Literary Arts

The Method of the Moth

 

I’d like to tell you that my appearance at the Moth happened by accident.

What I’d like to say is that I was discovered, minding my own business, telling a personal anecdote to a friend in a Highlands coffee shop when a cigar-chomping man in a pinstripe suit, and a Yankee accent handed me his card and said “Son, you got a STORY there. Would you like to tell that in NEW YORK CITY?” And I said, “Who, ME?” and reluctantly agreed, aw-shucksing myself all the way to Manhattan.

But that would be fiction, and the first rule of Moth stories is they have to be true.

The truth is that I had wanted to perform at the Moth Mainstage for years and campaigned to get there. Unlike the MothStorySLAMs, which are open-mic, the Mainstage series is curated, meaning the Moth invites the tellers, a list that’s included Margaret Cho, Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. I’ve been performing stories for years, mostly working with children. For me, the Moth is Broadway.

I thought I might have one unusual, personal story that could get me there — and I was right. What I didn’t realize was that getting the invitation was in some way, the easy part. The Moth’s tagline is “true stories told live,” and on their stage, you have nowhere to hide, not even from yourself.

The first time I ever laid eyes on my father was when I was 12 years old and he showed up on the CBS Evening News.”

That was the basic pitch I sent to Moth senior producer Jenifer Hixson, whom I’d met when she came to Louisville in 2011 to help launch the local edition of the Moth StorySLAM. When I first mentioned the story to Jen, she said, “That’s incredible,” and asked me to email it to her. I did. Time passed. I periodically emailed again, knowing I was treading the line between persistent and irritating.

The truth is I felt a little like I was cheating by offering this particular story. That’s because it sounded like a bigger deal than it actually had been. I grew up with my mom and my adoptive stepfather (also known as Dad). My birth father had been a combat veteran who later became close with the mother of a fellow soldier who’d been killed. A CBS reporter did a story about them for Memorial Day 1983. Seeing my birth father for the first time this way was weird, sure, but it hadn’t changed anything, and in the “Pitch a Story” section of the Moth website, it says, “Tell us … how your story changed you.”

Nonetheless, two months ago, Jen asked if I’d be interested in telling my story as part of a Mainstage show called “Pulling Focus: Stories of Insight.” Co-sponsored by the PBS series “POV,” the event would feature four other tellers who’d been involved in documentaries, either as producers or subjects. The Moth would fly me to New York, where I would be paid, lodged, per diem-ed!

I said yes.

Soon, Jen and I traded dozens of emails, texts and phone calls at all hours, laughing, crying, swearing, and indulging our inner story-nerds: Which moments should be described in detail? Which summarized or cut? If I set up this question here, does the answer pay off there? A married mother of two who prefers newsboy hats and vegetarian food to pinstripes and cigars, Jen showed a kind of X-ray vision for narrative; tell her your tale and she’ll see simultaneously

a) the story you’re trying to tell
b) the story you’re telling without meaning to
c) the story you’re trying hard not to tell

The process took on some urgency, because we both knew that soon, I would be standing on stage at The Players club in Manhattan, telling this story to a discerning crowd of storytelling devotees, some of whom had paid upwards of $400 to be there. My story needed to be shaped and whole, needed to answer the audience’s potential questions, like:

Did you and your parents talk about your father he was on TV?” Jen asked.

Not really,” I said.

Did you ever meet your father?”

Yes, a few years later. He eventually became kind of like a weird sort of uncle.”

Why aren’t you angry?”

What?”

You don’t seem angry. You were a kid, your father’s not around, nobody wants to talk about him, he shows up in this weird way. Why wouldn’t you be?”

 I laughed because I had no answer.

Two days before the show, my wife and three sons wished me luck when I flew to New York to rehearse in person for Jen and the Moth staff (nearly all of whom, interestingly, are women). When I arrived at their crowded, bullpen-style office (which is literally on Broadway), I realized that the Moth was investing thousands of dollars, untold hours and some measure of its own reputation in me telling one story for 10 minutes. I didn’t want to let them down.

The morning of the show, I tried to embed the story in my brain by whispering it to myself on a meandering walk from Midtown to SoHo. (I figured it was New York — what’s one more guy talking to himself?)

