A great story is honest and vulnerable; it reveals a piece of the teller. It's intimate. Sharing the real truth from our lives lets our audience in on the secret of who we are.
At the Moth, a fact checking team isn’t in the budget. So if you claim that Aunt Ethel hurt your feelings at the family reunion, we won’t hunt her down to ask her side. But we do fact check big historical events — from being on the team that sent the first rover to Mars, to saying you fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
In 2006 I was directing a Moth show at Barnard College. Via a crackly telephone line, I met a Barnard alum from the class of 1951, Dorothy Storke, who had a fabulous, no-nonsense, deadpan, hilarious way of talking. She said that in her senior year she decided to join the military on the path to being an officer because: “Men would have to salute me and I look swell in green.” The story she pitched was delightful… but outlandish. Our telephone connection wasn’t great and when I hung up the phone I thought, “Did I just hear what I think I heard? Could that be true
On a whim, Dorothy and her Marine Pilot boyfriend left the Officer’s New Year’s Eve Ball at Quantico, Virginia at 1 a.m. “to fly to Jacksonville Florida for breakfast at the officers club.”
They would take a plane. Quite literally. Her date walked her out onto the tarmac and the two of them got into a C47 Beechcraft and took off into the dark night sky. (Dorothy: “Security was, what can I say, somewhat more lax in those days.”)
Somewhere over Waycross, Georgia, she overheard Ralph saying “May Day May Day” into the radio. Then he asked her if she’d ever jumped out of a plane… She hadn’t.
In her apple-green, taffeta ball gown, with no experience, Dorothy jumped out of the plane with a parachute into the dark night sky. She landed in a pig pen, with sixteen baby hogs. Unscathed. (The dress didn’t make it.). Her date landed in a nearby tree.
? The story seemed so deeply off the charts of anything I’d heard before. But what was I to do with this doubt? For myself as much as for the audience, I wanted evidence! Dorothy, by the way, went on to be a very successful journalist, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize. So she was not to be doubted. But still…
I secretly contacted the Waycross Public Library to see if anyone had written about it. I figured what journalist could resist?
Voila. A week later, a dim photocopy of an article from the Waycross Journal-Herald
confirmed it all. Dorothy’s story felt like a scene from an adventure movie. And life is like that sometimes. Unbelievable, but true.
In retelling this, I’ve heard from others active in the military at that time, that “borrowing a plane” actually wasn’t that extraordinary. At some point (perhaps after Dorothy and Ralph’s adventure), security was tightened.
The C47 Beechcraft was totaled and Ralph, deservedly, got a dishonorable discharge. As for Dorothy? She got a great story.
But sadly, we’ve had to learn the importance of fact-checking the hard way.
In July of 2012, I trucked up to the Bronx a few times a week to meet with a storyteller residing in an assisted living facility. He had a harrowing and beautiful story about serving three tours in the Vietnam War by the time he was in his early 20s. The horrors of battle and death desensitized him completely until finally, one day, while defending his life, he finally felt alive again when he took the life of a Vietnamese man and felt him die in his arms. I was drawn to this story because it was messy, controversial, and complicated. It spoke to me about the era of this war and the loss of life on both sides — and it took more than a month to craft this story.
For every personal question I asked, this man had deep and detailed memories. He laughed, he cried. He was silent at times. Lost in thought. The night of the show, we brought in a special microphone, because this man spoke in a very low, airy register, as he said his lungs had been filled with Agent Orange. He delivered this story, seated, with the special mic, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Months later, it went on The Moth Radio Hour
and veterans started calling, saying his name was not in the Vietnam Veterans Registry. We took the story off air immediately. I called him, but he had moved from the assisted living facility and they couldn’t release a forwarding address. He vanished. He haunts me. He had such vivid and complicated emotional memories — it shocks me to think that he just invented the whole thing. But it seems that he did. I’ve come to learn that there are people who invent hero fantasies of going to war. I was working on a harrowing and meaningful story. It just wasn’t true.
I was working on a harrowing and meaningful story. It just wasn’t true.
Stories vary each time they’re told due to emotions, nuance, and perception, not to mention the haze of time and the glaze of retelling. At The Moth, the storyteller has an unspoken “agreement” with the audience, that they are remembering their story as honestly as possible. The balance between the emotional truth of the story and the hard facts is ultimately up to the teller. But don’t underestimate that the bond of trust between the audience and the teller is hallowed ground. If your listeners lose confidence in your specific truth, the story falls apart.
Tell us you were the strongest tenor in your church choir and we can imagine the boom in your voice. But if you tell us that you invented ravioli or walked on the moon, know that some of us may leave the story midstream to jump on the internet to learn more.
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For more advice on how to tell the truest, most compelling version of your story, check out How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from The Moth
is an acclaimed nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Since its launch in 1997, The Moth has presented more than 50,000 stories and received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions and a Peabody Award for The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on over 550 stations nationwide. The Moth Podcast is downloaded 90 million times annually. Meg Bowles, Catherine Burns, Jenifer Hixson, Sarah Austin Jenness
, and Kate Tellers
, along with The Moth’s artistic and workshop teams, have directed tens of thousands of stories told on stages worldwide.