True stories

photo by Nick King
photo by Nick King

Karen, a former New York City probation officer who is about five-feet-nothing in height, has a big presence. Her New York accent is as thick as weekend traffic on the Long Island Expressway. She seems tough. Someone who’s seen a few things in her time. Someone you don’t mess with. Yet when she’s done telling her story about love and loss to a group gathered on a recent Sunday at Avenue M in North Asheville, there’s not a dry eye in the room.

Then there’s Walter, who tells a tale of narrowly escaping trouble in pre-World-War II Czechoslovakia through his knowledge of chess. And Michael, who opens up about his battle with and triumph over a speech impediment. And there are four others who weaved tales about topics as diverse as high school baseball and toileting in foreign countries.

They’re all part of the “Real. Life. Stories.” program, which was started by a team of story-lovers at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in North Asheville. Although initiated by church organizers, the program has never had a Christian-specific focus. Instead, as Pastor Mark Ramsey explains, it was a way to foster the inward reflection that comes from telling our stories. “I think our culture’s starved for nurturing deep places,” he says. “We can often just go on the surface a lot. And while not needing to slap a religious label on what we do, I love any time people get to explore a deep place in their lives in a nurturing community.”

Selena Hilemon, a storyteller from one of the four events the group has already hosted, says: “It seems very common that we mostly interact with one another on superficial levels, and this event tore down all of the things that keep us insulated from one another. At our core, I think what's important is to learn to live in community with our neighbors. To learn empathy. To learn to hear one another's stories. What better way to do this than gathering people in a bar on Sunday afternoons and inviting them to listen.”

Anyone familiar with The Moth radio program is familiar with the format, which gives people less than 10 minutes to tell a true story that has both meaning and depth. In fact, the came about because one of Grace Covenant’s other pastors, Kristy Farber, had a friend in Seattle who knew an NPR producer. Before long, Farber, Ramsey, Nathan McMahan (the youth and young adult coordinator at the church), church member Heather Brown and staffer Heather Gast had booked a flight to Washington state to train so they could bring a story-telling program back to Asheville.

Ramsey said the team first took them to an open-mic night to demonstrate how not to do a storytelling program and to emphasize the importance of curating the stories. Church members then had to tell stories of their own on the theme, “Being Wrong.” They went through the same curation process that they themselves now use to help Real. Life. Stories. participants shape their own tales.

Curation

According to McMahan, that process consists of four stages. In the first, the storyteller is asked to focus on the vivid images in the story. “We ask them to find the landmark sensory spots in the story,” he says.

Next, the storyteller is guided deeper into the tale to find where it might connect with the audience. Farber says this is a critical part of the process. “If you’re telling a story,” she says, “I’m not just listening to your story, I’m naturally wondering how I connect to it. In all our stories, we hope that at the end [that] someone from the audience will go up to you and say, ‘Let me tell you about the story [that] yours brought up in me.’”

Third comes a focus on connecting the story to theme. Like The Moth, all of the story events center on a particular theme. Past topics have included “Great Expectations,” “That’s When I Knew,” and “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.” For the next event, scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 17, at Avenue M, across the street from Grace Presbyterian, the topic will be “Improbable.”

In the final phase of the process, McMahon says storytellers are asked “What’s the takeaway? What’s the wisdom? What are we leaving here hanging on to?”

At this stage, Ramsey points out, it’s important that the tale not be reduced to a simple moral or easy editorializing. The goal is to find the deeper meaning in the story. “Life isn’t neat, so stories shouldn’t be neat,” he says.

Therapeutic tales

In many ways, the curation process is as important as the actual event. Through it, participants get to work through issues and memories they might not otherwise explore. For Hilemon, it’s been a transformative time. “I've been most surprised by all of the emotions that I have unearthed and how giving really difficult life events light and voice has encouraged me to make different decisions in my life,” she says. “I consider myself a reflective and contemplative person, but when someone asks you to tell ‘your’ story — without apology, without treading carefully around the feelings, perspectives and understanding that you usually give to others — well, it's an incredibly empowering thing.”

Stories are never written down during the process, as the focus is very much on the oral. According to Farber, the act of writing changes the story and can lock it into a static form that’s not as engaging as a verbal narrative that’s a little different each time. Previous storyteller Susie Wheelis found this an intriguing process. “We didn't read our stories, we told them,” she says. “And even though I initially wrote it down, I soon realized that I knew what I wanted to say and put the notes down. Interestingly, each time I tell it, it is slightly different and it has opened up a curiosity to explore a period of my life that I have never really spent much time thinking about. The mantra was that you are the only one that knows your story, so there is no wrong way to tell it!”

Real. Life. Growth.

October marked the one-year anniversary of the date the program founders went out to Washington. The program has been a hit ever since. Ramsey mentions that at the initial event, held at the church, they expected about 30 people to show up — all friends and family of the readers. Instead, 150 guests filled the room. The next event saw similar success, and that’s when organizers decided to move it to Avenue M.

Teri Siegel, who owns the restaurant/bar, says hosting Real. Life. Stories. fits perfectly with her community-minded focus. “Our tagline is ‘Eat, Drink, Gather,’” she says. “The eating and drinking is part of it, but the gathering, to me, is what makes this place so vibrant and wonderful.”

So far, attendees and participants seem pleased with the event’s location. Upcoming storyteller Eric Rainey says that “the last event was supercharged.” He continues, “Stories are the foundation of relationships — stories we hear and tell, stories we create together. It’s like one really grand dinner party. And the food’s quite tasty to boot!”

Real. Life. Stories. will be held at Avenue M at 791 Merrimon Ave. on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 5 p.m. Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, visit real-life-stories.org.

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