Since 2011, Marc Moss has fostered the art of storytelling in Montana. From participating in an initial concept during a Missoula radio hour to heading a series of large-scale events across the state, Moss has encouraged participants to be a part of humankind’s centuries-old tradition of sharing stories with one another. He recently spoke with Montana Press about his work with “Tell Us Something,” a Montana-wide storytelling event based in Missoula.
Montana Press: Tell us something about “Tell Us Something.”
Marc Moss: We live in a celebrity-saturated culture where people know plenty about celebrities and influencers and know nothing about their next-door neighbor and Tell Us Something turns that paradigm on its head. It’s a story-telling event that we’ve been doing since 2011.
Earlier in that same year, Patrick Duganz was running a storytelling event called Missoula Moth. I told a story at Missoula Moth three out of the four times that they had the event and the way Patrick had it organized, and that’s a pretty loose term in this case; there was no vetting of the storytellers, there was no theme and there was no time limit. So, the event could stretch on for three or four hours. Sometimes it was amazing. I remember a story about a woman who killed a girl in an automobile accident; the girl ran out in front of her, and then the driver became best friends with the girl’s mother. It was pretty intense.
Montana Press: I’m sure. What were some of the other stories told?
Marc Moss: Well, there was one that sticks with me: ‘I went to Amsterdam. It was awesome, and I don’t have a real story line to tell you why it was awesome, but I’m going to tell you that it was awesome for 20 minutes.’
Montana Press: So it ran the gamut at this initial event.
Marc Moss: It did. So anyway, Patrick moves to Bozeman, the Missoula Art Museum wants him to do a Missoula Moth event and he says, ‘Well, Marc really seems to like this. Why don’t you call Marc?’ And at the time, I’d never organized anything on any mass scale or even led anybody in anything but I also knew that if I was going to put the work in, I wanted it to be long-lasting.
So, long story short, I changed the name and tightened it up to what it is today which is eight storytellers, each having 10 minutes to share their true personal stories from memory on a theme, and the themes are by design very broad. The storytellers are now paid a stipend and since its founding, Tell Us Something has netted hundreds of storytellers who have shared their stories with thousands of listeners. Those who’ve taken the stage have ranged in age from 13 to 90.
Montana Press: What’s your personal background and connection to Montana?
Marc Moss: I was raised in a little town right outside of Akron, Ohio. The name of the city was Cuyahoga Falls, about the size of Missoula. My father came home from the Vietnam War and became a cop. Before he went to Vietnam, he was a rubber worker and worked in the rubber shops in Akron building tires like BFGoodrich, Goodyear, and Firestone. When he came back, they didn’t want him so he became a cop.
I was raised by him and my mother. I went through Catholic school and graduated from Kent State University in 1995 with a BS in Education. I became an English language arts teacher and did that in Akron for a hot minute. I was teaching 'Fahrenheit 451' and the book was censored by the school board. So I thought, ‘You know, I really don’t want to do battle with the school board for the rest of my life’ and so I quit Akron and came out west in 1997. I was a park ranger in Yellowstone National Park for seven seasons.
Montana Press: Is that how you were introduced to the West?
Marc Moss: Yes. At the time, I’d never even been camping. I think my first backpacking trip, my pack weighed 80 pounds.
Montana Press: A common first-timer’s mistake.
Marc Moss: It was bad, bad news. I brought cans of food and no can opener. It was so ridiculous. I left Yellowstone in 2002 after 9/11 and moved to Bozeman for about a year and met a girl online, then came to Missoula to be with her. She left and went to Helena and I stuck around and met my wife. It took four years for her to say yes to going on a date with me, but she said yes finally and we got married in 2009.
Montana Press: We can see why you are running a story telling event.
Marc Moss: I’m just hitting the highlights really. None of this is a story, really, because it’s just linear - these are the things that happened to me. I haven’t made an emotional connection with my audience yet. I haven’t given you any sense of place or anything like that.
Montana Press: Well, let’s dig deeper. Aside from being a natural storyteller, what draws you to explore story telling?
Marc Moss: Well, my dad and I didn’t really get along. The only time we weren’t fighting with each other was when we would go for long drives in a wooded area which is now Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and listen to Garrison Keillor’s 'Prairie Home Companion.'
