Story for Life

Odyssey Storytelling connects real voices and hearts

"Daddy, tell me a story." "Mommy, read me a story." Stories are integral to our lives from, essentially, their beginning. And, oh, didn't we love it when Mommy or Daddy created a story in which we were the main character?

Stories are a way of distilling experience in order to make some sense of it. Stories need to be told.

Odyssey Storytelling is a local organization that exists to enable us both to tell our stories and listen to those of others. Founded by Penelope Starr in 2004, after being "amazed at how it made me feel" when she attended a similar organization's event in San Francisco, it has become a part of what is happening throughout the country. That would be, "community storytelling," according to Starr.

"Telling stories is something people need to do," says Starr, whose book The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events is being launched this summer. "It's a grassroots thing. It's a small but radical act. It's radical in the sense that it puts folks in contact with others that they would never have contact with otherwise." It unearths common ground.

It's also radical, Starr says, because these connections result in a unique kind of communication.

So this is the drill for Odyssey. There are some volunteer leaders who brainstorm about topics around which stories can be sparked and organized. There's a different theme for each month. Folks can submit their story ideas, and seven or so are selected to participate in that month's gathering. Odyssey's events are held on the first Thursday of each month at the Screening Room downtown. Each participant has ten minutes, and time is tracked.

Now, these folks are not professional storytellers. They are just plain ol' folks who, after hearing about a given month's topic, had a recollection sparked and were moved to share their personal story. Participants are selected based on how they fit with the topic—or, perhaps, how their story gives a twist to the topic. Although these folks have an outline or an idea of how they will present their story, there is no memorization, no reading—so there is nothing in the way of making eye-to-eye contact with those who have gathered to listen. Audiences, who really want everyone to do well, usually number 110 plus.

Each evening's event is "curated" by an individual familiar with the process, and conducts one evening of "rehearsal" when the participants share their stories with each other. This allows them to get a sense of how they might be received or if something they're saying isn't clear—just general guidance and feedback. That's an evening that usually galvanizes their association as it becomes clear that they are not alone in their vulnerable endeavor.

The curator of February's show is Molly McCloy, whose commitment to the importance of storytelling led her to get an MFA in non-fiction writing from the New School in New York.

"I realized I was reading more and more non-fiction, that I was more intrigued by writers who told their own stories." She cites her attraction to books like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and those of David Sedaris. She says that many feel the "memoir boom" is rooted in the popularity and growth of television talk shows of the 1990's, especially Phil Donahue and his focus on ordinary people and their issues, not the rich and famous. "These were stories not being told," McCloy says, and people were eager to hear them.

In New York, McCloy was active with The Moth, a well-known organization devoted to the art of storytelling. But she thinks the way Odyssey operates is much more egalitarian. "With the Moth you always had aspiring writers or aspiring comedians or aspiring actors. Here, there are folks who simply want to share their stories, and folks of all kinds are able to do that." It's not perceived as an audition or stepping-stone to something else. "It's a way for people to stop scrolling their cell phones and put down the iPad and have someone talk to you about their life. And you become engaged with them."

The title of the show is "Mission," which McCloy says is intentionally ambiguous, allowing for a variety of takes on the subject. "But I was particularly interested in finding folks for whom a mission is something literal." She has rounded up a missionary sent to Sudan; an U.S. Air Force serviceman who was in Afghanistan; a female firefighter; even someone who has been involved in the restoration of the San Xavier del Bac mission. There are also some stories about the "taking aim and setting goals" kind of mission, she says, adding that that the connections that happen between the storytellers and audience are quite powerful.

Starr says the connections that happen between the storytellers and audience are quite powerful. "They can help dispel prejudice; they can heal; they foster creativity; and they give everyone involved an opportunity to learn and grow." She says her book is part memoir and part "how-to," offering instructions and guidelines to others trying to get such a storytelling group started.

Although the book won't be officially released until the summer, there will be copies available for a book-signing and fundraising celebration at the YWCA, March 24. Earlier that month, March 3-5, McCloy, who teaches writing at the northwest campus of Pima Community College, will conduct a weekend storytelling workshop, open to all through PCC, and it can be taken for credit.

McCloy says that through Odyssey Storytelling she, and others, find a genuine sense of community. "These are my people."

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