Is Your Story Fact or Fiction?

When the waves of change are high, stories help us navigate.

Still, we need to be discerning and recognize bad stories when we hear them.

I’m not just thinking of the 1964 film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies that earned a nomination for one of the worst movies of all time. It’s honestly bad.

Or the stumbling, disjointed story told by a geeky engineer in his first attempt to tell a story about himself. He honestly tried and earned a big round of applause from me.

I’m talking about stories that lie. Circulate hearsay and flame hate. Spread information that’s reported out of context. Fail to acknowledge their sources and biases.

Sadly, a lot of such stories are flying high these days.

Stories shape meaning

Stories help us to make meaning in times of unrest and uncertainty.

As chaos grows in the world, so, too, does the need for meaning. No wonder we see a growing interest in storytelling.

But when times are confusing, as 2018 was for many of us, we need to choose our stories carefully.

We don’t need more stories that promise an easy way out of chaos, responding to our fears with more fear and offering simplistic, half-baked answers, while looking for ways to create villains onto whom we can project our anxieties.

If we want to create meanings that lead to a more positive future, we need to pause before jumping on the first answers we find and think about what we’re sharing as memes and messages before we hit the send button.

While we strive to do no harm.

An Inspiring Conversation

I just listened to a very stimulating conversation by two of my favorite story-catcher/story-activists, Christina Baldwin and Mary Alice Arthur. They were speaking as part of an exceptional (and mostly free) program called “Story the Future Learning Encounter.” (Lots of free resources-learn more here.) These women have spent years exploring how to use storytelling to promote a more positive, participative, socially just, and environmentally conscious, future.

“Our job as STORYCATCHERS is not to change our history, but to carry it differently. To carry it with resilience. And that is sometimes really hard work.”

Christina Baldwin

They invited me to think about how we use stories.

We live within stories

There’s nothing wrong with writing stuff that isn’t true. It’s called fiction. If you want to write The Giant Squid Who Fell to Earth, terrific. I promise to read it, knowing that it is your invention.

But fiction disguised as fact is another thing.

Of course, most of us wouldn’t intentionally spread untruths. Yet, I still tell myself stories that were never true: that I can’t sing in a chorus (Source: 2nd grade), that I can’t draw (3rd grade), that I’m not pretty enough or valuable enough (ongoing). These stories were never true, and yet they’ve shaped my life. I need a big dose of self-compassion to unravel them, slowly and gently, letting go of parts of what I thought was my identity.

We’ve grown up amid big, cultural narratives that have tolerated the abuse of women, minorities, immigrants, gays, and other people with noticeable differences. The stories that have held bigotry in place have been considered true but never were. Our culture has valued certain narratives while ignoring the stories of many.

I watched the movie Loving and was shocked to learn that laws in Virginia prohibited interracial marriage until 1967. The reasons given to justify such discrimination seem barbaric to me today.

I imagine that someday I may look back on our current era and ask, “How could we have ever believed that?”

We’re all “repeaters” in the field of culture, choosing which stories to pass on, which facts to share.

Sharing on social media is too easy. One click and we can reach thousands. But how do we know if what we’re sharing is true? When do we pause and ask whether the messages we’re sending are consistent with our values and inner moral code? Who will these stories hurt? Who will they exclude? Why are we choosing to send them?

Before we share a story on social media or publicly, why not ask:

  • Do I know the source of this information?
  • Am I only sharing information that jibes with my point of view, without considering other information that may be lying by the wayside?
  • Am I sharing stories intended to make me look better than others?
  • Am I listening to stories that would have me doubt my self-worth?

Using stories for good

Christina Baldwin offers those who would gather and share stories some factors to think about. I paraphrase:

1) Respect resilience.
All around us are everyday heroes doing their best to survive. Everybody goes through a lot in life. We can encourage people to examine and re-evaluate their stories while applauding their perseverance.

2) Stay tethered to facts and reality.
We’re in dangerous times. People act as if facts don’t matter and can be made up on the spot. Our job is to recognize the filters through which we’ve seen the world. We’re all biased. Those of us who are cultural storytellers need to be trustworthy and to acknowledge our biases even as we work to change them.

3) Offer compassion and empathy.
People are hurting. These are times to both acknowledge differences and find commonalities that can help us bridge divides–as we open our hearts to the worlds of others.

4) Make meaning wisely.
Understanding context is critical. Don’t jump too fast to knowing what things mean. Live the questions. Some of my former leadership students were hard-wired to move into action without much reflection and they often paid a price for this.

We can’t expect to double click to find answers to today’s tough questions.

