15 thoughts from a Moth StorySLAM

I told a story on Wednesday night at The Moth’s StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York City. The theme of the night was Secrets. I was lucky enough to win with a childhood story about discovering that Santa Claus wasn’t real (and uncovering an even worse secret as a result).

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Here are some thoughts from the night:

1. I have been fortunate enough to win 11 Moth StorySLAMs since 2012. It never gets any less exciting to win, even knowing that so many factors (in addition to your actual performance) play a role in determining who finishes first.

Winning requires a great deal of luck.

Even so, it’s always a thrill.

That said, it’s also a little bit disappointing when my wife is not in the audience when I win, as was the case on Wednesday night. I went to the slam alone, and though I have many Moth friends to keep me company, it’s never the same when she’s not by my side.

2. Two storytellers approached me after the show to comment on the double arc in my story. I was aware of the double arc (and was worried that it might confuse the audience) but had no idea that anyone else would notice. It’s incredible to be around people who understand your craft at least as well as you do and probably better.

3. At the end of a StorySLAM, before the final scores are announced, the storytellers whose names weren’t drawn from the hat take the stage and tell the first line of their story. I hate this part because I always hear amazing opening lines that make me want to hear the rest of their stories, as was the case on Wednesday night. I’m still thinking of Nathaniel Bates’ opening line and wishing that I had heard his story (and relieved that I didn’t have to compete against it).

4. I almost never have a great first line to a story. I usually open my story with my age at the time of the story and my location. I think it’s important to ground the audience in your experience as quickly as possible. Let them begin to formulate images in their mind immediately. That said, I love a great opening line and wish I had them more often.

5. Moth audiences are the best. One storyteller lost her place in the middle of her story and suffered through a painfully prolonged pause, longer than any I’ve heard or seen before. I thought she might just step off the stage and abandon the story at one point, but the audience rallied her spirits and kept her going to the finish. It was a beautiful thing.

6. A distinct advantage to not memorizing your story is that you will never find yourself struggling for the next sentence and will probably never suffer from the pregnant pause. You lived the moment, so it’s not as if you’re going to forget what happened, but it’s easy to forget a memorized line.

Not memorizing allows you to edit your story while onstage, which I did a lot on Wednesday night. I was forced to drop two entire sections of the story for the sake of time and found a much better ending sentence than the one I had originally planned. None of these “in the moment” revisions would be possible had I memorized my story.

7. That said, if you actually memorize your story, or come close to memorizing it, you’ll always know how long it is. I never know. “It feels like five minutes,” is as close as I often get to knowing before I take the stage. Thankfully, my estimate is usually close, and my wife will time me for GrandSLAMs and other, more important shows when people are depending on me to be as close to perfect as possible. On Wednesday night, my estimate was not close. I probably had an 8 or 9 minute story when I took the stage. It required a lot of quick thinking. Not fun. Not memorizing your story is a bit like walking a high wire at times.

8. I don’t write my stories down, either. When I write a story down, it doesn’t sound like me anymore. I lose my speaking voice and end up sounding formal and academic. But writing my stories down would probably help with timing, too, and most of my favorite storytellers (people far better than me) always write their stories.

9. The woman sitting in front of me who shushed the two idiot women sitting to our left at least three times throughout the night was the true hero of the slam. I’ve never seen audience members engaged in full blown conversations in the middle of a storyteller’s performance before.

10.. It’s become impossible to leave your backpack unattended in a public space anymore without looking like a terrorist. I nearly went onstage last night with the damn thing.

11. Parking in SoHo is amazing. Where else in New York can I always find a parking spot in front of my destination?

12. Two strangers hugged me after the show. Didn’t say a word. Just hugged me and walked away. Independently of each other. It was a little strange but beautiful, too. Storytelling is amazing.

13. A female storyteller told a hilarious story about her propensity for flatulence that I will never forget. I have not laughed so hard in a long time. Though I know that certain people may have been turned off by this kind of story (including the two idiot women to my left who said as much), those people suck and wouldn’t know the first thing about audacity, honesty and courage.

14. The importance of a great host cannot be overstated. It makes the storyteller’s job so much easier. Dan Kennedy manages to keep the audience laughing and engaged throughout the night through the use of tiny slips of nearly indiscernible scribbling that he somehow transforms into stories themselves. He’s a master in the art of hosting.

15. Storyteller and Moth host David Crabb taught me that whenever I am faced with danger or fear, I should tell people not to worry by letting them know that “I’m a storyteller.”

I don’t know if this will work, but it will make me feel good. And stupid.

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Did we buy this for the cat or the boy?

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Photoshop? No.

I know. I couldn’t believe it either.

But this photo (did you even think it was a photo?), which you have probably seen a thousand times (the Windows XP default wallpaper), is the real thing, unadulterated and untouched in any way.

