A couple of months ago, Sarah, my wife, and I ran a workshop together. It was the first time we’d done this, though we’d talked about it for years. We called it The Stories We Tell. It was a coming together of her experience as a counsellor and mine as a writer. We dipped our cup in the pool fed by those two separate streams and invited eight people to drink from it over the course of a weekend.
The idea was that we all carry with us stories about our lives, about our families, about where we come from – and that these become part of the larger story we tell to help us make sense of ourselves and our place in the world.
These stories are very familiar, as familiar as the feel of our own skin; so familiar, in fact, that we seldom stop to think about them and what they really mean. Nor do we take account of the fact that their meaning, even their relevance, can change as we grow and change and get older.
In our respective spheres of work we’ve both witnessed time and again the power of stories such as these to connect and bring meaning to things, to be the conductors of insight and emotion and a strong, deep sense of what it is to be human.
How would it be, we asked ourselves, if we could create the right space for people to take a fresh look at some of these stories – not in the intense bubble of the counsellor’s consulting room, nor within the pages of the writer’s notebook – but simply in the company of other like-minded folk, through conversation and the gentle sharing of experience?
We needed a structure, of course, but we wanted it to be so light that people would hardly notice it was there. We guessed that the real substance of the weekend would come not from anything that we said as workshop leaders, but from what people brought with them and shared as a result of the exercises and discussions we would orchestrate over the two days.
We also needed a good place for it – and found one right on our doorstep. The dance studio of Birnam Arts, our local arts and community centre, is a lovely airy space with tall windows, yet small enough that with flowers, a big rug from home, a circle of chairs and a table with plentiful refreshments, we could create a sense of comfort and intimacy.
The result of the weekend, we hoped, was that people would feel refreshed, invigorated, reconnected with aspects of their lives that perhaps they had not paid enough attention to, or overlooked completely. We wanted them to leave with a feeling of renewal.
Our personal contacts were the obvious starting point for this new venture. The group that came together on the first morning were professional people, from a mixture of business and the arts, and all known to us, though mostly strangers to one another. By the end of the two days that was to have changed dramatically …
I don’t want to describe the weekend because it was personal to the eight people who took part in it; and also because I don’t want to give too much away in case there’s someone reading this who might want to do it themselves. But a few days afterwards, emails started to circulate within the group. By the end of the first week, these eight no-longer-strangers had proposed to us that we run a follow-up and we had all agreed an autumn date for it.
I’ve often written here about the power of simple, personal stories to connect people – to engender real kindness in the sense that I use the word in the title of this blog – but I’ve never seen it work quite so fast or quite so pervasively. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Sarah and I had nothing at all to do with it, but the truth is that it was the stories themselves, and people’s willingness to share them, that really did all the work. They are to connection and kindness as oxygen is to breathing.
We’re running The Stories We Tell again on 7 & 8 September. To find out more or to book, click here.
It sounds wonderful, Jamie!