in it, the urgency that was inscribed in it, those things were accurate, and sometimes I think that conveys a great deal more than somebody getting it right whether there were thirty-seven or thirty-nine of something someplace, and so I love stories, and I love the stories that I put together in my book, which was about how families responded to these various kinds of challenging children. I loved hearing the stories of those families. I tried to fact-check, I tried to make sure what I was writing was accurate, I tried to make sure people were being straight with me, but I felt like in telling what their stories were I said more about what it means to be a parent or to be a human being than I could have done with a more sort of fact-based operation."

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