I spent the 22nd year of life in my hometown, Coldstream BC, standing by a conveyor belt sorting wood at a remanufacturing plant. The boards would slink by at a subdued pace from left to right and I was to take them and fashion three neat piles: one for the long ones, one for the medium ones, and one for what I would affectionately refer to as “the little guys”. Eight hours a day. Forty hours a week. For a year.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A year earlier, after graduating from theatre school in Victoria, I had moved into a swanky downtown Vancouver apartment on the northernmost edge of Yaletown. I was enthusiastic, I was optimistic, and I was trying to succeed on several fronts. I was going to become a working actor. I was going to make rent. I was going to maintain a successful long-distance relationship. I was going to find a reliable day job.
But it just didn’t work out for me. At all. I tried to carve out a self-sufficient existence for myself in the city, but everything quickly fell apart. I failed across the board. I went into a depression. I was lost. I was alone. I had no money. And so I had to move back home.
I felt like I was the poster boy for everything wrong with my generation. I felt foolish.
My sense of entitlement, my solipsism and my delusional belief that I was a unique and talented person led me to acting school. I had graduated four years later, at great expense to my parents, and then naively stepped out into the big wide world without having the slightest inkling of how to survive. And by the end of that year, I wasn’t against the ropes. I was on life-support.
So, just like that, I was back in my childhood bedroom. I was working a labour job. And I was eating a casserole prepared by my Mother every night. I didn’t know what to do next. I felt like I was lost in the universe.
But a funny thing starts to happen when you stand by a conveyor belt sorting wood for a year. Your life slowly starts to make sense.
When all you have are two things, time and your thoughts, one can’t help but start making sense of the algorithms of your behaviour.
Geeze. I went straight from high school to university to a high-paced life in the city. I guess I never really had time to decompress. To slow down. To reflect. To tether myself to anything healthy or real.
You start sifting through your life as if it were a game of Tetris.
Oh. I should’ve put that square block over here.
1 line clears.
Hmph. I didn’t really take care of myself in a basic way AT ALL when I moved to Vancouver. I sabotaged myself.
2 lines clear.
Wow. I was really selfish in that relationship. I was too big of a coward to leave her and she was the same way. We should’ve just been honest with each other. We didn’t need to drag each other down like that.
3 lines clear.
Wait. I think I figured out why I failed at being an actor. It’s because… I HATE acting. I NEVER wanted to be an actor! Oh my God! I went to theatre school because I knew that all my favourite SNL cast members went to theatre school. I didn’t want to be BRANDO! I wanted to be SANDLER! What the… I can’t believe I forgot that.
* * *
So I started thinking about what I actually DID want to do with my life as I piled wood day after day.
And as luck should have it, there was only one radio station that we got at the remanufacturing plant that deep in the valley – CBC Radio 1. And I was never really a public radio person before then, but I quickly became addicted. I listened to Q and The Debaters and Definitely Not the Opera and Vinyl Cafe and I wondered to myself how I had gotten this far in life without having been consuming this content all along.
Then a friend of mine – after hearing about my newfound love for public radio – recommend that I listen to This American Life. Then one day, I heard an episode of TAL that featured a story from The Moth and that changed everything.
The Moth. A non-profit group in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Real people. Telling true stories from their lives. No reading. No underscoring. Just their voice and their story. I devoured all the audio content from The Moth that I could find. I couldn’t even fathom how strong these stories were. How hilarious they were. How clever they were. How devastating and life-affirming they were.
I became obsessed. I was a fan. But I think a part of me also recognized right away that this was a format in which I could thrive.
So when I moved back to Vancouver after the year at the reman plant, I set some goals. I wrote them down. And one of them was “I will get a story aired on The Moth“.
So I started performing at storytelling events. And writing in memoir for the very first time. Then another big thing happened. I saw TJ Dawe perform for the first time at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. TJ Dawe was a name that I’d always heard mentioned around my alma mater and in theatre circles but I didn’t really know much about him and his work. After seeing his solo show Lucky 9, though, I walked out of the theatre, sat on a bench in an alley on Granville Island and started to cry. It was a moment of epiphany. I thought to myself, “Holy shit. That’s it. That’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of theatre I want to make.”