We all carry biases. If I want to challenge others, I need to ask myself, “How do I know this? Why do I think it is true?” Then, I’ll be more qualified to explore with others how they see the world.

Be kind

Finally, let’s support each other and appreciate the tenderness that comes with giving birth to heartfelt, personal stories. As these stories emerge, especially from those whose stories have not been valued, let’s hold them with respect, compassion, and generosity.

Truth is powerful and endangered. We can champion stories that expand our vistas and offer new hope without distorting facts.

If you want to make things up, try writing about that giant squid.

Thanks to Christina Baldwin and Mary Alice Arthur for the wisdom that inspired this piece. And do check out www.storythefuture.org where you can sign up for a learning encounter with free interviews that will continue over the next two weeks.

A little retreat from the heat

 

Some like it hot. I do not.

Or at least, not anymore. When I was a kid, swimming was my passion. Those hot, muggy New Jersey summer days often meant time splashing around at the beach or in the pool. Alas, my thermostat reset after I moved to the Northwest, and I no longer tolerate super hot and humid weather. I wilt at 82 and retreat inside, to hibernate and read.

With heat stress in mind, I’ll share just one short idea about storytelling, then invite you to kick back with your favorite reading, including three recent blog posts you might have missed.

Short tip: How to make your story a little richer

I just taught a class on Creating Your Signature Story for a group of professionals within the wonderful King County Library System–where I’m a big fan, hoping I’ll someday qualify for a “frequent borrower” award.

Working with the class participants, I was reminded of how everyone has a story, and how easy it is to start sharing it when we know that someone else is listening.

However, in today’s busy workplaces, we’re taught to be concise, and that can often lead to a way of speaking that’s abstract and detached. We preface an anecdote by saying “the customer needed information.”

By adding just a few interesting details, a brief story will become a little longer but a lot more memorable.

Engaging people’s interest is more time-efficient than boring your listeners with business-speak.

One way to come up with these details is to activate your imagination and remember the scene where the story took place. (You can also do this when talking about the future, by standing in that future and describing what you see.)

Observe through your senses.

If you’re describing an interaction with a customer (the library calls them patrons), invite us to see the world with you. Let’s stand together in that crowded library. What does your patron look like when he (or she) first enters the front doors of the library? What does he look at? What’s her expression?

When your patron approaches you for information, what does she sound like? Is he stammering? Struggling to ask a question? Sweating? Speaking, slowly, quickly, or in broken English?

As you try and listen to him, what other sounds do you hear in the room? Loud voices or the tires of a book cart?

Is the room dark and back-lit by a vivid sun? Or is it bright?

Even a few specific sensory details, chosen to reinforce the point you’re making, can transform your anecdote and make it vivid and memorable. If your story needs to be short, you may only have time to add one or two details. But they can make the difference between just “talking about”  an incident and engaging people’s interest and curiosity.

Now for those recent posts…

How do you balance your head and your heart when you’re making a decision? I wrote about what I went through before deciding to foster an abandoned dog. (For last week’s readers: Riley’s vet check showed nothing major wrong (good), while indicating a host of old dog ailments as well as some neurological problems (oh dear).

When your mind is buzzing with unwanted, and sometimes unkind thoughts, what do you do? I shared three words that helped save me and turned around a situation. Lots of readers offered ideas about how they tame their wild minds. I’d love to hear more of your ideas!

Stories matter, and in today’s world we need to hear the stories of people at the margins (frequently referred to as “them.”) The best way to do that is in an open circle, where everyone is invited to have a voice. I shared a trailer from Hannah Gadsby’s much-talked-about “Nanette” in which she ends her evening of stand-up comedy with a stirring message, “I want my story to be heard.”

What stories are moving you? If you don’t feel like sharing your own, just grab a book and read. Especially when it’s hot.

What’s your legacy (story)?

 

I’ve spent the weekend writing about legacy stories, a special part of the world of storytelling, in which you look back at your past, while still moving ahead.

Often, a legacy story is one that you can pass down to another generation of people who care about you. But not necessarily. You might want to create one that’s for your eyes only, a way to acknowledge choices you made and from which you find extra meaning.

You may be thinking, “But I’m too young for a legacy!” which is another way to say, “I’m hoping to be around for a while yet.”

Taking a look at the paths your footsteps have followed and the patterns they have made along the way might help you make better decisions TODAY about how you want to live going forward.

And there may be people in your life–even a lot of them–who would appreciate knowing more about you. How I wish I could read the words of my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, etc. who passed without telling me much about their lives.

I’m still kicking myself for not asking more questions of them when they were around.

Still, you don’t have to share anything and your story might end up being for your eyes only.

