Do the Thing You Fear Most: My Storytelling Journey

It was my friends who first suggested that I become a storyteller. "You've had the worst life of anyone I know,” one said. “You'll make a great storyteller!"

She was referring to my two near-death experiences (this one and this one); my arrest and trial for a crime I didn't commit; my period of homelessness; the robbery that left me with more than a decade of untreated PTSD; the anonymous, widespread, public attack on my character and career (using material taken out of context and deliberately altered from a blog I write); and more.

It hasn't been the worst life, but it hasn't always been easy. 

So I said yes every time someone told me to go and compete in a Moth StorySLAM. (The Moth is a nonprofit organization that produces shows around the world in which people stand on stages and tell true stories, live, without notes.) But honestly, I had little intention of ever doing so. I was terrified of the prospect of taking the stage and telling a story to a room filled with hipsters and millennials. It was almost unthinkable.

But my friends didn't forget my promise, nor did I, so, on July 12, 2011, I found myself putting my name in the hat at a Moth event at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. I sat with my wife, Elysha, at a wobbly table in the packed space, praying that my name wouldn’t be called. With luck, I could return to Connecticut and tell my friends that I tried to tell a story at The Moth, but bad luck had gotten in the way. I thought that this failed attempt at storytelling could buy me at least a year of dignity. Maybe my friends would forget about my promise entirely.

And things were looking good for me. Name after name have been drawn from the hat (which is actually a tote bag). Storytellers had taken the stage and told their stories on the theme of the night: Ego. They were good stories, too. The storytellers knew what they were doing and appeared to love the spotlight. 

Finally, there was just one more name to be drawn before I could escape unscathed.

The emcee, Dan Kennedy, opened the final slip of paper and … you know whose name he read. I froze. But then it occurred to me: No one in this club knew me. I was a stranger in a strange land. If I didn’t move, they would eventually give up on Matthew Dicks and call another name. This had already happened during the first half of the show. A name had been drawn and the storyteller had failed to materialize; Dan tossed the paper aside and drew again. I could do the same thing. I could just sit here and remain silent and still.

Then I felt Elysha’s foot connect solidly with my shin. “Move it,” she said.

I rose and slowly made my way to the stage. I ascended the steps and found myself standing beside Dan. As he began to step aside to allow me to approach the microphone, the producer of the show spoke up, telling Dan that he had forgotten to record the scores for the previous storyteller.

Dan turned back to me. “Sorry,” he said. “Wait just a minute.” He motioned for me to step off the stage so he could record the scores from the three teams of judges on the chart behind us.

Instead, I stayed on stage, and took a seat on one of the plastic coolers full of beer in the corner. I didn’t want to tell my story. I didn’t want to compete. I didn’t want to be there at all. I wanted to go home and forget this stupid idea forever. But if I was going to have to tell my story to this room of storytelling connoisseurs and judgmental hipsters, I wanted to do well. I didn’t want to look foolish.  With this in mind, it occurred to me that spending a couple minutes onstage, getting a sense of the space, the lighting, and the audience, might help.

So I stayed. I tried to soak in the scenery. Relax.

Dan solicited the scores, and then it was time for me to take the microphone and tell my story.

I despised every bit of my first storytelling experience—until the moment I began speaking into the microphone. Then I fell instantly in love. The thing that I imagined being so terrifying and difficult was nothing of the kind. The fear evaporated as the audience leaned in, laughed, and held my gaze. The words came easily, because this was my story. I had lived it. It had been residing in my heart the whole time, just waiting to come out. I felt as if I was meant to be there. I was meant to tell my story.

Standing before a club jam-packed with strangers, I told them about learning to pole vault in high school and my secret desire for my teammate to fail so I would look better than him in the eyes of our coaches and fellow teammates. I bared my soul to that room. I told them about the ugly truth that lay at the center of my 17-year-old heart. I made them laugh. I made them wonder. I made them cheer.

When I finished, Dan asked the judges for their scores. When all the scores were totaled, I had won. I couldn’t believe it. Discovering that I could do this thing—and loved doing it—was life changing.

The next day, I wrote a blog post about my experience, which included these words: I know it sounds a little silly, but in the grand scheme of things, the birth of  my daughter was probably the most important day of my life. Next comes my marriage to my wife, and then the sale of my first book, and then maybe this. It was that big for me.

I was remarkably prescient while writing that post. It seems as if I already knew that I had found something special. Since then, I have competed in 45 Moth StorySLAMs and 17 GrandSLAMs, and won 28 times; told stories for audiences as large as 2,000 people; taught storytelling at Yale University, Kripalu, and numerous other venues; consulted with businesses, school districts, industry leaders, college professors, and performers around the world about storytelling; and started my own one-man show. In 2013, Elysha and I launched Speak Up, our storytelling organization. We've produced nearly 50 shows, in theaters as large as 500 seats.

But here’s what I want you to know:  The most important part of my story is to never forget how afraid I was when I began this journey. It's important to remember how I tried to avoid storytelling at every turn, not because I thought it was a bad idea or a waste of time, but because I was afraid. Even though I wanted to tell a story and suspected that I might even be good at storytelling, I tried my hardest to avoid it. Had it not been for my friends' prodding and Elysha's final push to get me out of my seat that night, I might have never taken the stage to tell a story. 

It's easy to see someone who is successful and confident and believe that they have always been that way. We often see the end result of a journey and assume that the person standing in front of us is the same person who began that journey. This is never true. I was afraid when I began my journey into storytelling. I doubted my ability. I was almost certain that I would fail. Fear kept me off the stage for more than a year, and it almost kept me off the stage forever. 

Fear holds us back so often in life. It keeps us from realizing our untapped, unseen, impossible-to-predict potential. It blocks us from opportunities. It stops us from being daring. It keeps us away from new things and forces us to reside in the familiar.

Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

If fear is holding you back from trying something new, taking a risk, or realizing a dream, I encourage you to rise above it. Push that fear aside long enough to take a leap. Find people who will support you, encourage you, and even force you to try.

I shudder to think about what my life would be like today had I not taken that stage five years ago and told my first story. I hate to think about how fear nearly held me back.      

I nearly went to the grave with a song still inside me.

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Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, best-selling author, and cofounder of Speak Up, a storytelling organization that produces shows throughout New England.

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