Storytelling in New Form

by Molly Bilinski

When I’m writing a story, the words generally come from my fingertips. In my work as a journalist, each day they tap against the smudged and worn keys of my chunky, company-issued Dell laptop, writing stories. As a second-semester student in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing, I let my hands loose across my sleek Chromebook to analyze contemporary nonfiction and craft books while (somehow) also meeting the deadlines to turn in pages of what will be my first manuscript.

I’m not used to telling a story out loud without writing it down. And that sounds like a ridiculous statement because it is – we all tell stories to our friends, family, and even complete strangers every day. I do that. But I’d never done it, like, professionally. 

Like: a coherent story, into a microphone, in a conference room full of dozens of people (and not just any people – other real-life professional writers!!!), without notes, props, or music, in under five minutes. AND on a theme.

But, that was the scenario in mid-August at the Lancaster Story Slam: HippoCamp Edition. After attending the conference for the first time last year, I wanted so badly to participate in the annual slam. I wanted to practice the tradition of verbal storytelling performance in a safe, welcoming environment with other writers. 

I practiced my story by telling it out loud to myself and my luggage during the two-hour car ride, covering the 100 miles between my home in the Poconos to Lancaster, the home of Hippocampus Magazine’s annual nonfiction conference. After a long, exciting first day, I signed the waiver and a slip of paper bearing my name was dropped into a hat along with 13 others.

I sat near the front, off to the side and listened as attentively as I could while fighting down the anxiety building in my stomach. It was relatively easy as each storyteller took to the mic; their stories were well organized and delivered with emotion. It was between each that my nervousness peaked. 

But, each time a new name was called, it wasn’t me. Again, and again, and again. Suddenly, there were more names out of the hat than in it. I had to be soon, even next. My anxiety peaked. Then, finally, with one name left in the hat, the moderator said something like, “I bet this last person knows who they are already.”

It was my first story slam, and I was called dead last. 

I stood in front of the mic, and did that thing people do where they touch the microphone without actually moving it. I made a joke, a disclaimer to let people know how fresh I was to competing in a story slam. I took a deep breath and said the first line of my story; I had repeated it dozens if not hundreds of times since finding out the slam’s theme, Next Time, two days before. 

“I’ve never known my father to be healthy.”

It was my lead, my opener – a short, attention-grabbing truth I knew in my heart as clearly as in my brain. It was easy to speak it confidently, to have it amplify throughout the conference room. I paused and swept my eyes over the audience, then went into the second line, which led me to my third. About halfway through, I had missed something, but my brain somehow bridged it and I was able to get to my ending line. The kicker was crafted like the lead to make it easy to remember, and simple to drive home the point. 

The scores were tallied, and I somehow managed to impress the judges enough to merit third place. I was shocked but filled with pride in myself as a story writer and now a story teller, a speaker of truth gleaned from experience. 

My experience participating in the slam has proven to itself make a great story, I’ve learned. Maybe I can use it for my next performance, if it fits the theme.

 Visit HippoCampus Magazine’s blog to read Molly’s additional reflections and watch her third-place-winning performance. To watch the entire Lancaster Story Slam: HippoCamp Edition, go to this YouTube playlist.

Molly Bilinski is a student in Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing, focusing on nonfiction. She joined the team at Etruscan Press this semester as a graduate assistant. By day, she’s a staff writer with The Morning Call. She was the first place winner of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Assocation’s 2022 diversity portfolio category. When she’s not writing, she’s knitting, baking, or hanging out with her cats and husband. Find her on Twitter @MollyBilinski. 

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