A few reasons for creating a legacy story:

  1. Working on your legacy story can help you find more peace about your life.
  2. It might change how you see your life today.
  3. You may gain ideas about how you want to live in the time ahead.
  4. People who care about you will be very grateful.
  5. You can sell the screen rights for millions of dollars.  (Might be a little exaggerated…but it’s not too hard to make a video).

Your story doesn’t have to be monumental

People may shy away from thinking about a legacy story because it sounds so grandiose. But it doesn’t have to be! I’m into simple and small these days (in a world that’s anything but), and you can make your story as small and abridged as you like.

For now, forget about creating the big-deal-definitive-study of your life. (Your compelling memoir can come later…)

Think of your legacy story more like a curated show about your life rather than the big retrospective.

You display a few of your interesting pictures (scenes of your life), but you don’t have to display the full collection.

I would have been happy with any show about my Grandfather.

A close friend has been working on her “legend” story–a kind of legacy–and I’m privileged to be able to read it. She explored her past for key themes, events, and people, weaving them into a rich tapestry of metaphors, using the archetype of The Hero’s Journey as background to her work. Her legend opens up new creative possibilities for what she may do over her next thirty years.

(Factoid: did you know that legend and legacy share the same Indio-European root, “leg,” meaning “to collect, gather,” related to “to speak” and “to gather words, to pick out words.”)

How you can start

Here’s one way NOT to start: don’t ask, “What’s my legacy story?”  The question is too big and too vague.

Instead, see if you can remember memories of specific incidents and people who have moved you. Your heart is a better story-teller than your head working alone. You want to engage your feelings and senses rather than your editorial brain–the one that likes to polish and puff up a “good story” about your life.

While you may have a sleek version of a story you use for job interviews (or if someone actually wants to listen to you for more than five minutes at a networking event), you don’t need to add shine to your legacy.

Your life, as you have lived it, is plenty interesting without extra gloss. In fact, part of what makes your legacy story interesting is finding out where you have a few warts hidden, and how you may have screwed up, fallen (metaphorically), skinned your knee, and recovered.

My friend and colleague Juliet Bruce has helped many people from different walks of life find their stories using the Hero’s Journey framework. She suggests the following:

“Ask a person not to remember, not to talk in generalities, but to ask story questions about their lives. What was your wedding day like, tell me about your wedding day? Very specific scenes in their lives. What music played around the birth of your child? Get people into their senses, their sense memories and whole beautiful stories of decades emerge.”

Juliet invites people to use the Hero’s Journey as a powerful, archetypal framework through which to look at their legacies.

“Using The Hero’s Journey paradigm people find that their lives were not a waste, in fact, they were very beautiful lives no matter how ordinary they were. They made choices that were the best choices they could make in the moment. They endured, they carried on, and they made it to this age.

And now, faced with the frailties of the human body and sometimes the mind, [particularly if they are older]  they still have great wisdom and a sense of continuity to share with younger people.”

Your legacy story can reveal what is fundamental and good about you, and what you did right while allowing plenty of space for the flawed parts as well.

You did enough

As someone with a noisy inner critic who sits on my shoulder like a monkey throwing off banana peels and wise-ass comments, like, “Who do you think you are?” and “You haven’t done enough,” the idea of acknowledging both the good and the difficult parts is daunting.

I gained hope watching the closing scene in the film Schindler’s List. Otto Schindler, after saving the lives of so many Jews who worked in his factory during the Holocaust, crumples before his beneficiaries and wails that he didn’t do enough.

At least my feelings of “I didn’t do enough” puts me in good company.

Your legacy story is a way that you can claim that you did do enough.

If you want to explore this more, I have questions you can ask, as well as a cool exercise for legacy-searching called “The Wise Counselor Exercise.” They’re in a little ebook I just wrote called  “Looking Back, Moving Forward: a Guide to Crafting Your Legacy Story.” Drop me a note if you’d like to receive a beta copy.

For now, just remember: your story does matter–and there’s someone who’s longing to hear more about it…

And that might even be you!

Here’s to your unique, waiting-to-be-told legacy story,

What community do you dream of?

 

 

 

Sixty plus years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about the creation of the Beloved Community.

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and 
this will require a qualitative change in our souls 
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”

Beloved Community was built on the idea of inclusiveness, in which people share in the wealth of the earth, and “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” (From The King Center.)

This past weekend, I traveled to an event to talk about beloved communities, narrowly missing the latest bombshell (literally) of terrible news. How far we still are from a society free from discrimination, prejudice, and racism!

