Sharing With Strangers

Odyssey Storytelling continues to connect Southern Arizonans through personal tales

We tell ourselves stories in order to live," declared Joan Didion in the first line of her 1979 book, The White Album.

There's a group in town whose members might wholeheartedly agree with Didion.

Odyssey Storytelling set up shop in the Old Pueblo in 2004, and to hear those who have participated in the venture describe it, it has established itself as a powerful event.

Every month, regular folks congregate to tell personal stories to other folks who are happy to listen. In this simple act, something profound happens: They connect. In ways serious and humorous, and in a manner that would never happen in the normal course of their lives, people intersect in often deeply vulnerable ways.

Penelope Starr is the founder and director—a volunteer position, she adds—of Odyssey Storytelling.

"I was visiting my sister-in-law in San Francisco, and she took me to something called Porchlight, where people got up and told personal stories—not read or memorized, but they had obviously thought about and planned what they were going to say," Starr remembers. "I was amazed at how the experience made me feel. And I thought: This is something people need to do."

When she got back to Tucson, she started a similar event here. Starr says the idea caught on right away.

On the first Thursday of each month, the group congregates, and an audience—the average count is about 75—lends attention to six storytellers who have been chosen to share a true tale relating to a specific theme. June's theme is "It's All Relative," and stories about family will be the focus. Participants have 10 minutes—there is a timekeeper—to offer up their story to what is almost always a receptive and respectful roomful, which may include some familiar faces, but is often a group of complete strangers.

While the storyteller may be the focus, it's often the audience that reaps the rewards of the storyteller's courage.

"The audience gets a lot out of this, and they give the storytellers a lot," Starr says. "They hear from people they wouldn't ordinarily meet in their own lives. Connections are made, which build a network which extends far beyond just the folks involved in any given evening. People are exposed to different cultures and ideas and experiences. And these connections help dispel prejudice and reveal common threads."

It sounds like such a simple thing, and it was just that quality that attracted Adam Hostetter.

"I love the simplicity of it. We all have stories," he explains. "Participants are not trained performers; they are just people who tell stories from their heart."

Hostetter, who discovered the group in 2008 and has since become assistant producer, says, "I think too many people today don't feel listened to. We provide a venue where folks can talk, and others will listen."

Though the idea may be simple, participants agree the payoff is far from ordinary.

Edna Meza Aguirre has been a participant on two occasions. In May, the theme was "Shoulda Been Dead: Stories From the Edge," and she offered a look into a family crisis involving the birth of her niece.

"I had been a volunteer in the neonatal unit at (University Medical Center) for eight months when my niece was born," she says. "Totally unexpectedly, she was born with a serious heart condition which required open-heart surgery when she was three days old. The family was in limbo for days, waiting to see if she would survive the surgery.

"I had never spoken about this before in such a public way. But I wanted to tell the story, because I think most people think, 'Oh, you expect a baby, and you deliver it, and then mother and child go home happily together.' I wanted people to realize that it's not always like that. And there was such a sense of immediate connection. It was so incredible for me to experience that level of vulnerability. People offered such kindness and benevolence just by listening."

Bridgitte Thum is another fan of Odyssey Storytelling. She got involved in a roundabout way, through trying stand-up comedy.

In an e-mail message, Thum says she had just been divorced, and "it was time to start being self-reliant. So, I decided to try stand-up at Laffs Comedy Caffe. ... I remembered the slogan, 'Laffs Comedy Caffe, cheaper than therapy.'"

So she tried it and liked it.

"The first time I did Odyssey, it was for a July show, 'I Quit: Moving On.' The show was exactly one year after my divorce, so it just felt right. I needed to share that story with a bunch of strangers, and a few friends. The most intense part is deciding: ... What is the point of your story? It reveals a lot about who you are—you get an outsider's sense of yourself that way. It is an emotional release, into a dark room full of ears. They are not guaranteed not to judge you. It feels risky. It's a rush, and you are only supposed to be yourself. That is what got me hooked."

Starr says the group recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and she is excited about a scheduled "story slam" taking place later in June in conjunction with Ocotillo Poetry Slam.

"Ten people will be selected from those who have submitted ideas that day, and they will have five minutes to tell their stories," Starr explains. "It's a competition, and the audience will choose the winner."

Hostetter, who is always on the lookout for storytellers, encourages everyone to consider sharing part of themselves in this way. "Anyone can do this."

Aguirre agrees. "Come. Listen. Become a storyteller. Share a piece of your truth."