Telling a new story – the women’s way

sharing stories and stitching prayer flags at a recent women's gathering

I talk a lot about stories – how important they are in helping us find collective healing, how transformative they can be in encouraging us to dream of a new world, how much they connect us to each other and give us courage.

“But what IS a story?” the students in my Creative Writing for Self-Discovery class pushed back a few weeks ago. “How do you define it? You’ve made reference to the story arc and conflict and plot, but we still don’t know the ‘rules’. How do we figure out whether or not something we write fits the definition of story?”

“Next week,” I promised, and then went home and started brushing up on my definition of story.

When I incorporate storytelling into leadership and personal growth workshops, I purposely leave my definition fairly vague. “A story is simply your account of how things happened. It can be as simple as helping people see a new possibility by telling them ‘when Jim did this last week, it made his daily routine much easier.'” But this was different. This was a group of creative writers who want to master the craft of writing short stories – whether simply for their own enjoyment or for the possibility of getting them published some day.

I did what any teacher would do – I went back to the tried and true definitions from back when I was getting my English degree. I typed up a lovely list of story elements for my students – setting, plot, conflict, character, point of view, and theme. I found a helpful diagram of the story arc that demonstrates how a story moves from routine, through the inciting incident that changes everything, through rising tension, to the climax, and ultimately to the denouement (resolution). I defined the protagonist as the main character and the antagonist as whatever source of conflict arises from the inciting incident which the protagonist must conquer before there is resolution. As I prepared my notes, I had flashbacks of my literature professors (all aging white men, incidentally) drilling it into our impressionable mines that “unless there is conflict and some kind of climax and resolution, THERE IS NO STORY!”

It was all good material that my professors would have been proud of… BUT… it didn’t entirely satisfy me. Something was wrong. Even though it was the kind of handout that would have gotten me an A in my university literature classes, the twenty plus years of wisdom I’ve gained since didn’t quite jive.

Then, while reading A Passion for Narrative, something jumped out and shook me out of my complacent regurgitation. You could say that it was my “inciting incident” where everything changed. It was this quote from Janet Burroway:

“Seeing the world in terms of enemies and warring factions not only limits the possibilities of literature, but also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives. Further, the notion of resolution is untrue to life, and holds up perfection, unity, and singularity as goals at the expense of acceptance, nuance, and variety… Birth presents us with an alternative model in which there is a desired result, drama, struggle, and outcome. But it also represents a process in which the struggle, one toward life and growth, is natural. There is no enemy. The “resolution” suggests continuance rather than finality. It is persuasively argued that the story as power struggle offers a patriarchal view of the world, and that it would improve both stories and world if we would envision human beings as engaged in a struggle toward life.”

WAIT JUST ONE MINUTE! There’s a different way of defining stories? There doesn’t need to be a protagonist and an antagonist and the struggle doesn’t need to be AGAINST someone or something?

Something new in me woke up. Perhaps more truthfully, something old and primal in me was re-awakened. Suddenly it all made sense, and my storytelling wisdom lined up with my exploration of feminine wisdom.

We’ve been telling too many patriarchal stories! We’ve been letting our old white male university professors convince us that that’s the way it HAS to be! We’ve been conditioned to believe that our stories are not real stories unless there is an evil force to overcome. We’ve sat through hundreds of movies, read thousands of books, and listened to a million children’s stories that have all lead us to believe that there is conflict that needs to be overcome and that the only way to wrap up the story is to tie up the loose ends into some kind of (usually artificially constructed) resolution.

We don’t have to tell those kinds of stories anymore. In fact, the world needs us to start telling NEW stories – ones that are modelled on birth, where there is still a struggle, but this time we are struggling TOGETHER to bring about something new. There is no enemy. And the endings don’t need to be resolved, but rather they leave us at a place of continuance, growth, or just a whole lot of new questions for us to sit with.

This is so much bigger than simply a Tuesday evening creative writing class. This new way of engaging with story is about a new way of engaging with our economy, our religions, our communities, and our earth. It doesn’t have to be about competition anymore. There doesn’t have to be an antagonist in our stories. We can all be protagonists in the struggle together, birthing something new and ending not with a resolution, but with a step into the next story.

It all made sense to me when I read that quote, because THIS is what I feel most called to bring to the world – a new way of telling stories, a new way of walking through struggle, a new way of engaging with each other, and a new way of sensing the future. This is a new story that is actually more like an old story finally being reborn. Patriarchy does not have to rule us anymore. The old stories don’t have to control the way we see the world. We can usher in the Feminine. We can “shake the world with a new dream“. We can redefine ourselves as artists. We can build a new sacred economy. We can lead with our wild hearts.

