Tag Archives forpower of stories

Your job search just got easier


In spite of the long hiatus since the last post, StoryRoute keeps welcoming visitors from around the world. Recently one of those visitors contacted me about a storytelling service unlike any I had ever come across.

Andrea Martins is the founder of Story Resumes, a company that promises to “transform ordinary resumes into extraordinary ones.” A quick look around the site convinced me the company can deliver the goods. I was on screening committees for new hires many times and can attest that nearly every resume is yawningly similar. If any of them had come through with the pizzazz of a Story Resume, I would have put it right on the top of the pile.

Obviously you still have to deliver the goods in an interview and at work, but a Story Resume just might be the difference between being overlooked and landing the right job.

In the interview below you will meet the creative woman behind this refreshing new approach to standing out from the crowd of job seekers.

Cathryn: Andrea, I really enjoyed your personal success story (shown here in comic form). Can you tell us more about how your job search experience inspired Story Resumes?

Andrea Martins

Andrea Martins, founder of Story Resumes

Andrea: Sure. Looking for work can be an incredibly frustrating experience. It starts with the thrill of possibility, but it often quickly sours into a deafening silence of no responses. Inexplicably, recruiters overlook your superpowers and before you know it, you’ve fallen into a self-doubting pit that’s hard to climb out of. My experience was no different.

In late 2012, after months of getting nowhere, I tried a different approach. I turned my resume into a story (one sentence for each of my ten PowerPoint slides) and had my story illustrated to add flavor and feeling.

At the time, my approach was a little experimental, and I wasn’t sure how it would go. But thankfully it turned out to be the tipping point that I had needed all along because recruiters and company founders (on the other side of the world) started writing responses to my job applications and phoning me within hours of receiving my creative resume — offering me interviews, and later, offering me jobs.

I accepted a few of the jobs/projects, but on the side I started developing Story Resumes to help fellow frustrated job seekers shoot to the top of a recruiter’s job applications pile.

Cathryn: Can you share more examples like yours of how storytelling is being used successfully in job search?

Andrea: Absolutely. Jens Lennartsson is one of my favorites. He created and mailed out 400 GI-Joe-type action figures of himself (with a brochure showcasing a sample portfolio of his work), to relay his story and value in a very visual, touchable and tangible way.

Pharmaceutical copywriter Jon Ryder is another favorite. He made a fake medicine box that incorporated his resume on (and in) the box. Such creative genius to spin your resume into a story like that!

We’ve also interviewed some wonderful success stories on our site. For example: James Corne created an Alcoholics Anonymous parody video to tell his story; Miruna Macri designed a fake passport and conveniently lost it in the ad agencies she wanted to work in so that the right kind of people would pick it up and be curious about her story; Joshua Drummond shared his resume story as a comic book; and Jack DeManche turned his resume story into a subway map!

Cathryn: Do you see these examples as a passing fad, or as an indication of what’s in store for the future?

Andrea: I see storytelling being used more, not less, in job search. Very few people stand out on a traditional black-and-white paper resume, and judging by the number of creative resume stories now being promoted in mainstream media, I believe that job seekers are starting to realize this. In the years to come (in some industries), I see more creative/storytelling resumes being submitted than traditional resumes. Because if you’re not doing it, your competitors will be. And it’s no surprise which candidate would grab my attention more if I were a recruiter!

Cathryn: Thank you very much, Andrea, for sharing these inspiring examples and insights. I wish you and Story Resumes every success.

When storytelling is too powerful

Since 2001 the Center for Women’s Global Leadership has designated November 25th to December 10th as 16 Days of Action on Violence Against Women. This year the Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society is participating through a “Write for Rights Blog-A-Thon”. The purpose of the blog-a-thon is to raise awareness about violence against women, encourage support of local work that is being done to assist survivors of violence, and demonstrate solidarity with women affected by violence.

The Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society works tirelessly for social justice. Learn more about how you can help by visiting their Web site. Read stories of hope and survival on their inspiring Beyond Crisis site.

road rash is in fashion

Photo by Nathan Lewis, via Flickr Creative Commons

The request

“We want you to tell stories about violence against women. It’s for a national conference.”

My husband and I were entertainers—storytellers and musicians—not therapists, so we hesitated. The organizers of a conference on domestic violence wanted us to not only tell stories about the issues but to actually portray rising tension, culminating in an episode of violence between us.

They hit us in our weak spot. They actually believed in the power of storytelling to thread the labyrinth of professional distance and find the soft center, the place where the barrier of protection is breached. Still, we refused until they promised to let the audience know what they had asked us to do and to make sure counselors were on hand afterward.

