The Power of a Story Slam

“Now my father is 20 years sober.” We waited patiently as the storyteller struggled to keep from crying. A couple audience members yelled out, “You got this, man!” “Keep going!” He finished his story, received a round of applause, and beamed at the audience, saying, “This was my first time telling a story, and you guys made it so easy.”

“Then, after I had bought SEPTA tokens at a great discount, I read in the paper that a SEPTA worker had been fired for stealing tokens.” The audience gasped, realizing that this storyteller had indeed purchased stolen tokens by accident. (By the way, why does the Philadelphia transit system still use tokens?) The storyteller ended her story by saying that she bought a bike soon afterwards.

Another storyteller kept us in hysterics as she told us about being addicted to quitting jobs and celebrating with diner breakfasts. Her hardest test was trying to stay on the job when she was a nanny in Bel Air for the summer. After four days without any internet or phone service, and having to wear a uniform, she quit and treated herself to an IHOP breakfast.

First Person Arts holds these Story Slams every two weeks in Philadelphia. It’s amazing to see what happens when a space is created for people to share their true tales.

These are the kinds of stories you can’t make up. Sure, I love fiction, but these stories are imperfect, raw, and real. Audience members put their names in a bucket and are picked at random so people never know if they’ll get to tell their story. It adds to the suspense. If someone gets picked, they have 5 minutes to tell their story. Since notes aren’t allowed, the story can often morph and shift from how a person has planned to tell it. Depending on how the audience reacts, the story can also be influenced.

I told my first story in a Story Slam several months ago, and it was an exhilarating experience. Telling a personal story to complete strangers – kind strangers at that - was a total rush. I believe the theme of the night was “shocked”, so I told a story about a student who mooned me during my first year of teaching. True story. It has to be, under the rules of the Story Slam! I thought I knew what I was going to say, and half expected to choke once I got up there, but the audience reactions spurred me on as I wove my tale. I don’t even consider myself an amazing oral storyteller, but there was something magical about the space that was created with the Story Slam.

I want to see more and more space made for real stories. First Person Arts, Story Corps, and The Moth are some examples of organizations that revel in the real narrative. While fiction is delightful, I believe the most important stories are the ones that make up the fabric of your life. They might not be the most polished and put together, and you may not yet know what you’ve learned or what lessons to take from a particular story, but I believe those stories are the best ones. They are begging to be shared.