What is nostalgia, exactly? Rooted in the past, this feeling of longing can often bombard us when we’re watching old shows (“Kim Possible,” anyone?), flipping through old photos or even just taking a bite of a chicken nugget. In 2016, Scientific American reported on the positive effects of reminiscence, stating that nostalgia “boosted self-continuity by increasing a sense of social connectedness.” In other words, remembering a common past, whether with our family, our friends or a complete stranger, is reassuring — it shows us we weren’t alone in our strange childhood obsessions or moments of vulnerability at any point in time.
It makes sense, then, that NPR’s “The Moth” has remained so popular over the last 20 years. Starting in 1997 New York, “The Moth” has captivated audiences at events around the country, drawing all kinds of people together by sharing both stories and intimate experiences. The show should be the poster child for nostalgia — the stories that hit the stage are rife with the feelings and connection that so many of us are missing, especially in today’s digital age.
Jennifer Hixson, a senior director at “The Moth” for almost 20 years, discussed this need when she said “it’s just fun to hear something straight from a human being — unfiltered, unmessed with, unedited and just straightforward. Right from a person, I guess that’s it, just human connection.” Hixson speaks from experience: She has worked with “The Moth” since the beginning, producing the beloved Moth story slams that its audience has come to know and love.
Hixson helps storytellers take their experiences and turn them into entertainment. Nostalgia as a raw emotion is something powerful, but when crafted into a story and weaved throughout other feelings, it becomes a tool for connection and understanding. Instead of simply being a means of entertainment, it becomes a piece of art. When asked about the role of “The Moth” when it comes to spreading these stories, Hixson said, “We certainly provide people with platforms all over the country and I hope that we have contributed to storytelling being an art form … There have always been stories … but then the thought that wow, it’s kind of an artform and look I can do it. It’s an equal opportunity art form.”
Pursuing this equal opportunity art form, though, is still a journey. While storytellers may have an intense experience, they have to learn what details to include and how to end it. So, what actually makes a good story? Hixson emphasized the need for vulnerability within a story when describing its connective nature and how, despite the individuality of each of the stories showcased in “The Moth,” people everywhere can empathize and relate to the storyteller’s experience.
What does it say about us that, in order to connect with people, we need to see their weaknesses? Maybe it’s the age of social media and our constant need to compare ourselves to others. But stories have been around for ages, way before Instagram, Twitter and the like. What is it really about stories that makes us keep telling them?
In Hixson’s words, “it feels intimate to have someone tell you a story.” Stories are an unedited version of ourselves, oftentimes highlighting some of our lowest moments. The comparisons we make listening to these stories aren’t the same thing as scrolling through post after post after post. Instead, stories become “a really rich way to understand somebody else’s perspective. It’s much easier to picture yourself in someone else’s shoes when you hear the story coming right from them, you see what you have in common. They can take you places.”
And take you places they will. On Feb. 19, Ann Arbor hosted its own Moth event and people from all over the city came to watch and enjoy the stories. But we didn’t stay in Ann Arbor, nor did we even stay in the 21st century — the audience traveled from 1997 Paris, following Princess Diana’s death, (almost) all the way to the astral plane and to a Texas lawn on a Sunday morning where wedding rings flew.
If you’ve never been to a Moth event, the basic breakdown is ten stories, from ten people (obviously). Each person, in theory, has five minutes to tell their story that in some way or form connects to the night’s theme (ours was flight). Afterwards, a set of judges (audience volunteers) give scores to each story, with the end goal of crowning a “winner” who will go on to tell their story at a “Grand Slam” with other winners from other events in various areas. Jim McCargar told of his experience riding high in the Goodyear blimp; the stakes weren’t terribly high (unless you count the very real possibility that he wouldn’t get the chance to go up), but his story carried that air of whimsy that we all seem to lose in the midst of midterms, job-hunting and other “life” things.
Joanna Courteau recalled her time at the University of Minnesota and a certain lab assistant who got a little too comfortable with a little too many students. She lamented “the wonderful love that might have been” but also recognized her escape from a “seduced and abandoned” fate. Kari Styles, on the other hand, brought us back to Texas, 1991 and a world where a woman’s duty was to have her husband’s baby. A gripping story with the vulnerability and stakes to match, Styles had captured the room and the tension was palpable. Courteau and Styles both told stories of relationships gone awry, but while the first was an endearing tale of her brush with “what might have been” the second story was the gold standard for what it means to take your life back.
Seeing what Hixson talked about in person was an unparalleled experience. Not only did I hear hilarious and fascinating stories, but I also received three business cards in one night. If I was there to network, I would have been proud of myself. I talked to all ten storytellers (some more than others) and while each interaction left me a bit more drained than the one before, it was exhilarating to see these people up close and hear more about their life and their stories.
Technology is great, but if I hadn’t left my laptop at home or turn my phone off during the event, I never would have learned:
1) Never play hide-and-go-seek with demons.
2) There’s more to life than masturbating.
So, maybe saying we’re all starved for human connection is cliché, but does that make it any less true?