My Secret About Storytelling

For a long time, I had a secret about storytelling that I didn’t share with anyone.

I’d been standing on stages all over the world for more than six years, winning Moth StorySLAMs and GrandSLAMs, and teaching storytelling to just about every kind of person you could imagine: CEOs of large corporations; leaders of nonprofits; priests, ministers, and rabbis; writers; comedians; magicians; salespeople; Mohawk language learners; teachers and professors; and folks looking to improve their dating prospects, interview chances, and Thanksgiving Day survival rate.

I’d taught hundreds, if not thousands, of people, but during that time, I kept this secret to myself. A big secret. A big, important secret that has changed my life for the better and could change the lives of many of my storytelling students.

I kept it a secret because I thought it sounded stupid. I thought it was hokey, strange, and squishy.

Then one day a woman explained to me how my storytelling instruction had helped her. She knew the secret. She spoke it aloud. When I told her that I hadn’t mentioned this secret to anyone, she laughed.

“That’s not a secret, Matt. You teach it every day. You may not know you’re teaching it, but believe me, the message is loud and clear.”

I was both shocked and relieved. So I decided to start sharing my secret with my students, and something remarkable happened. People started coming to me to learn my secret. While plenty of folks still enrolled in my workshops to find and tell stories, a great many came with the sole purpose of learning my secret and improving their lives through storytelling.

The Open Secret

My secret is a simple one: Storytelling heals. Learning to find and craft the stories of your life will heal your mind and soul. Telling your stories will help to mitigate, and in some cases, eliminate, the pain and trauma of the past. It will make you feel better about who you are. It will make your life feel fuller, more complete. It happened for me, and it happens for people every day.

Here’s how:

When I was 22 years old, I was homeless for a period of time. I had been arrested and was awaiting trial for a crime I did not commit, and as a result, I lost my job and then my home.

But that’s not entirely true. I was homeless because the people who should’ve been supporting me were not. I was left to fend for myself, and it was a terrible, disheartening, hopeless struggle. At the age of 22, I believed with all my heart that I was destined to spend the rest of my life without a roof over my head. I saw no way of escape.  

Then one day I was recused from the streets by former employees of a McDonald’s that I once managed. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They offered me a small room off their kitchen, which I shared with a man named Rick, who spoke in tongues in his sleep, and the family’s indoor pet goat. (It was the goat’s room first, so I could hardly complain, even if it chewed my hair into a mash, stuck its tongue in my ear while I slept, and bit my toes whenever they were pointed upward.)

I stayed with that family for about 18 months until my trial, when I was finally found not guilty. I moved on with my life, found work, eventually made it to college. Within seven years of my trial, I had graduated with an English degree and a teaching license, and launched my teaching and writing career.

Letting Go of the Anchor

But I would think about that time of hopelessness and desperation often, and every time, I would find myself wondering why I didn’t have anyone to stand beside me. It was like an anchor attached to my heart, forever dragging me down.

Then one day, I decided to tell that story. I went to a Moth StorySLAM in New York City and told the story of my homelessness, my rescue, and my rise to a bookstore packed with people. They laughed. They listened. Some of them even cried.

I won the StorySLAM that night, but most importantly, something unexpected and miraculous happened: That anchor was gone. Years of burden and pain had been lifted. I had taken an incredibly difficult period of my life—one that had haunted me for years—and given it a beginning and ending. I had distilled it and turned it into art. I had made it accessible and entertaining to others. I had found a way to turn trauma into laughter, emotion, and connection.

And that wasn’t a fluke. I’ve since done the same for many of the challenges of my life. When I entered therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, my therapist found a way to get me to tell the story of an armed robbery at the age of 23 that had left me with 15 years of nightmares and terror. Eventually, I told that story onstage, too—and left it behind.

What Stories Are For

I tell stories to entertain, to connect, to share a bit of myself with the world. And I tell stories because telling them makes my life better. With every story I tell, I feel less burdened by the past. I silence the pain of yesterday and take away its power to hurt me. I give it meaning and purpose, allow it to illuminate and enlighten. This is my secret.

You don’t need to stand in front of a hundred or a thousand people to do this. Sometimes it’s enough for me to tell a friend or my wife. Sometimes it’s enough to just tell the story to myself.

Learn to find and tell stories well, and you may find yourself getting well. Getting better.

Healing.

Find out about programs with Matthew Dicks at Kripalu.

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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