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Anonymous Stories for the Instagram Age


Handwriting is not dead. On a recent Thursday at the Fountain House Gallery in Hell’s Kitchen, 70 people milled about and read some 800 handwritten stories that were hung on clothespins along lengths of twine affixed to the wall. Each row of stories had a string of fairy lights glowing between them. Passers-by stop to read excerpts, like these three:

Life just feels a lot like Jell-O. Things are a little loose, and wriggly and jiggly & a little uncertain.

I might be transgender. I’m still figuring that out.

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.

Other people clustered in the corner by an L-shaped bench, pen and clipboard in hand, to write a story of their own at the exhibition, “The Strangers Project Year 10 Show.” These later joined an archive of more than 50,000 stories housed in a Brooklyn apartment.

For the last 10 years, Brandon Doman, the project’s founder, has been collecting handwritten stories in cities across the country. His favorite spot is Washington Square Park in New York. It’s a simple premise: Mr. Doman stands alongside a sign saying “What’s Your Story?” with a stack of 20 clipboards and pieces of blank paper. People stop by to write. No one signs their names. Many linger to read copies of previous contributions.

He calls this work “The Strangers Project” and shares a few stories a week on Instagram to his more than 30,000 followers. Mr. Doman published a book of highlights with Harper Collins in 2015. The Strangers Project is art for the Instagram age — a transformation of an anonymous public space into one of intimacy.

It is reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, an ongoing work that began in the 1996, where visitors are invited to take a paper tag, write a wish, and hang it on the branches of a tree. It also has echoes of PostSecret, a project started by Frank Warren in 2005 that lets people anonymously mail in postcards containing “secrets,” a few of which Mr. Warren posts online on Sundays. Hannah Brencher’s More Love Letters, started in 2011, is an initiative in which strangers can send a letter to someone in need. In the Dear Tomorrow Project, started by Jill Kubit and Trisha Shrum in 2015, participants write letters to the future, promising action on climate change.

All four of these projects accept contributions online. Mr. Doman is a purist: All of the stories he collects have to be written on-site.

If people were given the chance to send in stories later, “it starts to become like a magazine or a journal where people are doing drafts, preparing things and editing,” Mr. Doman said in an interview. He didn’t want that. “I think you get a raw authenticity when people are spontaneous.”

A common refrain that he hears is: “You have no idea how much I needed to write this tonight. Thank you.” It can be cathartic, even healing, for people to slow down, write a story, and read other people’s words.

“Handwriting is a very personal activity,” said Virginia Berninger, professor emeritus at the University of Washington College of Education. “Writing personal stories,” she added, “can help developing writers learn self-regulation.”

Kathleen Wright, an independent educational consultant, said: Writing focuses your attention on the task at hand. You tend to write slower by hand than you type on a keyboard.” And, she added, “You have to think about what you want to put down.”

Once, Mr. Doman said, someone wrote a suicide note. Because the project is anonymous, he had no way of getting in touch with the writer. A few days later, though, a woman emailed him to say that writing down that note saved her life.

The project attracts followers from around the country and the world. In July, Jordan Barr, 17, of St. Louis, visited New York with her best friend of 13 years. She has followed the Strangers Project on Instagram since 2017, and made a point of visiting Mr. Doman one night at his spot in Washington Square Park.

“I’m a writer myself, so it’s always inspired me.” Ms. Barr said in an interview. “I like learning from other people. Everyone has a story, just like he says.”

“It’s so simple,” she continued. “It’s really just clothespins on a line, but no one has thought of it before. And just to see how many people come together over it is amazing.”

Ms. Barr said she wrote two stories: one hopeful, and one “just me going through my teenage angst.”

On the same night another participant, Keith Caruso, a psychiatrist from Tennessee, was visiting New York University with his teenage daughter when he walked by the project with his family. His daughter wanted to write something, so he decided to write as well: the story of how he met his wife.

“I enjoyed it,” Dr. Caruso said. “We’ve been married 22 years. I’m pretty busy so I don’t have a lot of time to write.”

When he told me it was only a page, I was like, ‘I can take the time to do that,’” Dr. Caruso added.

Dr. Berninger said, “I’m not surprised at all that people are eager, given a pen or pencil, to share their personal stories in a public place.”

Based on research, she said, she learned that children enjoyed writing more and were more engaged in writing when as soon as composing something, they could read it to a writing buddy.

“You don’t have to earn your living as a novelist or a writer to want to share what you’re writing,” she said.

The Strangers Project shows that writing and reading handwritten stories can be a welcome interlude in the frenetic pace of the digital age.

Taking time to write a personal story by hand, or to read a story that someone has written, makes us all a bit more human.

The Strangers Project Year 10 Show

Through Sept. 8 at Fountain House Gallery, 702 Ninth Avenue at 48th Street in Hell’s Kitchen; fountainhousegallery.org.


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