The Art of Storytelling: The Old Fashioned vs. The Modern

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This photo was taken outside the NSW State Library – Storytelling is having a resurgence and there is evidence of it everywhere.

There’s been quite a bit of interesting on-line discussion lately about the story telling, and whether or not it is a lost art. There are some jaded people out in the blogosphere. These are people like me, who started blogging for the love of writing and telling a yarn, but commodification and commercialisation has soured the experience for them. But true story telling, oral history, is having resurgence and The Moth is one way to be part of it.

As part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival I was lucky enough to go to the Melbourne debut of the The Moth. For those of you who don’t know what The Moth is, it’s a forum for story telling; true stories told live, is how it’s described on the The Moth website. It really appealed to me because I tend to agree that the art of storytelling has been diluted by our digital age.

Story telling will never disappear, as there is a human instinct to connect with other humans and story telling is conduit for this. So it still exists, but in a heavily curated way. And because everything is so carefully curated, it can come across as contrived. There are people everywhere telling their stories, but in a heavily edited and photoshopped way. And maybe there are actually too many people telling their story, and the landscape is as busy as it is noisy.

From what I can see, The Moth disrupts this landscape by returning to traditional storytelling. In person, unprompted, without props or notes. It is raw, but exhilarating at the same time. Simply because everyone is risking something – no one more than the storyteller. For the audience, the risk is in not knowing what you’re going to get. But that risk is minimal, because there is bound to be something that finds its way in to your heart, soul or mind. Or all three, if you’re really lucky.

Our theme for the night was ‘Between Worlds’. I’ve always been fascinated with this theme – of liminality, fragmentation; and in fact, I wrote my honours thesis on the formation of identity in liminal spaces. So I was gripped from the outset.

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Portrait of Omar Musa – Archibald Exhibition Sydney 2015, painting by Kerry McInnis

First, we saw Omar Musa, who spoke about his experience being stuck between two cultural identities – one Australian, one Malaysian. He is a poet, author and rapper. His was a narrative that is so familiar to so many in our country, especially in cases when there are significant religious or cultural differences that don’t fit with the local hegemony. It is a story that needs to be told over and over, until it becomes the hegemony – because this is our country’s make up. But for me, it was his voice. Deep and lilting, I could have listened to him speak all day. There is nothing quite like being in the same room as someone whose voice is like liquid velvet.

Following Omar was Clementine Ford, journalist and feminist activist,  telling the story of her mother’s death from cancer. My mother’s own death was only two years ago, so Ford’s story hit a nerve for me. When I walked in to the Athenaeum that night, with a glass of red wine in hand, mascara and lipstick on, ready to be cultured within an inch of my life, I didn’t expect to be sobbing. No human being could have remained stitched up throughout her story. It was a dignified and beautiful telling of the truth of life and of death, as she knew it. And it was profoundly human.

Clementine Ford (Image courtesy of ABC.net.au)

Clementine Ford (Image courtesy of ABC.net.au)

That is why storytelling is having a resurgence. People miss humanity. Technology has given us so much. I still find it incredible that we can tap in to my mother-in-law’s lounge room at the touch of a screen, chat with her and watch her mooch around her living room, drinking a cup of tea, right at the same moment that I’m getting my kids ready for bed, and they queue up to say hello to her. So while it has given so much, it has also taken much away.

Horrendous online trolling and bullying is proof that technology loses humanity – everyone becomes two dimensional. When someone tells a tory, in front of you, in person, the experience captures what it means to be human. It can be heard in a moment. To hear Ford’s voice quiver, just for a split second as she described that final night on earth with her mother, to hear Omar inhale softly while he thought on his father and his father’s homeland. You don’t get this online – you can’t hear someone breath online. These stories were remarkable because they were told in person.  If we read Ford’s story online, yes it would be sad but online on a flat screen does not capture the multiple dimensions that feeling and atmosphere capture.

It is heart-warming indeed to witness a theatre full of people, gripped by a single person on a stage, with only a microphone – no costume, no backing, no light show – just their story and a willingness to reach out, share a little bit of themselves and connect.

If you’re interested in experiencing some of this realness, The Moth has a regular Melbourne event now. The next one is on October 5th at Howler 7-11 Dawson Street, Brunswick. The theme is Celebration  – tell a five minute story or head down just to watch. Click here for details.

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Image courtesy of the Howler Bar

Have you been to The Moth anywhere else in the world? Tell us about it.

What are you thoughts?