Pip Smith

Over the past few years, it seems many of the communities that tend to swarm around microphones – poetry slams, radio shows, comedy gigs, literary soirees – have become entranced by conversational, back-to-basics storytelling. In Sydney, we have Story Club at Hermann’s Bar, which sits more at the comedy end of the spectrum, and FBi Radio’s All the Best, which firmly models its content on the personal, narrative journalism heard on NPR’s This American Life, amongst others. The short story night I’ve curated since 2008 – Penguin Plays Rough – finds itself attracting interest from the literary community, but, like Story Club and All the Best, also makes a point of resisting any overt ‘literariness’ in exchange for something more informal, conversational and irreverent.

Stripped of funny voices, hands punctuating rhyming words in the air, or insincere references to Proust, this conversational mode has been used to encourage journalists to sound less like robots, comedians to stop desperately clutching at punch-lines, and poets and literary prose writers to relax, take a breath, and stop trying to be too clever for their own good. It’s also quite possibly a resistance against over-produced theatre and TV shows, and an attempt to ‘return to the source’, cut through the bullshit, and hear a ‘real’ story.

While I’m a huge fan and proponent of this brand of aural storytelling, the hype surrounding the belief that these stories should be true, or that they feel in some way more ‘real’ has me asking many questions. What is this ‘real-ness’ we’re reaching towards? In the telling of ‘true’ stories, most of us are prone to fabrication, and the shape of what many of us consider to be a story arc often distorts ‘what actually happened’ into shapes it doesn’t naturally fit. So if a story can never really be real, why is everyone so excited by the idea that these stories are at least closer to a feeling of ‘real-ness’? And why should Southerly’s readers care? Are such events of any concern to those interested in literature? Or do they represent a kind of anti-literature?

In order to answer some of these questions, it might be useful to go back to one of the seeds of this new breed of storytelling event, sewn in New York in 1997 at a gig called ‘The Moth’. Held in poet and novelist George Dawes Green’s living room, the nights were an attempt to ‘recreate, in New York, the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, where he and his friends would gather on his friend Wanda’s porch to share spellbinding tales.’ The nights soon outgrew Green’s livingroom, and developed into the ‘true stories, no notes’ events now found not only in bars and cafes round New York, but also in Chicago, St Louis, LA and other cities around the States, as well as being produced into podcasts available on iTunes.

Part of what makes the Moth so successful is the underlying idea that anyone can tell a story – from the ex-Mayor of New York, to a mum whose child committed suicide as a result of bullying. But even though the Moth isn’t specifically a night for writers, it was touted as ‘New York’s hottest and hippest literary ticket’ by the Wall St Journal, and is programmed at such beacons of all things writerly as the PEN World Voices festival. If people are simply standing behind a mic telling stories without notes, what is it about the Moth that is “literary”?

The Moth acknowledges that stories – even nuanced, well told stories – are not the exclusive property of “writers” or “comedians”. The Moth acknowledges that we all can, and need, to tell and listen to stories from a range of different voices, not just those who have an MFA from a graduate writing programme. What the Moth has done for open mic nights not only in the States, but also in Australia, reminds me of what Raymond Carver’s stories did for short fiction writers in the 1980s: stripped them of bullshit, and said – this is all you need.

But where does that leave writers and writing? Well, pretty much exactly where they were before. I’m not being so obnoxious as to suggest Language poets should ditch their Ashbury compendiums and tell us about that time their dog peed on their kid’s school bag – a healthy cultural community is a tangled and diverse wilderness after all – but I think what other artists and writers can borrow from events like the Moth is a humbling reminder not to get lost in the intricacies of language forever; that the need to communicate is what underpins a story, and that it really makes no difference if the words that make up that story are written down, or spoken. I suspect that the Moth’s focus on ‘true’ stories is a shortcut the organisers have of asking people to tell stories they care about, and know about, so they don’t get caught up in trying to overcomplicate what doesn’t need to be anything more than effortless. There is also a sense, when listening to the Moth podcast, that you’re listening to a different kind of news – an anecdotal news. These are all the things that are really happening in your world right now, but that you will never hear on Lateline.

Back in Sydney, what I love about this new fascination with storytelling, is that no one particular creative community has claimed it as their own. It’s brought performance artists, novelists, comedians, poets and journalists into the same room, reading from the same chair. Non-writers might not approach the short story with the same gravitas as someone who studied Dostoyevsky for three years might, but they’ll probably see things in the form that those who obsess over it miss, and imbue it with something new.

I am currently in Melbourne, trying to see as many different reading nights as possible. The first event I attended just so happened to be a story slam, modelled to fit the Moth’s mould. Perhaps it was because the Comedy Festival was erupting from every crevice of the Trades Hall, but rather than be a direct replica of the Moth, Rocket Clock Story Slam at Bella Union ended up sitting somewhere between the Moth and a frat boy comedy night. Roughly six storytellers told five minute stories around the theme Anarchy and Authority, in between which the host, Jon Bennett, told stories of his own. At the end of the night, a prize was awarded: a gift voucher, and copy of Bennett’s book ‘Pretending Things are a Cock’ – a collection of photos of the host thrusting in front of rainbows, lying down in front of monoliths etc etc.

What made me most uncomfortable about Rocket Clock Story Slam, was that it was a competition – as if the organisers suspected that the stories mightn’t be interesting enough on their own, so thought they’d better add some external suspense in advance. The Moth do this also, and I’m still not sure why. The second most uncomfortable aspect of the night was that it felt like a comedy night that had been re-branded to cash in on the storytelling craze; in other words, Rocket Clock was heavy on comedians still trying desperately to out-funny each other as if they were at a stand up gig. Thankfully, though, because of Rocket Clock’s sneaky re-branding, some people performed stories which were not only funny, but interesting and personal as well.

The most notable story of the evening was by the most unlikely competitor, Kathryn Bendall. Unlikely, because she wasn’t a prime example of the demographic that might like to win Bennett’s book. Kathryn was the eldest contester, with some significant life experience, and calmly ploughed through the time keeper’s four minute bell. A former Labour councillor in Hunters Hill, she told the story of how her political career ended when her marijuana crop was discovered by her arch nemesis, the council building inspector. What I liked best about Kathryn’s story was that it was an example of the type of story that wouldn’t be heard at the open mic nights that existed before these storytelling events emerged. Not cut throat enough for a comedy night, or constructed enough for a literary night, this was the kind of story you’d walk home buzzing with after a dinner party at an eccentric aunt’s house.

As it turned out, Kathryn is starting her own storytelling night at Sydney’s Camelot in Marrickville. Called Tell Me A Story, she has business cards, has already done her research into similar Sydney events and was confidently working the room. I left Rocket Clock wondering what will rise up in opposition to storytelling events, once they – almost inevitably – become institutions as rigid in their dictums of effortlessness and irreverence as the hackneyed scenes they are resisting.

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