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June 4, 2012

Everyone has a story; the Stanford Storytelling Project shares them

Through a radio show, website and live events, the Stanford Storytelling Project provides the opportunity to experience the transformative nature of great stories.

By Kelsey Geiser

Rachel Hamburg conducts an interview with Ben Wilkerson in the Tresidder Union gym for the Storytelling Project. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Stanford sophomore Nick Hartley unexpectedly learned that his bone marrow was the perfect match for a patient in need. He knew he was in the position to save a life, and yet he was conflicted about going through with the transplant procedure.

Hartley found catharsis in sharing his innermost feelings in a radio broadcast. "We want to be good, to give, but we're scared of pain, of what might happen. … It is rare that a decision reveals so much about who we really are."

The audio recording of Hartley telling his story, along with seven other segments in which Stanford community members recount a personal story, make up the "How to Give" episode of the radio show State of the Human.

Airing on Stanford's KZSU 90.1FM on Wednesdays at 5 p.m., State of the Human is one facet of the multi-pronged Stanford Storytelling Project, an initiative dedicated to exploring how and why oral narrative is so engrained in our lives.

Over the past four years, the Storytelling Project has given faculty, students and staff a forum for sharing their personal stories on topics ranging from lying to nakedness.

Thanks to a substantial gift earlier this year from alumnus Bruce Braden, the Storytelling Project has been able to expand its reach. From live storytelling sessions at the campus coffee house to events featuring powerful storytellers such as film producer Peter Guber and poet David Whyte, to providing $3,000 grants for expenses, the Storytelling Project has grown to be much more than a radio program.

Jonah Willihnganz, a Stanford lecturer in literature and writing, founded and directs the program.

"One of the project's main goals is to help us understand just how deeply conditioned we are by stories, so we can understand and change ourselves, change others and change the world through stories," said Willihnganz.

Three years ago the program was initiated as a monthly radio show with the idea that the broadcast medium would give Stanford students and faculty a break from academic writing. Instead of having to pen yet another research paper, they could share their work in a more conversational format while also introducing the topic to a new audience.

The students and recent grads who work on the project have produced more than 50 episodes, each of which takes three to four months to create.

The shows' producers regularly survey professors and research programs for story ideas, particularly when they are looking for stories on specific themes like "resilience" or "haunting." But, Willihnganz said, they often "just begin asking around: 'Got a story about feeling haunted? Know anyone who does?'"

Once the storytellers are found, they work with the staff of the project for several months to prepare stories for recording. From memoirs to documentaries to research pieces, no two stories can be told in the same way.

Charlie Mintz, a producer for the radio show for the past five years and its current managing editor, said that the edited stories become even more powerful.

One particular segment, in which a Stanford student tells the story of her father losing his faith in Hinduism, was poignant not just because of the content but also because of the manner in which it was presented. "It required a continuous process of revision and refinement to bring out the most powerful aspects of the story," said Mintz.

Rachel Hamburg, a recent grad (BA '10, MA '11, English) and current project producer, said she has learned that powerful storytelling is more than just experimentation. "I now acknowledge that there are certain rules, such as hook, climax and conclusion, and if you break those rules you have to do it very carefully."

The dedication to detail and disclosure not only seeks to change the lives of the audience but it also changes the lives of the students and staff who make the project possible.

"In the process, I have had to learn to shush my own voice and to listen for their voices more carefully – for what is important to them, what their revelations have been, what tone they want to strike and so on," Hamburg said.

She is working in conjunction with three other students on a show combining narration, music and interviews to tell the story of why Stanford's student housing officials are revoking co-op house Chi Theta Chi's lease, a hotly contested issue among students. The Storytelling student producers have interviewed students, members of the house alumni board and university housing staff.

"We want every voice to be heard, we want the stories to come to life and we want our audience to really feel moved by the stories we help tell," said Austin Meyer, an undergraduate helping to produce the story.

Next year the project will produce another 12 radio shows and host events with people like radio icon Ira Glass and mythologist Michael Meade.

"If we want to change us or change someone else, the best way to do that is not to argue with ourselves or argue with someone else but to tell them a different story, tell ourselves a different story," said Willihnganz.

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities outreach officer: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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