Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
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The Independent Culture

The truth isn't always stranger than fiction, but what I've heard at The Moth would suggest otherwise. Founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green, The Moth was an attempt to recreate in New York the sultry summer evenings of his native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends spun spellbinding tales.

The first event was held in George's living room, but they soon spread across the US, and now the world. The simple premise – "true stories, told live" – has had people queuing to share their experiences in packed venues. E Annie Proulx, Neil Gaiman, Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald have all taken their turn at the mic.

The Moth, which first arrived in London last September, returned last night and sold out almost instantly – The Book Club's basement in Shoreditch soon filling with about 100 supportive beer-drinkers drawn from East London's literati. The event, which is extremely good fun, lasts about two hours, including a half-time loo break. With a comedy host guiding the evening, that leaves room for 10 stories at five minutes each – so it has to be tightly run.

One of the main rules is "no notes on stage"; the story must be told and not read. Another is "no stand-up routines", but of course you're free to crack jokes if they play a role in your story; also, "no ranting". But getting the theme right is equally important, with recent examples being "first times" and "hair".

I soaked up all of this info before attending my first "Story Slam", as The Moth calls them. On the night that I took the stage, the theme was "blunders", which seemed rather broad – but I had a few ideas floating around because, like all humans, I've made many mistakes in my life. There are two ways to get involved: a) you pre-plan by entering your name in advance, or b) you pluck up courage on the night and put your name into a hat. I went for the latter.

I had already prepared my story – regardless of whether I was going to go through with it – because this is not a night to randomly relay your shopping list. The storytelling is of a high standard and is treated as a high art form. (After all, the best make it onto the podcast, which regularly tops a million monthly listeners). According to the website's "how to", you must "practise so you can keep it down to five minutes. Revise. Rework. Revamp. Finesse. Shave off another two minutes. Try again."

Famous faces: Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Gaiman, and Molly Ringwald have all taken their turn at the mic (Getty Images)

So, three gin and tonics down, I threw my name in the hat before I had a chance to change my mind. (Polly Scates, producer at The Moth, admits "British audiences are more hesitant than the Americans"). And when I heard I was one of the 10 people selected, I walked up to the stage and adjusted the microphone with sweaty hands. My "blunder" happened one morning in South Africa, when I had pretended to be ill, to get out of a 6am safari wake-up call, only to learn (much later in the day) that a lion had been pacing outside my bedroom while I blissfully danced around in my dressing gown. The big reveal was neatly tucked into the punchline of the story. But I guess you had to be there.

So, what did I learn? That no matter how much you perfect your story, you always take a slight deviation from your narrative. That you don't necessarily get laughs at the bits you thought you would. That you must speak slowly, because five minutes is a long time when you're alone on a stage. Also, that it helps to act things out; after all, you are inviting the crowd to relive your experience with you.

On Story Slam podcasts, I've heard the emotional tale of a young man coming out to his family (his boyfriend was sitting proudly in the audience); the trauma of a beloved dog being put down; a story of a miscarriage and an awkward one about first-time sex; a childhood memory of someone accidentally using a dildo to massage their mother's head; a strange food order from Waitrose; a young woman explaining her shock at her first period; and an old man being involved in a car chase. I've heard so many stories, from so many different people.

I often catch myself re-telling the stories that I've heard at a Slam to friends, as passionately as if they were my own. A London bar might not be the same as the porch in Georgia, but if the tale is well told then the storyteller still reigns supreme.