Stranger than non-fiction

It was the summer of 1977, and the lights were out in New York City. Judith Heineman, at that time a schoolteacher, needed to get to class, but no electricity meant no subway. She stuck out her thumb. A stranger picked her up, an act unheard of in Manhattan. “Rising up to that level of humanity….” She pauses, even today. “It’s interesting to see when people wake up and talk to each other.”

Late last Sunday afternoon, twenty strangers gathered at the Southside Hub of Production to talk to each other about talking to strangers. A smaller-than-expected crowd inspired (necessitated, really) the dissolution of the audience-speaker distinction. “As a storyteller, they tell you to own your space,” shrugged Heineman, pulling chairs into a circle. These days she is the woman behind the Chicago Storytelling Guild, and that afternoon she served as the afternoon’s deft emcee.

Story slams, much like poetry slams, bring performers and raconteurs together with like-minded peers to celebrate their art in a quasi-competitive setting. Kirsten Madsen, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, won the more formal judged section of the afternoon with a story about the strange world of anonymity–and lack thereof–in the ’90s-era Internet dark ages. “Everyone has secrets they keep from their parents,” she opened slyly. This proved to be the prelude to a more free-ranging discussion of chance encounters, as those who had planned to attend only as listeners were pulled into the spotlight by the intimacy of the circled chairs. Laura Schaeffer, SHoP’s queen bee, told the story of her chance encounter with an alabaster-skinned stranger which turned into a multi-continent relationship and a multi-decade friendship.

I myself was a volunteer judge that day, and Heineman left the four of us with instructions to give content twice as much weight as delivery in our scoring. Good stories, it soon became apparent, were less about performativity and theatricality than the creation of elegant and honest anecdotes.  No histrionics necessary–the construction of a personal narrative naturally builds interest into the everyday. There is something inherently human and homey about telling stories. “My world is a lot safer when I connect with strangers,” concluded Anita Orlikoff after dealing with her son’s arrest at an Occupy protest last year. “My world is bigger, and I’m more at home in it.”