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Creating Personal Stories - from Cloud to Lightning

A 4-hour, in-person workshop led by Doug Lipman. Limited to 10 participants!

Held twice:

(Sorry, both sections of this workshop have been held. Please check out the 2-hour version or the weekend version.)

Both workshops are from 10am to 3pm
with the option of staying until 4pm for additional help (at no extra charge).

Needed: a quick way to turn memories into stories

In January, 2013, I had a problem. My week as Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center was coming up in a few months, and the stories I wanted to tell there didn't exist!

It's not that I didn't know plenty of stories. But I wanted to create a new program of stories about my parents. In fact, I wanted a one-hour program that I could perform each day of that week—and record there to make a CD of stories about my mother and father.

The problem was that I had waited until too late. I've always been someone who creates stories slowly, taking many months or even years to shape and hone them. But, with the vicisitudes of a free-lance life, I hadn't even begun creating the stories. What could I do?

Forging Ahead...

Always the optimist, I began talking to my principal storytelling coaching buddy, Jay O'Callahan, about why I wanted stories about my parents and what I wanted to say about my mother and father.

"Even though they've both been dead for years, I know their influence remains in everything I do," I found myself saying. "For example, I was coming home last week in the snow. I saw how beautiful our front door looked, with the snow-crowned Christmas wreath my wife Pam had chosen on it. Then I saw the Jewish mezuzah next to the wreath, on the doorpost; it had a crown of snow, too." (A mezuzah, by the way, is a small object, usually tube-shaped, containing a particular passage from Deuteronomy. All observant Jews—and many non-observant Jews, like me—have one on their doorposts.)

"Suddenly, I saw the house I grew up in, near Chicago. Even though my father was Jewish, we always had a Christmas tree in one window, but this year my Christian mother had bought a tacky electric menorah and put it in the other front window. I never understood why she thought we should have a menorah. We never celebrated Hanukah."

I paused a moment, as I remembered something. "You know," I said, "the snow-covered mezuzah I noticed last week was a gift from my Christian minister wife. And it was a significant gift, because it said to everyone who came to our house—including the members of her church—'A Jew lives here.'"

Suddenly, my eyes filled with tears. I told Jay, "I just got it! My mother couldn't articulate it, but that menorah said, 'A Jew lives here.' What a thoughtful gesture toward my father—and I never understood it until now.'"

Jay made some very appreciative comments, then asked me more about my memories of the menorah. I told him what I had told lots of people informally whenever the subject of being mixed heritage Jewish and Christian came up. Those memories were always just "things that happened to me," never well-shaped stories.

Before I knew it, though, my mind was combining the stories of my early life with the moment of noticing the snow-covered wreath and mezuzah. In less than a week, I had a solid draft of a new half-hour story, "My Mother and the Menorah."

Lightning Strikes Twice. And More.

Two weeks later, I began brainstorming more memories with Jay. One memory stood out during our coaching session that week: the memory of convincing my 91-year-old father to have a biopsy, after a chest x-ray had shown what was almost certainly cancer. I described that episode to Jay. After he gave me some appreciations, I told him a new thought: "You know, the techniques I used, to get my Dad to stop being so anxious, were really techniques I had learned from him as a boy!"

Within minutes, I had outlined a new story composed of an episode about how my Dad had taught me when I was a child, the episode about the lung cancer, and additional episodes required to get from the childhood key moment to the adult key moment.

I wish I could say that I was smart enough to notice that both stories came into focus using the same method. But I wasn't. Nonetheless, I found myself creating story after story from memories that had just been "things that happened" and were now becoming the core of some very meaningful and entertaining stories.

In fact, the stories were coming so quickly, I had to stop developing each new story idea that came to mind. As it was, I ended up with much more than the 60-minutes of material about my parents that I had wanted. By the time I declared a moratorium on creating new stories, I had enough stories for a CD about each parent. I ended up with two and a half hours of material!

My problem had quickly gone from an urgent need for new stories, to an urgent need for rehearsal time to perfect the too-many stories I had created.

What Had I Discovered?

Although the stories came quickly, the understanding about my newly discovered story-creation technique came slowly.

Fortunately, I was excited enough about my soon-to-be pair of CDs of stories about my parents (they're not ready yet, but I'm hoping to finish the editing some time this summer) that I wanted to share my personal story work in some way. When I was deciding what workshop to propose for the 2014 National Storytelling Conference in Phoenix, AZ, therefore, I asked myself, "Is there something new I can teach, based on how I created all those stories so quickly?"

After some thought, I realized the underlying technique: finding a lightning rod for the story.

