by Jerry Waxler
Last fall, one of the students in my creative nonfiction sobbed as she read us her moving story about her mother. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing the emotional impact. Kirsten’s love for her mother filled the room.
A few weeks after the class ended, I received an email from Kirsten announcing a writing competition. The winners would present their stories about motherhood in front of an audience. I have been toying with the idea of performance storytelling to see if my years of interest in book length memoirs would translate into a five minute story. So I decided to send in a submission.
I unearthed the eulogy I had delivered at my mother’s funeral thirteen years earlier. With some reshaping it started to sound like a story, but it was way too long. Every day I shaved off a few words, so by the deadline, I could read it in five minutes.
I arrived at the audition imagining I would be standing on a stage, straining to see a director sitting in a darkened theater. When I walked in though, Kirsten was sitting with her co-producers, Kristina Grum and Lauren Hale at a table in a brightly-lit room. Before I had a chance to feel intimidated, they cheerfully greeted me. In answer to my questions, they explained that “Listen to Your Mother” had been founded by Ann Imig in New York City and was spreading. This year, 2015, LTYM events would be held in 39 cities.
When Lauren started her stopwatch, I began to share the lessons my mother taught me after her 70th birthday party. When I finished, Kirsten reached for the Kleenex and laughed as she dabbed the tears from her eyes. That seemed like a good sign.
They said they hoped I would be participating. I said that even if I didn’t, it was already a cool experience. The following week, I was accepted in the cast. Yay.
Every morning on the treadmill, I practiced reading the talk aloud. In order to maintain a fresh, expressive voice, I visualized each scene. For example, when I said Mom swam laps in the pool, or did aerobics with women half her age, I tried to see her doing these things. When I showed up for our first rehearsal, I felt prepared. I was less ready for the fact that I was the only male.
During the introductions they told of wanting or not wanting to be pregnant, the emotional upheaval of a miscarriage, falling in love with their newborns, or in some cases not falling in love. When I was younger, such feminine topics would have reminded me of all the other places I urgently needed to be. However, now that I have studied hundreds of memoirs, I have grown comfortable with the vast spectrum of human experience.
My feeling of being included in their experiences was aided by the very thing we had come to achieve. Each author’s well-crafted story invited me into her world. By the end of the second rehearsal, I had learned so much about motherhood, I felt that I had earned an honorary membership in the Mommy Network.
I arrived at the event around noon, on one of the first gorgeous days of spring. The modern building was appropriately named Steel Stacks, set against the haunting backdrop of the hulking remains of the Bethlehem Steel towers.
Performing the sound check in an empty theater felt slightly spooky, like a premonition of something that was really going to happen. After each of us read a sentence or two, we moved to a waiting room off the lobby, chatting and pacing. Finally, the signal came and we filed past the audience to the stage.
The reading began, and I listened attentively to now-familiar stories about loving babies, wanting babies, having babies and of course, loving mothers. It was a real feast of motherhood. The difference was that I was listening in the company of almost two hundred strangers.
When it was my turn, I walked to the lectern, and with the bright lights in my eyes, I looked out over the dimly lit audience. But I wasn’t nervous. All the love in that room gave me strength.
Before I started crafting my story, I assumed the phrase “Listen to your mother” was about learning lessons. In fact, the title of my story was “what I learned from my mom.” But in that room full of people, I realized we weren’t just listening to their words. We were listening to their presence.
When I first heard Kirsten reading her story in my nonfiction class, I admired her determination to find the best words to express her love for her mother. Then, when I received the invitation to participate in Listen to Your Mother, I joined a whole group of people striving to do the same thing.
Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps, popularized the simple, powerful slogan that listening is an act of love. In that theater we directed that loving act toward our mothers. Those weeks I spent crafting my story, sharing it with my fellow cast members, and then participating in a theatrical production to read my story to an audience demonstrates the basic principle of the Memoir Revolution. We take a step back from our hectic lives and listen. To listen even more deeply, we find the story. And to spread the love, we share those stories, so others can listen, too.
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