Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spillit Memphis: The Hilarious and Heartbreaking Beauty of Storytelling Animals

I had the very good fortune to attend my first Spillit event last night in (local photographer/visual anthropologist, Jamie Harmon's) Amurica studio space.  Spillit is one of the newer additions to what has become, over the last several years, an incredibly rich, astoundingly diverse, mostly DIY and impressively self-sustaining (for lack of a better descriptor) "cultural arts scene" in Memphis.  Created and curated by Josh Campbell and Leah Keys, Spillit invites people to step up to the mic and share a "true, unscripted story" related to some common theme determined in advance by the Spillit crew.  Past themes have included: "Love Hurts," "Lessons Learned," "Courage," "Stories of Travel," and last night's theme "Should've Known Better," among others.  (Subscribe to the Spillit podcast and listen to past Spillit stories for free on iTunes here!)  As Campbell and Keys explain in their Choose901 video, the Spillit experience is meant both to encourage and to foster the sorts of fundamentally human connections that fertilize a healthy community, and to make explicit the variety of existential triumphs and tragedies that we too often, and to our detriment, neglect to acknowledge as common.

There are, of course, many cultural products of Memphis, and of the American South more generally, that are worth their weight in gold.  (See: Food, Music, Literature, Dance, Whiskey, et al)   I've long held, and this longstanding suspicion was confirmed for me last night at Spillit, that straight-up, face-to-face, person-to-person storytelling, sans instrumentation or text, is one of the most underappreciated cultural contributions of our little corner of the universe.  In my own experience growing up in Memphis, the ability to tell a good story-- or rather "to tell a story good" as many of us are wont (grammar be damned) to say-- is definitely an acquired skill, someties an art, often a survival tactic, but in every instance a fundamental prerequisite for meaningfully stitching oneself into the patchwork of human community in Memphis and in the American South.  Especially in my own family, a clan whose members have never let "facts" get in the way of a good story, the manufacture and delivery of a judiciously-chosen anecdote is frequently the go-to instrument for moral instruction, other times the tie than binds, sometimes a weapon by which to deliver a coup de grĂ¢ce, but far more often the salve that heals   To its credit, Spillit really captures the multivalent powers of anecdotal narration, and it reminds us that taking the time to listen to the stories that others have to tell is every bit as essential to our communal stitch-work as telling our own stories is.  Periodically, Spillit events (like the one I attended) are structured as slams, but within minutes of the first storyteller's delivery last night, I found myself so utterly captivated by and immersed in the experience that I completely forgot it was a "competition."  Some of the "Should've Known Better" stories I heard were hilarious, some of them were enlightening, some of them were mundane, at least one of them was genuinely heartbreaking, but all of them-- and, more importantly, the experience of hearing them live and in the presence of others-- were, in a palpably real sense, nothing short of transcendent.  That is to say, they managed to effectively transcend whatever strangeness or difference existed between myself, the narrator and all of the otherwise-unfamiliar-to-me storytelling animals in the room who collectively constitute our particular variety of talking apes.

[Let me stop here and encourage you all to "like" Spillit on Facebook, "follow" Spillit on Twitter and, while you're at it, show the same love for Jamie Harmon's Amurica. I should also note that the pics in this post are all borrowed from Spillit's webpage and Facebook page.]

I really don't remember the last time I felt so captivated, motivated and deeply connected to other human beings by a start-up project.  (Shameless plug: my own American Values Project made me feel this way.)  Spillit is exactly the kind of project the world needs more of, in my view.  Attending one of these events demonstrates-- in the most rudimentary way and without even requiring in advance its attendees' assent to as much-- that, despite whatever objections we may want to level to the contrary, we are connected, we do hold a number of values in common, we regularly engage (an even greater) number of vices in common and, most importantly, that we ought endeavor to make space and time to experience the stories of both our virtuous and vicious connections. As regular readers of this blog know, for the last several years I've been working on a manuscript articulating a theory of what I've called "weak humanism." My core idea there, for those who haven't been following along, is this: what binds human beings together and distinguishes us qua "human," pace the standard philosophical story inherited (in the global North and West, anway) from theorists of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, is NOT chiefly our rationality, autonomy and freedom, but rather our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, and our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect, as well as to pervert, the aims of our individually- and collectively-determined endeavors.  I trust I'm not only speaking for myself when I say that it's always nice to happen upon something in the world that confirms/validates one's own philosophical intuitions, and the stories I heard at Spillit did just that for me last night in re my still-unrefined theory of weak humanism. Maybe that's a consequence of the event's "Should've Known Better" theme, which admittedly invited stories of weakness, fault, imperfection and capriciousness, if not also (hilariously- or tragically-) outright bad judgment,  but my suspicion is that every other Spillit event, because it involves the "true, unscripted stories" of human beings, would confirm the same.

Part of the magic in the Spillit experience is found in listening to others' stories and discovering in them something that resonates with one's own experience, and that is a phenomenon as curious and mysterious as it is profound, to be sure.  But the real magic of the Spillit experience, what is really "transcendent" about it, is found in something else.  Namely, it is found in an undeniable, irresistible, equal parts comforting and disorienting realization that I suspect washes over each one, as it did me, at some point during the night. That realization arrives for the most part unbidden, for a moment perhaps cryptic and easily-misunderstood, but in the end it is a realization that I can only articulate in some strange formulation that is at once descriptive, declarative, imperative and normative:

I, too, am a storytelling animal

At the moment that realization is made thetic to oneself, it becomes also performative. Or, in non-philosophical terms, the moment one feels, knows and understands the "I, too" connection with another storytelling animal is the moment one begins to tell the most important part of his or her story.


Tell Us Something said...

Super happy to see Spillit making a difference in Memphis. Leah's sister, Caroline, has participated in a similar event in Missoula, MT -- Tell Us Something (, and told one hell of a story. So glad to see that communities are open to listening to and sharing with one another.

Anonymous said...

This April 2 event at the University of Memphis might be of interest to you ...