Passerby pause to scribble down a story. Courtesy of Brandon Doman

The Strangers Project makes city residents a little more connected, one handwritten page at a time.

In 2009, Brandon Doman was sitting in a café in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He had a notebook on him, but no real plans for the day. As he watched people pass in and out of the shop, he wondered what he could do to get a few people to stop for a moment, and share something about their lives.

He grabbed a marker, wrote “Hi there! Please stop and share your story!” on a page in his notebook, propped it up on the table, and waited. Minutes passed. Two women came up and asked him what he was doing.

“I said, ‘I don’t know yet, but I’m just trying this thing out,’” Doman tells CityLab. He asked them if they’d be willing to write something about their life in a page of his notebook; both women said yes.

That day, Doman collected around 10 stories. “I was hooked,” he says.

Now, when Doman heads out for the day with his notebook and a sign—a bit larger now—he’ll bring home around 90 entries. Though he’s based in New York now, Doman has brought The Strangers Project to 80 cities across the U.S., and has read over 21,000 stories. He posts them to his website, always in the original handwriting. Last year, he published 200 of them in a book, What’s Your Story?

Storytellers at work in Washington Square Park, New York. (Courtesy of Brandon Doman)

Making those final selections for the book, Doman says, was tough. “I’m still surprised every night when I go home and read what people have written. It’s never repetitive,” he says. “There are an unlimited number of stories out there, and unlimited ways to tell them.”

For the book, Doman says it came down not to the “best” stories, but those that represented the full range of what people share. Some are short and funny. One woman jotted this down:

“Two very small stories:

The first time I kissed a girl, she told me she was actually straight.

The first time I kissed a boy, he went and threw up behind a tree.

I am a girl with very bad luck.”

And some are emotional:  

“I drove here, from one coast to another. I traveled alone slowly but surely to my inevitable destination. Everyone asks me why, why do this? And aren’t you scared to do this alone?

I do this because I will not be here forever, I may not even be here for very long. I am afraid I am dying slowly but I was afraid to say it out loud. So I have written it upon the roads I have traveled all the way from my west coast home to my east coast home. Yes, I am constantly afraid, but I am even more afraid of coming to the end of my life without ever really living.”

When Doman sets up The Strangers Project, it’s usually in a park—he likes the wide-open spaces, the different people who pass through. Alongside his sign encouraging people to stop and write, he’ll display some used notebook pages. “A lot of people are initially hesitant,” Doman says. “They’ll come up and just read at first.” He never asks people to write, but when people say, “Oh, this is really neat, but I’m just not as interesting,” or “I don’t have a story worth sharing,” Doman has a way of convincing them otherwise. It’s not about being a great writer, he says. “It’s just about sharing something honest from your life—that’s what resonates with people.” When he tells that to passerby, they become participants.

At a Strangers Project event.  (Courtesy of Brandon Doman)

The stories shared are what keeps The Strangers Project going, but Doman also hosts events throughout the summer months; the first this year will open May 6 in New York. The events are an opportunity for people to gather and read together. “Oftentimes, people reading stories will just start talking to the person next to them—saying, ‘you need to read this,’ or ‘this one’s incredible,’” Doman says.

“I think that people really have this desire to connect, but don’t always act on it,” Doman says. Stories are a way to bridge that gap. “I see people of all ages, all walks of life, just coming together and participating and all enjoying the same thing. Just that little bit of effort and openness can go far.”

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