It’s not easy letting go of the old stories. We’ll experience a lot of pain and resistance along the way. We’ll have to stand up to those wise old university professors and say “we respect your version, and it may have worked in the past, but we’ve got a new story to tell”. We’ll have to stand up to big business and say “you’ve created a lot of good products and you’ve allowed us to live in privilege, but it’s time to stop all this production and birth a new future.” We’ll have to challenge our governments and say “we’ve appreciated the way you’ve let us use our natural resources for our own ease and comfort, but it’s time to stop seeing Mother Earth as the antagonist in this story.” We’ll have to interrupt our meetings and public forums, move the chairs into circle, and say “thank you for leading us in the past, but we have a new way of gathering now and we believe it makes a difference when our chairs don’t mirror a hierarchical view of the world.”

This is what Lead with your Wild Heart is all about. I’ve gathered a Wisdom Circle of people who are willing to share the ways in which they’re learning to tell new stories, and together we’ll be “shaking the world with a new dream” – a dream where there are no enemies, we struggle together, and the end looks more like a set of new questions than a resolution.

I really hope you’ll join me and the other wise women who are starting to gather. 

A circle of writers (what my workshops and classes are like)

It’s another Tuesday night and I prepare once again for my small circle of writers. I arrive early and place the low round table in the centre, covered with the colourful tapestry that comes with me to every workshop. Like the threads of the tapestry, many stories will be woven together tonight.

At the centre of the table is always the candle – the warmth that holds us together. Next to it is my Tibetan singing bowl and whatever talking piece has been selected for this evening’s sharing time. Sometimes the participants bring talking pieces that are meaningful to them. Tonight one woman has brought a beautiful black polished stone, adorned with a dragonfly mosaic. “It represents transformation,” she says.

The women (and occasionally men) settle into their chairs and I welcome them with the ringing of the bell. We sit quietly, focusing on our breath as we wait for the end of the rich tone. After the bell, a centring piece is read – a poem by Mary Oliver or a blessing by John O’Donohue. Then the talking piece is passed, and we share the details of how our weeks have gone – from the mundane to the profound. None of this is about writing, but it’s important nonetheless. Our writing voices emerge out of our personal stories and we know that those stories will feel more safe in a circle of people we trust. Only three weeks in, and we are already bonded, sharing increasingly more vulnerable stories with each other.

Next they begin to share the pieces they’ve been working on throughout the week. “I didn’t have much time,” one apologizes, or “it’s not very polished,” says another, or “it’s nothing great,” says yet another, and yet each time they share, I marvel at how profound and beautiful their simple offerings are. This week, they’ve written a dialogue between the voices in their heads – the one that wants something new and the one that’s resisting. Their individuality and shy dreams shine through their pieces.

Tonight we are exploring what voice means – both our own voices and the voices of those people and creatures we want to bring into our writing. I pull out a set of cards depicting forest creatures – the Elementals designed by my intuitive friend Thomas – and they are invited to write in the voice of the creature they see on the cards they select.

As they write, I boil water for tea. Tea goes well with writing and storytelling. There is silence in the room, each person wandering away from the space for awhile, imagining themselves in the forest with a mesmerizing creature that has a message meant just for them.

They share their pieces, surprised by how much wisdom flows out of them. Before long, the conversation has veered far away from writing. We’re talking about our connections to the earth, our secret longings, our hidden shame, our deepest fears. I say very little and offer only little guideposts to help them know the conversation is good and true and heading in the direction it’s meant to head in. In this moment, I am not teacher but host. It is their wisdom that is emerging – their truth, their gifts. I am here simply to help them unleash it.

As I listen, I find myself grinning at the beauty of this circle and all of the others like this that I have had the pleasure of hosting. Each offering I make, the right people show up, the right voices emerge, and the right truth is spoken. Always, the people that are drawn to what I offer are open-hearted and open-minded. They come because they want to learn and grow. They come because they are beginning to find the courage to explore and share their own stories. I am always fascinated by how unique and wise each person is.

Often, early in our time together, there is resistance in one or two of them, but usually by the end, the resistance has softened and openness has taken its place. Only once has someone stopped coming because she wasn’t prepare to process the depth of feelings that surfaced for her in the circle.

The evening ends quickly and they are given their next assignment. This week, they will write about place. They’ll find a place that feels meaningful to them and they’ll find the unique quality and voice of that place. I have no doubt that once again they’ll be surprised at what shows up in their writing.

One more time, the talking piece is passed, and we share what we learned or what intentions we wish to set for the week ahead. The bell is wrung one more time, and we begin to leave the circle and depart for our various homes.

I drive home, taking the long way through the park, savouring the magic of the night. This is my greatest dream coming true, circle by circle, story by story. I am honoured and blessed to be the host of so much goodness.

