Choices – Slam Cut


June 8, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Moth PosterAs I mentioned maybe a hundred thousand times in the last four weeks, I had a story slam performance last night in front of 600+ people.

The only quarrel I have with the above poster is that none of us were using words as weapons.

At a Moth slam, there are ten performers and three panels of judges. Because I won the monthly Twin Cities Slam once last year, for another story, I qualified for the Grand Slam championship, which meant telling at a larger, high-profile venue – Minnesota Public Radio’s Fitzgerald Theater (home of Prairie Home Companion) with nine other very talented performers – four of whom were friends from StorySlamMN and/or from Story Arts of Minnesota. One of those friends won; I made a couple new friends; no one told a bad story.

I was pleased with the version of the story I told – which benefitted a lot from the time and attention Jenifer Hixon, Senior Producer at the Moth, gave me (gave us all) – and proud to be among so many fine storytellers.  The theme “Fish Out of Water,” lent itself to many stories, but I don’t have a lot of time to work on new material these days, so I chose to pull a five-minute story out of a longer piece that I told at another event earlier in May. The revisions that followed that longer performance have absorbed a lot of my attention in the last two weeks.

There’s been a recent discussion on my friend Anne Goodwin’s blog about the pros and cons of writing fiction versus memoir.

My only comment so far (on Twitter, not on her blog) has been that the discussion is worth a post of its own.  I don’t know how soon I can free up enough thoughtful time to write such a post (maybe someone will get to it before me?), but I will at least note here that whether we write fiction or memoir, we are always crafting, and always making choices. The fifteen minute version of my  story and the five-minute version below are based on the same facts and experiences. Some of the language is the same. But thematically each has a different focus, a different emotional tone, and they are intended for very different audiences.

Trick question:  which one is more “true”?

George MacDonald, William Waddy, 'Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day,'  1873.

George MacDonald, William Waddy, ‘Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day,’ 1873.

In 1982, I was living with two men, and I needed a job.

One man was my husband, who decided that year that he wanted to go to seminary. The other was a badass dead Victorian by the name of George MacDonald. I was writing my doctoral dissertation on MacDonald – a 19th century Scots clergyman stripped of his holy orders for preaching that hell was not forever, and that animals would go to heaven. The MacDonalds had a lot of pets. His Calvinist congregation cut his salary in half, hoping he’d leave. When that didn’t work, they expelled him. MacDonald turned to writing novels and fairy tales to support his wife and eleven children. It’s true. You could support a wife and eleven children in the 19th century by writing novels and fairy tales.

George and Louisa MacDonald, eleven children, and a fianceé, 1876.

George and Louisa MacDonald, eleven children, and a fiancée, 1876.

Me, I was just hoping to teach.

In an academic job market that was saturated. Where ABD’s –which was what you were called when you were All But Dissertation – were a dime a dozen. So my prospects were pretty grim. Maybe a one year, adjunct position at some community college in a corn field, and then, if I was lucky, an adjunct position somewhere better, and in three to five years, if I published two articles a year and taught five courses a semester, maybe a tenure track position. Then for six years, rinse and repeat, and also turn my thesis into a book, and if no one on the committee saw my work as post-colonial, I might get tenure. If not, it was back to the corn field.

There's a community college in here somewhere... [Courtesy Flickr commons]

There’s a community college in here somewhere… [Courtesy Flickr commons]

At the end of that year, at the Modern Language Association Convention in Los Angeles, I scored a job interview with the man who had published the first modern biography of George MacDonald.

The job was at his school, an evangelical college outside of Chicago. Chicago was where my husband wanted to go to seminary. Episcopal seminary. We were not evangelical. The Episcopal Church was running an ad campaign at the time, with posters in airports that said things like “Jesus died to take away your sins. Not your mind.” I was attached to that concept.

Still, the school described itself as “intellectually rigorous.” It had a research collection devoted to MacDonald and to other writers of “Christian fantasy,” you might know better, like C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The sweetest part of all was that the job was not an adjunct position. It was a two-thirds time Assistant Professorship. You could finish a dissertation and put a spouse through seminary on a job like that.

Louisa Powell MacDonald

Louisa Powell MacDonald

At my interview, the MacDonald scholar kept calling MacDonald’s wife Louisa Lou-I-sa.

That couldn’t be right. No Scotsman would say Lou-I-sa. It was a petty thought, and I suppressed it. These people were passionate about what I was passionate about. Two weeks later, I had a phone interview with the department chair. It went remarkably well. They offered me the job.

Then the contract came, with the covenant I had to sign.

That’s when I learned just how evangelical I was not.

“WE BELIEVE that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing.”

“WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race.”

“WE BELIEVE in the everlasting punishment of the lost.”

Oh hell.

“MacDonald couldn’t sign this,” I said to his biographer, who seemed confused about what was bothering me. “It’s for the alumni,” the department chair said. “Really, you can think anything you like.”

And I did think. For a long time.

Finally, I wrote a three page, single spaced typewritten letter outlining the beliefs we had in common, and ignoring the ones we didn’t.

I may have actually used the words “ecumenical dialogue.” I mailed the letter. I threw up.

The next week, when the department chair called me back, she praised my integrity.

Then she suggested a compromise: an adjunct version of the same position, which did not require me to sign the covenant. Apparently my beliefs were less dangerous to the student body if I was hired at a third of the salary, without health insurance. The job lasted one semester. It seems integrity, compromise and job security don’t always mix.

But I already knew that. I learned it from a badass dead Victorian named George MacDonald.

MacDonald Writing, 1862.

MacDonald Writing, 1862.

9 thoughts on “Choices – Slam Cut

  1. lorilschafer says:

    What a fabulous story, Paula! Funny, though, if you had just gone along and signed the covenant, you wouldn’t have this amazing tale to tell! ;)


  2. Annecdotist says:

    Thanks for linking to my post, Paula, and would love to hear more of your thoughts when you have time.
    This is a great version of your personal story and I love that sentence: Apparently my beliefs were less dangerous to the student body if I was hired at a third of the salary, without health insurance.
    Horrible how it can be a choice between honouring your own beliefs and putting bread on the table.


  3. Congrats on getting to the Grand Slam Championship, Paula, and it sounds like you had a great time. And, as always, there’s more than one layer to your stories.
    I like your comment that we’re always crafting, and always making choices. Re: choices – yes, straightforward dealing is the best – but not the easiest or quickest – road to success (success in this case meant staying true to yourself).


  4. Thanks, Teagan! I think most stories are multilayered; when you tell them in front of a live audience, and you’re interacting with them directly, that becomes very clear.


  5. Diane says:

    Congratulations on your performance the other night (in front of 600+ people – gulp!). After reading your story, I can see why it was included in the event – well done! Having now read both (this 5 minute version and following the link that took me to the 15 minute version), I agree with your comment “thematically each has a different focus, a different emotional tone, and they are intended for very different audiences.” Seeing how you pared down the longer version was a learning experience for me. Thank you for sharing both.


  6. And thank you for commenting on both versions. Actually, I qualified by telling an entirely different story, which I think you’ve already read: I wasn’t at all sure this would resonate with anyone, but I had a lot of help making it more accessible from Jenifer Hixson at The Moth. There were the usual egghead jokes, but people still seemed to like it – on a 1 to 10 scale, all my scores were in the nines.


  7. […] because he wanted to talk too much about the effect of the German Higher Critics on his faith, an issue I can relate to) had worked his way through law school digging the Washington Avenue sewer. At the Young […]


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