Clouds and Rods

An image came to me as I was talking to Jay in the fall of 2013 about my workshop plans: those unshaped memories (e.g., of my mother and the menorah and of my father and his biopsy) were a lot like clouds: shapeless yet filled with emotional charge. There was emotional energy in them for me, but that energy was static, unable to flow from the cloud to a listener.

photo of lighting from a cloudOnce I found that second episode, though (e.g., the moment seeing the wreath and mezuzah in the snow, or the way my Dad had taught me to listen and praise) the energy began to flow. The second episode became like a lightning rod, conducting the emotional energy through the story, both focusing the story's meaning and producing a clear story line.

So that's what I'll teach in Pheonix in July (the conference is July 24 to 27, 2014): how to find a lightning rod that will turn a shapeless story into something packing a distinct emotional punch, with a well-defined story line.

Upcoming Workshops: Cloud to Lightning

I will present a 90-minute workshop on this topic at the National Storytelling Conference. The conference will be in Phoenix, AZ, July 23–27, 2014.

Two Workshops at My Office (Marshfield, Massachusetts)

To share this technique locally (and to get more experience explaining it clearly), I'm offering two workshops at my office. Each workshop teaches this technique in 4 hours (with an hour off for lunch). The dates are:

  • Saturday, May 31, 2014
  • Saturday, June 14, 2014.

At either of these workshops, you get a chance to:

  1. Hear a fuller explanation of this technique, with a complete example story and the detailed process I used to create it;
  2. Using a sample unformed episode I will provide, brainstorm possible "lightning rod" episodes that could possibly "rhyme" in some way with the sample episode.
  3. Choose a particular lighting rod. Notice how the choice of this lightning rod determines much of the resulting story's meaning and structure.
  4. Repeat the process in 2) and 3), using a remembered episode of your own.
  5. Develop the meaning and structure for the resulting story concept.
  6. Get coached throughout so that this will become clear and easy for you—I guarantee it!

In order to guarantee personal attention, these workshops will be limited to 10 people each.

They will each begin with a session from 10am to noon. We'll break for an hour of lunch and unstructured time (walk by the marsh, drive 5 minutes to the beach, sit in our wooded back yard, write by yourself, etc.). Then we'll work for another two hours, from 1-3pm.

If you wish, you can stay another hour for "bonus help" (no additional charge).

Price: Either of these workshops will cost $100 at the door. Given that I charge $195 for an hour of individual coaching (and that the workshop in Phoenix requires a $255-$430 conference registration), this is a bargain.

Super-Early-Bird price

You can save $55 by registering in advance (before April 30, 2014). Regular price: $100. Super-Early-Bird price: $45.

To register, go to I accept Master Charge, Visa, American Express and check. Or, if you contact me individually, you can pay by Paypal or Cash.

Register here:

To get the Super Early Bird discount, you must register by Wednesday, April 30, 2014!

Noa Baum, professional storyteller, Silver Spring, MD

"I felt this was a life-changing workshop. it opened a door, oh, many doors for me. I learned so much on so many different levels. as a storyteller, it allowed me to enter the creative space in a way that I craved and haven't found before."

—Noa Baum, Silver Spring, MD


Jimmy Neil Smith photo

Jimmy Neil Smith, founding Director, the International Storytelling Center

"Doug Lipman is just the best thinker we have about storytelling!"

—Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN.


Guarantee shieldI am so confident that you’ll finish this workshop able to apply the lightning-rod technique on your own, that I’m guaranteeing the workshop unconditionally. If you don’t learn everything I claim, I will refund your complete tuition!


"You created a climate that was tremendously supportive, a climate that allowed people to grow as storytellers.

"The other striking thing was how well the workshop accommodated a range of experience: the experienced people seemed challenged, and the beginners seemed unafraid." - Faith Mullen, Washington, DC

Faith Mullen, law professor, Washington, DC

Personal stories are undergoing a great renaissance, thanks to programs like Story Corps, the Moth, and our Massmouth story slams, as well as to theatrical productions of solo and group personal narratives.

The techniques you'll learn in this workshop will help you create endless stories from your own store of life memories. Even better, the stories you create this way will have a clearly defined central principle and story line. These are stories you'll be proud to tell for the rest of your life.

Yours in storytelling and creativity,

Doug's signature

P.S., To get the Super Early Bird discount, you must register by Wednesday, April 30, 2014!

Richard Sattgast photo

Richard Sattgast, State Treasurer of South Dakota, State Auditor of South Dakota, 2002-2010.

"My speeches seem to go over a lot better and I am more comfortable giving them than I was. Thanks!"–Richard Sattgast, State Treasurer of South Dakota



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Doug Lipman

P.O. Box 946 Marshfield, MA 02050 U.S.A.

Phone: (781) 837-1940
Toll free: (855) LIPMAN-1 (855-547-6261)
Fax: (781) 837-0508

This page was last updated July 13, 2014
Copyright©2002-2004 Doug Lipman