(Old Dog, New Tricks)
As I turned from O’Farrell St. onto Polk I knew that my chances of making a valid excuse to get out of this were deteriorating. Of course I could show up and *not* tell a story, forging some absurd reason that I couldn’t make it fit into the five minutes we were given, or I could simply tell David the truth; I was terrified of all that could go wrong.
I thought back to the few storytelling events I had been a guest at, and remembered that during each one there were times where I said to myself “Hell – I could do this, and I might even be able to do it better.” Then I would think about what stories I could tell, and the self-doubt inside of me was such a powerful presence that I couldn’t come up with any. I mean sure – I could come up with the *middle* of a story, maybe even the beginning – but the a good ending has always been elusive.
I thought of my life and all the amazing tales in it, but it seemed as if they all bled into the previous and the next, with nothing I could truly call an ending. I mean hell – what happens when our stories end? Maybe it’s a psychological thing – the story of my life has come so dangerously close to ending so many times that I blocked the completion of any of them, choosing instead to keep writing “and then this happened…”.
As I got closer to the venue, I slowed down & lit a cigarette, taking three deep drags in hopes of calming my nerves. I’ve wanted to do this for months just to see if I could, but fear has always gotten the better of me. Now, here was my chance & I wanted to turn around & run home. I dug deeper than the doubt in my mind & after a bit of moving things around, found my courage tucked away in back. I dusted it off, shined it up a little, and set it inside my heart. If I failed, so be it – but at least I would have tried.
As I opened the door to The Hemlock Tavern & walked in, this became my silent mantra. It’s been countless years since my last “First Time” doing anything – at least where I could and would be judged by others. I did my best not to think about it as the friend I was meeting caught my eye.
David, a storytelling veteran who had once won first place on The Moth Story-Slam, had put his name down early, second on the list. I was number five.
He offered me his drink ticket, one of the perks of telling a story, and said that when I get mine I could give it to him since the Porchlight Storytelling organizers weren’t around at the time. I looked at it as a promise – if I didn’t get up there, I would morally have to forfeit my drink ticket and not be able to pay his kindness back. I find it amusing how my mind creates little back-ups to ensure I don’t back out – and even more amusing that I actually honor them. Hell – whatever works.
I had finally written my story out in longhand (due to my rapidly dying laptop) about an hour before I had to leave, doing my best to commit the main points to a loose memory, something like writing them down on index cards then throwing them up in the air to see what order they landed in. I knew from long-ago experience that if I tried to memorize it word for word it would be a disaster.
Though we had planned on going to this small event over a month before, neither of us were even nearly ready until that day. He had a story that was 20 minutes longer than the five minutes we were given, and mine simply didn’t exist yet. Still recovering from an amazing weekend at The Edwardian Ball, I had completely forgotten that tonight was the night until I got his text in the morning. Shit.
The theme was “Stories of the Gig Economy”, and yesterday morning I racked my brain thinking of all the strange jobs I’ve had, all the things I have done to be able to eat – and all the odd stories that came from them. When I put my mind to it I found out that I had plenty – from being homeless & staying up all night at Denny’s frying on mushrooms so I could stay awake & get to work on time, to spending four months in Federal Prison due to a pot deal that went bad at a Harley shop I worked at, to finding myself standing under the world’s deepest diving diesel-electric submarine & needing to commemorate it by dancing the Charleston, to working as a mover & finding that my helper was into primal scream therapy only after he startled the crap out of me with a blood curdling screech while we were loading the truck – yeah, the stories were there, but I wanted more than a story. I wanted beauty, laughter & maybe even a lesson.
Then I found one – or more appropriately, it found me. One of the stories from when I was busking in New Orleans. It was more-or-less perfect, but still – I didn’t know how to end it. I decided to figure it out when I was on stage. What could possibly go wrong?
David’s story was fantastic, of course, with an ending that completed the story yet still hinted at the madness that came after. Then, two more storytellers, and thankfully, though their stories were good, I had the “I think mine might be better” sense of relief that thankfully boosted my courage just enough to quiet the demons in my head – because I was next up.
No turning back now…
I walked up onto the stage, and was instantly blinded by the lights. Good. Just me & the microphone. I raised the mic so I didn’t have to hunch over (noting that the guy before me was hunched, and it simply didn’t look good) – and began my story.
I don’t remember much of what I said, but I recall that people laughed at the right times, that words & sentences I hadn’t even though of appeared in my story to describe things that much better, and that somehow, my story found an ending to itself.
I did it. I fucking DID it, and instead of hisses and boo’s there was applause. Real applause, not just people being polite.
Crossing in front of a few people on my way to my seat in the back row, the woman sitting next to me said that the ending of my story made her cry a little in a good way. I had to refrain from asking her how it ended.
When the rest of the stories were told & it was time to determine who earned the prizes, I felt confident that I would probably get one. The difference in how I felt as I walked in the door just hoping to get through it did not go unnoticed. I closed my eyes and silently thanked the storytelling gods for reminding me of my courage.
Third place received a pound of coffee, which I certainly could have used but went to a woman & her lovely story. Second place was a crisp $50 bill, which I *definitely* could have used, but that, very deservingly, went to David. Cheers & applause echoed in the small room – but there was still one more prize left.
First place, the “grand prize”, is being invited to tell another story on February 23rd at some “Secret Location” in San Francisco – but it comes with dinner & the winner can bring a “date”.
They called my name. In a way I expected it, but I also TOTALLY didn’t, because I’m not good at telling stories.
I guess it’s time to change that way of thinking.
Great. Though I’m amazingly honored, now I get to go through all of this again, except most likely with people who have been telling stories & honing their skill for years – or at least more than a day. No pressure.
When I think about it, it’s really just telling a story – something that we do every day, and have been doing since the dawn of language – but although I’ve been writing the stories of my life for around 37 years, I have never felt that I was good at telling them. Hells, for the first 17 years of my life I was as close to silent as I could get away with, a tragically insecure & self-doubting child, choosing to listen & watch instead of talking.
But this is something new. A new way to make people happy, to make them laugh, think, and perhaps even cry – in a good way.
And I enjoyed it immensely, which, when it comes down to the nuts & bolts, is more important than *any* prize.