Doug: What has been the effect on your personal storytelling community of the coaching workshops you've organized?
Marni: I've gained a "support team." Once someone comes to this workshop we share a common understanding of a particular process of helping each other. Then a person who may have been a "friend" before becomes a true helper. We have a new and deeper level of friendship.
Looking around to find people for the workshops has also encouraged me to find other artists and educators who weren't friends necessarily. This experience inducts them instantly into my support team. We get close quickly during the workshops. There's a high level of trust. In fact, I often encourage someone to come—because I like their work and see them as a potential ally, as someone I want to know better.
The workshops have greatly increased my circle of support.
Have you had a hard time finding people for the workshops?
It was hardest at first. Now, after several years, I fill the workshop easily with returnees. This is the kind of experience some people want to take again and again because it's a process we come to count on. We know the ground rules and can take big risks artistically. Everyone does cutting edge work.
Yet there's an advantage to having new people every time. I have asked some returnees to "take a break" for a year to allow others to attend. The newcomers bring a fresh perspective and keep my community from getting static. Plus I just like making new artist friends.
Not everyone who comes turns into an important "story partner"
for me personally. But I benefit even from those I don't work with on a regular basis myself. That is, I might hook one teller who knows this process up with another whose work is connected. This helps me
indirectly. For example, P__ and R__ have started working with each other. The energy they get from each other comes back to me when I work with R__. And I enjoy knowing that I've helped bring two people together who are supporting each other as artists. It means a lot to be part of a community where we're all helping each other.
Why did you organize the first workshop?
I wanted to work with you. I had seen you coach at LANES' Sharing the Fire conference and your thinking about how someone learns matched my pedagogical beliefs. I see a teacher as someone who empowers learners, who draws from their natural expertise, not someone who directs or plays the critic.
Then a few months later at the National Storytelling Conference you helped me so much with a story I was struggling with, and when I said I wished I lived closer to Boston, you said, "Why not get 7 or 8 other folks and bring me to your town?"
That made it easy. I was already good at gathering people to come to my house.
I wanted to learn from someone whose goals were something like mine, but who knew some things I didn't know. As an adult learner, I've had mentors in the English-teaching and writing worlds who I
greatly respected, but who I couldn't get close to. I wanted a teacher who would know me and come to see my unique gifts and assist me in bringing them out. I didn’t want to sit at the feet of any more experts, I wanted a teacher who could learn as much from me as I learned from him or her.
These ongoing workshops have given me a forum for building a reciprocal closeness based on mutual respect. The workshop setting has made that easy.
The unforeseen benefit is that, through the workshops, I've become part of an important artistic community. Some of us are from New York state and New England, but tellers from as far away as California and Florida have come. We keep in touch by coaching each other on the phone. And then we meet at these workshops and other events, which re-energizes us and helps us if we hit a snag in our work.
I feel like we're all in Paris, like the American ex-patriot writers. We're coming together on the edge of a newly reborn artform,
supporting each other in storytelling. This feeling is rare, I think.
I talk to many others who don't feel anything like that.
There's something I've had the idea of doing that I haven't yet done. I know there are other coaching communities around the country. I'd like to go to your coaching workshops in other states, to be a bridge to connect these communities.
What would you say are the personal benefits you've gotten from being an organizer?
The main thing is that I'm breaking the habit of working alone. I am hungry to talk process with other tellers and educators. And I've always wanted to connect my former life of teaching writing process to the storytelling world. Finally last year a wonderful storytelling teacher educator from that world came to a workshop. This year we did a presentation together at a national English conference. I'd love to make stronger connections with even more groups.
As a professional storyteller, I work alone—even more so as a writer about storytelling. I'm an artist in my little room, writing my book. I don't have a work place I go to each day. But because of this annual—and now semi-annual—workshop and these ongoing relationships, I have created a growing community and don't feel so alone. Before this, I had close friends and I had work friends—but now, I have a combination of the two.
