Last Monday, I went to a storytelling open mic in my neighborhood.
I heard stories of middle school crushes and bullies (sometimes they’re the same), of fighting through remarks from family and friends to love yourself the way you are, of becoming a clown (complete with the red nose) and realizing that openly listening to and engaging with others is a lost art, of an introvert whose extroverted mother thought letting her daughter’s friends kidnap her for a surprise slumber party was a great idea, of the unexpected connections that a political canvasser made with strangers. I even told a story of my own for the first time.
Then on Tuesday I went to OutSpoken, a monthly LGBTQ storytelling event that I never leave without feeling challenged and encouraged. There were stories of finding your own identity in the face of others’ assumptions, of bad dating decisions, of respecting where others are and still challenging them to learn. And there was a powerful story from an African-American woman in her seventies about owning her life again after being raped as a child. She named the childhood stolen from her, the mark left on her soul, and claimed her life and the girl inside her.
Stories have power. Words do things.
When we tell our stories, we shape our lives. The things other people told us about ourselves, the stories family gave us – they can all be rewritten into a story that is our own. As we tell our stories we begin to learn who we really are, and as we learn who we really are, we are freed to tell our stories.
But something else happens, too. When we tell our stories, we shape other people’s lives as well.
The crazy thing about telling our stories is that even as they are asserting our individuality and uniqueness, they are also confirming our common humanity. I’ve never heard someone else’s story without finding some sliver of myself in it, of my experiences or my feelings. And that openness to commonality with people very different from me has changed me.
I love Outspoken and identify with the stories told there. They are stories of standing on the outside – of family, religion, society. And even as a straight, cisgender woman, they resonate with me. I grew up as an outsider with my peers and – even though it took me many years to understand this – with the fundamentalist community of faith I called home. I continue to come to terms with what it means to belong to a community where you don’t fit, and Outspoken has become a safe place to explore that.
Even beyond Outspoken, storytelling communities are some of the most generous and accepting I’ve ever encountered. The story being told is always more than a performance – it’s a piece of someone’s life. It’s a community that values listening and encouragement, and applauds the courage to bring what you have. Storytelling is like the potluck of life. Whatever you bring will only expand the meal!
My life was opened up by the stories I read growing up – in the Bible and in so many other books. And the stories I encounter embodied by their tellers each month continue to draw me open in new ways. I feast as I listen and always walk away full.
I’ve barely begun learning to tell my own stories. I hope they teach me how.