Both victims of abuse and abusers sit in any audience. If we were as effective as the organizers hoped we would be, we would be unleashing emotions that might shatter the shields of degrees, licenses, and professional objectivity. The conference committee understood our concern, agreed to our terms, and sent a contract.

The performance

We chose stories from folklore and mythology that were metaphors, thinking they would provide just enough distance for safety. We added some contemporary songs. Around them we wove the thread of tension between us that was to culminate in my husband’s pretending to hit me. Rehearsing was emotionally draining.

On the day of the performance, the organizers failed us. They did not explain to the audience of counselors, social workers, physicians, and therapists what they had asked us to do. And we realized in the aftermath that they also did nothing to make sure counseling was available for those who saw their own stories played out before them.

In the silence at the end of our performance, we knew we had met the organizers’ hopes. The audience sat in that quiet space where even moving feels like sacrilege. Then someone broke the spell, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

That’s when the organizers failed us again. They were to lead the question period but left us to do it instead. Most of the questions were variations on the first, and they were all aimed at trying to get my husband to tell them when and why he had started abusing me.

In the hours that followed, many women waited until they could catch me on my own. They wanted to pour out their own sorrows, confusions and fears, the complicated ties that kept them from leaving abusive relationships.

The acknowledgement

The only person who would speak to my husband, whom the group now identified as a monster, was a woman who approached us together.

“Thank you,” she said. “You got it right. That’s exactly how it starts.”

She was one of the speakers, a woman who had just been released from prison. She had murdered her husband after years of horrendous abuse. Gradual awareness of the vulnerability of women in abusive relationships had led to her being pardoned. She had become a powerful speaker, sharing her story in an effort to make the world safe for women being battered by their partners.

Her appreciation was the one bright spot in the day for us. If we had had any lingering doubts about the power of storytelling, they disappeared that day. The experience drove home a lesson we had tried to impress on the conference organizers, that finding the dark heart of human emotion is accompanied by responsibility. What we had feared, and the reason for our insistence they set the context for the performance and then offer counseling, had proven true. We had the capacity to reach inside the hearts of those who had experienced, or perpetrated, domestic violence.

We were asked to perform at the next year’s conference. This time we refused until they agreed to set the performance up so the audience knew what to expect and then to clearly identify where anyone traumatized could receive help immediately. They did a miserable job on both counts so we never agreed to participate again, but at least the second year we built into the performance a lifeline that left the audience more hopeful and more empowered.

The world we want

Our storytelling at those two conferences and my community development work with numerous women’s groups before and after were driven by the vision of a world where women no longer have to be warned not to go out alone after dark, a world where no one is afraid to go home, where no woman has to turn herself into a pretzel trying to appease her abuser. That is a story worth working for.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to imperil the lives and emotions of millions of women. They are our neighbours and friends. They are the family members who are afraid at home and shamed into believing they are at fault. Their stories haunt me.

Until the assault on women ends, none of us is truly safe. But I believe a different world is possible, and it is the world envisioned by Donna Milner in the poem she wrote for a production of The Vagina Monologues in Williams Lake. She titled the poem, “A community, a world without violence against women or children.”

Read it, and let’s work together for that day.

US debt crisis as a clash of stories

childrens museum tug of war

Children's museum tug of war, Photo by Paul J. Everett, Flickr Creative Commons


I’ve been listening to politicians from the left and right as they tell their versions of debt in the U.S. The right insists no agreement is possible without a constitutional amendment capping debt. The left insists no agreement is possible without raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Each side claims the other’s story is a false interpretation of the way things really work.

I confess bias toward the left. The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the worst in the world, and it keeps on widening. The trickle-down story, where leaving money in the hands of corporations and the wealthiest ensures jobs for everyone else, has proven fictional but still has incredible staying power.

It’s clear the U.S. needs a new and healthier story of how government should function in a democratic society. The minimal-government right is suspicious of anything that gives power to those not in the producing sector, as if roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, and parks were not of benefit to everyone. They are suspicious of all regulations, as if industry would, on its own, stop polluting our streams, land and air and poisoning our bodies.

No side has a corner on The One True Story. Life is far too complex for that. However, it seems to me that any country in which the predominant story is focused more on accumulation of wealth than on egalitarian principles is doomed to failure.

An article published on Oakland Local last December said of the need for viable stories, “In a world so out of balance, we need landmarks and milestones to help us see the way forward. Narrative is like a series of virtual cairns that help us stay on the path.”