Moth-style storytelling requires a balance because the story has to be structured, focused and articulate, but the teller needs to sound conversational, needs to avoid what Moth-ers call “head-in-the-desk-drawer syndrome.” That’s when tellers — bless their hearts — get so focused on remembering the exact wording of their story that they’re not fully present for the audience, which undercuts the whole point of the Moth, which is to connect people through stories.

Somewhere around Gramercy Park, I realized that I if I was going to be honest with the audience, I had to be honest with myself.

Of course I was angry. Had been for 30 years, but couldn’t admit it. Seeing my father on TV instead of in person had hurt and confused me, as had my parents’ unwillingness to talk about him. Even as a child, I was already telling stories – like the one I’d made up to explain his absence and their reticence: I told myself it had all been my fault.

There, on the sidewalk, I understood all this for the first time, and also realized that I would have to say this onstage or else the story I’d come here to tell wouldn’t be true. I ran back to the hotel and called my mother in Kentucky.

My mom has devoted herself to loving and caring for me for 42 years. I knew what I had to say would hurt her, and I didn’t want to, didn’t know if I even had the right. But about an hour before soundcheck, I told her everything I’d always been afraid to put into words.

I understand, honey,” she said. “And I’m so sorry.” She said they hadn’t really known what to do, when or how to talk about our family past. I asked Mom, who’s also a writer, how she’d feel if I talked about it in front of a bunch of New York strangers.

It’s your story,” she said. “Tell it.”

I was the last teller of the night. I felt nervous until the host called my name, then it was too late to be nervous. The spotlight hid most of the 265 faces in the room, but I could hear the audience, and they offered me a deep and nourishing silence. I found the words, one by one, to tell them my family’s whole story of confusion, fascination,  anger, fear, regret, acceptance, forgiveness.

At the end, the applause of those New York strangers carried me to my seat, through the night, and all the way back to Louisville.

The Moth helped me understand that sometimes, the stories we want to tell aren’t the ones we need to tell. And sometimes, even true stories, like the people who live them, can change.

Read a text version of the story Graham told at the Moth

Originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, August 25, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

GShelby

Graham Shelby is a communications expert with extensive experience in broadcasting, education, business and the arts. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and a master’s in creative nonfiction from Spalding University.  

 

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What it means to be an artist

When I meet people and they find out I’m a writer, I usually get one of two responses. They look at me as if I do something magical or they tell me about the novel they will write someday in their spare time. Neither response accurately portrays the realities of a life in the creative arts. My poems, stories and plays aren’t gifts from the muse or something that I toss off in my spare time. My work is the result of concentrated effort, intense study and hours of revision.

My stepmother, Betty Layman Receveur, a writer of historical fiction about Kentucky, used to say writing was like digging a ditch. You’d write yourself into a hole and you’d have to keep digging until you found a way out. Given the dedication it takes to create art, not to mention trying to sell it, the key to success is to enjoy the digging.

As I child I saw my father, John Birkett, sitting at the kitchen table pounding out stories while the sun was shining outside. It looked neither easy nor mysterious. He published two mystery novels set around Kentucky racing, “The Queen’s Mare” and “The Last Private Eye,” which will be reissued this fall as e-books.

I interview authors for a website for writers and several of the authors have credited their success to the fact that they refuse to quit writing. They stay committed to the daily practice and improvements of their art.

Of course, we all have dreams of fame and fortune or recognition from our peers, but more often the reality is that our readings and performances are populated not by adoring fans, but by our friends and neighbors. So why write, draw, sculpt, sew, and play music?

We do it because we can’t help ourselves. We do it because, when we are working alone and things are coming together in just the right way, there is no better feeling.

I had the chance to interview three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Alice McDermott on writing and success. To write, McDermott said, is to recreate the world in your own vision.

“It is lovely to have lots of readers and hear that people have been touched by your work. It is great to sell lots of books, but that is fleeting and not enough of a reward for all the sacrifices you will have to make. At the end of the day, I put my best effort forward. The satisfaction of that is the only reliable satisfaction.”

Alice is right.

EBMorris HeadshotEBMorris Surrender Cvr

Ellen Birkett Morris is a writer who lives in Louisville. She is the author of “Surrender,” a poetry chapbook. Her fiction has appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review and Notre Dame Review.