We would just listen. We weren’t talking. We weren’t fighting. There was nothing. There was just us and the darkness and the frogs outside the window of the car and there was a Blue Heron rookery where we would stop and watch the herons settle in for the evening. It was just really peaceful and the storytelling that Garrison Keillor was able to do could put you in a place pretty quick with just a couple of phrases. But I’d never experienced live storytelling until I moved to Missoula.
There was a live storytelling event at the Peace Farm, it was called 'Eat our Words,' and I think there were six storytellers at that event. All of them were known members of the community and they advertised who was going to be there. I don’t remember if there was a theme or not, but it was certainly really moving just to be out in the field on hay bales in this idyllic, beautiful Montana scene where the sun was setting, the clouds and the alpenglow setting the mountains on fire, just beautiful pink and blue and purple.
People are listening to each other share stories around a bonfire and one of the stories that was told involved Caroline Keys who was a member of, at the time, a bluegrass band called Broken Valley Road Show and they had toured the world and ended up in China and made some real connections with people, despite the language barrier, because of music.
One of the things that she said in her story was, ‘I can’t hear a song that I know the words to and not sing along but I hate John Denver’s music.’ So that becomes important when the goodbye scene in her story occurs and the Chinese people show up at her hotel room and knock on her door and sing, ‘...country roads, take me home...’ She’s telling this and then says, ‘You all know the words,’ to the crowd there at the Peace Farm. She starts to sing the song and then stops singing. The entire crowd starts to sing this song and she’s standing there with these tears of joy running down her face. I was like ‘WOW!. Story telling is awesome and it’s amazing!’
As far as the way that I’ve now crafted the events, we don’t announce who the storytellers are ahead of time because I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, so and so is going to be there? Awesome, I’m totally going,’ or ‘Oh, this person’s going to be there? I don’t like that guy. I’m not going.’
Montana Press: So there’s an element of surprise and wonder that starts with the selection of the participants of each event?
Marc Moss: Yes. The audience, they’re coming to listen to their community share stories. They don’t know who’s going to be there. They don’t know what they’re going to get. They come and they listen.
The first time I did it, it was at the Missoula Art Museum. There were 75 people there but we moved it after that to the Top Hat at the time Greta Garr ran the bar with her sister. Their dad had just died and they took over the bar and they were trying to get it out of the red.
I asked Greta, ‘What’s the slowest night? We’re going to fill your bar.’ And she said, ‘Tuesdays,’ and she didn’t believe me. So Tuesday evening came and 175 people showed up and listened to people share stories and it was dead quiet. Even the bartenders weren’t pouring drinks while the stories were being told.
Montana Press: So, what makes for a good story, one that will pause a busy bartender?
Marc Moss: People need to make an emotional connection with their listeners and they also need to have something to lose or gain. There needs to be some stakes. We meet the characters at the beginning and there is some incident that occurs that now we have a problem to solve, to get some thing or avoid something or whatever it is and then how do we resolve that problem? There’s a story arc where tension gets built and it’s built to a climax usually and then that sort of tapers off into some kind of resolution.
Montana Press: Can anyone tell a story?
Marc Moss: Absolutely. Everybody’s got a story to share. Everybody’s story is important. Everybody’s story matters. Some people are natural-born storytellers and they just know how to do it.
Right now, I’m working with some children at a summer camp and kids can be all over the place, right? There’s a young woman who wants to tell a story about seeing whale sharks, but she also wants to include all the stuff beforehand and all the stuff that happened after that and I’m trying to help her understand that you’ve got to distill it down to the essential parts of the story that are really important. Everything that happens, if it’s not related to the whale sharks, you want to get rid of it and she’s not ready to let go of that yet. And that’s really common even in adults.
I purposely share a story when I’m teaching kids that has elements that aren’t important to see if they can identify them without me saying, ‘This is not important at all.’ Yesterday was one of the first times that the kids picked up on that without me having to say, ‘Me going to the donut shop and buying donuts from the bakery is not key here.’
One girl was like ‘You didn’t even bring up the donuts again!’ Great! So now I call it the ‘Who cares about the donuts moment.’ If it doesn’t forward your story, you’ve got to get rid of it. William Faulkner once said if you spend two weeks writing a sentence and it’s the most beautiful sentence you’ve ever written but it doesn’t forward your story, you’d better get rid of it.
