by Mallory Moad
Everyone has a story to tell, or maybe two or three. On the second Wednesday of the month, a diverse crowd gathers at the Politi Branch Library in Fresno for Story Jam, a free event where they share their own tales, live and in person.
A family takes a lengthy and perilous bus ride in Greece. A woman has bittersweet memories of sibling rivalry, only to reveal she lost her beloved sister at a young age.
Librarian, Kristin Baer, was motivated to start a local storytelling program by an inspiring experience at a workshop on the subject. “Something about the process of sharing stories brought everyone together in a spirit of mutual respect and empathy,” she says. “When I discovered public libraries in other areas had implemented such programs with great success, I was even more convinced we needed to do this.”
When she invited colleague and first Poet Laureate of Fresno, James Tyner, to join her in her pursuit, he was intrigued. He had recently used storytelling at a poetry event a few weeks earlier. “It had a major impact on the audience.” The timing, he says, was perfect. “I used what I’ve learned over the years from doing poetry readings and other events and came up with a few rules to set the groundwork. And here we are.”
A pair of visiting Russian dancers, stranded in the United States, shop ’til they drop. Having a ring tone that mimics a bird song becomes a problem after getting separated from friends in the wilderness.
Story Jam has been a success from its first session on May 10. “We were nervous,” James says. Being the beginning of a new program, he figured it would take some time for it to gain in popularity. But the size of that first crowd exceeded expectations. “We had almost forty people, which is pretty amazing considering that library has a maximum occupancy of 100.”
A nerd gets expelled from Comic Con for fighting with a Klingon. A first job comes with a lesson about making promises that were never expected to be kept.
Here’s how Story Jam works: You show up and sign up to tell a true and mildly embellished story…or not. It’s OK to just listen and observe, too. The rules are as follows: Story Jam is a safe space. That means everyone can tell a story without fear of heckling or criticism and can expect everyone’s appreciation. Stories must be a maximum of five minutes in length. This is to give everyone a fair chance at participating. Subject matter must be PG-13. While the facilitators don’t want to engage in censorship, they also want everyone (including the audience) to feel comfortable. Although all the storytellers so far have been adults, kids are welcome as well. James serves as the MC of Story Jam and always has the honor of telling the first story of the evening.
A high school trip to Seattle may or may not include the sighting of a serial killer. Costumed mascots get a police escort from a small town after eating lunch in a public park.
There’s more to Story Jam than just stories. The sharing continues after the telling has ended. Lori recently attended her second Story Jam and appreciates the opportunity to connect with people she never would have met in another environment. Ryan is a regular who first saw Story Jam as a way to get public speaking experience. Now he returns, sometimes accompanied by his family, because he loves hearing other stories as much as sharing his own. Last month, he brought along a friend who had his own story to tell.
The search for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a foreign country becomes a culinary adventure. A child is distressed when she finds out her favorite overalls have been passed on to a chimpanzee.
There is one other purpose, perhaps unplanned, that Story Jam serves: it provides respite from the troubled times in which we are currently living. People are coming together as a community to share personal experience, support, and companionship. They’re turning off the news and putting down their smart phones for an hour and communicating eye-to-eye with respect and encouragement. They’re learning about each other, and maybe themselves, too. After all, everyone has a story to tell.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I’d love to hear your story.
For more information on Story Jam and other free events at your neighborhood library branch, visit Fresno County Public Library on Facebook, Instagram or www.fresnolibrary.org.