I was invited to lead a memoir writing workshop for a group of teenagers on a recent Sunday afternoon, but I'm not so sure anyone was asked to sign-up, or even that it was quite advertised, which is to say that it's possible that no one showed-up. Okay, no one showed-up, but that doesn't mean I hadn't borrowed some cool ideas and exercises for the workshop from the storytellers that come speak to the class I teach - Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, or that I can't share the outline with you. More importantly, as I prepared the outline I was struck that from a storytelling perspective, this outline could easily be adapted for individuals and organizations looking to explore their stories, and reflect on not just what makes them them, or what inspires them, but what they might focus on as they look to the future and what comes next.
First, begin by clearing some space in whatever space you're in, give people room to move around, get physical, blood flowing, and connecting with the energy of the room and one another.
Places of Origin
Think of the room as the world and ask people to go to the part of the world where their family is from. Don't limit them to the places they or their parents were born or moved from. Or even the place where their grandparents came from. Ask them to think about the places of origin they associate with their families, and the origin stories that have been passed along to them. And then ask them their associations with those associations. What do they think they know about place however they define it, and their place in it? How did they get from there to here, the journey, the decisions? What drove those who came before them?
Next, ask the participants, assuming you have some, to line-up to one side of room. Tell them that where they are standing is when they were born. Have each of them tell you in 30 seconds the story of their birth based on the stories they were told by family, whether it's their biological or adoptive family, or the family they've built for themselves.
After that, you, or me in this case, stand on other side of the room, and announce what the moment is right then, both the date and time.
Identify a small group of participants to walk towards you, and say to them by name, if that moment is your birth and this moment is now, you are walking across your life and everything you've experienced - crying, laughing, heartbreak, love, loss - and this point - and then you point - is when you were 5, 10, 15 years old and so on. Now give yourself ultimate permission to think about what comes to you, and resonates with you, about what was happening then.
Remind them that everything they've ever experienced is available to use and that personal narration is full of life experiences. Then have them walk to that age, and while they don't need to tell the room everything, ask them to share their story for 30 seconds.
For the next small group, share some prompts: Go to the moment that rocked your world. Go to the moment that changed your life. Go to that moment where you learned a lesson. Coach them to try to focus on place, to put themselves back in that moment, and then have them walk towards that moment and tell you 30 seconds about it.
After you're done engaging everyone, take a moment to have them assess the experience, how it felt, what they learned, and always taking a moment to reflect.
Now have the participants form two circles, and if the group is really big, multiple circles, but the idea is that there is a circle of participants facing outward, and another circle circling them, standing face to face, and facing inward.
Start by having the members of the inner circle tell whatever story has captured their imagination, the moment, and what has come to them since the exercises began to the person facing them in the outer circle. Remind them to think about dialogue, what rooms look like, smell like, who was there, their stories too, and to think about contect and texture.
Give them two minutes.
Then have the inner circle rotate one person over and tell the same story again to someone new, but now give them one minute. Encourage them to concentrate on what's most important to the story they want to tell. What's the actual story? Which details, characters, feelings, and conversations are most pertinent?
After that, its the outer circle's turn. Two rotations, rinse, repeat.
And then take a moment to have the participants reflect, again, this time as both storyteller and listener. What worked, what didn't, what did you want to know more or less of?
All of it.
Now we write. Ten minutes. Again, whatever story resonates most with the participants, have them channel it, and write it, no editing, just writing.
Maybe though nothing has quite resonated yet, or inspired them, maybe this has been a warm-up for the story they most want to tell, which is great. But maybe that story hasn't taken form yet. The idea is to liberate these ideas, to take action, to keep pushing, and so give them more prompts - one of the happiest days they can remember; their first crush; when they learned to do something new; when they were scared but overcame it.
Just write, feel something and seek to capture it in words, and on paper.
And then, and again, assuming you have participants to share their work, ask each person to read what they wrote, and the group to share their thoughts on that work.
I always encourage people to share something positive first, but then be thoughtful, push people, offer constructive comments about the characters, and point of view, what made sense or didn't, the gaps, and issues around continuity.
At this point, we would be done. People would have been on their feet, talking, sharing ideas, moving, digging, reflecting, and writing.
They would leave with a story, and if the day went really well, stories.
But that would be it.
And that would be cool.
But in preparing for this workshop and mixing and matching these different ideas, I started thinking about how this kind of exercise will benefit writers, but my initial interest in these exercises was in helping my Loop 202 students learn their stories.
We only brief touch on these exercises in class, but why couldn't there be an extended stand-alone session such as this for any individuals who are looking to better tell their own stories as they think about work and what makes them happy?
Further, and full-disclosure, this has very much been on my mind lately, how do we even know if we are on the path we want to be on professionally?
Are we happy, effective, and motivated by our work?
Are we energized?
When's the last time you asked yourself that? I've been thinking about this alot, and if you aren't certain how to ask yourself that question, or even how to start, why not engage in a series of exercises like these that focus on your origin stories?
With some tweaks they could be focused on work. Instead of your place of birth for example, what was the first place you ever worked? And what if we asked ourselves not what was our happiest day in general, but what was our happiest day at work?
Do you know even know the answer to the latter question? Might you want to find out?
I know that in personally exploring these questions, much of what I have been doing recently is not what made me happiest and most energized earlier in my careet when I first started finding some direction and my voice.
How do I, you, get back to those things? The first step is making sure you recognize them for what they are and why they meant something to you.
Further though, why stop with individuals?
I've worked with many organizations over the years who no longer quite realize, or recognize, who they are, or why they're doing what they're doing, much less how they got there?
Couldn't we adapt exercises like these for the individuals running these organizations, inviting them to spend time reflecting on their organization's origin story, it's history and timeline, what happened when. What it felt like? What energized the staff? Why people want, or wanted, to come work? What the organization did well and may have gotten away from?
I'm sure we can and I think this would be really cool, and really doable. I'm still thinking about what it could look like, but if you have ideas about this, or interest in making something like this happen, and you want to talk about it with me, let's do that.
Just give me a shout, share your thoughts, and we will get down to business.