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Slow Train Storytellers: An Intergenerational Exercise in Small Town Sincerity

SAFFRON FORSBERG // OCTOBER 11, 2019

The first Moth Story Slam took place in a Georgia living room in 1997. It was a night that indulged in the discovery of a new form of untapped artistic intimacy; the inherent hunger we have as people to hear about the lives we’ve never lived, through the mouths of those who have lived them. It was so simple, yet completely new and wildly successful: a room of potential storytellers, an engaging host, a musical guest, perhaps, and just as many beguiled ears. Names are chosen at random, and the lucky storyteller mounts a stage—or, perhaps, traipses across the living room floor—without notes, ready to tell their story. Often, their audience is just a crowd of  strangers. 

Since that night, The Moth has traversed big cities and cultural alcoves. It has been a voice for anyone with a name, a narrative, and the desire to connect with a room of people who have decided to spend their evening listening to the intimate details of other people’s lives. As it grew, The Moth began airing  on National Public Radio, where a snide, literary child—a future Obie and Grape contributor—heard it on long drives with her father. Needless to say, she was enthralled.  

  Slow Train Storytellers, a bi-weekly gathering of storytellers and engaged listeners from the Oberlin community, is a local nod to The Moth tradition. Housed in Slow Train Café, a favorite local watering hole for apple cider dates and Albino Squirrel-fueled paper-writing sessions, the story slam event is open to everyone over 18 in the Oberlin community.

 “[What is] important to me is local community. I believe that having a venue for shared stories across all its members helps to strengthen that community,” writes Slow Train Storytellers founder and author Kelly Garriott Waite. Indeed, the event is not just for college students, but for the community as a whole. Hearing the perspectives of both college students and Oberlin natives is a vital part of building and maintaining a balance between the dynamics of an academic environment and a small-town home to local business owners, families, and working-class people.  

“Although I'm a writer, I have no experience whatsoever telling stories in this manner,” Waite informed me when I asked about her relationship to the tradition of storytelling. “My father was the first and best storyteller I knew and remembering the stories he told probably had a lot to do with this idea.” Waite’s admiration of the spoken and written word seems to be one held by many Oberlin students. Whether one is passionate about literature, journalism, songwriting, poetry, or theater, Oberlin College is a campus of storytellers. Slow Train Storytellers is an open invitation for these voices, as well as for those all over the community. In fact, Waite sees an even broader future of inclusivity for Slow Train Storytellers in the days or years ahead. Waite told me she’d love to open the event up to local high schoolers. “[I’d like to start} a series of ‘storytelling workshops’ in which those who are learning to tell stories can come together and share knowledge,” writes Waite. “Some of the Friday's storytellers have done just that. It's been fun watching a story bloom and grow with each telling.”  

The first Slow Train Storytellers event took place last Friday. Entering the familiar café on the first cool night of October, the atmosphere resembled what one would expect from a cozy coffee house open mic in a sweater-clad college town. Settling in with my notebook, I soon realized no assumptions I may have held about the event could have measured up to what was in store. The rules are simple: every story must be roughly five minutes, spoken without notes, and revolve loosely around a prompt. Additionally, storytellers are told to come prepared to perform, whether that takes the form of an animated campfire dialect, a stuffed bear outfitted with a sunhat and feather boa referred to as “grandma,” or the distribution of Good N’ Plenties. The prompt this week was “This Mask I Wear,” and no story seemed to don the same one. My fellow listeners and I sat through stories of carnivorous cats and the small-town citizens they haunt, Edwidge Danticat at the Finney Chapel, a heartfelt rendition of “God Bless America,” and the ritualistic burial of a family pet that laid the storyteller’s “need for normalcy” to rest in the process. At the end of the night, the audience votes for their favorite storyteller, and the winner chooses a charity to donate half of the night’s proceeds to. This week, it was the Friendship League of Lorain County— a non-profit no-kill, humane society.

This first round of storytellers was made up of older Oberlin citizens, some of whom had been Oberlin residents most of their lives. As a Southerner and first-year Obie who has only lived in the state of Ohio for a month, the ability to place my little campus in a context that extended beyond that of the Mudd Center circa 2019 was refreshing. This night allows us to celebrate retaining the character of small-town America: by appreciating Oberlin not only as a campus, but also as a small-town ecosystem, we embrace this place as home to an ever-expanding variety of narratives. Organized gatherings like that of Waite’s Slow Train Storytellers is a great example of community initiatives that encourage the socialization of a diverse array of people that occupy the same place, but may never have had the chance to engage otherwise. This being said, Waite is eager to welcome younger storytellers to upcoming events, especially at a college like Oberlin, where creativity is a vital part of the community. Placing a stack of flyers in my hand as I left Slow Train that night, Waite let me know that this is a space available to everyone.  

    The theme for the next Slow Train Storytellers event is “The Best Worst Lie”. It will take place on October 18th at 7 PM at Slow Train Café. If you’d like to tell a story, be sure to contact Kelly Garriott Waite at kgwaite@gmail.com.