Yesterday night, I fulfilled my goal of going up onstage at a Moth live storytelling event to tell a story.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Moth, it’s originally from New York 20 years ago but it’s now a huge global organization devoted to storytelling. The Moth’s weekly podcast is great (I’ve been listening for two years), but at its core are Moth StorySLAM nights, where people gather in a theater space and can drop their name into a hat for a chance to tell a 5-minute no-note story in front of a live audience.
For those of you unfamiliar with me, I’m super bad with crowds, thanks to my general demeanor and my (formerly crippling) stage fright. The thought that I would pay to voluntarily go on stage for freestyle public speaking?! Insanity. Appropriately, the theme of the night was “Control,” so I adopted my “my hands shake” tale about stage fright. My notes are pasted below.
I had a reasonable idea of how to write a story: start strong, establish stakes, resolve conflict, connect ideas smoothly, insert frequent chances to laugh. Rehearse a lot. But ughhh, it’s been a very trying week. I didn’t run my draft by anyone or even practice out loud… I was extra apprehensive by the time I got to the venue in Brooklyn.
The tension of wondering if I’d be one of the ten storytellers called up, then getting called up ninth. The spotlight shining in my face, blinding me entirely. Letting the exhilaration carry me. Finding the inflections and gesticulations I don’t really know how to activate on my own volition. Hearing the crowd of 250+ respond with ‘lol’s or ‘awww’s or ‘whaaa’s as I planned. Forgetting my outline. Realizing some lines are jokes when I didn’t mean them to. Reading the crowd, adding pauses and sentences when it felt right.
I’ve played plenty of orchestra concerts and music recitals, but telling a story is so radically different. I have so much to work on: planning story outlines and embedding them in my head; anticipating timing and writing one-liners; balancing detailing and summarizing or tension and resolution. It was utterly terrifying, but so worth it.
8.4 + 8.4 + 7.6 = 24.4/30, not bad! Though I wasn’t aiming to win anyway. People approached me afterwards to say they liked my story, but I was pretty dazed so I just said a simple thanks in return. I think the proper protocol would actually be to engage them in conversation, but I’ve gotta work on that too.
Thanks, The Moth.
Control — My Hands Shake
5-minute no-note live storytelling. Performed 11/2/17 10:15 pm in the Bell House, Brooklyn. Annotated retrospectively 11:45 pm.
My hands shake. Check it out. <pause and show>
Okay, I know it doesn’t look like much, but for an aspiring surgeon…? yeah…
This is not some far-away pipe dream, the way. Like, I’m finishing med school right now.
I’ve gotta say, shaky hands kind of inconvenient. Like in my second week in the hospital, when I’m working on the labor and delivery floor, they ask me to draw blood from a patient for my first time ever.
When I walk in the room, introduce myself. I say “Hi, I’m a med student, here to draw some blood. She looks pretty nice, also she seems pretty happy having just delivered a baby, and maybe also a little drugged up. She’s says “okay!” <offer arm> and offers her arm.
I get set up, put on the tourniquet and everything, but when I’m coming in with the needle and my hand starts shaking like crazy. It’s way too much when you’re aiming for a tiny vein. At the last moment, she yanks her hand away and gives me this long, withering look, and says “are you sure you can do this?”
I say, “of course, I’ve done it before!” I’m half lying, because I’ve done it before, but… on dogs.
See, my dad’s a veterinary surgeon, which means I grew up watching him spay and neuter cats like a one-man castrating machine. It was pretty awesome, and it’s what got me interested in surgery.
My dad is also an Asian immigrant, which means — guess what — I started piano and violin lessons when I was four years old. That’s when I found out my hands shake. No, it does not make me suddenly good at vibrato <demonstrate> or tremolo <demonstrate> or trills <demonstrate>. No, it just makes it really hard to play right notes in tune… which as you know is a big deal in music.
It’s okay though, I still get to play background music gigs these days.
My med school classmates don’t believe me when I tell them I have an essential tremor — that’s the medical term for what I have. They’re like “but you seem so dexterous! What about your music?” — um, I practice? — “Also, what about your Rubik’s Cube thing?!” — um, also practice?
See, I have this very conspicuous hobby where I solve a Rubik’s Cube with one hand in 17 seconds. I know that sounds ridiculous, but seriously. I brought a cube, I can show you later.
(Forgot planned transition, jumped ahead to this)
Anyway, where was I? Right, back to med school! I actually did her blood on the first try.
But when I started surgery a few months later, that was my real test. The thing about surgeons is that they’re not very nice. They’re like all impatient control freaks. That’s why they become surgeons, so they can be all-powerful control freaks in the OR.
When I started suturing in the ORs, I got all sorts of comments, like
“Calm down, there’s no need to be nervous.” — I’m trying! —
Or: “well someone’s had too much coffee.” — um I don’t drink coffee, my hands shake already
Or: “dude, you okay? You look like you’re having a seizure!” — dude you’re a doctor. This is obviously not a seizure.
Or there was this one time I was closing a small laparoscopic port and the surgeon just says “get out. Get out, of the OR right now. If you’re not confident and prepared, GET. OUT.”
(remembered this section, which was actually supposed to come first)
I spent 20 years trying to learn to control my hands, but it was never quite enough. The thing about shaky hands is that in surgery it’s a fatal character flaw.
I say again: a fatal character flaw.
Fatal for obvious reasons: If I slip up in surgery, people die.
I say character flaw, not physical flaw, because no one ever sees shaky hands and thinks “oh yeah, essential tremor, whatevs.” They see shaky hands and judge you as a person, and they judge you hard.
I spent 20 years trying to control my hands so that I could do surgery, but I failed. I gave up surgery, I’m going into radiology instead. It’s probably for the better, because I don’t want to accidentally murder lots of patients in the future.
But things turned out okay. By learning to control my hands, I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool things. Like I’ve played in Carnegie Hall — which is super scary, by the way. I’ve helped organize national Rubik’s Cube competitions, which is tons of fun. And even though I wanted to be a surgeon, I’m still going to be a doctor, and that doesn’t seem so bad.
Okay, that’s it. Thanks!