Montana Press: Can you talk a little more about picking the event themes?
Marc Moss: The way they are chosen, generally, is people walk up to me and say, ‘You know what would be a great theme?’ And I write it down. I have a spreadsheet and usually towards the end of the process, I look at all of the themes and pick 20 that resonate with me, and toss them out to vote, to the community via email and social media, and then the community picks the themes with the idea being that if they have selected them, they’re more likely to want to share stories and more likely to want to attend.
I’ll also notice other storytelling events around the country that have a good theme. I take my notebook out and write it down and put it in a spreadsheet and, like I said, towards the end of the year, I’ll go through and pick out some of the ones that resonate for me at the time and toss that out to the community and have them vote on social media and through surveys and emails. But when I’m going into a new city, I look back at successful events with themes that really resonated for folks.
We’ve been to Helena three times, once a year for the past three years and the theme that resonated for me over the years that produced a lot of great stories in Missoula was 'Getting Away With It' so I said, ‘Yep, we’re going to do that in Helena,’ especially since were at the Myrna Loy which used to be a jail.
I also look at what’s going on in the community that I’m headed to and see what seems like it would make sense to them too. We went to Butte last year in November and the theme was “Work.” Why wouldn’t it be?
Montana Press: Do you return to the same communities each year?
Marc Moss: We’re going back to Butte, I hope, next year. We’re definitely going back to Helena next year. I have great relationship with Logjam Productions and they are opening up a huge venue in Bozeman. I don’t think me taking on that venue right off the bat is a good idea but we’ll probably go to the Rialto in Bozeman next year, which is smaller.
Rolling into a new city you can’t expect 400 people to show up if they’ve never heard of you. But if I’m going to be in Bozeman, I might as well swing through Livingston and if I’m in Livingston, I might as well go to Gardiner. Seasonal employees need something to do besides drink at the Blue Goose.
Montana Press: Well, you know that first-hand. Tell us; who are some of your favorite storytellers and how do you find the storytellers to participate in the event?
Marc Moss: In the beginning, it was a lot of me cajoling and recruiting people and people who knew me and knew what I was trying to do were happy to help or suggest other potential storytellers to me.
I had a short list of people like Pat Williams who I knew was a storyteller and I wanted to get him. It took me a while to recruit him and figure out how to talk to him, but now we’re buddies and he gets what I’m doing. He appreciates what I’m doing.
There are people in the community, some of them are big names and I’m like, if I get a big name but nobody knows that they’re going to be there, that’s fun, you know? And often the storytellers don’t have reserved seating at all and they can sit wherever they want in the audience. It’s pretty fun to be an audience member and be interacting with people around you and all of a sudden one of those people walks up on stage and shares a story.
I put out the call for stories to some targeted organizations and also via my email list, which is 1,500-people strong and social media. People call the 'Pitch line' so I don’t have to do a ton of recruiting in Missoula anymore, which is great because it’s a lot of work. Like I said, we had eight slots and in Missoula, at least, usually 20 people or so call the pitch line to pitch.
Montana Press: What’s a typical pitch?
Marc Moss: What I ask for is people to call and leave the beginning, middle and end of their story. So if they know what the structure is at least at that level we can work it out beyond that. If somebody calls and says, ‘I’ll tell you a story about my trip to Amsterdam...’ I’m like, yeah - no.
Montana Press: That story about the trip to Amsterdam really stuck with you.
Marc Moss: It was funny too because years later, someone did call in with an Amsterdam story and I called her back and she did have a real structure and she did have a very specific incident that sort of defined that moment the entire trip. I was like, ‘You’re in.’ And she did a great job, but I got off the rails. That happens too in storytelling. It’s okay. You know when you’re on stage to say ‘Oh, I just went off the rails.’
Montana Press: Tell us more about the Pitch Line. How can readers pitch stories to you?
Marc Moss: It’s a Google Voice number. People call the Pitch Line and they say what their beginning, middle and end is and if they have extra time and want to add some details, they can. And the way Google Voice works it automatically records the phone number and it turns the voice mail into an MP3 file which I toss into a drop box folder that’s shared with my advisory board and we all listen to them and record yes or no on a spread sheet. So then I’ll go back through that spreadsheet and figure out - because sometimes, there are 15 yes votes and that’s not going to work - so then I have to make the hard choices and I’ll call everybody back and say, ‘You made it!’ or ‘Well, you’re an alternate’ or ‘You didn’t make the cut this time.’
