An Interview with Micaela Blei, Award-Winning Storyteller and Educator

The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) is pleased to bring Micaela Blei, PhD, two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner and former Moth director of education, to ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 this August in Austin, Texas at the JW Marriott. Blei will be teaching a FREE two-hour  “Storytelling Workshop” on Saturday, August 3 (1:00 PM – 3:00 PM) and hosting a storytelling event, “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” on Sunday, August 4 (8:00 PM – 10:00 PM). Pitch Your Story by June 27 for a chance to participate in the event. If selected, you’ll receive guidance from Blei to help whip your story into top shape.

In this interview conducted by Chris Burns of the University of Vermont and past chair of COPA, Blei discusses how she got into storytelling, her time working at Yale’s Beinecke Library, storytelling education, what we can expect from her as the host of “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” and how archivists can apply storytelling to their own work.

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Micaela Blei has years of experience working with individuals, organizations, and communities to shape and share the important stories of their lives. Her acclaimed workshops are invitations to reflection, spaces for discovery, and—most of all—a lot of fun. Her own stories have been called “heartbreaking and hilarious.” She’s appeared on The Moth Radio Hour and live on sold-out storytelling stages nationwide. In 2016, Micaela wrote the storytelling curriculum now used by more than 1,500 educators around the world. Some of you may also know her from her keynote address at RBMS in 2017.

Burns: How did you get into storytelling?

Blei: I found storytelling in 2011, when I left teaching to go to graduate school in education, and could finally stay up late enough on weeknights to go to shows. I found myself at a storytelling show in Brooklyn, and I loved the feeling in the room, loved the kind of community it created—I got up there and it just felt really right! I started going all the time, began teaching it, and ultimately I changed my doctoral research to be about storytelling and identity.

Burns: You actually have some firsthand knowledge of archival work. Can you tell us a bit about your time as a student employee at the Beinecke Library at Yale?

Blei: I often say it’s the best job I ever had (it’s a tie between that and scouting real estate in the Caribbean, which is a whole other story). It was my work-study, to help out Pat Willis (then the Curator of American Lit at the Beinecke) with her correspondence and filing. But we got along so well, and I got really passionate about what she was doing, so slowly I got to do more and more curatorial things. Pat let me be in charge of exhibits—small ones at first—and it was my first experience with really going on an independent intellectual/research journey. I’m so grateful to her for that!

Burns: Your experience educating aspiring storytellers is pretty impressive and includes creating The Moth‘s educational program. What’s a favorite moment of yours from a past storytelling workshop?

Blei: I think my favorite moments are when storytellers are finding out new things about each other through their stories, even if they already knew each other. One of my favorite moments was in a high school workshop: two boys had signed up together and they were best friends. They cracked each other up all the time, and then one of them shared a story with the group about how it felt when his dad passed away the previous year. When it was time to give “feedback” and responses, the teller’s best friend said: “I had no idea, man. You seemed so together that year. I’m so glad I know what you went through.” It reminded me that sometimes, weirdly, it’s easier to share vulnerability with a group than a trusted friend.

Burns: You will be hosting SAA’s storytelling event this August during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin. How do you think about making the night work for both the storytellers and audience? Will there be any surprises? Big musical numbers? Pyrotechnics?

Blei: No big musical numbers planned, unless there is a big demand, in which case I’ll pack costumes . . .

I think a lot about the kindness of a storytelling audience: this isn’t about impressing each other, it’s about connecting with each other. It takes the pressure off. On the audience side, it’s this chance to step into someone else’s experience and realize—that’s happened to me too! Or I never realized that’s what that’s like!

As host, I will also be trying out my absolute best archive jokes from my Beinecke days.

Burns: What are the odds that you might share a story?

Blei: Quite high! I’ll tell a little something at the beginning of the evening, to help set the mood . . . and in my workshop on August 3, which I am so excited for, I’ll probably start us off with a story.

Burns: Why do you think archivists should consider learning more about storytelling as it relates to their work?

Blei: I think learning more about storytelling can help introduce some new tools, but more importantly, remind you that you already have powerful tools that you can use with new intention. We tell stories all the time! Realizing that this is something we are already good at—and can apply it with an awareness—can be so effective in archives work.

I also think that this workshop will help re-frame what “having confidence in public speaking” means. It’s a little bit of a different approach and so many people have found it really helpful.

Burns: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your work as a storyteller and educator?

Blei: Not at the moment! If you want more, apply to be in the show, or come to my storytelling workshop, or “A Finding Aid to My Soul”!

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