So I wrote a storytelling solo show about the challenges I faced during my super-shitty 21st year in Vancouver, I called it Tinfoil Dinosaur, and I went on my first full Fringe tour in the summer of 2012. After a successful run at the Montreal Fringe, I headed down to celebrate my 26th birthday in New York City with my friend Elizabeth Blue (who I’d just met in Montreal). She was involved in the New York storytelling scene, and she brought me to a story event under a church in the East Village. There were only about 20 people there, but it was easily the highest calibre storytelling show I’d ever seen in my life. After the show, she introduced me to the producer, and I told him that I was a storyteller from Canada. He told me that he was hosting a Moth Story Slam in Brooklyn the following night, and that I should come and throw my name in to the hat.
Holy shit! I had decided to come to New York on a whim, and didn’t even think to check to see if there were any Moth events going on the week I was there. The next day also happened to be my 26th birthday. The stars were aligning.
So Lizzie Blue and I walk into the cavernous venue in Brooklyn the following night, and the room could not have felt more different from what I had expected. In my mind, I had always imagined the Moth audience to be made up primarily of Woody Allen movie dinner-party types. I imagined a sea of tweed, avant garde eyewear and red wine only. But instead I was taken aback by how rowdy and electric it felt. It felt very hipster, but in this case, “hipster” wasn’t a pejorative. The place was bumping and alive and there was no other room in the world in which I would rather have been in at that moment.
I threw my name in the hat. I was concerned about my ability to get my Tinfoil Dinosaur story down to 7 minutes. The shortest telling I’d ever had of that story was 10:30, and because this was a Story Slam format, I knew I would be docked points if I went a single second over the 7-minute limit. During the first two stories, I could barely concentrate as I was making last minute edits in my head to the story.
Then. My name was called.
I hop onstage, grab the mic, and start talking as fast as I possibly can. The story is going beautifully, the crowd is receptive and when I hear the flute at the 6 minute mark, I think to myself, “Perfect. I have a whole 60 seconds to wrap this up.” But then, as I’m more or less waffling through my final blow line, I hear the dreaded flute again, meaning that we’re at 7 minutes. I talk for another 5 seconds. I get a nice ovation from the crowd, but I went long. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I can’t believe I went long.
The judges tally the votes, and even with the loss of points for going long, I’m in the lead. And I remain in the lead all the way until the 10th and final storyteller of the evening takes the stage. I turn to Lizzie Blue, and say, “Hey, isn’t that girl the really strong storyteller from that show we saw last night? Oh no.” Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Her story is super-tight. And smart. And funny. I hate her. They tally the votes, and she wins the Moth Story Slam by 0.1 points. I was docked 1.5 points for going long. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Standing on the subway platform after the show with Blue, I was livid. “I can’t believe I fucked up an opportunity like that! Blue! I got to tell my strongest story at a Moth Story Slam ON MY BIRTHDAY in New York and I go long? I go LONG?!?! If I stopped talking 5 seconds sooner, I would’ve been a Moth Story Slam CHAMPION! ON MY BIRTHDAY!”
Blue said, “But Sam. You did tell the best story of the night. Everyone there knows that.”
I said, “You don’t understand! If I won the Slam tonight, then I could’ve competed at a Grand Slam, and then if I won that, then I could’ve maybe done a Moth Mainstage, and then if I did all of that, then maybe I could get a story on The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. That was my dream. But I squandered it. I squandered my chance. That was it. Shit. The stars aligned for me, and I couldn’t deliver.”
* * *
Then an entire year passes.
And then one day in June, out of the blue, I get an email from The Moth with the subject heading: “Love for Sam Mullins from The Moth”.
One of their senior producers writes:
“I’m writing from Moth HQ to tell you how much I ADORE your tinfoil dinosaur story from the NYC moth FREEDOM slam in 2012. Finally getting around to going through the archives!
I’ve heard A LOT of slam stories but something about yours has especially tickled me!
Just wonderful and a great example of how our smallest kindnesses ripple through the world.
I am nominating it for The Moth Radio Hour”
A few months later, I receive confirmation that it’s going to air.
And now, this week of November 19th 2013, my story will be heard over the public radio airwaves in every major city in the US, and will be available to all on The Moth Podcast, Stitcher, PRX and themoth.org
So today, I’m a Moth storyteller.
And that means the world to me.