In the beautiful spaces and forested grounds of The Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, Washington, I attended an event, The Magic of Thriving Communities: Arts, Culture and Deep Listening, sponsored by Thriving Communities. 

I went to listen to stories, and I heard many on the first day of the event. The team of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei from Story Bridge shepherded us through the process of creating a piece of theatre in a day, based on our stories.

The stories I heard pierced my heart. I heard accounts of discrimination and what gentrification is doing to The Central District, Seattle’s historically black neighborhood.

Pastor Pat Wright, founder of the internationally acclaimed Total Experience Gospel Choir, talked about her fear of losing her home, the only remaining black-owned house left on the block where Pastor Pat has lived for years. Affluenza and Amazonia have taken their toll on Seattle. Neighborhoods are being taken apart and reassembled to match Seattle’s booming new look and many lower-income people are being forced to leave the city.

Where is our Beloved Community?

In an individuated, separated world, problems of gentrification can be set aside if they don’t affect us directly (“that’s too bad, but it’s not about me”) so that we can pursue our busy lives.

But once I’ve heard what these trends are doing to people I care about, my capacity to distance myself dissolves. In each of the three Story Bridge events that I’ve attended, I’ve listened to stories from people very different from me and I’ve fallen in love. Once I begin to carry their stories within me, I drop the distance.

Fortunately, and quite intentionally, throughout the weekend we were buoyed by music, movement, poetry, song, and story. The arts and music opened my heart and made it possible for me to listen to the pain expressed in some of the stories, and still feel joy and find reason for hope.

When Pastor Pat conducted a special performance of The Total Experience Gospel Choir, our meeting room exploded with hope and spirit. I doubt there was a dry eye among us when the room burst forth spontaneously into the “Negro National Anthem.”

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won…

Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not utopic. One of our group members, Dr. Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley, California, knew Dr. King and has spent his long life working to fulfill Dr. King’s vision, working in many diverse communities.

There’s still so far to go.

As for me, as much as I know that action is called for, I am letting new perspectives simmer in me. I don’t have answers.

But I can bear witness.

I’m struggling to comprehend white privilege. White privilege is one of those phenomena that once you start looking for it, you find everywhere. I was blind to how much I took for granted and what a free pass the color of my skin was. Not so much anymore.

[Small detail: as I searched for photos for this post. I googled images of community. Up came lovely photos of circles of hands joined together, all white. This isn’t acceptable–and it hurts.]

But feeling guilty or contrite isn’t what’s being asked of me. Better to spend my precious energy learning about the patterns that keep the Beloved Community at bay.

As one participant said, “You have to see the game.”

Over the weekend, I needed to move, breathe, dance, sing, and join with others to gather the strength I need to face the daily assault of difficult news, while still finding evidence of hope.

I want to keep listening to those whose lives are so different, but still connected, to mine.

How about you? What kind of community are you building? Or dreaming of?

What calls you to act? Witness? Or be?

We all have different paths.

We’re all in this together.

With great thanks to Jerry Millhon, Anne Stadler, Richard Geer, Qinghong Wei and the many others whose commitment and effort created this event. And to my new friends, the participants.

What about your work do you love, love, love…

It’s been a hard week. I lost a bid to do work I was perfect for. Ouch! It’s hard to step back and take a rejection objectively.

A good friend reminded me that losing a proposal bid is rarely personal–but more often about politics and preferences. I later found out that I hadn’t really lost–the organization just decided to do the work internally. But I only learned this after spending a day scraping myself off the floor.

Telling me not to take things personally is like telling a Springer Spaniel not to chase a squirrel. Good advice, but…

On my little spiral down into questioning everything, I began to wonder why I do my work. Fortunately, that night I had an online meeting with a group of three other women, super-talented artist/entrepreneurs. When it was my turn to share, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about my work. Viewing my body language on the computer screen, I saw someone who looked cramped and collapsed, like a moth trying to squeeze her way back into a cocoon.

My voice sounded like I had been swatted. But as I talked about why I thought I would have been so good for the project, I said with some animation, “What I love, love, love about my work is watching people tell their stories in a circle and come alive.”

Bingo. Something happened. I started to come alive. Pepped up. Gestured. Started to fly again.

One of my wise colleagues picked up on this and noticed that my expression, “What I love, love, love…” had helped turn things around.

She suggested an exercise that I pass on to you.

Love, love, love: an exercise

There are days, like the one I just experienced, when asking yourself what you like to do or even love to do doesn’t cut it.

It’s so easy to sound reasonable (yawn.)

But when you ask yourself what you love, love, love to do, you aren’t asking for reasonableness. You’re asking for passion, energy, and sparkle. You’re asking about work that is so irrefutably yours that you would do it without being paid–although hopefully you’ll be paid a lot because you’re so good at it.

