Remember when you were in grade school and you’d return from your summer break, knowing that your new teacher would ask you, once again, to write a story called My Summer Vacation.
Why not write a story now that can convey the essence of your summer, in only six words?
You know that images can say so much, and it takes very few words to evoke an image.
But don’t take my word for it, have some fun and try it!
Here’s the assignment I give to managers in my class on Leading Through Story: Write a story in six words. It will test your ability to create an image in a few word–and it’s really easy. No poetry or great art required. Hopefully, it can stir the imagination of your readers, regardless of whether they see exactly what you see.
Here are a few six-word stories from my summer:
Buffoon mocks buffoon. Scary. “Rocket man.”
Too much: Drought, Northwest. Floods, Texas.
My book. Moving forward. I hope.
Seattle housing prices rise. Teachers leaving.
Dahlia glows. Hope survives drought.
Mom lives. In hospice. Two years.
Your turn! Have fun. Then,
Please share. Your words. With me.
Here’s to fall!
While Texas struggles with the aftermath of unprecedented flooding in Houston (last week’s stats: 51 inches of rain, 56,000 calls for help, and 450,000 people who may need federal disaster assistance), here in the Northwest we are facing a different kind of emergency: crackling dry lands and massive wildcat forest fires burning in eastern Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
As a striking September sun glows red in the sky and smoke and ash fills our clouds, the plans my husband and I made weeks ago for an easy jump-in-the-camper road trip through western British Columbia have morphed into (you guessed it) a “staycation.”
But what about our sought after break time? Vacations may be at risk in our work-obsessed culture, but they are super important to our well-being. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less presents compelling evidence to support how rest, from sleep to vacation, not doing more, is key to our productivity (I recommend reading!).
So with our trip canceled, my husband and I are challenged to continue the vacation spirit while staying at home. Vacations aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be, but a great one is when I return home renewed, feeling a new spaciousness. (Even if I’m not, I admit, always rested.) So how will we keep the magic of adventure while sticking around home? And celebrate the joy of just being together, which is what we really wanted from our planned vacation?
I’m fortunate to live on an island, where many people come to vacation. However, even living in a vacation-able location, we’ve surrounded ourselves with a small plantation of projects, each as hungry as the carnivorous plant Audrey in The Little Shop of Horrors, with her irresistible, “Feed Me!” I can’t walk anywhere without tripping over one of them.
Some of my projects feed my spirit, like writing and riding my horse, so I may choose to continue with them, even on vacation. (Hey, I’m writing this blog!) But how to limit myself to just a few select projects without listening to the full chorus of items on my to-do list shouting, “Do me! Do me!”
Trust me, I can create new projects quicker than a whippet can fetch a ball, especially when they’re going on my husband’s “honey-do” list.
This will be an experiment and I’ll share the results.
As we start, here’s the seven-step strategy guiding us:
1. Create a few vacation priorities.
Not too many. Our vacation was going to be a time to simplify. Priority number one: enjoy each other. Priority number two: a few fun things. (I’ll include writing, riding and dancing.) Priority number three: relax. When we go camping, just fixing a meal together becomes an adventure. Why can’t we create that same feeling at home?
2. Let go and take a break.
One key as we start is to let go. No sense thinking about the vacation that might have been. (A good idea to remember for life…)
My husband’s first request was: take a break from our routines. Dead on! Our first event was to hitch up the camper and travel to nearby Tacoma to take a walk. Was the camper necessary? No, but it gave us a little feeling of adventure on our very small jaunt off the island.
3. Do it with joy
A question guiding our choices is: Will this bring you joy? Anything we do, including some of those projects, can be done with a spirit of surprise, gratitude and joy. If we stay at home, watch movies and experience joy, we may be better off than if we’re running ourselves into the ground on a stress-inducing, action-packed, we’re-supposed-to-be-enjoying-ourselves “Fake-ation.”
4. Take easy excursions to rekindle wonder.
I want maximum enjoyment with minimum hassle, like our short trip off the island. What matters isn’t where we go but how we go. I want to walk with that wonder-filled gait I’ve used to explore small alleys and cobbled streets in Europe or India. (And a relaxed vacation state of mind makes it easier to miss a ferry without fretting!)
