Teaching and Leading in the Ambiguous Spaces

At the beginning of every Creative Writing for Self Discovery class on Thursday evenings, after I ring the bell to welcome people into the circle, I read a poem. Usually it’s from a fairly serious, weighty poet like Mary Oliver or David Whyte. We don’t deconstruct the poem like we all used to do in high school English – we just sit with it for awhile and let it seep into us. Sometimes I read it twice. And then we share the way that the words may have pinched or soothed us.

Yesterday I thought it was time for a bit more whimsy and fun, and so I brought in my favourite Dr. Seuss book, Oh the Places You’ll Go!  Earlier in the day, I’d spent a fair bit of time with the book, coming up with what I thought were some good writing exercises to use as a follow-up to the book. I was well prepared for a fun, engaging, imaginative class.

Before going to class, I read Bob Stilger’s post about a workshop he’d co-hosted in Zimbabwe. Bob wrote an honest critique of how he and the rest of the hosting team had run the kind of session they’d been hired to run but hadn’t done enough to respond to what needed to emerge in the room.  “We did not work well with the needs and hopes present in the room,” he says.

Bob’s words made me wonder, “Am I doing enough to allow the needs and hopes in the room to emerge? Am I creating enough space for people’s stories to be told in the way that they need to tell them, rather than imposing my own style on them?”

This is, after all, why I teach this class in circle instead of a more traditional hierarchical structure. I don’t see myself as the expert in the room, transferring knowledge to my students like a mother bird dropping worms in hungry mouths. I see myself as a co-learner with them, exploring stories as a way to get to our deeper truths. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow-traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.”

Yesterday, after reading Oh the Places You’ll Go!, but before launching into the well-planned writing exercises, I asked participants to share the writing they’d done in the week since we’d met. The assignment had been an exploration of personal voice and the passions and delights that are most easily communicated when one speaks in his/her most honest voice. One women shared a beautiful poem that began with words that were something like “my voice rises when I see someone fall.”

The second person to offer something up admitted that she was having a hard time sharing in class. At the first class, she’d openly shared a vulnerable and raw piece about loss and loneliness, but since then something had blocked her from sharing. She feared her writing was all going to the same dark places and she wasn’t sure of the validity and value of that for anyone other than herself.

At that moment, the circle proved its worth. We honoured her reluctance, we recognized her pain, we shared our own pain, and before long we’d entered a deeper place of conversation than we’d been in the past three classes. We talked about the universality of loneliness, and reflected back to Dr. Seuss’ words about the lonely place as one of the “places you’ll go”. We admitted the shame we felt when we’d been lonely in the middle of marriage or parenthood, or a gathering where everyone else is shiny and happy. We talked about the “slumps” and “waiting places” that Dr. Seuss so wisely defined for us.

And then we talked about how these stories connect us with each other and make us feel less alone. We discussed the value of writing these stories and sharing them in order to touch other people’s pain and walk the journey with them. We wrestled with the fine line a writer must walk between being personal and vulnerable, and yet being universal and not too self-absorbed.

Together, we took a deep dive into “the places you’ll go”.

At one point I glanced at the clock and realized that my well-planned exercises would never see the light of day. And when the tiny voice of regret whispered in my ear, I wished it well and sent it on its way. And when the slightly louder voice of my internal critic tried to insist that “you need to maintain order in this class. You need to share your expertise and exercises or people won’t get what they paid for,” I smiled, and then leaned in even closer to the person whose story was slowly and tentatively emerging.

In the end, we let the stories in the room (with a little help from Dr. Seuss) guide our adventure last night. We never got to the assignment, but it didn’t need to be done. We let the whimsy of Dr. Seuss take us from the not-so-good streets to the high heights, past the Bang-ups and Hang-ups, through the Slump and to a place where the streets are not marked. We raced across weirdish wild spaces, sat still in The Waiting Place, found the places where the Boom Bands are playing, let ourselves experience the lonely place where we met things that scare you right out of your pants, and in the end, tried to believe that we will succeed (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed).

Throughout the course of the evening, we went to all the right places, even though none of them were the ones I’d carefully orchestrated.

The further I go down this teaching and leadership journey, the more I realize the value of the ambiguous spaces – the spaces where we let go of our plans, let go of certainty, let go of agendas, let go of “the way things have always been”, and open ourselves to possibility. It is in those spaces that true creativity can emerge. When we let ourselves (and the people we lead & teach) get a little lost, we can write deeper stories, ask deeper questions, and find deeper meaning.

It’s a scary place to go, and it’s hard to convince ourselves (and the people we’re with) that it’s the right place when we’re supposed to be “in charge”. Nobody likes to feel out of control. It’s scary for the leader and it’s scary for the people being lead. (I remember being reprimanded by former staff for letting meetings slip away from the agenda. There was fear of the unknown in those reprimands.)

And yet, if we want to go to deeper places, we have to be more comfortable with ambiguity and confusion. Rather than trying to enforce our own plans, we have to be willing to let the stories in the room shape what needs to be done. With caution and respect, and an intuitive sense of when it’s time to steer the ship back into safer harbour, we as leaders and teachers need to risk security for creativity. Otherwise, we’ll never leave the shallow water and we’ll never know what’s possible.

This greater comfort with ambiguity is, I believe, one of the gifts of feminine wisdom.

And now, for your inspiration, here’s John Lithgow reading Oh the Places You’ll Go!


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