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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: A Good Story

On a recent late January afternoon sixty people gathered in a tiny church in my town to listen to stories. The cold winter light was turning dusky, but the church inside was warm and decorated with twinkly white lights. When the straight-backed pews filled up the overhead lights were dimmed and, one by one, eight local folks took the stage to tell a story sprung from their own lives.

Modeled after the wildly popular public radio program called Moth Radio Hour, this event was a tad less edgy and rambunctious than the Moth, but deeply satisfying to all who sat together in the dark listening to neighbors tell their tales. Far from being professionals, most of the plucky storytellers had little experience holding a microphone and even less in standing before a crowd with no script to hold onto. They had diligently honed their stories over many weeks, practicing and timing themselves in front of mirrors, family and friends.

That afternoon we heard about a fishing trip in Montana crashed by a herd of wild buffalo, followed by my story as a prison librarian about the shadowy world of contraband behind bars. A political activist working in El Salvador told how a visit from her Vermont mother helped her see the country’s people, poverty and politics through a new lens. Each of these stories was exotic in its own way because they conjured scenes unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the room and expanded our understanding of the world.

When one woman used evocative language to paint a detailed roadmap of her childhood explorations of her Vermont village, many in the audience who still live in that village followed her every step of the way. For them, she breathed life into the familiar.

With the unfolding of each narrative the audience became more riveted. The printed program carried the promise of what lay ahead. We were ready to hear stories with the curious titles Even a Blind Hog and My Lips Are Sealed. We wanted to get acquainted with the Englishman in Walking With Mr. Wardley and couldn’t wait to meet the trio of gothic novel ghostwriters in How Three Writers Became One.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about the individual stories themselves as it was about the community that formed around words that hung in the air and tied sixty listeners together with invisible threads. We were like travelers huddled around the same fire, pulled in by the light and warmth that fed us and made us think about our own lives and the stories we have lived.

Events like this one are being held all around Vermont and indicate that there is growing interest in live unscripted storytelling and the undeniable power of a good yarn. The fantasy writer Philip Pullman said that, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

And I’ll add my own take on that: especially on a cold winter’s night.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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