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Storyteller’s still shaping voices, helping lives

Observer photo by Jess Wisloski Recille Hamrell at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Jan. 23.
Observer photo by Jess Wisloski
Recille Hamrell at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Jan. 23.

Library celebrates a decade of storytelling

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

Telling stories is something any group of old friends will do, usually ones of bygone days and of shared memories. Bringing together strangers for the sole purpose of telling stories is another feat entirely – but that’s exactly what Recille Hamrell does every month, with great success.

For 10 years now, Hamrell, 78, has led Shape and Share Life Stories at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, a two-hour midday workshop that allows local residents to revel in the retelling of memories as they pop up in response to prompts she brings for them each session.

While most of the attendees, which can range from five participants on a recent Monday, to 15 or 17 the next month, are self-selected storytellers off the bat with an itch to scratch, Hamrell believes there’s a special power in vocalizing and presenting a tale orally, and people learn more about how to do that at Shape and Share, she said in recent interview.

“There’s a big difference,” between writing and telling, she said. “In the sharing of the story, I need you to be with me. I need the energy that flows back and forth. You are reading my body, you are reading my voice, I have to get all of those in sync with what I’m saying,” she said.

“Writing is a private thing, in a room all by yourself. And you can stop writing. I can’t stop telling. So, it’s a totally different dimension.”

Participants at this week’s Monday session also reflected on another element, almost a therapeutic one, that had naturally evolved from the process of responding to the weekly word prompts. (An example of the week’s prompts: “a bargain”; “a surprise”; “a secret”; “shoes”; “a kiss”; “cash”; “breaking up”; “being a tourist”; “a mistake.”) After picking a prompt, each person is able to tell their story and take the stage, with no interruptions or chatting during it, Hamrell said.

“Basically you own that space, you tell the story,” she said. “You have a moment to sit with it and then we move on. That’s a crucial part — that you know your story is never judged.”

Sharon Sullivan, of Williston, who has been shaping stories with Hamrell since 2008, said her reason for returning each month, and staying year after year, is more than what it started out to be. “I guess I joined this group because I wanted to be able to tell stories well, so I can share stories for my grandchildren,” said Sullivan. “I felt like I learned so much more than just how to tell as story,” she said, noting how diverse the group is month after month. “So many differences, yet we are close enough with each other that we can really appreciate each others’ experiences. Sometimes it’s laughter, sometimes it’s emotional, but I appreciate Recille’s skill,” she said.

Hamrell began working in storytelling back in 2004, after she had retired from her work as a speech pathologist from what’s now called Chittenden South Supervisory Union. She started a showcase for students to do storytelling at Barnes and Noble first in the late 1990s, but then began working at Charlotte Senior Center to help older people hammer out their storytelling skills.

A storyteller herself, she’s also been pivotal in the local scene as open mics and story slams have come into vogue. “In 2004, nobody was doing it then, and I was the first one to do open mics,” she said. In 2014, when she first competed in storytelling competition Extempo Vermont, she won the grand prize, for the first time talking about being the cantor at her son’s bar mitzvah after her husband walked out on the family. That’s the part of storytelling she finds so interesting, she said — uncovering long-buried personal tales.

“This may be the first time other than with a therapist or in the throes of the first crisis, that you have ever talked about it…that’s one of the real values of it. Some of these stories are 20 or 30 years old!” she said. While many of her regulars are retirees and it’s been predominantly women in the ongoing group, she said, anybody can get value by coming.

“I believe a group like this should be part of wellness…A doctor should say, ‘Hey, you need a place other than a psychiatrist couch or at your wake to share your stories.’”