Introducing Story District’s new monthly column! After 25 years in the storytelling biz, we’ve learned a lot and want to share our stories and insights with you. In our first column, D.C. native Willette Oden, a poet, writer and musical artist, shares insights from her first-time experience with storytelling. She performed her very first story in March 2021 as part of Story District’s 100% All That and was selected to perform it again in Story District’s Top Shelf in December 2021, an annual showcase of the best stories of the year.
As a young child, I recognized that writing was a safe place. Journaling my initial thoughts, feelings, and experiences allowed me to reflect upon and cope with the harsh reality of my environment. Through Story District, I had the chance to tell this story, my story. Before the opportunity, I solely wrote short stories, poetry, and music. I only ever recited poetry in front of a live audience. After performing live twice through Story District, I realize the art of reciting poetry and storytelling are not the same. I typically use rhythmic qualities, pleasing aesthetics and sound when reciting poetry; I am solely entertainment. When telling my story, I felt it crucial to guide the audience while making a personal connection. I didn’t feel the need to entertain or prove a point to anyone. Like most protagonists in a story, I simply felt the urge to be understood. This would help me to become open and vulnerable, strengthening the connection with the audience.
Although I struggled with remembering an entire story verbatim, I found that the moral of the story is what matters. After being introduced to the rest of the Top Shelf winners, I was astounded. The diversity and bravery of the cast had spoken volumes. At first, I hesitated at the opportunity to tell my story out of fear of what other people may think of me. When I listened to everyone’s stories, I was inspired by how certain events in their lives made them into who they are but didn’t define them. I possessed a desire to inspire others, too. I thought maybe there could be someone in the audience who would relate to or take from my experience and feel empowered by how I was able control my narrative.
I had grown extremely nervous backstage while listening to the performances before mine. I thought maybe I wouldn’t feel so nervous if it wasn’t for the serious context in my story. But it didn’t matter because the show went on and I’d consciously come so far, convincing myself that I could do this. When approaching the stage I took a second to mentally capture the atmosphere; this would become an everlasting memory. Familiar and unfamiliar faces pierced through me, eager to wrap their minds around a story safely guarded behind my lips. The pounding of my heart had made it hard to breathe until I looked up and saw my mother sitting on the balcony. She would soon hear how her past drug addiction affected me as a child. My stomach began to cringe as I carefully described an act of harming myself. I could feel the intensity in the air while silence grew. By this point there was no doubt in my mind that the audience had pitied me. The brightness of the stage lights had stagnated my vision making it hard to see the faces in the crowd, but I could imagine the shocking looks in their eyes. I remembered feeling warm inside when I finally thanked the audience for listening. There had been such sincerity in the round of applause. It was like acceptance into the gates of heaven.
During the entire performance, it was almost as if I was in a boxing ring, fighting with myself. Getting in my own way I began questioning myself while speaking to the audience simultaneously. Will I choke, will I inspire, will I get through this, and how will my mom handle my performance. Through all, I consider this performance one of the toughest fights yet, but one thing I’ve learned from surviving a tough environment is to kick and swing and conquer.
Watch Willette’s story performed at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. in December 2021.
About Story District: In 1997, The Speakeasy was born, an open mic series for storytelling. Over time, we evolved into Story District and now we host dozens of shows and classes every year, as well as leading trainings and creating custom performances for businesses, government agencies, colleges, and nonprofits. Visit StoryDistrict.org, subscribe to our podcast, Story District Presents, our YouTube channel, StoryDistrictLive, and follow us on Instagram.
Story District’s Birthday Bash! is Saturday, October 1 at The Lincoln Theatre. Tickets go on sale July 8.