Courtesy of Anthony Clark
Missouri State Liars Contest
By Anthony Clark
Since the development of spoken language, people have had a variety of motivations for telling lies. Now, there is at least one more: to win prize money and o cial bragging rights.
Last year marked the beginning of a new tradition in the Show-Me State: the Missouri State Liars Contest, where ten finalists face off for a top prize of $250.
“We thought it was finally time for Missouri to have its own liars contest,” says Sarah Howard, a board member of MO-TELL, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the contest. “We view the contest as a way to get more people involved in the art of storytelling.”
MO-TELL is short for Missouri Storytelling, and that’s all the group is focused on. MO-TELL is not alone, though. Groups across the country, such as the national organization The Moth, host storytelling events and contests. Their mission is simple: to keep the oral tradition alive.
“It’s the oldest form of storytelling and, in many ways, the most personal,” says Sue Hinkel, another MO-TELL board member. “There’s nothing quite as impactful as a good story told well.”
For the 2015 Missouri State Liars Contest, MO-TELL issued a call through various media for entrants: The contest was open to any resident of the state, with one exception.
“We do not allow professional politicians into the liars contest,” Sue says. “We thought they would have an unfair advantage against our less experienced contestants.”
Sue, who teaches storytelling classes at St. Charles Community College, says that, though the rule is in place for comedic purposes, it would be enforced if any elected officials attempted to enter the contest. Aside from that, the rules are pretty relaxed.
“The contestants are allowed to tell any kind of story, as long as it is at least partially untrue,” says Joyce Slater, a MO-TELL board member and organizer of the annual Kansas City Storytelling Celebration.
The stories told range in topics, from less-than-perfect vacations to run-ins with neighbors and home repairs gone wrong. Joyce says contestants could use original material or material from the public domain.
“That’s what most of us storytellers do anyway,” Joyce says. “We tell old traditional tales, adding our own twists, or we talk about events that actually happened to us. Of course, when we do the latter, we sometimes stretch things a little—or a lot.”
Last year, Carol Watkins of St. Peters put her own spin on an old Ozarks tale. As a retired schoolteacher, Carol joined a storytelling group to hear other members telling stories fifteen years ago and has been involved ever since. She’s a natural.
“I come from a long line of liars,” Carol says. “My Uncle Homer was the best liar in our family. He was a sewing machine salesman. He told customers that his daughter paid her entire way through college by making dresses, skirts, blouses, and gowns for her sorority sisters on one of my uncle’s sewing machines. The only problem was that he and his wife never had any children, but he did sell hundreds of sewing machines.”
Michael Bennett, a financial analyst from St. Charles, honed his skills as a Boy Scout camp staffer who became known for telling ghost stories around the campfire. Since learning his craft, Michael has used storytelling as a family activity with his wife and daughter. All three joined a storytelling group together, but that’s not the only reason he entered the contest.
“I thought ‘Missouri Liars Contest Finalist’ would look fantastic on my LinkedIn profile,” Michael says. “After all, with twelve years experience working as a financial analyst for a mortgage bank, this would be like adding a CPA license to my resume.”
Last year, Ken Wolfe of Glendale took home the grand prize. As seventh grade English and language arts teacher at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood, he was a natural fit for the contest.
“Liars contests always call to my mind images of snake-oil salesmen and hucksters, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, brown derbies and bamboo canes,” Ken says.
Gearing up for the event, Ken wrote a tale called “Mice Aren’t Funny” especially for the contest. Although he’s proud of the story, he’ll readily admit that it’s a completely fabricated yarn.
“I wish I could tell you there was some deep, philosophical, or real heart-touching event that lent itself to this story, but it’s really just an over-the-top tall tale that came from my fevered brain,” Ken says.
Contestants range in age and experience. St. Louisan Jeff Miller is one of the more experienced storytellers. He teaches communication classes at St. Louis Community College’s Forest Park campus, and he had some prior experience with liars contests, including one in New Harmony, Indiana.
