Rebecca Nesson crafted an oral story for the Moth on her marital crisis.

Rebecca Nesson crafted an oral story for the Moth on her marital crisis.

Three years ago, Rebecca Nesson thought her marriage was falling apart. During a bitter argument with her husband, she told him—in an angry whisper, because the walls were thin and she didn’t want the neighbors to hear—that she wanted to leave him.

The next morning, she found out she was pregnant. The news was such a shock that, for a moment, she caught herself wishing for a miscarriage.

It took months for Nesson, who works as a computer programmer specializing in higher education, to accept and then embrace her new normal. “It was one of the most intense things that I had experienced in my life,” she said.

But she eventually talked eloquently about the experience at The Moth, a storytelling organization that hosts live events and a radio show. She spoke with a low-key, almost deadpan tone, and during the story she recounted something she’d said in a coffee shop that captured the lunacy and discomfort of the experience: “I’m really sorry, but I think I just had a miscarriage in your bathroom.”

During Nesson’s most recent performance, at Boston University’s Power of Narrative conference, her husband, Wayne, and two kids showed their support by attending. She spoke with Nieman Storyboard about the process of adapting a personal ordeal into a public performance.

From the first sentence, the story is pretty bleak. You say you’re feeling fat after giving birth to your first child, and you’re making zero progress on your dissertation. How did you decide to start out with so much of that heaviness?

I don’t think that I ever thought about starting it in any place other than where I started it. It just always seemed to me that this was the story of crawling up from that lowest point.

For me, confessing things is something that I find fairly cathartic. I could have just let it go away. But I really don’t like to do something wrong without going through some kind of apology.

Did you draft the story? Did it evolve over time?

Yeah. Usually, I spend a lot of time in my head thinking about the story, and trying to get the arc of it. Then I write the entire thing, just sort of following the outline that I have in my head. And then I try working with the written text to tell it.

Then I edit it, and rewrite it until it’s fairly close to what it should be. Mostly, it’s taking out stuff that doesn’t need to be there. For example, in an earlier version of the story, in the beginning, I basically go through two sets of bad stuff. In the most recent version, I got rid of one of those sets. There was no reason for me not to just take out that repetition.

Before I perform the story, I usually tell it a few more times, and extract out for myself the key moments or phrases that I need in order to remember where I’m going next. I get rid of the text, because I don’t want to be telling something that I’ve memorized.

“I’m really sorry, but I think I just had a miscarriage in your bathroom.”

It takes about eight minutes before the story starts to feel hopeful—and the whole story is only nine minutes long. How do you keep the audience from feeling total despair?

Huh. To the extent that I’ve thought about it, there’s action happening in the story throughout those first eight minutes. I never let anybody sit in stasis.

Each situation is darker than the previous one—but they’re each a situation where I’m reacting to significant new information. That’s probably why people hang with me for eight minutes of the story. There’s a lot that happens.

Did it feel cathartic, like you expected it to?

Yes. It’s like the time when you’re most alive. Telling the story of it, in that completely immersed way—it’s like reliving it. I like aliveness, whether it’s miserable or whether it’s ecstatic.

And it’s always awesome to see that the story is actually meaningful to other people. Each time I’ve told it, there are people there who feel a little bit freed by hearing somebody else share something like that. A lot of people have experienced a miscarriage or near-miscarriage. And talking about relationship issues publicly—it’s highly relatable to people, but something that people rarely do.

Is there something about live performance—as opposed to, say, writing—that makes it more cathartic?

I think it would have to be very different if I wrote it, and I don’t feel at all confident that I could do a good job. One of the things that I find intimidating about writing is that you have no opportunity for back and forth with your audience. I’m a very critical reader.

I experience live storytelling as a really brave thing that people do, when they get up there and they share something so personal. When you’re in the audience, it’s a very friendly, supportive environment where people respect the risks that the storytellers are taking.

Did this story teach you anything about storytelling?

When I first put the story together, I felt like it had to be completely told from my perspective—which really was not a generous frame of mind. When Wayne listened to the story for the first time, he didn’t like how he came out. Hearing that helped me re-evaluate. Over time, it felt like it’s not just my story I’m sharing, it’s mine and his. In the most recent version, he came out more human.

I learned from this one that I don’t have to force it to be more story-like—like by making Wayne more evil than he really was—in order for it to work. It can just work, just really being true to what I remember happening.

Truth can be just as eloquent as fiction.

Yeah. I wouldn’t say that there was ever any part of this story that was fictionalized, but I emphasized things in a way that was less real in the early versions.

Also, telling this story—and having this one be publicly available at The Moth’s website—has really pushed me to try to tell lighthearted stories. To the extent that I’ll be known for this, I’ll be known for this super dark story.

So that’s been an interesting challenge for me. Two challenges: to figure out how to tell stories about small things, like not life-changing events. And to tell stories that don’t have huge gravity. They both require more craft than telling a really serious, really big story, like this one.

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