5. When we choose to work on a project, do it with clear intention.
This is the tricky part. We may desire to do a few projects, because they’ll be fun (or occasionally, necessary). But when the project “on” switch gets thrown, it’s hard to turn it off. I’m trying this four step process: 1) Be clear about our intention in doing a project; 2) Set a time limit; 3) Clock in by acknowledging the start and out at the finish; 4) Complete the process by celebrating with each other what we were able to do or learn. (Hmmm. Wonder if I’ll want to keep this system after the staycation!)
6. Nourish the creative.
When I can take time off to explore my creative side, I am nourished. So the camera I was packing for vacation becomes my ticket for exploring the neighborhood with new eyes.
7. Be grateful
Above all, this is an opportunity for us to take note of the simple stuff we often take for granted: the very fact that we can take a vacation: how talented my husband is fixing our camper; the tastiness of our home-grown raspberries. The tastiness of our home-grown raspberries.) Nature is a living at-home art show! Last week, I was fascinated by the intricate design of the bug’s wings I found smashed against our bathroom walls. Now, I’m looking forward to the spider webs of September. (Fortunately, in my house, there’ll be plenty!)
William Blake once suggested:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
This week, I hope I’ll have time to experience timelessness, and find new eyes with which to observe my old life.
Maybe we’ll spend a night in the camper just to remember how comfy our bed at home is! Or learn to create more mini-vacations in our densely packed lives.
Brené Brown did the world a great service when she shared, from her research and experience, about the importance of being willing to be vulnerable. But just because her TEDx talk went wildly viral and has been applauded by millions around the planet doesn’t make it any easier to stand, exposed, before others.
I know, because I teach. Not the kind of stand-behind-a-podium-reading-notes-you-developed-years-ago teaching, but teaching where you know you have to always be a learner, that each group you teach will be different, and that what matters most is always their engagement, not your glorious words. Teaching, facilitating. and sharing stories are areas of my work where I challenge myself to stand in front of others in the vulnerable void, a place where I’m willing to let go and not know.
Where do you practice working from that place of vulnerability?
I wrote this on the eve of launching a new course. (Not surprisingly, it feels vulnerable to share it!)
I love it I hate it
It is my audience, my stage
Where I come out to the world
It is my place to design
my excuse to spend hours reading
tied to my computer, mapping the timing,
dreaming of guests
I’m anxious to meet.
It is my prison
Where I have to wake at ungodly hours
to alarm clocks designed to crush the muse.
They call it training; I don’t like the word
I train my dog and horses.
Educare, to lead forward, is the verb I follow.
Not pretending that I see a world
you haven’t imagined.
It is where,
after eight hours of communion
evaluation forms are passed around.
On a ten point scale how did I do?
Tell me, did I change the life you have yet to live?
Because you don’t yet know
and neither do I
but let that be our direction.
Not just whether you liked my jokes
or the style of my blouse.
Did I impress you? (eight points)
Or really impress? (a ten)
Or did I impress upon you
the kernel of a dream
which if you follow it
will become so much more
so that in the future
when I am perhaps forgotten
You will find more of you
and say hello
to a part of you
creative and whole
that you have just remembered.
In Seattle, we didn’t see the total eclipse; at 92%, it seemed not even close. Light continued to pour over my property even as the partial eclipse came into view.
Still the experience was magical, leaving me awake and in awe, and eager to share a few thoughts with you:
You can see the world anew by looking backwards.
Without special viewing glasses, I couldn’t look straight at the sun during the eclipse (however tempting that might have been.) Instead, my husband made us a pinhole box, a primitive contraption that let us experience what it was like to be inside a camera. I had to look with the sun at my back to see a tiny reflection of the sun projected from a pinhole on to the wall of the box. The experience made me curious what else I could view differently by looking backwards.
Walking around the property looking for reflections, I discovered a beautiful portrait of our weeping Japanese maple in the glass of our garage door. I walk past that tree everyday but had never noticed the elegant shape of its lines, from the backside.I became newly inspired to design in that part of the garden. Looking from a fresh perspective was a way of waking up my jaded eyes.
Sometimes life can be best understood in its reflection.