How to offer compassion in times of trouble

I have been the recipient of a great deal of compassion lately – openhearted, open-armed, soul-enriching compassion. I am deeply blessed.

It brings to mind the simple words my Dad used to say almost every time we left the house. “Be kind,” he said, and we knew that if we did nothing else but offer someone kindness that day, then we had been successful in Dad’s eyes.

There have been a LOT of successful people in my life lately.

Not only have I been comforted and encouraged by kindness, I have been educated by it. Here are my thoughts, based on what I’ve witnessed, about how to offer compassion to people you care about who are going through tough times.

1. Create safety. The most important thing you can do is offer the person a safe place to fall apart. Be trustworthy, be present, be available, and be soft. Give them the warmth of your touch, the comfort of your words, and the gift of your listening.

2. Refrain from offering advice until you know they’re strong enough to receive it (and/or they’ve asked for it).  When a person is feeling vulnerable and broken, unsolicited advice can make them feel like they’ve failed or they’re not as good as you are at handling difficult times. Your advice may be valuable, but don’t offer it if it will make them feel small.

3. Withhold judgement. Nobody who’s going through a difficult journey wants to be judged for their weakness, their tears, their messy home, or their indecisiveness. Bite your tongue even if you think they’re being foolish or immature. Let them be weak if they need to be weak. There will be time for strength later.

4. Be an active listener. Let the person suffering do most of the talking and be fully present for what they are saying. In the middle of the struggle, there is nothing quite as powerful as knowing that you are heard and seen. Don’t try to fill the silences with platitudes or solutions. Leave as much space as they need to share their stories and work through what they need someone to hear.

5. Offer empathy, not sympathy. Empathy lets a person know they’re not alone, sympathy leaves them feeling inferior. Empathy builds bridges, sympathy builds walls. People who offer sympathy (eg. “poor you”) instead of empathy are usually doing it because they feel some need to elevate themselves above the other person.

6. Share your stories to make them feel less alone, but don’t overshadow their stories. Stories are really important in times of grief or stress, but the most important stories that need to be shared at that time are the ones that belong to the person going through the trouble. Offer your own stories in a respectable manner, but only after they’ve had a chance to share theirs.

7. Do not pretend to know EXACTLY what they’re going through. You can’t possibly know just what they’re experiencing because you are a different person carrying different baggage. You may have been on a similar path and felt similar pain (and that’s worth sharing), but each person’s path is his/her own. Let them describe what they’re going through rather than assuming you know.

8. Let them cry. Cry with them if that is what emerges. Don’t try to end their grief or fix their pain. Sit with them in the middle of that field of grief and just let what is be what it needs to be. Nobody can take a shortcut through pain, so don’t pretend you’ve found one. Watching a loved one cry feels excruciating, and you really, really want to fix it for them, but to show them the kind of love they need, you need to let the tears flow and simply bear witness.

9. Let them know that they are courageous, even if their courage only shows up in very small ways. When the road is hard, just putting one foot in front of another takes courage. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning takes courage. Help them discover their own basketful of courage stories – memories of the times when they have shown courage that will help them rise to the challenges ahead.

10. Just love them. Plain and simple. Bring them supper, buy them chai latte, babysit their kids, take them out to a movie, show up to help them serve the food at the funeral they’ve been dreading, sit with them at the hospital, buy them toilet paper when you’re sure they haven’t had a moment to go shopping, drop love notes in their mailbox… do whatever it takes to let them know they are surrounded by love.

What if there is no moral to this story?

I was at a social justice conference once when a well known storyteller got up to speak. I settled comfortably into my chair, preparing to be inspired.

He told a great (and very short) story, and then sat down. I thought he was just taking a break – maybe a musical interlude or dramatic pause – and then he’d get up to tell us what the story meant or how we should apply it to our lives.

Nope. Nothing. That was it. End of story.

I felt cheated. It was, after all, a social justice conference. We’d come to be inspired, to take home a toolkit full of take-aways and lessons-learned. If I remember correctly, his story didn’t even seem to have a social justice lens. It was just a story.

But was it?

The truth is, it stuck with me throughout the day, and into the week – long after I’d forgotten the take-aways from other talks or workshops.

One of the things I learned from his story is this: we don’t always need to hear the moral of the story. Sometimes, in fact, there is no moral. There’s just story. And the story becomes what each of us needs it to be. (Kind of like Jesus’ parables, right?)

I am a meaning-maker, a metaphor-finder, and a teacher. I like to follow story threads to their natural conclusions and then wrap the threads into neat little bows that allow you to take the stories home in pretty little packages to unwrap later. I’m used to shaping my ideas into teaching tools so that you have useful takeaways. It’s what I do and it’s often what I expect others to do.

