I was lucky enough to go to a storytelling event run by The Moth and the USA Network’s Characters Unite program last night. It wasn’t just that the stories were excellent, which they were, but it was a nice reminder of the power of an art form that I don’t have access to very often — and why faking memoirs is besides the point when the truth can produce the most amazing details.
Two of the first three storytellers, Jeffery Rudell and Greg Walloch were an almost perfect illustration of that latter point. Rudell told the story of how his mother, after he came out to his parents, gathered every artifact of his life, from his bed to his collection of Interview magazines, put them in the front yard and set them on fire, burning down a maple tree that had been in the family for generations. Walloch told the story of wandering into a evangelical Georgia church where a pastor tried to heal him of his cerebral palsy, and wondering why the minister had chosen that instead of his other problems: “Can you make me less neurotic? Can you get me a better job? Can you find me the perfect boyfriend?” But he was surprised when he found himself unexpectedly struck by the idea that his cynicism might have denied him the opportunity for a miracle cure. You can’t make moments like that up. Not everyone will be as vivid a framer of their own stories, and not everyone will live a life that provides as rich material. But that’s why not everyone should write a memoir.
And the event was also a reminder of why spoilers sometimes don’t matter. I knew almost from the moment that Kevin Jacobsen began telling a story about his son Kameron that the story would end in the revelation of Kameron’s suicide. But that didn’t take anything away from the power of the moment when Jacobsen told us about running upstairs in response to his wife’s scream and finding that “I couldn’t get him down. And then I couldn’t revive him.” Instead, knowing what was coming lent a dreadful anticipation to the telling.
The night may have been less bipartisan than the organizers planned: a combination of stories about gay rights, Texas racism, the importance of anti-bullying legislation, and Meghan McCain laying down a marker declaring that “There is so much hate in Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck’s voices,” isn’t the kind of studied even-handedness that the city’s accustomed to. But that’s kind of a relief. True balance doesn’t mean treating all ideas as if they’re equally compelling. It means giving everyone a chance to make the case and letting the listeners decide.