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Here’s the story behind the wallpaper from the man who took the photograph.

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Charlie says yes to chocolate-covered matzo

How lucky we are to have a wife and mother who makes so many delicious foods for us.

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Completely cringe-worthy and painful to watch(unless you’re mean like me)

This is undoubtedly the worst Wheel of Fortune performance of all time.

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This poor guy will never live this down. He will never forgive himself.

First one million dollars. Then a car. Then $7500.

It’s hard to watch, unless of course you’re mean like me. If this is the case, you may find yourself watching it multiple times.

It gets more amusing each time. 

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Don’t even try to invade North Hampton

If you plan on invading a small, New England town anytime soon (and who isn’t?), I suggest that you avoid targeting North Hampton, Massachusetts.

I was in North Hampton recently for a performance with The Moth. In the center of town, at the top of a hill, is City Hall, complete with crenelated towers and arrow slits.

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Lest you think this was originally a fort of some kind, think again.

From North Hampton’s historical society:

Northampton’s City Hall, built in 1850, has survived despite numerous assaults on its very existence. William Fenno Pratt, who designed many buildings on Main Street, conceived of it as a novelty. It combines elements of the then new revival styles of Gothic, Tudor and the trademark Norman towers replete with arrow slits. Being a novelty it was bound to attract both ardent admirers as well as detractors. One of the most powerful detractors was Mayor Harry E. Bicknell, who dubbed it a building with “flip-flops and flop-doodles.” He, along with many others in 1923, wanted it torn down and replaced. Although aesthetic debate raged it was the fiscally conservative voters of Northampton who saved the building, opting to remodel it in order to save money.

“Flip-flops and flop-doodles.”

Old Mayor Bicknell certainly had a way with words.

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Dictionary revision required

I would like to propose replacing the dictionary definition  of the word “joy” with this image.

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Spite is good. Science agrees. Tim Martin agrees.

The New York Times recently published a piece entitled Spite is Good. Spite Works. Research seems to indicate that human decency and cooperation require “a certain degree of so-called altruistic punishment: the willingness of some individuals to punish rule breakers even when the infraction does not directly affect them — challenging the guy who broke into the line behind you, for example.”

I have been known to act spitefully from time to time. I maintain an “I told you so” calendar, for example, and consider the words “I told you so” to be the best four words in the English language.   

I may have even attempted to coin the phrase, “The best reason to do anything is spite.”

As you might imagine, I was thrilled to see the New York Times piece. It’s always nice to see that science is on my side.

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Before you disagree, consider this enlightening story:

J D Wetherspoon is a well known, highly respected British pub chain.

Founded in 1979 by Tim Martin, the company owns over 900 outlets. The company also operates the Lloyds No. 1 chain and a number of Wetherspoon Hotels. It has become known for converting large, unconventional premises into pubs.

The J D Wetherspoon name comes from one of Martin’s teachers in New Zealand who could not control his class, and told Tim that he would never succeed in business.

The man named his business out of spite.

It’s not hard to imagine that spite was probably a primary motivator in Tim Martin’s success.

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Writers Abroad and perhaps a writing program for adults, too?

For the last month, Elysha and I have been designing a summer camp for young writers called Writers Abroad. The Hartford Courant recently ran a piece about it. As of this week, we’re pleased to announce that more than half of the spots have been filled and we’ve received inquires that may fill most of the remaining spots soon.

Fortunately, we’ve managed to do this without any actual advertising. 

Even more surprising, we’ve also started to hear from teachers, college professors, newspaper reporters and other professional writers who have heard about Writers Abroad and are offering to volunteer to teach at our camp.

We are thrilled.

I hesitated to write about the program here until I was certain that we could enroll enough students to move forward with the program. Now that this has become a reality, I’m writing about the program here in case you may know a student who is interested in filling one of our remaining spots. We are open to students ages 12-16, and the only requirement for enrollment is an interest in writing. Details on the program can be found below.

One more surprise: After hearing about the program, I’ve heard from at least a dozen adults who have asked if I would consider teaching a writing workshop for them. A couple actually asked if it would be possible to enroll in Writer’s Abroad.

The answer to that question was no.

Elysha and I already teach a storytelling workshops as a part of Speak Up, but the idea of teaching a writer’s workshop is intriguing. I’ve tried to join writer’s workshops in the area before but have always been greeted with a certain amount of disdain and distrust. I’ve been asked (in not-so-friendly-tones) questions like, “Why are you here if you already have books in stores?” and “How did you find an agent?” and “Who did you know in publishing?”

I’ve always come home feeling disappointed.

Instead of attempting to find a workshop that was willing to accept me, I  gathered a group of writers and friends who serve the same purpose. We don’t meet as a group, but I send them my work and receive critical feedback from each one. 