May the U.S. build new cairns before once again bringing the world to its financial knees.

Related reading:

Tell it again, please

The two-room school was on the river side of Highway 97, about halfway between Wenatchee and Chelan. Fruit trees in central Washington were covered with the blossomed promise of a good crop.

Orondo was too small to offer much more than housing for farm workers and a handful of other families. Their tiny settlement was strung along the east bank of the Columbia River.


Orondo is in central Washington's fruit-growing region.

A quarter of a century ago there weren’t more than sixty children in the school. Kindergarten through third grade met in one room. Grades four through six had their own teacher in the other room. When I parked outside the school, curious children ran up. They knew the storyteller was coming and greeted me warmly.

I told stories to the younger classes, then to the older group. They were sponges, absorbing the stories through every pore. They were so eager, so responsive I was as entranced by the stories as they were. And then it was over, and I had promises to keep in other schools.

Two years later I toured the same schools in central and eastern Washington. Once again, I turned my vehicle into the small parking lot. Once again, curious children ran up to greet the visitor and escort me into the school.

I started with the younger children and told them a whole new set of stories, ones I knew I hadn’t pulled out of the hat for my first visit. Then I joined the older group. Two-thirds of them had been in the younger group two years earlier. I was eager to tell them stories that would be new to them, more challenging, more suited to their growing maturity.

They would have none of it. “Tell us about the hen and the giant. We want to hear about the giant pumpkin.” And so it went, story after story. After the fourth and fifth graders had heard the stories they remembered, the sixth graders insisted on hearing the ones they had heard in fourth grade. Forty-five minutes stretched to an hour, then ninety minutes, until I finally had to stop because the school day was nearing its end.

The children taught me an important lesson that day. I was still a fairly new storyteller and assumed audiences always wanted to hear new material. I was feverishly adding stories to my repertoire so as to never repeat one to a group I’d performed for before.

Stuff and nonsense. When we hear a song that stirs us, a melody that haunts us, we want to hear it again and again. We learn the words, sing it in the shower, belt it out as we drive, buy the track.

The same is true of stories. When they resonate, we want to travel that path again, and not just when we are children.

Years ago, Professor Spencer Shaw told me children want the same book read to them over and over because “the children know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t”. The children in the two-room Orondo school knew what was going to happen in those stories. They also knew the characters didn’t. So I sent my mind back into the world of those earlier stories. Together, the children and I found out.

Toy naming and the stories of children

the lonely doll

A toy is an empty space, waiting for a child to fill it with stories. Photo from nerissa's ring Flickr photostream

The brown-eyed five-year-old proudly held up her new doll. As always, I asked what her new companion’s name was. You’ll know this was a while back when I tell you her response: “Strawberry Shortcake”.

Children in the K-3 school where I spent my last two years as a school librarian loved to show off their new doll, plastic duck, stuffed animal, or train engine. I always oohed and ahed appropriately, and I always asked what they had named it. I can’t remember a single time when they had given it a name they hadn’t heard in a commercial for it.

I’d never had children, but I figured not re-naming toys gave story-making power to the corporations that created them. My job was to return that power to the children.

“Does she have another name? A special name you gave her?”

“No. She’s Strawberry Shortcake.”

“What does she like to eat? What’s her favourite game? Does she sleep in her shoes? Does she wear her t-shirts inside out?”

Question by question, I’d encourage the children to create a story about their new toy. Give it character, eccentricities, preferences, secrets only the child could know. Some gave up quickly. They couldn’t imagine a life for the toy that existed outside the confines of the marketing story. I was sad for them but hoped all the stories they heard during their library visits would fill them with enough colourful details to stir their imaginations.

Others entered into the game, whether quickly or reluctantly. After they had answered a dozen questions, I’d say to them, “That doesn’t sound like a Strawberry Shortcake (or whatever other name they’d given). Ask her if she has another name she likes better, a name that is hers alone, a name she’d like you to call her.”

For the children, the new names became signals for the toys’ stories. For me, they were a way to combat the weighty power of marketing by encouraging children to believe in the power of their own story-making abilities. They were born with them, but advertising had been having its way with them, robbing them of some of their belief in their own creativity.

My insistence on children’s giving names and stories to their toys was a tiny gesture in the big scheme of things. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Exquisite silence

When I first took the stage as a storyteller, I didn’t know what to do with silence at the end of a tale. Americans are uneasy about silence. We like to fill the spaces. We get squirmy without words. We aren’t sure what the quiet means.

