I Attended (and Told a Story at) a Moth Storytelling Event in DC; What Happened Was Unexpected

On a Saturday afternoon in late January, I was driving to Charlottesville, Virginia to work as a casino dealer for a physicians conference at a hotel in the city. Most of the music played on the radio these days is garbage or 25 years old, so I decided to listen to NPR as I made the trip, as I couldn’t get my wife’s Spotify account to connect to the car’s Bluetooth system.

While listening to NPR, a segment came up called “The Moth,” which featured a variety of people telling stories about myriad topics involving all kinds of emotions. They were fascinating stories, and I was glad I had tuned in. At the end of the broadcast, the voice said, “If you are interested in storytelling events in your city, visit TheMoth.org.”

i had plenty of stories and loved sharing them with people, so I looked up The Mother found that The Moth held storytelling events in Washington, DC on the third Monday of every month. Scanning the schedule, I planned to go to the event in April, which featured a theme of “Blunders,” as I had a terrible blunder in my own life, one which is the prominent story and the first chapter of my book, Get After It: Seven Inspirational Stories to Find Your Inner Strength When It Matters Most. I loved being in front of people and this event would allow me to further spread one of the most impactful stories of my life.

When Abby and I arrived at the City Winery located in northeast DC, we grabbed a table, and I went to the front of the stage to fill out the form to tell my story. The producer told me there were about 15 entries, so I would have a good shot at being one out of the 10 names they pulled.

At 7:30, the host got on stage and described how the event would go. Five stories in the first half, an intermission, and then five more stories for a total of 10. If there were only 15 entries, I thought, I might have a good shot at getting on stage. The host explained the rules for storytelling, including one that seemed very appropriate: “This is not stand-up comedy.” I agreed…my story especially. My story was deeply personal, and my “blunder” cost me my dream of flying planes in the US Air Force. It was no laughing matter, but a serious story with important lessons to be shared.

He called up the first storyteller and the tales began. But between each story, as the next storyteller was preparing and the judges were giving their scores, the host went back to the microphone and told jokes, either based on the story that was just told or from quips that people would write on a small slip of paper and hand into a metal bucket. While most of the stories were funny, or at least humorous to some degree, not every one was, but no matter what, the host would continue to make jokes…basically doing stand-up comedy.

But I thought this wasn’t stand-up comedy? What about the rules?

As the night went on, my name was never called. “Don’t worry,” the host said, “if you put your name in to tell a story but weren’t called, come up to the stage and tell us the opening line of your story.” I didn’t want to, but Abby convinced me. By the time I got to the stage, I was the last one in line, and on a cue from the host, I walked up the four steps to the stage and took my position at the microphone.

“Most of the time in life you can blame someone else for shattering your life’s dream. In my case, I’m the one to blame.”

I heard the audience gasp. It was like a collective breath had been taken out of the attendees’ lungs. You could hear a pin drop. Even the host, who was standing about two feet behind me, was caught off guard. “Oh my,” he said, after a long pause.

Like I said, my story was no laughing matter.

Disappointed I didn’t get called, I was still determined to tell a story at The Moth event. So the next month, in mid-May, Abby and I went back to City Winery for the storytelling event that featured the theme of “Flawed.” I knew that theme well. Chapter Four of my book told the story of a time when I was deeply flawed…immature, arrogant, and egotistical. This would be the story I would share.

Just as before, we waited in line for the doors to open and grabbed a seat at a table in good line of sight to the stage. I went to the front to put my name in the proverbial hat, hoping I would be called to tell my story.

The host, who was the same host as the April event, went through the same routine, telling us that these were stories, supposedly true stories, and were not stand-up comedy acts. Within seconds of saying that, he went back to his usual schtick, cracking jokes about whatever he could come up with.

I began to get frustrated…just as last time. “This isn’t stand-up comedy,” I recalled, but then the host’s comedy hour would begin. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was irritable that day already, and this was making it worse. All I wanted to do was tell my story to the audience in a serious, emotional manner. My story was no joke.

One after one, the storytellers were called to the stage. Every time, before and after each story, the host would make his jokes about the story itself, or the quips people wrote on the small sheets of paper, or whatever else was funny to him at the moment.

The intermission came and went, and another storyteller was called and then another and then another.

“Please welcome to the stage, Parker Schaffel.”

Wait. What? Me?

“Oh, honey!” Abby said excitedly with a smile. Surprised and a bit caught off guard, I stood up, put on my linen jacket I brought with me, mainly to hide a small stain I had on my shirt from my lunch earlier in the day, and walked to the stage’s steps. After some more jokes and scoring from the judges, the host welcomed me to the stage and I took the spotlight in front of about 300 people.

I told the tale of my tour in Afghanistan in 2008. I was barely 24 years old, with no real military experience and only one year of experience working as a CIA military analyst on the Middle East. But I thought I knew everything…about everything. But I obviously didn’t. It was simple: I was immature, arrogant, and egotistical, and I told three mini-stories about how I exemplified each of those three characteristics. At times, I yelled into the microphone, turning slightly red with anger, as I emulated an Army Intelligence Chief Warrant Officer who yelled at me after I said something stupid to him. I used wide-ranging voice inflection, facial expressions, and hand gestures to emphasize how much of an asshole I really was.

“Six years later,” I said at the end of my story, “I learned what humility was, that I had learned my lessons, and that I learned to apologize for my actions.”

I received a boisterous round of applause, shook the host’s hand, and walked off the stage, returning to my seat. I had just shared an emotional moment with an audience. I was vulnerable, introspective, apologetic…and real.

But those emotions didn’t seem to matter to the host because from the moment I walked off the stage, he started the jokes.

“Geez, I didn’t know that timesheets mattered in a war zone!” he said to an audience which laughed. “And how about those military guys yelling. I don’t know if I could handle that. I imagine it’s kind of sexy thought!” More laughter.

My story was not funny. Nothing in it was a joke. It was real. Sure, the other stories told that night might have been funny, but mine wasn’t. Mine hurt because I hurt people and I hurt the relationship between my organization and the US military. But to the host it was a joke. And his commentary was joke after joke. It hurt and it made me even more irritated than I actually was. It just wasn’t what I expected. I expected a host to match the emotion of the story being told. He couldn’t do it, and I felt like he ruined my moment to share that deeply person, vulnerable time in my life.

As Abby and I walked out of the venue, I turned to her.

“Thanks for coming with me, but I don’t think we’ll be coming back to another one.”

I’m grateful for the experience to share my story, and I feel lucky that my name was pulled from the bag. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to share my story. But having my deeply personal story made a mockery hurt a lot. I guess the host’s rules only applied to a storyteller, not him.

Next time, if I want to see a stand-up comedy event, I’ll go to the DC Improv. For now, it seems best to keep sharing my stories in written form.

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