By Penelope Starr
Once a week I meet up with four friends and we walk a mile along a dry-river path to a coffee shop where we sip beverages, eat bagels and gab. Our ages range from late fifties to early eighties—we have more than three hundred years of combined life stories to share.
Last week we sat at an outdoor table overlooking a parking lot next to a middle aged man in a baseball cap who was reading while he sipped his coffee. I was facing him and noticed he was staring off into space rather than burying his nose in his book. It seemed like he was deliberately trying to look like he was lost in reverie but I knew he was straining to hear our conversation.
Our usual lively exchange ranged from the latest political scandal to vaginal plastic surgery. We told each other about having a difficult mother in assisted living and an ill child. We shared snippets from our outrageous pasts. With each intimate revelation, I glanced at the listener to confirm he was, indeed, following our stories. When he got up to leave we waved and said goodbye but he didn’t respond or acknowledge his eavesdropping. We all agreed that he had gotten an earful and an education.
Our walk-talks have cemented already strong friendships into something more akin to a community. We share our truths in a safe space, listening to each other with wonder and respect.
It reminds me of a community storytelling event. Everyone has a voice and feels heard. There is no censorship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our opinions. Our bond is the agreement to listen to each others stories.
This is what I’ve learned in the thirteen years since I created Odyssey Storytelling, a monthly community storytelling event in Tucson, Arizona. My original intention was to create an entertaining event by inviting local people to share their interesting and edifying stories with an audience. I have always loved listening to stories and I assumed that everyone else did too.
But I didn’t know how much more there was to community storytelling. Month after month I watched people gain confidence in their newly learned storytelling skills as they shared intimate details from their lives. I heard stories that bridged cultural divides. I was witness to prejudices softening and connections being made. I sensed profound and deep healing from tellers and listeners. I reveled in the pure democracy of uncensored voices. I experienced radical acceptance and deep empowerment.
My journey from story listener to story producer is a do-it-yourself tale. Enthusiasm carried me when experience was lacking. My strategy was to figure it out along the way. It worked for me but not until I suffered a few disasters and learned lessons the hard way.
I didn’t have a clear roadmap to follow so I decided to write a book to help others navigate this path. The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events chronicles my journey, offering tips for success and pitfalls to avoid. But most of all, the book is about the stories I heard over the last dozen plus years that connected me to the amazing community of tellers and listeners.
Just like my walking group, community storytelling creates connections one story at a time.
Nothing in Penelope Starr’s background prepared her for her thirteen year adventure in community storytelling. Penelope taught herself how to produce a storytelling event, coach tellers, wrangle venues, make websites and market Odyssey Storytelling. Now, at seventy-one, she taught herself how to write a book about it. Look for The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events, published by Parkhurst Brothers in 2017. Her next adventure is consulting with groups who want to start their own community storytelling.
You can find her on Facebook and at www.Penelopestarr.com.