 

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Students shine at Poetry Out Loud Finals

After months of preparation, the Poetry Out Loud state championship took place March 13 in Frankfort at the Capital Plaza Hotel. The winner, Taryn Syck, of Pike County Central High School, will travel April 28-30 to Washington, D.C., for the National Poetry Out Loud Championship to represent Kentucky. While she was a tough competitor through the first two rounds, it was Syck’s third poem, “The Great Blue Heron,” by Carolyn Kizer, that put her on top.

I love the moment when everything comes together: The words, the delivery and the passion. Before I became the arts education director for the Kentucky Arts Council, I was not overly impressed with the Poetry Out Loud program. I did not appreciate the value of reciting poetry written by other people. I have seen some very powerful performances at high school poetry slams. So I believed having students perform their own poetry would be much more effective.

Today, I understand the value of this kind of poetry recitation. All 14 school champions were impressive. I am so glad I was not a judge. Each student in the program had been coached by one of the arts council’s teaching artists. They won their school competitions to advance to the state finals. All competitors recited two poems and then five finalists made it to the final round.

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Mary Hamilton, one of the teaching artists that worked with the champions, attended Thursday’s championship and later shared some of her thoughts about the day with me.

“There were three specific performances today that, if they would be available for Kentucky Poetry Out Loud programs to view, would provide excellent examples of very specific performance successes,” she said.

“Beautiful Wreckage” — recited by Titus Carter — “That recitation was stunning, absolutely stunning. He so captured the emotion of that poem. A video of that performance would provide a wonderful demonstration of how thrilling and amazing a recitation can be when the student allows their emotional connection to the poem to come charging through.  So many young men tend to be exceedingly reluctant to allow feelings to show. I think providing his recitation of ‘Beautiful Wreckage’ as an example of an emotional connection to a poem would especially encourage young men to give themselves the permission he clearly gave himself for that recitation.”

“I Remember, I Remember”  recited by Gabrielle Thompson  “That recitation provides a fantastic example of how pauses are not empty, but full. The spaces between the two ‘I Remembers’ at the beginning of each section were handled superbly. Sitting in the audience we could feel strongly that all memories are not remembered the same way. Her face, voice, and especially her communication during pauses, were wonderful to behold.”

“Famous”  recited by Haley Reed  “This is a lighter poem, and Haley did a marvelous job of clearly conveying the lighthearted nature and even the humor within the poem. There was also a clear change from when she was talking in third person and in first person. I considered it a wonderful example  well worth providing for future Poetry Out Loud students.”

Each of these performances, as well as Taryn Syck’s recitation of the “Great Blue Heron,” will soon be available on the arts council’s website. I invite you to visit our website to view these amazing performances by high school youth. And, next year, I hope other teachers and schools across the state will give their high school students the opportunity to participate in the Poetry Out Loud program.

Jean St. John, arts education director

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2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts: Tom Eblen

Before beginning work in state government eight years ago, I was a journalist. I loved my work. I loved talking to strangers, asking questions other people never get to ask, having one-on-one interactions with interesting people. I loved condensing and sharing the knowledge I gained from those interviews and presenting it to a larger audience via the newspaper format. I’ll not lie: I miss it.

It was all of those things I miss that led me to conduct interviews with each of the nine recipients of the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts. It’s a project I’ll carry with me for a while.

It was an especially exciting prospect to interview a man who has spent his professional life as an interviewer himself. Tom Eblen, current columnist and former managing editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, is this year’s Media Award recipient. It was great fun sitting down with Tom and learning about his career and lifelong interest in the arts.

Tom is originally from Lexington and is a graduate of Western Kentucky University. His journalism career took him to the Associated Press in Tennessee and then to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he was a reporter and editor. Eventually, he came back to Lexington to work for the Herald-Leader as managing editor for 10 years before settling into the position he holds now as a columnist. I hope you enjoy reading what he had to say when he was on the other side of the interview equation.

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How would you describe the kind of work you do in relation to the arts?

The columns I write tend to be about local and state issues. They tell good stories about interesting people. The kinds of things I like to look at are what is interesting, what makes Kentucky unique. But also, what does Kentucky need to be doing to position itself well for the future? We have such a rich history in this state. How do we leverage that to become a more successful state? And a big part of that has been arts coverage. Part of it is just because it’s something I’m interested in and have always been interested in. I’ve always had a lot of friends who were artists and writers and I liked their work. I think the arts in Kentucky are so important, because what they really are, are expressions of creativity. It’s really central to the thinking process, and to success, to be able to look at the creative process. The arts are such a great expression of that. You see it all over Kentucky.