This is GREAT practice for writing about yourself or creating an “About” page for your website (see below).

What about your work do you love, love, love?

(I did the exercise thinking about work but you could do it about other areas of your life as well.)

Write it out. If you are unsure about what you’re writing, speak the words out loud and check out the energy. Can you hear excitement?

Gone was the jargon designed to look good. Gone were the words like efficiency, effectiveness, value-added, strategic, or results-oriented. What came to me instead were real examples of working at my best and helping others.

From my list:

  • I love, love, love guiding a group to tell stories and then watching them be moved by each other.
  • I love, love, love helping someone develop a story that leaves her or him feeling proud and competent.
  • I love, love, love helping a team get out of its own way.
  • I love, love, love performing a story and hearing from audience members about how they were moved.
  • I love, love, love watching board members tell stories about why they’re committed to their organization.
  • I love, love, love project-planning on a big, clean whiteboard.
  • I love, love, love supporting someone to take a risk to speak up.
  • I love, love, love writing posts, and seeing the chimp from Mailchimp give me the high five that lets me know the post is on the way to you.

My list goes on, but I’ll spare you.

In describing my work, if  I’m tempted to use a word like empowerment, I think about a specific example and remember the look in someone’s eyes. Thinking about the story always grounds my words.

If you have your own website with an “About” page, this exercise will take you into the heart of what you do and invigorate your copy. Spare yourself the weighty, well-written, important-sounding words I used for too many years. They keep people from feeling your special greatness.

Once you’ve tapped into the energy of love, love, love, you can edit your copy accordingly. You don’t have to include those words to convey the freshness and passion you’ve discovered. People will feel you more.

And remember what they love, love, love about you.

What will you stand for?

 

What do you stand for?

Isn’t it time to get a little bolder, to speak up for the truths you hold in your heart, challenging the inequities you see around you? You don’t need to be on the streets, or on the frontlines of the revolution to have your own potent message. The stand I’m referring to isn’t about regurgitating political positions or philosophical doctrines, but sharing the truth of your own embodied experience, the wisdom you have gained through living.

Speaking up doesn’t require a megaphone or even an audience. You can hold a subtle message in your heart and when the time comes speak out. Your voice may be gentle, or you may roar like a lion. There are many ways to take a stand.

I believe that standing for what you believe in is one of the keys to a long life.

If you want to see a beautiful example of standing for something, watch Oprah Winfrey’s speech to the 2018 Golden Globes. It’s getting a lot of press so you may have seen it. I could watch it again and again, just to soak in some of her prowess and power.

 

For those who study and teach presentation skills, as I do, Oprah’s remarks demonstrate what a great speech looks like. She starts with a story; acknowledges her audience; uses her powerful, resonate voice in varied ways; weaves emotion throughout; and moves us on an emotional arc that ends with a relevant and poignant story. She closes with a compelling call to action.

All of that represents fantastic technique. But the greatness of the speech came from how she shared her heart, rather than the technique she used. She won me with three special factors:

  • She owned who she was. There was no apology, no thinking small. She knows the power she wields. Oprah is Oprah–and she stood tall on that stage.
  • She embodied what she was saying. There wasn’t a gratuitous or abstract word in her presentation.You knew that she had lived or witnessed what she spoke about. She held the truths she knew in her heart, in her body, as well as in her head. Listening to her voice, you felt a credibility that extended way beyond her celebrityhood.
  • She took a stand and inspired us to do the same.

The issue of the hour (or the year) at Hollywood’s Golden Globes was #MeToo, a hashtag that became a movement, emerging from the brave testimonies of women who dared to reveal how they had been sexually maltreated over the years by men in power. Oprah spoke right to the issue and acknowledged the courage of women, in media and throughout the culture, who dared to speak out. She addressed the courage of celebrities and also of the laborers, the forgotten, and the poor, black women whose histories haven’t been publicized, but who have endured atrocities. She made it clear that she stood for social justice, the empowerment of women and the end of sexual misconduct.

Oprah is undoubtedly the most powerful woman in America. Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Oprah knows how to use her influence and fame to shed light on issues, to offer support to those who have been denied a voice, and to encourage us all to take action.

I hope many of us, women and men, will be inspired by Oprah to stand up for what matters most to us. This is key to staying vital–at any age. There’s so much that needs to be addressed in our culture; all of our voices are needed.

It’s time to let your words be heard. Take a stand on the issues you care about.

When it comes to changing the world, in your particular way, it’s time to say,“Me, too.”

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