But teaching a writer’s workshop for adults? Though it had never occurred to me, it’s something that I might be interested in doing.

If you might be interested in enrolling in a writer’s workshop, please let me know. I’ll gauge interest level and determine if this is something I’d like to plan and execute at some point in the future.
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Writers Abroad

The Program

The goals of Writers Abroad are three-fold:

1. Provide students with authentic writing instruction, from conception to final revision, from professional writers and teachers via a model that guarantees the three most important components to any writer’s success: time, audience and choice.

2. Provide students with a variety of writing experiences in a wide range of genres, allowing them the opportunity to experiment with their voice in a number of formats.

3. Provide students with an understanding of the writing process and the business of writing from the perspective of a professional writer.

Writing Abroad is a four week writing camp running from July 7 to August 1. Classes will be held on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM.

Classes will be based in a conference room in the West Hartford Town Hall, but as much as possible, we will be using Blue Back Square and West Hartford Center as our classroom as well. We will take advantage of the library, the bookstore, coffee shops, restaurants, the movie theater and outdoor spaces in order to inspire and inform our writing. We will take advantage of the unique characteristics of each space in order to broaden our views of writing and begin to examine the world through the critical eye of a writer. It will also give students the ability to be outdoors while working on their craft, which we believe is essential given the time of year.

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Students will write individually directed pieces based upon their interests and needs, including fiction, nonfiction, college essays, poems, songs and more. Idea generation will also be explored in depth, providing students with the chance to develop an extensive list of future writing ideas. They will receive individualized and small group instruction in regards to their own pieces and have many opportunities to workshop their writing with peers.

Students will also explore a variety of writing genres, using the unique environment of West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square as the impetus for much of this exploration.

Some examples include:

We will spend a morning reading food and restaurant reviews, and then we will eat lunch together and write our own reviews.

We will spend a morning reading film reviews, and then we’ll see a movie together and write our own film reviews.

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We’ll discuss screenwriting and visit with a screenwriter.

We’ll learn about writing skits and plays and meet with a playwright.

We’ll spend a morning learning about songwriting and meet with a songwriter.

We’ll write personal narratives for the stage.

We’ll tour the bookstore on more than one occasion, with different goals for each visit. We’ll identify popular and trending genres, discuss the marketing decisions involved in choosing cover art, examine the structure of picture books and much more.

We’ll spend time discussing the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry. We’ll examine the path that a book takes from the formation of an idea in the writer’s head to landing on an actual bookshelf. We’ll discuss the ways that writers and publishers earn income on books sold and discuss the growing world of self-publishing. We’ll also discuss the challenges and benefits of a career in writing and the best ways to prepare yourself for that career.

Most of all, we’ll be writing. Talking about writing. Critiquing writing. Revising writing. Presenting writing. Then writing some more. Students will choose topics for writing. We will suggest topics for writing. Fellow students will inspire topics for writing.

We will be capping the number of students in the camp at 12 in order to allow a great deal of personal attention but also the opportunity for collaboration and peer feedback. 

This small number will also allow for us to accept students with a range of writing abilities, though the desire to write is a must. Prospective students must have a passion for the craft, because the expectation is that we will be writing a lot. While our goal is to inspire students to write, they should arrive with some personal desire as well.

We are accepting students ages 12-16.

The cost of the camp is $1,200.

The Instructors:

Matthew Dicks is a published author, first with Doubleday Broadway and currently with St. Martin’s Press. He has three novels in bookstores now and a fourth due out at the end of this year. His most recent book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, has been translated into more than 25 languages worldwide and is an international bestseller. He has published work in The Hartford Courant, The Huffington Post, Education Leadership, The Christian Science Monitor and more. 

He is the co-writer of The Clowns, a rock opera that was produced for The Playhouse on Park in 2013 and is currently being considered for a New York theater festival, as well as The Tweets, which will be produced in July at a local summer camp.

Matthew has been teaching for the last 15 years and is a former West Hartford Teacher of the Year and finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year. In addition to teaching, he has conducted writing workshops for middle school, high school and adult students via colleges, museums and bookstores. He also tutors middle and high school students in writing and a variety of other subjects. 

Matthew is also a professional storyteller and public speaker. He’s a 10-time Moth StorySLAM champion who tells stories for organizations like The Moth, The Story Collider, Celebrity Death Match, The Mouth and many more.

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Elysha Dicks has been a teacher for 13 years. She began her career at Solomon Schechter Day School in West Hartford, Connecticut and later moved onto Henry A. Wolcott School, also in West Hartford. She has taught third and fifth grades and has also worked at a district reading tutor.

Elysha has a Master’s degree in educational technology and is the founder of Green Ink, an in-school design studio where students utilized Photoshop and other software applications in order to design and produce print and digital work for teachers and administrators in the school.