For example, with S___, I have built an important work friendship. We have done very deep work on stories. But today on the phone, during my turn I dove into something that's still not easy to work on, stories about my early experiences of God. I have a lot of feelings there to straighten out before I can tell the stories I want to tell and tell them well.
So what I needed from S___ today was help with those very personal feelings. It's not easy for me to go there, but because of our history of going to deep places in the workshops, she was able to be there in the way I needed and I made real progress.
When you organized the first workshop, was there a part of you that felt reluctant?
Mostly I worried about filling it up. Would I be able to get enough people to come for a three-day weekend? I wanted to choose that kind of a time-frame and it would mean a commitment on the part of other tellers.
Also, I worried about how this would work for my family. We have the workshops at my house. So I had to figure out how to have this big event here. It's just nine or ten people counting you, but sometimes it seems like a "cast of thousands."
At this point, how do you find people for the workshops?
My goal used to be just to get anyone who would come. Now I want to be sure that whoever comes is ready. We do deep work. It isn't just about character voices or clearer gestures.
I have to do my homework with any potential workshop attendee. I want to describe clearly what the workshop tone is and the variety of kinds of work that a participant can bring. We don't just tell stories. We work on confidence issues, on the big goals of our artist lives, and on the layers of meaning beneath our tales.
What helps you describe the workshops well?
What helps is having experience of more workshops. In the early years, I didn't describe the workshop very well, because I hadn't experienced it enough. I felt desperate to get anyone who
could come, whether or not I knew anything about their experience of storytelling. Now, I can sense who's ready to come. I don't mean in any way that this process is elitist. Just the opposite. Anyone deeply committed to their art, whatever that is, would make a good candidate. I just want a potential participant to know what to expect.
Do you have any advice for someone who's about to organize their first workshop?
Relax into it. It's fun. It's like having a party where you know
everybody will have a good time and get along. We laugh a lot and get playful as well as dive deep. At the workshop, Doug uses the first night to help us bond, to become a community, and to know what to expect.
I am looking for people all year long as I meet storytellers. I'm a lookout. A scout. I'm always alert to recruiting someone I want on my support team. And I trust that the people who are looking for the kind of teaching this experience provides will somehow find me.
Are there strategies you've thought of, but haven't tried yet?
I want to recruit in my own back yard more, actually. I want to find people who live closer to me. I guess I need to be more proactive in my own storytelling community. I have lots of local storyteller friends but only a few have taken advantage of the workshop. I
invite them every year via an announcement in the local newsletter.
But maybe I need to gently push through their resistance. Then again, some may not want to do the emotional work; this may not be the kind of learning experience every teller wants.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to someone who's considering organizing one of these workshops?
This work is ten times more valuable than you can ever imagine. I began because I wanted to have a teacher come here, and I wanted to learn more about storytelling in a deeper way. But the benefits are so much greater than I ever imagined.
I have gotten so much support as an artist. I've gotten some very advanced levels of understanding of storytelling.
And I've produced things I hadn't really imagined I could ever do. I'm writing my second, very personal book. And I wrote, recorded, and self-published a double-cassette of personal stories, even though some earlier writing teachers discouraged me from autobiographical work.
I've gained confidence in my own understanding and my voice. Last, and far from least, I've claimed my self as an artist.
Thank you so much!
Anyone who wants to talk to me about how to organize a workshop is welcome to call me at (518) 381-9474 or email me through my website at marnigillard.com.
You can register now for any upcoming coaching workshop via email, mail, phone, fax, or my secure registration form. I accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
I have learned from your workshops that, under the right learning conditions, people's excellence will be expressed. There are learning conditions that encourage human excellence.
I understand that I can create particular learning conditions in which my students' creativity will bloom. Feeling safe enough to take risks (really make mistakes and learn from them) is one condition that fosters real learning.
The coaching theory and practice have changed the way I teach and, to some degree, the way I interact with my family and friends and colleagues.—Lynne Burns, educational consultant, Ilion, NY