When the eclipse hit its apex, I put down our box and went searching for the horses to see how they were faring. As I traversed a shaded part of the garden, I looked down at the sandy path and discovered a flock of little crescent-shaped light beings, swirling on the ground. “Steve, come quick,” I called to my husband, “There’s magic.” Walking ahead, I found crescents everywhere: in the driveway, on the flanks of my horse. In the dancing reflections, cast into nature, the eclipse came more alive for me.
Sometimes the truth of something comes most real when it is reflected back. As I speak, looking out at my audience, I know that the life in my talk lies not in my words but in how they land with others. The eyes of my audience members combined with the energy in the room show me where the life is in my presentation.
Great truths can be better judged when they are reflected in deeds, rather than in words alone. (Please share with certain politicians.)
Even when we forget, we are connected.
Saying “we are all connected” can sound cloyingly new age. Yet the experience of the eclipse was another reminder of how true that saying actually is. During the eclipse, the horses stood quietly with me, the birds stopped singing, and millions of people stood in awe. All of us felt the presence of something big. The leaves reflected the eclipse in their shadows. The breeze carried the eclipse as it blew. I joined with the spirit of my property, not as an owner but as a guest invited to participate in a special communion with nature.
“Wonder days” are a gift we can give ourselves.
I did not work the morning of the eclipse, savoring what a rare thing it was for me to take time, during a work day, to just sit in awe. In those few hours, I felt renewed. As the air grew cooler, and the sky darker, the heavy summer heat was lifted. The air was rinsed.
There are times when the quality of our time shifts. Time steps out of time. This can happen during a sacred holiday or threshold event, on a mountain top, or even in the wake of a tragedy. The everyday banter of the world quiets; we turn away from our electronics; we lift out of our little concerns. We turn towards each other or towards nature. We experience wonder.
We don’t need to wait for the next eclipse. You could start tomorrow. I’m giving you a special gift that I also need: a free pass to create your own, unique wonder day. To see the world anew.
My heart breaks with Charlottesville. I am still grieving Charleston and so many other sites of senseless violence. Hate crimes wound us all.
Why? How? What to do? Many questions. Few answers.
I’m blessed and cursed to not be able to put senseless tragedies like this out of mind or pretend that they don’t affect me. The media plays out such stories around the clock, and it’s hard to escape the news. But the remains of news–all too often–is superficial–like scum on the sands of the beach that will be swept away when a new tide brings in the next bad thing.
Let’s not adapt to this being normal.
I don’t want to forget. These stories pierce me.
Last week I wrote about what it’s like to hear stories of strangers (through the remarkable Story Bridge process) and bring them into your heart.
Interconnection is the truth of this world. You and I carry the world within us. That means, unfortunately, that I carry both villains and saints within me, perpetrators and healers, or at least the capacities for both violence and love.
I learned, exploring my genealogy in a stack of dusty papers provided me by a southern relative, that my great, great, great somewhat removed uncle owned slaves. Does that fact live in my genes? When I worked in Africa, I always felt a strong affinity. Would genome testing prove that I carry Africa in my genes? And when I get so stirred up hearing about someone who denies the Holocaust, has abused a woman or child, or attacks gays, a gut level rage swells up too deep to be just a reaction to the news. Is it because of genetics? Family history? Sensitivity to the world? Or maybe past lives? I don’t know.
We are interconnected and we are responsible for ourselves as individuals. Both/and.
As I look outward, I also look into my heart to see what forces of hate, cruelty, entitlement, unconsciousness toward others, or judgmentalism I carry in me. None of us are off the hook for carrying such forces within us, with the possible exception of a few saints or enlightened ones.
How to not adapt to mind-numbing news
I want to dig deeper. I am drawn again to the words of Etty Hillesum, a Jew who lived in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Etty’s life was one of rigorous study and courageous self-examination. She was destined, perhaps, to be a psychologist, when the Germans began to take her people away. Aware of what was happening, and knowing the fate that could (and did) befall her family and herself, she signed up to help in the Westerbrok detention camp. From there she wrote some profoundly beautiful letters, still relevant for these times.
Etty was someone who could behold terror and still see wonder. She did not let the horrors numb her or keep her from writing.
She refused to adapt to this being the way of the world.
