One by one, three men came forward to tell personal stories they hadn’t publicly shared in over fifty years. For five decades, no one had heard how Lance’s mother turned him into the recruiter’s office during the Vietnam War after dropping out of college. It was the first time Dave publicly shared how his relationship with his father changed after he refused to cut his hair. For a very long time, Bruce hadn’t told anyone about what what happened when he was put in charge of a boy scout troop on a campout some fifty years ago.
Last November, the three men found the courage to tell their stories in front of an audience of nearly 100 people at the Roy Street Coffee & Tea during the monthly storytelling event Fresh Ground Stories.
“Knowing that they haven’t shared these stories for all those years was very special. Where else would those people feel safe telling them?” says Paul Currington, organizer of the monthly event.
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Then-Seattle local Catherine Hagan launched the true-storytelling event in 2010 as The Emerald City MothUP, an offshoot of The Moth, a storytelling event that had gained national recognition with its weekly national public radio show, The Moth Radio Hour, launched the year before. Soon, Currington, a former stand-up comedian, found storytelling and joined the MothUP. He’d grown tired of stand-up comedy. The road and the stage were lonely places to be, and he was sick of someone or something always having to be the butt of the joke. “I got tired of pointing the finger at everyone else,” he says now. “Storytelling allowed me to acknowledge the gray areas of life.”
In 2012, when Hagan left Washington and after The Moth launched its own official Seattle offshoot, Currington took over and renamed the event Fresh Ground Stories. Not because there was anything wrong with The Moth. But Fresh Ground Stories is different: “There are no winners and losers,” Currington says. “I can’t bear the idea of judging or scoring someone who just walked up on stage to say something true about their lives.”
Unlike The Moth, Fresh Ground Stories is pretty under-produced (though there’s a meetup for working on stories). This grassroots character is, says Currington, why it works. Add a stage and professional lighting, and FGS would be something else.
There are rules, however. One: Keep your (true) account under 8 minutes. Two: Work on your story — “don’t come up here with a couple of memories and a feeling” — and most importantly, ‘clean.’ From politics, that is. Currington believes opinions and politics separate people, and that stories bring them together. He acknowledges, however, that politics might infuse your account whether you want or not.
“Take the woman who had an abortion,” he says. “She wanted people to see she was not a statistic. She wasn’t trying to convince anyone, but just had this really powerful thing she lived through and wanted people to know how much it had affected her.”
Avoiding capital P politics doesn’t equate shying away from the hard stuff, including suicide, cancer, bankruptcy due to medical bills or body image. Sometimes these stories are sad, often they are somehow also hilarious. “Just the process of writing a story can be very cathartic,” says Currington. “It forces you to accept that it happened and you’re in control of how you deal with it. The thing about true, personal storytelling is that you decide what the ending is. It’s healing. You can see the relief in people when they walk off stage.”
Many storytellers have gone on to other, and in some cases bigger, things. Big Tim, a police officer with PTSD from his many years of combatting child sex trafficking started his own storytelling event in Tacoma. Some storytellers, with a little nudge by Currington, later make it onto KNKX’s Sound Effect podcast, such as the woman who spoke about the mental illness and suicide of her husband and how it has moved her to make changes in Washington State’s mental health system.
The theme for this month’s event, scheduled for Thursday, January 17th, is “Fed Up – Stories from the end of your rope.”
“You know what I think would make a great start to 2019?” Currington wrote on the Facebook event page, “A show where a bunch of us tell stories about how we got to the end of our rope and managed to crawl back up. I know at least a few of us managed to do that because we’re still here. We’re still rolling out of bed, getting out of the house, and showing up at Roy Street once a month.”
You can learn more at freshgroundstories.com.