Bragging Rights

I am going to warn you up front: This is a pat-myself-on-the-back sort of post. I do little enough of this in my life, so I don’t feel ashamed. Just uncomfortable enough to issue a caveat emptor up front.

I was listening today, as I do whenever I think of it, to The Public Storyteller, the segment I co-host with Michael Stock on Miami, Florida, public radio station WLRN (91.3 FM). The idea of the 10-15 minute weekly segment, which airs on Michael’s 25-year-old mainstay program Folk & Acoustic Music, is to showcase the true, Florida-based stories, and the personalities, of South Florida residents or tourists. During season, when I hire storytellers from throughout the U.S. and abroad, we also include true or fictional stories from professional national storytellers who are performing in the area.

Today’s story came from an elderly stroke victim in one of the ubiquitous assisted living facilities in South Florida. She was telling the story, with a heavy French accent and a marked speech impediment, of her initiative to make dolls (70,000 so far, with the help of her fellow residents) for poor kids throughout the world. The performance was as far from slick as is imaginable. It was not easy to listen to. The storyteller would never make it to the hip New York City or L.A. Moth story slams, or its local counterparts. Yet her story literally needed to be heard. And we who benefit from the industrial entertainment complex, who spend billions of dollars to be moved, needed, I believe, to experience this story. What is more, as the late anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff wrote so eloquently more than a quarter of a century ago in her masterpiece Number Our Days about the denizens of a senior center in Venice Beach, California, even if there were no one to hear it, the elderly storyteller needed to tell her story.

“There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” The Public Storyteller radio segment gives people the opportunity to share their stories, on radio and then on the web site thepublicstoryteller.org. For that, I am proud.

Similarly, the storytelling slam VOX, which I founded six years ago in Boca Raton, Florida, allows “ordinary residents,” as if there were such an animal, to tell their own stories. Again, slick, coached, well-oiled stories are not the point here. If people aged 19-90 can get up on a makeshift stage in a local cafe at 8 p.m. on a weekend night and share a scene from their lives, they can tell their story where it counts even more: in a court of law, in a town hall meeting, to a police officer. Storytelling is empowering.

It can also be good entertainment, and many of our stories are. I think of the one where a man’s efforts to get a Cuban street vendor in Miami, circa 1970s, to make iced coffee morphed into a flashback of the toast scene in “Five Easy Pieces.” Or the woman whose college age son inadvertently kidnapped two non-English speakers for Thanksgiving dinner. Then there is the exploding coconut at the outdoor sleepover.

As I tell the storytellers, this is not the stuff of major motion pictures. At least not likely. It is the stuff of life. And you don’t have to have a trained voice, or brain, to share it with the community. It’s simply how we connect, person to person, person to place.

For that, I’m proud.

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