When did you first become interested in arts as subject matter?

I’ve always been interested in the arts. My first cousin is an artist and his father was a well-known artist. I kind of grew up around it. I always liked to draw and liked art. I always had an interest in the arts and as a journalist I’ve always been interested in writing. In this job I try to write about what I think is interesting and what other people will think is interesting.

When you talk with someone, when you want to write a story, do you have specifics in mind or do you just want to learn about them?

I just want to know what their story is. As most people know a columnist is a storyteller. Having been a reporter for a dozen years, then an editor for 20-something years, I know what’s going to make an interesting story. Also, a lot of my best column ideas come from readers. Generally what I have done with artists is, if their work really intrigues me I figure their story will too. Most artists are really interesting people. A lot of them have very interesting stories about how they became artists and the thoughts behind their work. People who are driven to create art are driven by something. And that something is usually very interesting or they have a good story behind it.

How often are you thinking about your readers when you are writing?

I’m always thinking when I’m writing, what’s going to interest the reader? What’s going to grab them in and make them read all of the way to the end? The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. How can I answer the questions that will come to their mind when they’re reading and look for the things they’ll want to know about?

Why is it important for a newspaper to include the arts in their coverage?

Well I think one of the things newspapers are supposed to be is a reflection of their community and community life. In most vibrant communities, the arts are a really important part of it. It’s where a lot of segments of a community come together because of a common interest. My wife does a lot of volunteer work for the UK Opera Theatre and through that we’ve met a lot of people from all professions.

Do newspapers play a role in arts advocacy?

Editorials and columnists, I think they do. Newspapers are always careful about advocacy but I think generally they do. Part of that is explaining to people, especially in tight budget times when there are a lot of life and death issues going on, things like the arts are still important for quality of life. They’re an important part of what a rich community in this state is all about.

What makes Kentucky artists special, different, unique – part of our culture and heritage?

Kentucky has always been a place in transition. In the early days we were the frontier, and then we were the west, and then we were a border state. Then, in many ways, things were going on all around us and we were our own little island. Now as the economy is changing we’re kind of in the middle of the country. It’s always been a society in transition, a society in mobility. It’s also been a society that people have always been very proud of where they come from. Plus, we have a lot of very distinct regions and those regions produce a lot of different kinds of art.

I think the bottom line is it comes down to a sense of place. I don’t know many Kentucky artists or writers who don’t have a sense of place at the core of their work. You look at almost all Kentucky writers, and artists are the same way, the colors and the inspiration they get from the state really makes a difference in their art.

Emily B. Moses, communications director

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Participate in national arts standards public review

National Coalition for Core Arts Standards logoInterested in the future of arts education in Kentucky and across the nation? You should be. You currently have the opportunity to give feedback on proposed changes and updates made to the national core arts standards.

The national standards are available — in draft form — online. The standards haven’t been updated since the 1990’s and public input is being sought. You can make comments through July 15 as part of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) public review.

The coalition of national arts and education organizations and media arts representatives developing the 2014 National Core Arts Standards recently released the PreK-8 standards.

The new, voluntary grade-by-grade web-based standards are intended to affirm the place of arts education in a balanced core curriculum, support the 21st-century needs of students and teachers, and help ensure that all students are college and career ready.

The Kentucky General Assembly, as part of Senate Bill 1 (2009), mandated new academic standards in all subjects including arts and humanities. The legislature directed the Kentucky Department of Education, in cooperation with the Council on Postsecondary Education, to consider standards that have been adopted by national content advisory groups and professional education consortia.

Anyone with an interest is welcome to participate in the public review of one or more of the discipline drafts in dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts.

For instructions, visit the NCCAS website.

For more information about the project, visit http://nccas.wikispaces.com, or the NCCAS Facebook page.

Don’t miss this opportunity to make your voice heard on this important subject, and consider sharing this information with others in the arts and education communities.

Emily B. Moses, communications director

Categories: Arts Advocacy, Arts Education, Literary Arts, Other, Performing Arts, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , ,

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