The Moth in Miami

One of the biggest adjustments to life here in Delray Beach is that we’re small town now. No longer big city. Of course we’re near the big city of Miami, but not as near as I’d hoped. We imagined it not unlike our jaunts to San Francisco from Oakland… a bear during rush hour, a breeze otherwise. We’d fly home from shows in the Mission, door to door in 20 minutes, easy peasy. Last night’s return from Miami, flying and all, took a full hour. And don’t get me started on the drive down, during the brunt of rush hour, with intermittent showers, the turnpike littered with accidents. I’ll just sound like I’m whining.

Delray Beach is a sea-side community of about 65,000 people. To give some context for my California friends, that’s about half the size of Berkeley, without the university, and without next-door proximity to Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco. Our closest small-city neighbors are West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, both thirty minutes away. And Miami, oasis of international culture, well that can take two hours. Like it did last night.

Tim and I agreed it’s too much of a trek for most weeknights, but we knew it was well worth the effort the moment we entered the Olympia Theater in Miami’s historic downtown district. It was like walking into the East Coast’s version of the Fox Theater in Oakland (which I wrote a long blogpost about years ago). Same Moorish architecture, same over-the-top embellishments, same history, established in 1926 during the heyday of silent films.

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We were there for Moth StorySLAM Miami, an offshoot of NPR’s popular Moth Radio Hour, where folks from the audience toss their name in a hat for the opportunity to take the stage and tell a short story. The event was located in a side auditorium, packed wall-to-wall upstairs and down, with the most diverse crowd I’ve been part of since landing in South Florida. Knowing I was surrounded by those with a love for stories and story-telling felt awesome (despite making me miss Oakland), because it’s something I’ve, so far, struggled to find here.

The theme for last night’s show was VOYAGE, and the only rules for participation are that the story must fit the theme, be true, told from memory (no paper!), and limited to five minutes. Not easy. Especially given the hundreds of expectant faces hanging on your every word. Oh, and did I mention, you’re being judged too? Three teams of judges rate your performance as though you’d just completed the Olympic floor exercise… 8.3, 7.6, 9.0.

As you can imagine, some of the stories were quite good. Some needed a bit more polishing, and as we stood in the rear (having arrived late) we found ourselves quietly judging too, offering a raised eyebrow or frown to each other when the “official” judges scores conflicted with our own.

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In terms of how to judge just what actually makes a good story, I was reminded of a few things, echoes of early writing classes, and damn near rules-to-live-by from graduate school:

1) You need conflict. The protagonist has to want something that for some reason they’re having difficulty obtaining. One of our favorite stories fulfilled this nicely – the young man had been born to American parents, but only after they’d left America (where his older brother was born). His father was in the agricultural business and the family moved frequently for his work, often to remote and amazing locations. India, Tanzania, Nigeria. But he’d wanted nothing more than to go to America, the country he’d heard so much about, where dreams come true, where everyone has a house and a car, and no one suffers from poverty (this got a big laugh).

2) No preaching. No one wants to be lectured. The moral lesson has to be inherent for the reader to figure out for himself. It was for this reason that one of the story-tellers fell short for us. His smugness preceded him and though his story alone could have neatly made his point, he ended atop a soapbox on the downside of digital devices and how they’re supposed to bring us greater connection but so often isolate us instead. I had to restrain myself from whipping out my phone to tweet something snarky.

3) Avoid clichés. This one can be a bit tricky because the very nature of a cliché is that it’s nearly hard-wired. You’ve heard it so many times it’s become a truism that’s easily retrieved. And of course there are theories that only a handful of stories – truly unique patterns – actually exist, and that all the millions of stories told, written, or expressed through other means are mere iterations of one of these patterns. The challenge then is in how to make it fresh, how to allow the audience something revelatory. It was for this reason that another story-teller ultimately failed. She showed a lot of promise. She had an interesting opening, explaining her creative process in thinking about which journey she wanted to share (she’d had so many!)… maybe the Eat Pray Love trip to India… maybe the sexual escapades at the foothills of the Andes because, as she said, “sex sells”… maybe a few others, each of which she dismissed as not quite the right story to tell. It was an interesting way to build suspense, since we audience members assumed the final “chosen” story would be far more interesting than those just ticked off. But then she faltered. There was no story. All that buildup just to conclude that, in the end, what she’d realized was that it wasn’t about where you went, how exotic the place or how adventurous your exploits, but rather the journey itself. Boring. And a significant let-down. The judges agreed.

4) Make it specific. It’s not just a boat. It’s a skiff that Huck Finn would have captained. He didn’t just love playing outdoors. He loved sucking on sugarcane and chasing frogs. Our two favorite stories were chock full of tangible details that put us in the thick of their adventures.

5) Endings are important. There were several story tellers who were doing just fine, but once they hit the climax of their story, they lost steam, weren’t sure where to go, and muttered, “that’s pretty much it,” while shifting uncomfortably on stage. Now I’ll admit, endings are hard. Really hard. In fact, they’re the hardest. Because in line with points made earlier, it can’t be clichéd or preachy, and yet you have to somehow wrap up with a feeling of revelation and resolution. I personally have dozens of stories written that I think have so much potential, but for which I just haven’t yet found the right ending. It’s maddening. So I could relate heartily. But the winning story-teller (per the judges scoring and ours too) had an intro with a bang, a hook if you will (another good rule), a middle full of conflict and specifics including lots of sensory details, and an ending that was surprising, yet wrapped the whole thing up perfectly. She could retrieve her beloved dog from the family in the next village while celebrating Ramadan with them (the entire conflict had been about going to great lengths to avoid Ramadan). Haha, the joke was on her! And we all laughed along.

It was a great night, and regardless of my critiques above, I wholeheartedly commend every story-teller who got up on that stage. It takes moxie!

photo courtesy criticalmiami.com
photo courtesy criticalmiami.com