One of many audiences that taught me to love the unfilled space at the end of a story had gathered to hear a Jungian psychologist talk about his work. I can’t remember who gave the talk, but I do recall the session was part of a series of talks exploring the facets of Jungianism.

Because of Jung’s focus on archetypes, the organizer felt it would be appropriate to introduce each session with a story. I read dozens of myths and folktales, looking for one that illustrated the theme of the evening when I was to be the storyteller.

Black Angus

Black Angus by Dustin Ginetz, on Flickr

I chose a story new to me. “Black Bull of Norroway” is one of the many variations of the search for the lost husband. As in other versions, the beauty who goes off with the beast learns to care for the brute. She must endure trials before her love breaks the spell and the beast returns to his true form, as a handsome man.

Because I was only telling one tale, I wanted something to focus audience attention so composed a short round. The 500-seat auditorium was filled. I divided the audience into three groups. One group sang, “Black Bull of Norroway”. The next chimed in with, “Bridegroom, I come”. The third wove in their line, “Trials await”.

They started softly, swelled as each line came in, then gradually faded away. It was as if they were telling the story, the minor notes weaving over and under each other, all with the same question: How will it end?

The telling that followed was one of those timeless spaces when cranky bosses, bad backs, and unhappy relationships recede into the background. In the space that’s cleared, the story plays out in the theatre of the mind. Five hundred minds seeing five hundred different bulls, five hundred different heroines, yet somehow all traveling the same path.

When I fell silent at the end of the story, so did the audience. No one wanted to break the spell. Then from one side of the room, the first phrase of the round poured a river of music into the silence. Then the second phrase, the third.

The singing was spontaneous, a perfect period at the end of the story. A moment of pure magic for which I will always be grateful.

Answering the call of stories

Stumbling onto What’s Your Calling? was like finding myself in a meeting where the chemistry is right and the conversation flows freely. So when we connected on Twitter (@whatsURcalling), and Erin Williams (Engagement Campaign Manager for The Calling & What’s Your Calling?) asked me to participate in a blog tour, I jumped at the chance to try to articulate my calling: stories.

What’s Your Calling? is sponsoring a Calling Dream Kit contest. Find details at the bottom of this post.

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross lies your calling.” ~ Aristotle

From eavesdropping to storytelling

One advantage of being a quiet, well-behaved child was that I could listen for hours to stories not meant for young ears. I could color or play with dolls while adults within earshot spun tales about betrayals, triumphs, furtive meetings, secrets. I never tired of the stories and stored them away in my heart.

I didn’t think of their hold on me as a calling until I was in my thirties. I credit a kindergartener with helping me see I could turn that fascination into a career. Her rapt attention as I told a story to her class threw me headlong into storytelling, first as a school librarian and then through twists and turns in my professional life.

I discovered I could take the stories I’d heard, read or lived and give them back and that sometimes people listening to or reading the stories found a measure of healing in them. I also learned I could nudge people, and even organizations, to believe in the power of their own stories to heal themselves, others, their communities.

Finding healing in stories

Dinesen quote

Isak Dinesen is often quoted as saying, "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell them as a story." (Photo of Cathryn in Queenstown, New Zealand)

In Storytelling: Imagination and Faith William Bausch nailed my calling in two sentences: “When a man [sic] comes to you and tells you your own story, you know that your sins are forgiven. And when you are forgiven, you are healed.”


When I began to contemplate sharing stories in the public sphere of blogs, I chose this quote from Carolyn Heilbrun, in Last Gift of Time, to guide me: “Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged—desires that now seem possible. Women can catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.”

Though both quotes are gender specific, I re-write them in my mind to include any hearts that vibrate when touched by stories.

A legacy of stories

My calling is to create a legacy of stories. I’ve done that in many ways during my meandering career as teacher, librarian, storyteller, farmer, musician, rancher, consultant, community developer. Now I’m doing it as a writer, primarily through three blogs: Catching Courage, Story Route, and Crossroads.

Stories are the one thing of value I can pass on. Not just my own stories but others that inspire and teach me. I write and tell stories because they have the power to stitch together sorrows, passions, joys, and confusions. I piece them together to lay a quilt of comfort over a wounded world.

In a 1990 interview with Common Boundary magazine, Alice Walker said, “Stories differ from advice in that, once you get them, they become a fabric of your whole soul. That is why they heal you.”

And so I write—and occasionally tell—stories. They are my most valuable possessions, my life’s calling. This is where I find meaning, working to create a healing legacy of stories.

