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Exclusive: Elna Baker, Author of The New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance, On Humiliation and the Art of Smart Storytelling

Remember back when we went to the Indie & Small Press Book Fair and saw the Moth story

tellers do their thing? Remember the giant fortune cookie-cum-vagina? We got the opportunity to talk with the brave bearer of that costume, Elna Baker, whose first book, The New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance, is due out next fall. Baker, who started out doing one-woman shows after stunning her NYU professor with her storytelling skills, has been participating in the Moth for the past three years; it has been a life-changing experience that led her to pitch a story to Elle and ultimately land the book deal. She’s told stories at the Moth Mainstage and on This American Life.

After the jump, check out Baker’s advice on everything from finding the right place to write, to what not to say when you’re on a date.

Flavorwire: When did you first start participating in the Moth?

Elna Baker: I was actually living here for years before I found out about the Moth. I was telling someone about the one-woman shows I do and about my stories and he said: “Oh, like the Moth?” I started going. Normally you have to participate in the StorySlams for about a year before you are considered for the main stage, but when Lewis Black backed out of a performance at the last minute, they asked if I would be interested in filling in.

FW: Can you tell us about your forthcoming book, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance?

EB: I wrote an article [in Elle] and got the opportunity to write a book. That was the first time I’d really written. I was telling someone the story about the vagina costume, and he asked if I’d been to the dance since. Every year I say I’m not going to go, and every year I end up there. This will be my 7th year. It feels like purgatory. I realized then that that my book should start there, so that was when I started writing it. I wrote it, it was me, but it was me 5 years earlier. I was chubby back then. I love her, but that’s not me. I love how she puts things. I wrote in her voice. In the book, a lot of the stories happen within that period of time.

FW: How do oral stories translate onto the page? Can you tell us a bit about your process as a writer?

EB: When I write it’s easy to lose myself in an authorial sounding voice. To prevent that I ask myself, “Would you tell this to someone?” If the answer is no, then I weed out the moments where I’m trying to sound smart and go back to just telling the story. I think back on when I told it. The audience laughs at a certain part, and when I’m writing I try to transfer that to the page. If I make a facial expression that’s funny, how do I portray that on the page? If I move my hand in a certain way, how do I write that?

When I’m stuck on a particular story I go back to an Allen Ginsberg line that has always helped: “Notice what you notice.” I close my eyes and try to remember all the things I noticed as it was happening. This opens up my memory and helps me bridge the gap between what’s in my head and what’s on the page.

FW: Is it scary telling such personal stories in front of strangers?

EB: I try not to get therapy personal. When you know someone is telling a story about pain that they haven’t worked through yet, the story suffers. Humiliation and pain are different. Humiliation works. If people can relate to it it works. What I love is telling the audience something about myself that I think no one would relate to, and discovering everyone does. The other day I told a story about being half-Mexican. I admitted that I don’t necessarily look or feel all that Mexican and the only time I’ve ever used it is when I applied to NYU… I applied as a Mexican, so that I could get a scholarship. Only instead of a scholarship the university offered me “Mexican Dorming.” I’d never heard of such a thing. Mexican Dorming? I told the crowd that I assumed they wanted to put me in a smaller room with more people so I felt more at home. After the show several people came up to me and told me stories about how they’ve selectively used their heritage to try and get ahead. It was great.

FW: Do you have anxieties about publishing such personal stories?

EB: It’s a curious profession. I hope to never be burnt by it. A mentor of mine said: You don’t want to give too much away. And you’ll know the difference. You’ll feel that. You’ll know when it’s private, when you’re actually exploiting yourself. And sometimes I wonder, “Am I exploiting myself?” When you feel that the audience might want something that’s too private, and you feel the urge to give it to them, hold your ground. You know that other opportunities will come.

FW: Have you ever had odd encounters with people that believed they knew you because they knew a personal story that you told?

EB: Nothing really strange. I’ll get emails that are so kind, about what something means to someone. I went out with someone who was familiar with my stories before they were familiar with me. They mentioned something that was from my Web site, a quote. They thought they were relating to me like they knew me, but those comments were published 3 years ago. I just thought: “You got me three years ago. I’m not stuck on the issue that I was stuck on three years ago.”

FW:What is your writing process like?

EB: My editor, Amy Hertz, says the best thing to do is, “Wake up, pee, and write.” So I’m on that kick right now. I also work in the Allen Room at the NY Public Library and I find having a space just for my work is extremely helpful. I got the opportunity to go to Yaddo and MacDowell, which are writing colonies. When I’m writing at my apartment I think: “Oh I should separate my whites and darks.” When you’re at MacDowell or Yaddo you’re removed from everything that can distract you. When there’s nothing else to do, you do your work. I don’t like solitude, but I was able to develop a relationship with that word while I was there.

I thought I would finish my book by the end of Macdowell. But after that experience I suddenly knew what I had to do to improve it. It’s like a black hole. You think: “Will this ever end?” And there are so many things that I get derailed by. I don’t want to be truly alone, so after MacDowell I came back to the city and didn’t tell anyone I was here. I was always at my apartment or at the library. If you don’t get your work done, you’re not happy.

FW: Do you ever embellish your stories? Can you tell when a story isn’t genuine?

EB: The first story I told had an ending that I tacked on that was funny. Catherine Burns, who curates the mainstage shows asked me if it really ended that way. I told her that I thought the true ending wasn’t interesting. And she said: “No, that’s the story.” The audience is smarter than you are. They know, they can tell. Don’t be coy. Don’t try to be smart. Tell the truth, tell the story.

Some of Baker’s stories are available here. Take a listen.

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