Post Author: Andrea Roske-Metcalfe
“Would you ever consider doing something like this?” I asked. I was sitting with my friend Jeff in the balcony seats of the Wilbur Theater in Boston.
“Nooo!” he replied.
“Do you think Hannah would?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “What about Luke?”
“No way,” I answered.
It was intermission at a Mainstage production of the Moth, the live storytelling movement that had taken NPR and audiences across the country by storm.
I had never even heard of it.
Hannah is Jeff’s spouse, and Luke is mine. The four of us are friends from seminary and our two families vacation together every year. We were in Boston for our time together that year, where Hannah and Jeff live, and Jeff had bought tickets to the show after getting hooked on the Moth podcast and reading the first printed collection of stories. Neither Luke nor Hannah were feeling well that night, but Jeff and I went anyway, which is how we found ourselves on that balcony during intermission, discussing the similarities and differences between storytelling and preaching, and speculating about whether our spouses would ever do something like this.
“This” was to prepare a story – a true story, and your own story – on a set theme, and then to share it with a live audience. Notes are not allowed, there’s a strict time limit, and you can’t even wander the stage; the mic stays on the stand. It’s just you and the audience and your story.
I had only begun to understand how it worked – and to understand the draw – about an hour before.
“Would you ever do something like this?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. Something had clicked. I was getting nervous from the very idea of it, and my breath was already catching in my chest. “I think I have to do this.”
I went home and began to research how the whole thing worked. Moth StorySLAMs are amateur night in cities around the country, where anyone can throw their name in the hat to tell a story, and ten names are drawn. After ten StorySLAMs, the winners face off on a bigger stage at the GrandSLAM, with new stories under a new theme.
I was heading to a writing workshop in a few weeks. I had a piece prepared to workshop, and I volunteered to go first so I’d have the rest of the week to work on my story for the StorySLAM a few weeks later, which seems ridiculous in hindsight, given that there’s no guarantee your name will even be drawn.
But it was. My husband came with me that night. He claims that it was the worst date we’ve ever had. They don’t draw all the names at the beginning, see, they draw one name at a time, and then you’re on right then, so if your name is in that hat, you’re nervous the entire night. I kept telling him to hang on for 5 minutes, so I could close my eyes and tell my story in my head, leaving him to fend for himself in a bar full of strangers.
I wanted to throw up.
And then they drew my name, and somehow my legs carried me to the stage, where the lights were so bright that I couldn’t see anyone in the audience.
But I could hear them. They were right there with me. They laughed in the right places and they drew in their breath in the right places and they were hear-a-pin-drop silent in the right places.
Once I was up on that stage, I didn’t want to throw up anymore. All I wanted to do was tell my story.
I won that night, and then again at the next StorySLAM I entered, a few months later.
On both of those occasions, I chose to participate. I decided to spend time preparing a story to bring to that stage.
But if you win, they tell you when to prepare the next one. If you win a StorySLAM, you’re automatically competing in the next GrandSLAM.
Church work is all about other people’s timetables. It’s about the lectionary and the liturgical seasons and the annual markers of any given congregation. I don’t mind this, but it means that when I do things that are just for me, I prefer to do them on my own time, and believe me when I say that storytelling for the Moth is just for me.
It consumes me. I’m not sure whether to be proud of that or ashamed, but to get a story internalized with the level of precision that’s required for a competition in front of a thousand people with a strict time limit doesn’t come easily to me.
I’m rehearsing it while I drive, even while my kids are asking questions in the back seat. I’m trying phrases on for size while I wash the dishes. I’m editing and re-editing while I lay in bed at night. My pulse quickens every time I remember that there will be no hat this time, that my name will be called, that my legs will have to carry me to that stage, and I live in a state of low-level anxiety for weeks.
This was especially true this last time, for the 2017 Twin Cities GrandSLAM. I was telling what I considered to be the best story I had. It was the most heart-pounding, the most provocative, maybe. It was for sure the one I carried the most carefully in myself, and I needed to communicate it in a way that would require others to carry it carefully, too.
It consumed me. And so, as clergy women do – hell, as women do – I began to question whether it was worth it. I certainly could’ve been more present at home, if preparing this story wasn’t on my list of things to do. I certainly didn’t give church any more than I had to. I felt guilty for working so hard on something that was just for me. I wasn’t getting paid to do it, and there would be no cash prize if I won, that I could contribute to the family budget or donate to charity. Surely I was taking something away from others in order to pursue such a selfish, pointless endeavor.
Storytelling? Are you kidding? What’s the point? And even if there is a point, who do you think you are? Surely your winning was a fluke. No one is going to carry your story carefully, even if you do manage to tell it with integrity, which is a big “if.”
I found voices in my head that I didn’t even know I had.
My breath kept catching.
But my bio was already in the program, so while my husband played outside with our kids, I paced their bedroom with a timer, telling my story to their dolls and stuffed animals, over and over and over again.
And then the GrandSLAM came, and I wanted to throw up, right there in the greenroom of the Fitzgerald Theater. My parents were in the audience. My mother-in-law had flown in for the weekend, and as a surprise, so had my sister and her new husband. Several parishioners were there, which made me nervous, because my story involved a lot of cursing.
And then it was time and the host was actually pronouncing my name correctly and my legs carried me up to that stage.
I couldn’t see a thing. So I took a breath and began and then everyone was right there with me, even though I had doubted them at least as much as I had doubted myself. The people I couldn’t see laughed in the right places and they drew in their breath in the right places and they were hear-a-pin-drop silent in the right places. I had no doubt they would carry my story with care.
I won the Moth GrandSLAM that night. It didn’t even matter.
I mean, I’m grateful; don’t get me wrong.
But my husband asked me later that night what the best part had been. “On that stage,” I said. “On the stage, where it was just me and my story and all those people.”
It was just a moment, and it was just for me. And it wasn’t me the pastor, or me the wife, or me the mother. It was just me, with a gift to share with a thousand strangers who showed up that night to receive it.
I had wondered whether it would be worth it, whether it would matter at all.
I didn’t need to worry. It was worth every one of those minutes I spent feeling guilty. I showed up to all those other places in my life – my marriage and my parenting and my pastoring – with a new kind of energy in the days that followed. It’s like I was given a chance to remember who I was in my center, and that re-centered how I functioned everywhere else.
I’ve decided that maybe sabbath isn’t always about rest.
Andrea Roske-Metcalfe is the associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church of Apple Valley, Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and their two daughters. You can find a video recording of the story described in this article here.
Image by: Luke Roske-Metcalfe
Used with permission