“If we look upon our experiences as assets, we must manage to preserve or transfer those assets to other people before we die or they dissolve in the grave with us.” Phyllis Theroux, The Journal Keeper

Calling Dream Kit contest:
You can follow the blog tour on the What’s Your Calling? Facebook Page. Subscribe for a chance to win a Calling Dream Kit including $200 in Amazon.com gift credit to buy supplies you’ll need as you pursue your calling, a DVD and poster of The Calling, and an hour of coaching to help plan your project and the chance to share your calling with the community.

What’s Your Calling? explores notions of “calling” from both religious and secular perspectives, or what people feel most passionate about doing with their lives – and why.

Two of my personal favorites on this wonderful site are:

  • Poet Ruth Forman on The Power and Magic of Language, who says: “Have the courage to address those things inside of you that you’re afraid to address. So, for instance, as a writer, have the courage to write about those things that you’re afraid to write about, that you wouldn’t even want to admit to yourself because if you can conquer that in yourself, you can probably conquer everything else that’s going on around you.”
  • T.J. Anderson, talented composer who says in Any man or woman in a bathtub can give you a tune, “The reason people doubt is they’re seeking perfection. I sought to be the best I could be at a particular time and am still seeking that.”

The truth behind the truth

Lately I’ve been feeling like a very small dot on a big, troubled planet. The stories I hear on awakening or while preparing a meal are like vultures pecking at my peace of mind.

We all know the headlines: Devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan. Floods in Australia. Tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. Protests in Egypt. Civil war in Libya. Acidification and plastic pollution of our oceans. Peak oil. Climate change. Drought. Hunger. Disease. Fear. Violence. Corruption.

So I was pulled up short when Liz Weir, a dear friend and one of the best storytellers on the planet, sent this to me:

You storytellers know how to describe peace. We need you more than ever.

I am a journalist. I get paid for writing about wars and other disasters.

You storytellers know the truth behind what we other people think is the

Tell us all about it!

Winfried Dulisch

Winfried is a talented writer and musician. He is also an astute critic. He has experienced the spell of Liz’s stories. He understands that in the space between words and listeners something important happens. And that something is truth.

Not the capital T kind that True Believers of any ilk use as a club. More the subtle kind of truth that sneaks up on us and startles us into awareness.

So many times I’ve been jolted upright by a story. Epiphanies emerge from folk tales, myths, and legends. They rise out of history, family stories, and dinner conversation. And, yes, they pop up in the news.

Just this past week I’ve been reminded of that. Bombarded by death, loss, destruction and war, I have found refreshment in the well of stories.

When workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant began exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation, I remembered the story Dr. Wangari Maathai told in the movie Dirt! While all the animals of the forest fled a raging fire, the hummingbird flew back and forth, filling her beak with water, pouring it on the fire. She persisted when the other animals mocked her puny efforts. Matthai said she will be like the hummingbird: “I will do the best I can.”

A video about factory farming plunged me into despair, but another about a dog who would not leave his injured canine pal buoyed me. The two friends were rescued by compassionate volunteers. The injured dog was taken to the vet, the faithful pal to a no-kill shelter. The video went viral, and money poured in to help other animals in need of rescue.

A couple days ago Dayna from Bella Coola sent me the link to Singing Our Treasures Back to Life. She cautioned me to start at the bottom, with the first entry, and work my way up. The blog has only a few entries, every one of them powerful.

Six young men from the Heiltsuk community traveled from Bella Bella, British Columbia, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The young men brought the spirit of the Heiltsuk people to objects taken from their land long ago. Their intent was “to sing these treasures back to life”.

The whole account is deeply moving. I will never again look at items in a museum in quite the same way. And so I take to heart this message from the blog:

“Please carry this story with you. It’s your story now, and I want you to share it. Celebrate with us. We uphold you and uplift you – you have witnessed something that is of great importance to us. The strength of our story, like the strength of our people, will not diminish. We hold it in a sacred space within us – a space of narrative, memory and language – a space of touch and sound and light – a space that is shared between all of us, and you, and everyone who reads this. We will remain strong together.”

Strong together. Yes. That’s it. Our world’s not just a sorry old place. It is mysterious and beautiful. Our lives have meaning. For every act of corruption, violence or betrayal, there are thousands more of generosity, love or compassion.

We must tell those stories. We must live those stories. We must pass them on.

Stories are a sacred legacy.

Stories are our truth.