“The sky is full of birds, the purple lupins stand up so regally and peacefully, two little old women have sat down for a chat, the sun is shining on my face–and right before our eyes, mass murder… The whole thing is simply beyond comprehension.”
We human beings cause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it. …
while everything within us does not yet scream out in protest, so long will we find ways of adapting ourselves, and the horrors will continue.
I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.
I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.
Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.”
I try to remember that as I pick a fresh raspberry. There’s still room to nourish wonder. But not hate.
Get to the point
In my business writing class in B-school, I learned to be succinct, concise and make my point quickly. Unlike the meandering essays of my earlier college days, business writing was about producing summaries in a page or less for executives to skim. In a time-pressed business environment, being able to boil a complex issue down to a half page, or even a paragraph, was a critically important skill.
It still is. But it’s only half the picture. Because critical insights without a story can fall flat.
A condensed, reasoned argument appeals to our intellect, but if we want our message to stick we’d better bring in some emotion. Stories that can give meaning to a fact or help us picture an issue compliment our terse communications by helping listeners viscerally imagine, feel and sense the merits of a recommended decision or path. It’s almost impossible to do that in an executive summary.
As Brené Brown once wrote: “Stories are just data with a soul.”
Stories give readers a portal to their imaginations, where they can picture a proposed scenario or discover for themselves the context for a recommended action.
How much is too long
Sometimes a story can take too long to tell, or put on paper. But how much is too long.
When I taught small business marketing, I used this adage: “Q: When is your marketing too expensive?” “A: When it doesn’t work.” The same could be said for business writing. If the words behind your message are few, but they don’t move your audience, it’s too long. If you take more words to tell a story and your message has impact, the length is probably just right.
I remember sitting at a women’s leadership conference watching the high-energy opening speaker on stage. She moved across the stage with passion and conviction, championing new approaches to leadership to a tribe of bright-eyed, already convinced, audience members. Yet after about ten minutes of listening to her, the bright eyes of audience members started to dull and their enthusiasm waned. Why? She was speaking in platitudes without telling stories. By the time she hit the twenty minute mark, audience members were looking at their phones, continuing to smile pleasantly, and tuning out.
The ever-popular message to presenters: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them?” is all tell, tell, tell. What about helping them feel? Why not paint a picture of that future for people that helps them care?
Here’s the challenge for people like me. We have to balance our left-brain analytic skills with a new set of awarenesses. To effectively create stories, we need to nurture a more right-brain kind of intelligence that thrives on images, sensory awareness and imagination. We have to smell the roses in our imaginations before we can invite our listeners to do the same.
How to create a story that captivates
Many of the story-telling techniques used in branding are message-based. You start with a concept and then map out your story. But my colleague, master story-coach and storyteller Doug Lipman sees it differently. Story, he says, starts with an image. A specific image from a specific moment helps you to remember and recreate a scene for an audience.
By making a connection with an imaginal world, storytellers invite listeners to join them in an experience that can lead to a message.
Building our image gathering awareness
Trouble is, some of us, like me, are occasionally crippled by our desire to be concise. We may blitz over the intriguing details in a scene that would help bring to life a story we want to create. How often I have wished I were a better observer! For the sake of story, I’m practicing remedial remembering, trying to recount what I was seeing, tasting, feeling, hearing, touching, etc. at a particular moment.
I am trying to pause more to notice the small vignettes taking place all around me, from the garden to a client office. Just today on the island, the hummingbird made a loud swooshing sound as he dive bombed into the water coming out of my hose in the garden. The six foot oriental lilies, now towering in the flower bed, have a sweet, hypnotic fragrance. I swam by a great blue heron fishing on the dock of a local park, testing how near I could come to him. He watched me out of his little yellow O shaped eyes while continuing to stretch his neck towards the buffet of small fish in the water below. Finally, tired of my presence, he sauntered to the end of the dock, and with a great swoop lifted himself into the sky.
None of these little vignettes are stories. But noticing them helps me rebuild my capacity to use my senses and remember my memories. When I craft a story to bring data or a finding to life, I will be better tuned to describe a moment and help listeners enter my world and hear my message.
Maybe that’s something you’d like to try: stop, feel, notice, and imagine the world around you as if it was a scene that you could someday paint for another. It will only enrich your stories to come.