C’mere till I tell ya: the art of storytelling

The New York storytelling club the Moth is coming to Dublin next month. What makes a good yarn?

The Moth, the New York storytelling club that has become a cultural phenomenon, visits Ireland next month for the first time. Since its foundation, in 1997, it has toured the world, spawned a radio channel and prompted fans to download more than a million of its stories every month.

The concept is simple. The Moth invites people to tell true stories, without a script, in front of an audience. It encourages pithiness, using a violinist to start wailing if storytellers overstay their welcome. In Dublin The Moth Mainstage, emceed by Lynn Ferguson, will feature five storytellers recounting tales on the theme Don't Look Back.

Over the years the Moth has given a stage to pickpockets, presidential speechwriters and the pizza baker who got in a bind with a mobster called Anthony the Hat, as well as to celebrities such as Salman Rushdie, John Turturro, Annie Proulx, Gabriel Byrne and Malcolm Gladwell (who has recounted an artful story about a wedding toast that cost him a friendship).

The Moth was founded by the novelist George Dawes Green; he cites George Plimpton, Edgar Oliver and Christopher Hitchens as some notable practitioners. "Hitchens was amazing, because whenever he told a Moth story he was drunk. You thought often he wouldn't be able to get through the story, but he had such a powerful mind. He could take these little threads that he left loose and then suddenly pull them all taut at the end of the story, right as he was approaching the time limit. He was kind of a magician."


Another of the Moth's great storytellers, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, makes a distinction between good storytellers and good stories. "A good storyteller is somebody who's comfortable on his or her feet and is enough of a ham to get a charge out of the response of a crowd, that surge of electricity that goes back and forth between you and an audience. If you're not turned on by that you won't be a good storyteller.

"A good story has to be extremely particular and peculiar to your life. It has to have an element of singularity and yet – and this is the alchemy and paradox of storytelling – it has to be something immediately universal, part of something that we all experience," says Gopnik. "In a story called LOL I've told at the Moth the particular thing about text messaging with your 13-year-old son every afternoon is very strange, eccentric and peculiar to Luke and me. But the real subject of the story is universal, that, no matter what the culture or circumstances, everybody struggles to continue to be able to converse with their kids as the kids get older and speak their own language."

Gopnik and Green agree that good storytellers also need to be vulnerable, to embrace embarrassment. “Almost always the great raconteurs talk about their failures,” says Green. “Frank McCourt is an example. He was one of our early Moth storytellers. He was utterly unassuming. I’d never seen someone who could be so honest and self-deprecatory, and also perfectly willing to deprecate the people around him. It was astonishing.

“I remember when he was dying, he came to the Moth, and he was talking about some of the literary luminaries who were in the room, who were very old, and he was sort of laughing at them, saying, ‘How long are you going to hang around? You’ve been around for a long, long time. Don’t you think we’re getting tired of you?’ It was hilarious but kind of spooky. He’d been diagnosed with his fatal cancer, so he knew that he was going to die too. It was almost a celebration of weakness.

“I have many Moth raconteurs who do the opposite. Their stories fall utterly flat. Nobody wants to hear about your triumphs. We want to hear about what a fool you are, because that’s what we are. We’ve had a man at the Moth who’s a famous French statesman-philosopher. If I said his name you’d recognise it. I talked with him for two hours, trying to find a good Moth story. He couldn’t tell one, because he couldn’t talk about failure.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to talk about failure.’ And he said, ‘Oh, failure. All right.’ So he told about a time when he was in a propeller plane, going to visit the Farc guerillas in Colombia, and the pilot had a heart attack. He, this French philosopher, had to fly the plane. I laughed. I said, ‘It’s got to be your failure!’ But he could not do it.”

Moth Mainstage is in Dublin on September 5th as part of the Sounds Alive festival. The evening has sold out