What's Your Story?

Participants have 10 minutes to share a part of their lives during monthly storyteller gatherings

One of the most interesting things our desert burg offers its parched but passionate denizens is a chance to tell each other our stories. Not just friend telling friend what happened last night at the ballgame, or great-grandma Butz regaling her favorite grandkid with stories about the good old days.

There's a different kind of tale-telling nurtured here by a group called Odyssey Storytelling. On the first Thursday of each month, six folks—not actors, not writers, not particularly anything except people willing to share a bit of themselves—gather with those who come to listen. For 10 minutes, each person takes the microphone and tells a personal story that relates to the theme of that month's program, which for August is Happy Campers: The Great Outdoors. Nothing fancy, nothing written, nothing memorized—just a story yearning to be told by a person who wants to share it.

According to those who help make these moments happen (and who may have told a couple of stories themselves), something miraculous happens. Connections are made. Not the virtual kind via Facebook or LinkedIn. Not in some mysterious ether termed "the cloud." But right in the here and now, while folks occupy the same space, breathe the same air. The moment is made tangible in this quietly courageous way, and the result is a unique communion of strangers.

Adam Hostetter is assistant producer for the group, a volunteer position he has held for four years. He's seen it all—or you'd think he had. Yet each evening of collected stories is original. "Some folks think they are too shy or not creative enough. But what we see is brand-new to us," he says.

Hostetter, who has worked in the adult-literacy program at Pima Community College since 1996, has participated as a storyteller several times, and has also recruited some of his co-workers to contribute at an Odyssey evening. They have been "amazed" at their experience, he says.

Here's how it works: The small volunteer staff discusses possible themes and maps out several months of storytelling evenings. You can sign up to get email announcements, and there's also a website you can check out that contains information as well as videos of storytellers doing their thing from past shows. Anyone can participate. Potential storytellers submit story proposals, and several folks are chosen to present their tales for a given evening. Selection is based on a variety of criteria—how well their story fits with the theme (or if it gives the theme a twist); a desire to balance light and more-serious tones; and an effort to present a variety of points of view to make it interesting for the evening's listeners.

There's a "curator" for each show, pulling things together and heading up the lone rehearsal a week before the event. Says Hostetter: "It's really just an opportunity to sort of just meet each other and have a run-through and give and get some feedback, to get people more comfortable with what they can expect. We discourage gimmicky things. And no notes. We just want them to speak their truth."

Some amazing things have come out of these Odyssey evenings, Hostetter says. "One night, we had a guy tell a story about where he grew up. I can't remember where it was, but it was somewhere on the other side of the world, and it turned out there was someone in the audience from the same place!

"And these stories change lives by introducing people to something they know nothing about. One evening, a transgendered person shared a story, and for some listening who really had never even thought about the idea, their whole world view changed that night."

Shannon Snapp moved here with husband Roscoe Mutz last November from Boston, where they had recently helped form a similar group for regular folks to tell stories to each other.

"They had story slams (in Boston), but we wanted something noncompetitive," says Mutz, who was working as an attorney while Snapp finished her doctorate in family studies. "So we teamed with a church and had these informal nights where people could sign up to tell stories, about three minutes long, no rehearsal. We actually raised some money for charities, because the church would match what folks who came paid for admission. But the chief purpose was to give people a chance to share themselves with others. It's really powerful."

Snapp curated last month's show, The Customer Is Always Right. "It's always so surprising. And moving. A guy told a story about how he had always had these kinds of customer-service jobs—like a waiter or bartender—where he could get by on his charm and personality. But then he got a job as an intake coordinator for the Salvation Army's six-month rehab program. He had to change completely. He was even assaulted.

"When we get our stories from the media, it's the tiniest sliver of a person's truth. When a person tells their own story, they challenge their discomfort and open themselves up to their vulnerability. To tell your story, first you have to reflect, and we don't always do that."

Hostetter says that the events of Jan. 8, 2011, have made such an impact that almost every show since has contained a story that references the shootings.

In June, the subject was Sliced and Diced: The Surgery Show. There were stories about scars, addictions and health care coming at the subject from all directions, Hostetter says. The storytellers included Dr. Randy Friese, a trauma surgeon at University Medical Center on Jan. 8. "He spoke so eloquently and from the heart, about how excruciating it was to not to be able to save everyone. It was so touching and his honesty was so healing," Hostetter says. "And not just for us. It was healing for him as well. You could tell."

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