I’m going to ask for forgiveness in advance as this post is going to ramble. There is a lot to say and, at face value, parts of the story don’t seem to have any relevance to one another. Bear with me—I need to let the story unfold.
I’ve numbered the facts to help you follow along:
I’ve been listening to The Moth since I stumbled on the podcast back in 2009. I fell in love with George Dawes Green’s story of Southern Gothic and never stopped listening. I’ve traveled many miles, folded laundry, walked dogs, and worked in the garden with my earphones on, laughing out loud, and/or crying—sometimes both at the same time. If you’ve ever sat next to me on a plane or seen me walking through our little town in this state, I was most likely deeply involved in a story from The Moth.
(To diverge: There are others like This American Life, On Being, and The Kitchen Sisters that have been long-time favorites that continue to inspire. Newer flavors like Gravy, 99% Invisible, TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, and Serial have also become regular stops on my ever-evolving podcast playlist.)
Around 1994, I came across a short documentary film inspired by Route 66; that film and the consequent audio recording would change my life. I had been working at a job that didn’t suit me, in a place where inter-community politics ruled, and was living in a house that was embroiled in chaos—sunrise to sunset. At that moment, my life had absolutely nothing to do with my vision for myself. I came home to the “house of chaos” one afternoon—when the house was empty—to find some quiet and was transported, through a story, down a road: Route 66. It was heaven. At the end of this story, I knew that I was going to leave the job, the inter-community politics, and that I was going to tell stories. Exactly how I was going to tell stories was yet unclear but I knew without a doubt that my life was about to change.
Many years later, I came to know that the story of Route 66 I had listened to in 1994 had been created in 1985, when I was still a young girl in design school, by two friends who call themselves The Kitchen Sisters. I became fanatical followers of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. I listened to everything I could find from The Kitchen Sisters. I listened to every kind of documentary audio I could find (more on this in the coming year). I began my version of homeschool studies in storytelling. I watched as many films as I could; I became a fanatic. I made short films (if somewhat poorly). I attended film festivals. I tried (even more poorly) to write stories. I listened—over and over again, and then over again. I applied to film school and was rejected. I bought a camera. I filmed and recorded and watched and listened, but instead of becoming a director of documentary films, in 2000 I came home to Alabama and started the project that has become Alabama Chanin. I made a short film; I made clothes; I learned to tell different kinds of stories.
In 2009, after I had been making clothes for almost eight years (and had put filmmaking aside), I was asked to do a lecture at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Davia Nelson walked into the lecture, took my arm, and became my friend that night. She wrapped me up in her spirit; she turned her recorder on me; she took me on my first tour of the Edible Schoolyard; she introduced me to Alice Waters; she put on my clothes; she loved on me and brought love around me; and she introduced me to Nikki Silva, the other Kitchen Sister.
“Pinch me,” I said.
Once on a cold and snowy New York City night, I made a bet with a friend that we would each submit a story to The Moth. The night (and bet) in question was accompanied by several glasses of wine and in the midst of the banter and laughing, the thought of reaching out to The Moth terrified me. T E R R I F I E D. It took me about a year, but I did send in a story, and the story wasn’t accepted. Bet completed. Check.
“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I said.
In early 2014, Davia Nelson calls me one sunny afternoon to ask if I would be willing to come to New York City, to tell a story at The Moth for an evening they are curating around their award-winning series The Hidden World of Girls. I agree.
“Knock me over with a feather,” I think.
Within this list of facts, we’ve traveled from 1985 to 2014, and through the larger part of my working life as a designer and an adult.
Davia and I talked many times and for hours over the course of that spring about the trajectory of my story for The Moth, all of the facts above, about the story I should tell, about life, and love, and God, the beauty of everything, and about traveling to New York City for the actual telling of the story. In the course of these talks, I was introduced to Catherine Burns, the Artistic Director of The Moth, and we talked about more of the same. She gently prodded me, and poked, and teased a story from my jumble of experiences. And she made my story bigger, and better, more fluid, and solid. I became a better storyteller for having worked with Catherine in those months leading up to the story night.
I was proud. I was terrified. I’m not a natural speaker. It doesn’t feel natural for me to stand on a stage. Each time I’ve been asked to speak in the last years, I think about this quote from Susan Cain’s book Quiet:
“In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye.”
And though I wanted to run (and run as though demons were after me), I did, in fact, manage to tell a story on The Moth Mainstage on the night of April 17th, 2014. That story is now part of The Moth Radio Hour and included with stories from George Dawes Green (yes) and Tim Gunn, and a beautiful story that made me laugh and cry from Warren Holleman.
During that spring and many times since, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with Catherine (an Alabama-raised soul sister) about stories and what makes them strong, why they are important, about our favorites, and about how stories inspire me as a designer. We also talked a lot about the terror of standing before a seated crowd at The Moth Mainstage without notes, without a podium, just you and a microphone and your life. When I first walked onto that stage, I felt like my head might separate from my body and that I might be the first-ever storyteller at The Moth to faint or die.
Catherine laughs at my morbid memory and sent me a list of a few of her all-time favorite stories this week. They are tales of redemption, and struggle, and light, and joy, and, well, just life. I learned from Catherine that Michael J. Massimino said that telling a story at The Moth was scarier than going into space. I’m in good company.
Below are a few of Catherine’s favorite stories, including “A View of the Earth” from Michael J. Massimino (one of my Maggie’s favorites too). Get The Moth’s free podcast to listen weekly:
Alan Rabinowitz: “Man and Beast”
A boy with a severe stutter finds solace in his connection to animals.
Janna Levin: “Life on a Mobius Strip”
An astrophysicist in crisis finds astonishing parallels between her personal life and her research.
A.E. Hotchner: “The Day I Became a Matador”
A young writer is talked into a bull ring by Ernest Hemingway.
George Dawes Green: “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn”
The Moth’s Founder rebels against his aging Southern belle of a mother.
Kimberly Reed: “Life Flight”
A young woman must confront her past and future when forced to go home for her father’s funeral.
Darryl “DMC” McDaniels: “Angel”
The lead singer of RUN-DMC is brought back from the brink by an unexpected angel.
Andrew Solomon: “Notes on an Exorcism”
A man who has struggled with depression gets help from an African Shaman.
Stephanie Summerville: “Life Support”
A young healthcare attendant is sent to care for an extremely challenging patient.
Cynthia Riggs: “The Case of the Curious Codes”
A woman receives an unexpected note from an admirer she hasn’t seen in more than fifty years.
Michael Massimino: “A View of the Earth”
An astronaut runs into trouble on a mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.
Carl Pilliterri: “The Fog of Disbelief”
A man is working at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima when disaster strikes.
Wanda Bullard: “A Small Town Prisoner”
The woman on whose porch the Moth began talks about her elderly father “helping out” at his local Mississippi police precinct.