Mothing About (part 2)


It wasn’t going to be a waste of time. The trip to New York would be pleasant, relaxing and fun. I would have a chance to hang out with some old and good friends, to wander New York, visit the Cooper Hewitt Museum, read and think.

My evening at The Moth‘s open mic story slam was supposed to be to be a career-making move. It was an opportunity to share my work, tell my story, and promote my forthcoming album at a nationally known venue. Was it going to pay off?

Briefly, The Moth is an organization that has caused every other already existing storytelling organization in the world to shake and become jealous. In a matter of years, it has gone from a small but savvy open-mic to the largest and most widely known producer of live story performance nationwide. With branches in other cities, including Chicago and LA, and syndication through NPR, they have excelled in creating a powerful, effective and moving brand, and capitalizing on it.

The types of stories told at Moth events are, by and large, true life tales, which is one of the reasons I could admire the organization from a distance, but not get particularly upset at their well-deserved success.

Those of you who know me, know that, in public. I like making things up. I like telling tall tales, whoppers and big fat lies. I find the idea of spilling my life to other people in public for profit somewhat nauseating. This American Life, which is the honored parent to the Moth, tells the kinds of stories that are deep and moving and often intensely voyeuristic. They reveal the “true stories” of people who are more badly off, more disturbed, more fucked up than you or I. (We hope!) And because they are presented on NPR, well crafted and well edited, we can “enjoy” them and allow ourselves to share the experience, secure that our life and world is superior and distant, or at least more fortunate (we hope) than the experiences portrayed in the story.

After listening to a collection of Moth stories on CD, that was largely  my impression of the events, so I wrote them off with a shrug.

Meanwhile, I’ve visited our local Moth-like venue, Live Bait, and told some stories. Most were lies, one was deep and powerful, but something that I will never tell again. I enjoyed the company and the experience. Seeing 70 or 80 people turning up in Providence on a Friday night at 10pm to listen and tell stories was a delight. Being able to tell “adult” stories was a joy.

But over time, I started to feel uncomfortable. First of all, my disregard for the truth went against the grain of their philosophy. I was supposed to be telling true-life stories, so I wasn’t playing by the rules. (I have a whole long story about the origin of this called, “Telling Stories with Spalding” that I have yet to record/write in its final form.) I would much rather tell about the time I took my son on “The Wall of Death” than share my first botched (or successful) sexual experience with a roomful of strangers. I am primarily a fiction writer, and I try to craft tales of wonder (and joy) from my imagination – sometimes based on fact, but often based on whimsy.

Another point of discomfort was the change in the way the event ran. At first, you’d show up and sign up for a slot. But then as it got more popular, names were drawn from a fishbowl. This meant that there was no guarantee that one would actually get to tell stories. Also, in the beginning, I recorded myself with my phone. After a time, though, the release forms were dragged out and I found myself signing away the “rights” to the audio recording of my story.

As a professional writer and storyteller, this aspect of Live Bait (and The Moth) appalls me. It is part of the rights grab that is going on around the world where publishers and producers want to own it all without appropriate compensation. The venue then has the ability and right to do whatever they want with the recording, including reselling it.  In fact, the storyteller pays an admission fee for the privilege of signing over her rights.

Allow me a brief ranting digression…

<Rant>It’s hard enough making a living as a writer and a storyteller. I don’t mind if my stories are used with permission or in some way that promotes my work. (obviously) But to demand the perpetual right to use my work, and my image, without any compensation is greedy and amateur. Of course record producers do/did it all the time. How come people are outraged for the old blues performers, who were robbed by their managers and recording companies in similar fashion, but for something like this… Eh.</Rant>

Okay, so I knew what I was getting into when I went to The Moth. I was paying $7 to sign away the rights to my story. I was traveling three and a half hours  each way on the bus ($81 plus $12 parking) to put my name in the hat for an open mic.

And there was no guarantee that I’d even get to say my piece.

(to be continued)