Elysha spent six years co-directing Tributes: productions based upon the lives of historical figures who made positive contributions toward ridding the world of hatred and discrimination. The program stressed teamwork and challenged the students to take the lessons of the past to rise above bigotry and injustice in their own lives.  

Together, Matthew and Elysha are the founders and producers of Speak Up, a Hartford-based storytelling organization that works to bring storytelling to the Hartford region in junction with Real Art Ways. Speak Up produces storytelling shows six times a year and conducts ongoing workshops on the art of storytelling.
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Matthew will be teaching classes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. He will be joined on Fridays (and other days as well) by Elysha Dicks for a more concentrated, intensive day of individual and peer conferencing.

If you are interested in registering for the camp or have any questions, please email us at matthewdicks@gmail.com.

Posted in The Writing Process, Words, Writers Abroad | 1 Comment

Chipotle and education: Upside-down organizations where the best people are removed from the most important positions

This piece on how Chipotle develops their management team is fascinating. Essentially, the company builds from within, plucking cashier, cooks and other highly effective, downstream employees and rapidly elevating them through training and incentives to management positions.

Last year, nearly 86% of Chipotle’s salaried managers and 96% of hourly managers were the result of internal promotions. 

Fundamental to this transformation is something Chipotle calls the restaurateur program, which allows hourly crew members to become managers earning well over $100,000 a year.

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I became a McDonald’s manager through a similar, albeit less profitable, path. I started working for the company when I was 16 years old. By the time I was 17, I had been promoted to an hourly manager, and less than two years later, I was a salaried manager.

Promoting from within is an admirable and profitable means of identifying and training future managers, but despite this democratic, pluralistic approach, Chipotle, like McDonald’s, is an upside-down organization.

At Chipotle and McDonald’s, the greater your level of advancement, the farther away you step from the customer. In order to climb the corporate ladder at Chipotle, McDonald’s and many other businesses, you must distance yourself more and more from the point of sale. But it’s the point of sale that is the most critical position in the organization in terms of profitability for a consumer-facing company.

It’s where your best people should be.

Time and time again, I would watch highly effective restaurant managers leave their  stores for corporate positions, leaving behind a less effective, less profitable managers in their place. These corporate positions generated no profit for the company. Employees in these positions did not interact with customers or drive sales. In McDonald’s and Chipotle and many other businesses, these promotions often remove the most skilled and effective people in the organization from the most critical positions in the company.

I’ve never thought it made much sense.

Sadly, education also operates with an upside-down model. In many ways, the bottom rung of the ladder in education is the teacher. In order to improve your pay beyond a teacher’s salary and climb the career ladder, a person must leave the classroom and become a principal, curriculum specialist, administrator, coach or something similar that removes these people from the most critical position in all of teaching:

The classroom.

If a highly effective teacher wants to increase his or her salary significantly, he or she must step away from students and do work that has a considerably reduced impact on the actual instruction and future of children.

In business terms, these people are stepping away from the point of sale.

People in these positions may try to tell you otherwise. They may say that their work as a principal or administrator or coach helps teachers to be more effective by ensuring adequate training or support or by fostering a climate where both teachers and students can thrive. They often argue that they are indirectly helping more students through their work than a single classroom teacher.

This, of course, is bunk.

If you want to make the greatest difference in the lives of students, become a teacher. The best principal I have ever known would tell you the same.

Sadly, in today’s world, the classroom is viewed by many as a place that must be escaped by many teachers. The list of responsibilities of a classroom teacher is impossibly long and grows longer each year. The number of people, both students and adults, who the classroom teacher must interact with is immense. It is often acknowledged that the classroom teacher has the most difficult position in all of education.

The classroom is not for the faint of heart.

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That’s why the position of classroom teacher should be viewed as the most prestigious in all of education. People should not be promoted from the classroom. If anything, people should be promoted into the classroom.

Classroom teachers should be paid the most.

In countries like Finland, which boast the most successful education systems in the world, they are.

In education, if you have an office, you probably need a pay cut. A portion of your salary should probably go to a teacher who works directly with students throughout the day.

If you are not standing in front of students on a minute-by-minute basis during your work day, you probably need a pay cut. A portion of your salary should probably go to a teacher who in the classroom all day long.

Send those dollars where they belong: Into the pockets of teachers.

The people who should be paid the most money in education are the classroom teachers. Rather than having teachers fight like dogs for a scant few administrative positions, our most effective people should be fighting for classroom positions, where they can significantly impact the lives of 20-25 children each year.     

Education, like Chipotle and McDonald’s and so many others, is upside down. The goal should be to remain as close to the customer as possible.

Not escape them. 

Pay and prestige should be trickling down in these organizations to the people who make the biggest difference in terms organizational success.

Not up.

Posted in Autobiography, Critic, Teaching | 2 Comments