“It was and is small-town Americana at its best,” Jeff says. “Most years were sellouts.”
Jeff is overjoyed to see the birth of a liars contest for Missourians. Like many practitioners of the art, he sees storytelling as an important and sometimes forgotten part of American culture.
“Storytelling carries the culture,” Jeff says. “Much of our society, through so-called social media, has become self-involved, inner-directed, and ignorant or unaware of much of what gives life its richness and meaning. Storytellers and their audiences interact. Together, they examine the human condition in all its facets and—despite the many foibles, failures, and faux pas—discover the good and vital inner core of our human selves.”
As a public school teacher with much experience, champion liar Ken seconds Jeff’s sentiments.
“What’s really pertinent is the strength that storytelling lends to the listener’s ability to visualize,” Ken says
“Visualization strength is like a muscle. We exercise it; it grows. Generationally, we’ve been asking less and less of our minds as our visual entertainment has grown more sophisticated and ubiquitous. Thanks to the CGI effects in today’s movies, some of the young people I teach have a tough time coming up with images of their own when they’re reading a story. If I didn’t see the story as I read, I wouldn’t choose to read, either.”
Many individuals and a growing number of organizations share Ken’s enthusiasm for oral storytelling. In addition to the statewide organization MO-TELL, Missouri is home to three active storytelling clubs: the Gateway Storytellers in St. Louis, the River and Prairie Storyweavers in Kansas City, and Storytellers of the Ozarks in Springfield. All three are open to anyone and host workshops, performances, and other storytelling events.
A number of public libraries in the state have also gotten involved in promoting oral storytelling. Mid-Continent Public Library, the host of the first Missouri State Liars Contest, recently established a story center.
“Libraries have always been about sharing stories through material checkouts and story-times, but our new story center initiative allows us to not only help people experience stories but also help them create, develop, and finalize their own story—be it oral, written, or digital,” says Kimberly Howard, Mid-Continent Public Library’s community programming assistant manager. “We work with partners like MO-TELL to bring experts to showcase regional talent and encourage the next generation of storytellers.”
The Mid-Continent Public Library was honored to host the first Missouri State Liars Contest because it fit in perfectly with the story center’s mission. However, this year, the contest is moving to the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, fitting in with the Mid-Missouri library’s own storytelling initiatives.
No matter the change of location, the competition for the second annual contest will likely be fierce, and last year’s champion liar has some advice.
“Tell the story aloud and often to anyone who will listen,” Ken says. “Aloud is important because one’s mind will always lie. If I just rehearse in my head, I may believe that I know my story, but it’s likely I actually won’t. If I can’t say it aloud or write it by hand, then I don’t know it. To anyone is crucial because the feedback one gets from listeners can transform a just okay story into legend. If one can get up the gumption to tell aloud and often, honing the tale each time, success will follow. And I wouldn’t lie to you about something as serious as that.”
The Missouri State Liars Contest is open to Missouri residents and MO-TELL members of all ages. Prizes are as follows:
- $250 for the first place winner
- $100 for second place
- $50 for third place
Eligible entries include any story that’s not completely true. Entries may be original compositions or they may be based partially or wholly on folklore or other material from the public domain. Copyrighted stories are not allowed in the contest, unless the contest entrant is the copyright holder. Stories must be ten minutes or less. Stories must also be appropriate for an all-ages audience.
Stories will be judged based on three criteria:
- Originality of material
- Performance quality
- Overall entertainment value
How To Enter
To enter, complete the following two steps by midnight May 20, 2016:
- Fill out the contest registration form—available at mo-tell .org or by emailing email@example.com—and send it in with a $20 entry fee to Anthony Clark – MO Liars Contest Director P.O. Box 153, St. Charles, MO 63302.
- Record your story on video or audio and send the file or a link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ten finalists will be chosen to compete in a live event at Columbia Public Library in Columbia on Saturday July 16, 2016. The first, second, and third place winners will be chosen at the live event, which will be free and open to the public to attend.