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my quest to become a {gulp} storyteller

This weekend we went to see the comedian Mike Birbiglia perform his show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. He is so funny and such a wonderful storyteller. I loved that his act had multiple small story arcs within one larger arc, and so many of the jokes would come back later in the bit. I also appreciate that, when compared with the tragic moments in Sleepwalk with Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is at its heart a love story, full of the missteps and heartache but also pockets of optimism that he delivers with such honesty and self-deprecation. It was fun to see the show in Worcester, close to his hometown; the audience was as rowdy as I expected. [If you haven’t yet, you should check out Mike’s film version of Sleepwalk with Me on Netflix].

Here’s the original shorter story that inspired his show:

I left the theater feeling inspired and also in awe. How did he write and memorize so much story? How did he not get sidetracked and forget what he was saying? He must have tricks, some sort of cue that help him remember the next thing he wanted to say. Given how I am during most conversations (“What was I saying?”), remembering my next line would absolutely be the hardest part of public speaking.

I would love to take a class to help me learn some of those tricks. More than that, I would love to possess such a natural gift of storytelling. My dad is a fantastic storyteller. I truly think you can’t teach a person to write exceptionally well or be humorous, so even a storytelling class wouldn’t be able to teach that kind of natural talent. I heard Woody Allen say, of his ability to write jokes, “I don’t know how not to write jokes” (see the great documentary about him, also on Netflix). For him, the jokes just pop into his head when he’s walking down the street. Then again, writers and speakers can certainly learn how to be better; to use the same example, according to the industry, Woody Allen was not a great stage performer when he first began telling jokes. So maybe there is hope for me?

My next idea is the scariest part for me to tell you. In keeping with my desire to say yes, I think I’ve come to a decision, y’all: I should try public speaking. Yes, I know Seinfeld says most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. I might agree with them. I can’t say I love the idea of being on stage, but I do love to talk, and that seems like a good place to start. I also adore stories, both in written and spoken form, and I’d like to learn to do both better. When I doubt my decision, I remind myself of my friend Caroline and others who do improv. They go on stage without knowing what they are going to say! Talk about guts.

I’ve followed Mike since his days performing at small comedy clubs, and he’s come such a long way to become the wonderful performer he is now. How exhilarating it must be to come off the stage and feel like you made people experience an emotion because of words you said. One of Mike’s early stage experiences was at the Moth Radio Hour’s StorySLAM story-telling competitions, in which anyone can go to the show, put their name in a hat, and get the chance to tell their story on a specific theme. From the Moth, he went to This American Life, which then eventually produced his recent film. I have no higher aspirations than a tiny stage with an audience of 20 people (in fact, I’d prefer it that way), but I wrote his own story arc to show how saying yes can open up great opportunities. For me, it would be fun just to cross public speaking off my bucket list. Right? RIGHT? O_O

There’s a storySLAM this month in Cambridge with the theme “Detours.” With just over a week to prepare, I think I might skip this one, but maybe I’ll write a story on the theme and practice it, just to get over the hump of that first part. It could take me a year or a lifetime to get up the guts to get actually up on stage, but I might as well practice. If I get up the guts, maybe I’ll share the story here too. Maybe. Honey badger don’t care.