I bombed hard. In front of about 80 listeners I could feel my story fold, an uneasy cold creep upward from my feet, my pulse quicken, my eyes darting around the room looking for the one anchor in the audience I could vibe off of.
They’d come to be entertained, to laugh, to be confronted with new and borderline offensive things, and I failed. I’d slammed my head against the buildup, the most crucial part of the story, and hadn’t recovered. I’d already made some crucial goofs during the setup, giving away too much and faking a laugh at one point. There are no excuses for bombing a story but there are reasons. Mine was, as it turns out, a birthday party of about twenty that was, totally understandable, more concerned with their own than me. My mistake was to use this hard group as my first anchor, to bounce off them, to gauge my impact on a drunk, internally cohesive, and disinterested part of the audience.
The release, my crawling bloodied and defeated through a window in a psychiatric ward’s toilet, had nothing to stand on. A few pained groans, no laughter, no rapt attention. I’d failed. Bombed. Lost it.
I’ve bombed many times before. A few years ago my car broke down in Texas during a 113°F afternoon. Sweating and cursing I had to run miles, swap clothes on the fly (thank you, best woman ever, even though you lied to me and told me you were at home when you’d already raced my way), and arrived at the event only to spend sixty minutes blathering to an ever-decreasing group of yuppies drinking bubbly and chatting amongst themselves. That night I collapsed in my car, the heat and exhaustion finally taking its toll. I had an excuse then, I didn’t have one this time.
My early years as a storyteller and stand up speaker are barely beginning. I am no old hat, no experienced greybeard, no imposing silverback of the “person talks, you think or laugh or both” variety. I am the wet noodled newbie, the greenling, a mere seedling in the forest of amazing standup and storyteller personalities.
I am learning a lot and every day is a better one. I’ve bombed in Edinburgh, lost it in Las Vegas, and totally crashed in Munich. It happens. Failure isn’t the end. It also not as much a learning opportunity as those slicked back “success coaches” would have you believe. Failure teaches little about success. Failure teaches us how not to fail, a far, far, cry from being successful.
Success is best when it is controlled, managed, guided and analyzed, then sent off to be on its own. Failure is freefall, a frantic struggle for the kind of control success requires. I don’t dislike failure. In fact, I somewhat cherish the feeling that follows it, the adrenaline, the struggle to regain composure. But I prefer success. Don’t we all?
In storytelling failure means to miss the intended target. Success means being gripping, creating suspense, evoking emotions, and granting relief at the end. It means leaving your audience not just satisfied and wanting more but to also have handed them the tools to create this “more experience” themselves. A while back I did a small event in a town just outside Frankfurt, Hanau. Home of the mother of all storytellers, Amalie Hassenpflug. I finished the tale, my head stuck in a metal trashcan, my arms flailing wildly, as I spoke the final words: “No, there’s no happily ever after if you’re the guy remembered as trashcanhead.”
I packed up, left the stage, grabbed a cup of tea from the backstage sortiment, and walked past groups of people discussing the evening. Some debated if there really was no coming back from being “trashcanhead” and how one would have to PR such a thing. Others expressed their feelings about Liselotte, the story’s antagonist, and her failings and virtues. I felt completed then more than after many other stories.
Some of the all time great writers have inspired fandoms and fanfic, movements driven by the urge to keep the story alive and to advance it — sometimes into rather raunchy territory, consider “Ron and Harry’s Weekend Getaway,” the winner of last year’s Harry Potter Erotic Fanfic Price. Storytellers just the same, from Tolkien to Asimov, from Doctor Who to Gone With the Wind, a story is often only as good as the ripples it sends after the book is closed, the last sentence spoken, the last tone played, or the credits roll.
Failure is easy. Miss a beat on the setup and suffer the consequences throughout the story. Success, however, is more than flawless execution. Success to a storyteller is to be able to walk off stage and know that your words, like children finally ready to flee the nest, will take on a life of their own and become something new and exciting in the mind canvasses of all too willing new parents.
Or, in other words, and quite antithetically so, success is when I am forgotten but my story lives on. That might sounds overly dramatic and heart-string-y but it isn’t. I’ll have another gig, in a bar or club between here and elsewhere. I’ll see the faces, drink the laughter, and enjoy the attention — while it lasts. What happens when I get off stage isn’t mine to control, isn’t mine to claim, it belongs to the listeners and the story I just sent off to stand on its own two feet.