Montana Press: ‘But thanks for sharing your story,’ right?
Marc Moss: Sure. It could be that we’ve heard a version of that story recently, already. It could be that someone else has a story that’s more timely.
Montana Press: Does Tell Us Something also have podcasts?
Marc Moss: Absolutely. In the early days, the podcast was one story per podcast and so they were about 10 minutes long, but there are sponsors to be thanked so I have to thank them all and that turned into seven or eight minutes of advertising essentially, and then 10 minutes of storytelling. Even I don’t want to listen to those podcasts, you know? So, the podcast has become less frequent and is now an hour long. Each podcast features four storytellers from one of the live events. Everybody who shares a story on the stage will be featured on the podcast unless they say they don’t want to be
Montana Press: Is the podcast just called 'Tell Us Something?'
Marc Moss: It is. It’s available on almost all of the major podcasting platforms.
Montana Press: You mentioned you were just at a youth camp. Do you also offer workshops?
Marc Moss: Yes. We have corporate workshops available. We have a non-profit rate for doing it and we do one-on-one workshops with folks and then we do group workshops if just you and your friends decide this would be something fun to do or a skill to learn. We do provide those workshops as well. We’re based out of Missoula. I would love to be able to go across the entire state, but I don’t want to be on the road 300 days out of the year either. For now, western Montana. Maybe out as far as Bozeman down to Yellowstone Park, but I don’t know how, without a bigger team, we could cover more ground.
Montana Press: So what are some of the upcoming events that readers can look forward to?
Marc Moss: The next live event is in Missoula on December 10 and that theme is 'Tipping Point.' We are currently taking pitches here.
Trying to travel, as you know, in the winter in Montana can be challenging. In fact, the show in Butte last year was in November and it was white knuckle all the way across the pass. It was snowing and I couldn’t see. So trying to schedule things across the state between November and March is pretty tough to do.
I haven’t nailed it down on paper yet with the Myrna Loy, but I’m hoping to be back in Helena in May. I have to talk to the Logjam Productions folks. I know right now they’re pretty busy with their first event at Ogren field. So I haven’t asked them any questions about the future right now.
Montana Press: Can you share a story that has particularly moved you?
Marc Moss: Some of the stories are really difficult to hear and really intense and some of them are just pure entertainment. If I had a whole evening of really heavy stories, no one would come. I learned that because I did that once. Not on purpose, I think there was one funny story and every other one was just a kick in the gut, but also great; great to hear and important to hear and important to tell.
I think storytelling, having your story heard and listening to each other builds empathy in a really subtle way without saying, 'Hey, come to this empathy building event.' That’s not what it’s being advertised as, but that’s what ends up happening and I feel like if you start to know your community on that intimate level, you can start to change yourself and your community and then eventually change the world.
It may seem overly dramatic to say that, but that’s one of the things that keeps me going. I really do believe that this sort of art form is essential in surviving some of the difficulties that we face.
One of the most compelling stories that I’ve heard recently at one of my events was in the theme of 'Stranger in a Strange Land.' A seven-foot tall black guy came to the stage and says, ‘Hey y’all, how’s it going? I’m from Florida. I’d bet you think I’m going to talk about my Montana experience as a black man. No, I’m not going to do that although that would be a good stranger in a strange land story. First, I’m going to ask you a question. Who went to the Trump rally when he was here in Missoula 2016?’
Nobody raised their hand. He said, ‘I did and I’m going to tell you that story. It’s a story about letting go of anger because you can’t be curious and angry at the same time and I want to find out what makes these people tick.’ And so his story is all about getting in line for the event.
We never even get into the rally. He has this conversation with some people wearing MAGA hats and he’s trying to understand who they are and why they’re there and what they’re doing and why they believe what they believe and he makes friends with them and they say at the end, ‘You know, we don’t wear our hats much because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that we’re going to get beat up by the liberals.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you get to take your hats off. I never get to change my appearance.’ And that was how the story ended.
Find out more about Tell Us Something by visiting their website at tellussomething.org. The Pitch Line noted above is open until November 4 for the December 10 event in Missoula on the theme “Tipping Point” and the number is (406) 203-4683.