Stop the Newspeak stories

When the U.S. FedBizOpps (Federal Business Opportunities) Web site advertises a workshop entitled, “Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts”, it’s time to face up to the shadow side of storytelling. Since the workshop took place February 28, 2011, I figure the workshop URL may disappear any time. So let me assure you that even if the link is broken when you click on it, this workshop is for real.

The full title was “Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts.” The hosting agency was the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Here’s the description:

This workshop is intended as a precursor to exploring the neurobiological mechanisms which undergird narrative processing so as to establish fertile ground for connecting our understanding of the neuropsychology of stories with models, simulations and sensors salient to security concerns. To this end, the workshop will focus on surveying theories of narrative, understanding what role they play in security domains, and establishing the state of the art in story analysis and decomposition frameworks.

If you remember Orwell’s 1984, you may recognize an unnerving similarity to the Ministry of Truth and its Fiction Department. One of the first things the novel’s government had to do was normalize a new language. Newspeak turned ordinary stories on their head.

Wandering through the DARPA Web site, where war is normalized as nothing more alarming than business strategizing, I got to thinking about George W. Bush on “weapons of mass destruction”, Sarah Palin putting cross hairs on the districts of pro-health care reform Democrats or the Harper government’s decision to scrap the long-form census because it was “coercive and intrusive”.

What all three examples have in common is a defective story with serious ramifications. Soldiers and civilians continue to die in Iraq. Palin supports powerful forces working to keep Americans from having universal health care. The Harper government’s decision to scrap the longer census means there will be inadequate information on which to base policy and funding decisions. When questioned about their actions, Bush, Palin and Harper all created new stories to explain how right they were.

George Orwell explained how it works in his appendix to 1984, “Principles of Newspeak”:

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.

I believe in the power of story but acknowledge its knife cuts both ways. We owe it to our children and to the seventh generation to avoid Newspeak, to tell stories that shed light, that inform, that inspire and that, ultimately, lead to a better world.

Digging in the treasure box of memories

“I can’t tell a story,” he said. “My memory’s gone. I’m just here to listen”

The man sat on his motorized wheelchair, in a workshop on telling stories. I remember his jaunty cap and the fringe of grey hair around his ears and the back of his neck. We were at the Tulsey Town Storytelling Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was giving the group some tips on crafting a compelling tale from the flotsam and jetsam of their lives.

We did some exercises to stir their creative juices. I wanted them to leave with one good story they could wow their friends with, some gem mined from the ore of their lives. We worked at chipping away extraneous detail until only the shining core remained.

They all tried and most were eager to share their polished stones. The man in the wheelchair listened. His eyes were lively. But he couldn’t handle any of the exercises. They were tapping into the labyrinth of his short-term memory. That part of his brain was a jumble. Words dropped in and rolled off into dead ends or got lost around corners.

He dug a gem from the treasure box of his life (Photo courtesy of Sam at Photos8.com, whose work is brilliant)

Still, he laughed and nodded and sighed. I could see he was enjoying himself but was disappointed he couldn’t participate. At the end of the workshop, I learned how wrong my definition of participation had been.

He looked at me with a mischievous grin. “I love listening to stories, but I didn’t think I could ever be a storyteller. Now I know I can.” Others had stopped to talk so he ignored my startled expression and rolled away.

A story swap ended the day. That’s where anyone with a short story to tell can sign up for the chance to share a tale with the kind of receptive audience that flocks to storytelling festivals.

Our man in the wheelchair motored to the front. When all eyes were on him, he said, “Until today I believed I could never be a storyteller. My short-term memory is gone. I thought I had to learn stories in order to tell them. Now I know I can dig in the treasure box of my memories.”

That man dug a gem out of the treasure box of his memories. His short story had us holding our sides with laughter. The storytellers in the audience were wide-eyed with admiration. Here was a natural spinner of tales, a weaver of words, a teller who held us spellbound.

He also had an audience. I don’t know if he found other audiences after that day. I hope so. He was a gifted storyteller.

I thought of him yesterday when I ran across the report of a study carried about by University of Missouri Researchers. Patients with mild to moderate dementia increased their social interaction and were happier, an effect that lasted for weeks after the storytelling sessions. They were using the TimeSlips Creative Storytelling program, designed to tap into the imagination of Alzheimer’s patients. TimeSlips discovered that people with mid to late stages of memory loss may no longer be able to string together a story with beginning, middle and end. But they still have a treasure box of memories, full of shining stones.

We all have a treasure box. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to share our shining stones.

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