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Storytelling Now, or, Watching Movies at the Gym

At Eastern Tennessee State University, you can earn a Master of Arts in Storytelling. Located in Johnson City, Tennessee, “in the heart of traditional storytelling country,” the next town over is Jonesborough, home to the National Storytelling Festival, the National Storytelling Network, and the International Storytelling Center. I briefly considered this degree several years ago, but after some preliminary research, found that people who enter the program (unlike me at the time) usually already had real, full-time jobs, like kindergarten teacher, counselor, social worker, minister, corporate trainer, so I took another route. While I will probably never seek formal training in storytelling performance, I’ve recently realized that as much as I love novels, short stories, film and TV, there is no form of storytelling that I enjoy more than a live performance.

As one of the great contemporary epics comes to a close (by that, I mean, Breaking Bad, of course), I’m looking for a new story to absorb me. Recommendations are coming from friends, as they always are, in all forms of media: to read Philipp Meyer’s The Son, to stream Orange is the New Black, to subscribe to Grantland podcasts, with the occasional push to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld, or some other well-established novel. For the past week, though, amidst the millions of media options swirling around me, I’ve been listening to The Moth podcasts whenever I can. I first heard stories on The Moth several years ago, when a good friend sent me a link to one of Jonathan Ames’ appearances on the main stage in New York. Lately, the stories have provoked my laughter, disgust, sympathy, inspiration, and nearly tears. Cynthia Gibbs’ love story that begins sixty years ago in a lab that analyzes slides of plankton and ends with the 81-year old teller marrying a man nine years her senior, after he finally declares his love for her, six decades after they worked side-by-side in the lab. Maurice Ashley, the first African American international grandmaster in competitive chess, recalling his formidable foes of the Black Bear School that taught him style and ruthlessness in Prospect Park. An introvert canvasser for the Obama campaign who pretends to be a woman in chatrooms and seduces men to register to vote then send him pics of themselves at the polls, voting Democrat.

I usually listen to The Moth at the gym, which provides a stark counterpoint. By that I do not mean something like the intellectual activity of listening to highly literate people tell stories contrasted with the gross physicality of postmodern vanity. No, I mean The Moth is a counterpoint to the specific room where I often workout–the Cinema Room. I run on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike in what is essentially a movie theater–dark, extremely air-conditioned, no one talking, things on the floor that constantly cause me to trip. In the past few weeks, I’ve watched bits and pieces of Coach Carter, Ace Ventura Pet Detective, Date Night, one of the many Fast and the Furious movies (I think it was the third or fourth; the only way to really keep them straight is by remembering which rapper co-stars in each one, and Ja Rule, or Ice Cube or Ludacris must have already died or lost a race by the time I came in), yet another film version of The Three Musketeers (the one with  Orlando Bloom), yet another film version of the Sherlock Holmes stories (the one with Robert Downey, Jr.), The Sandlot, and Contagion. The sheer technological force of the HD format and ridiculously loud and clear speakers still cannot bring these films to compete with the simple sound of the voice coming through my headphones.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these films–I really like a few of them–and I’m finding that my need for stories is so strong that I can enjoy many moments in even an objectively “bad” movie. Perhaps it is this core of dramatic movement that pulls me back to stripped-down format of The Moth every day, the basic vicarious sensation of experiencing an agent move from one situation to the next through a choice, and observing the change, the relief, the anguish, or the haunting that results. As a writer, while consuming a story, I constantly toggle between the position of an audience member simply enjoying it and that of a fellow writer considering the craft that produced it. If I love the story, I move to the position of jealous writer, and–if I really love the story–then I momentarily become the devastated, hopeless, thinking-of-a-career-change writer. Nonetheless, even in the latter situation, I am inspired, because part of the enjoyment for me comes from imagining all of the small moments of inspiration, hard-won by showing up at the computer every day, that had to happen to add up to what I’m seeing or hearing.

I recently attended a lecture by Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, where he described how every time he sits down to write he isn’t sure he’ll be able to do it. No matter how many books he publishes, writing remains a mysterious process. Perhaps it is precisely that sense of mystery that a live telling enhances, and that a podcast, where even the active face and articulate hands are hidden from view, intensifies further. As someone who studies the changes wrought on our perception of ourselves, each other, history, the future, by the advent of digital media, I appreciate the irony of my use of an iPhone to stream a file from “the cloud” on the wireless network inside of a gym’s digital cinema, just to do what people did thousands of years ago–sit back (on a recumbent bike), and listen to a good story.