But sometimes I try too hard and sometimes I do the story a mis-service by giving it only one shape when perhaps what you needed was a different shape entirely. Perhaps the story is still what you need, but through your lens it looks different and I’ve just ruined that for you by prescribing my own shape to it.

I’m finding lately that I’m growing somewhat weary of blog posts and social media updates, mostly because there seems to be too much expectation that we make sure every story has a moral, and every thread is tied.

We want to make sure we’re offering “good content”, and so we tie those threads. The blogging professionals remind us of how many extra hits we get when we can give “helpful tips for an easier life” or “do-it-yourself advice for ending the story as successfully as I did”, and so we give every story a nice juicy moral that readers can apply to their lives.

In doing so, sadly, we lose some of the messiness (and beauty) of life. We take out the really raw bits, because they don’t fit into neatly tied packages. We don’t tell the stories that end unhappily or not at all. We ignore the journeys that don’t conclude in simple and profound destinations.

This is one of the blocks I’ve had lately. This blog is now part of my business, and so I should be giving you good content that will keep you coming back for more. I should be offering you neatly tied packages. And I should do that on a regular basis so that you’ll come back often. And I certainly shouldn’t post this blog near midnight on a Friday. It’s blog suicide.

Unfortunately, many of my stories are messy and rarely do they come to me at appropriate blogging times of day. And often they don’t fit into clean frames or end with simple-to-communicate morals. Many of them are just little pieces of my journey and so the end is simply the beginning of something new. Sometimes (like when a man climbed through my window and raped me more than twenty years ago), it takes me years and years to process the lessons I’m meant to take away from a story. And even when I think I’ve learned all there is to learn, something new shows up a few years later and I realize the story hasn’t finished unfolding itself in my life.

And yet… I know those stories, as messy and unfinished as they are, are worth sharing. So I’ll keep offering them to you, but sometimes I won’t bother tying the threads together. I’ll let you find your own threads and see how those threads weave into your stories.

I am reminded, once again, of one of my favourite quotes.

“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.” 

– George Bernard Shaw

Traveling is what I do. It’s what we all are doing. I haven’t reached the destination, so I can’t give you the “moral of this life-long story”. But maybe I can help you navigate some of the rocks that tripped me up.

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t know for sure. I haven’t figured out a way to end this post with a neat little moral either.

So I’m just going to leave you with what it is… some of the thoughts finding space in my head.

Ten (not so) simple ways to live a full life

1. Take a deep dive into your own heart. Dare to feel the depths of your emotions. Let joy wash over you like a tsunami wave. Let grief ooze out of every pore of your body. Be passionate and don’t apologize for your passion. Don’t be satisfied with life at the surface. Feel it, live it, be it.

2. Forgive more and forget more. You made a blunder and embarrassed yourself at a family dinner party? Forgive yourself. Forget it. Your partner overlooked your last anniversary? Forgive and then forget. Let go of the baggage that’s weighing you down.

3. Find someone you can trust and then lean in and trust them. Share the things that hurt you, whisper the deep and secret wishes of your heart, and let them see glimpses of your shadow and your brightest light. Trust that in their presence, you will not be judged.

4. Dare to be trustworthy. Be honourable for everyone you meet, but for a few select people (just enough not to burn you out with the giving), offer a place of great safety. Serve as a shelter for them, where vulnerability is welcome and weakness is handled tenderly. Be their lighthouse on a stormy ocean.

5. Tell more stories. Sit with your neighbours. Curl up on the couch with your best friend. Hang out in coffee shops. Talk to your taxi driver. Ask people to tell you the stories of their childhood, and then tell them yours. Create openings for storytelling in the most unlikely of places. Listen deeply and let the stories blossom under your care.

6. Live in community. Serve people and let them serve you. Dare to need people and let them know what you need. Be interdependent. Sit in circle and create spaces of trust and sharing.

7. Buy fewer things and give more away. Don’t listen to the advertisers who tell you that you can’t be happy without this year’s model. Make a choice to continue to take great delight in last year’s model. Give away the things you don’t need anymore. Live with less clutter and less attachment to material possessions.

8. Ask more questions. Be curious about the world. Stare in wonder. Let the questions take you down paths you didn’t expect to take. Don’t rush to find the answers. Let the questions lead to more questions and more opportunities to exercise your curiosity.

9. Go for more walks. Experience your neighbourhood. Get lost in the woods. Stare at intricate leaf patterns. Stretch your muscles. Feel your body move down the path. Notice the sun on your face. Be present, be mindful.

10. Find practices that bring you delight and then do them regularly. Paint. Dance. Take photo walks. Run. Swim. Pray. Meditate. Knit. Visit bookstores. Go to the theatre. Travel. Do it, delight in it, and savour every minute.


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