Elizabeth Ellis & Loren Niemi

Telling Difficult Stories

by Loren Niemi – June 30, 2021

John Barth (an author not much read outside of Academic enclaves these days) said: “The story of your life is not your life; it’s your story.”

I am in agreement with him on that point. The stories of my life are usually more interesting, and perhaps more meaningful, than the life that gave rise to them. I can tell over 400 stories about my life from age 5 through last week. Each of them is a mix of memory, emotion, fact and (for the sake of honesty) craft, that makes the story as Elizabeth Ellis and I often say in the Difficult Stories workshop: “truthful and artful.”

But let me elaborate on this point in relation to difficult stories in general and the Difficult Stories workshop in particular.

What we live is simultaneously complex and simple. We make the (best) decisions we can in any given moment as to what we will believe a situation or course of action is and what we will or will not do. That is the simple part. The complex part is how we feel about that situation or course of action and what it means in the larger context of our lives. Our messy, entangled lives. Much of the time that process of coming to know and understand what we feel and what it means is intimately connected to the story we tell ourselves first of all, and then, tell the family/community we are a part of.

It is said that the difference between storytelling and therapy is that in therapy we pay the audience. That may be the case, but the core of each is not our relationship to the audience but our relationship to the story. For many of us, therapy is the process of learning how to tell and interpret the meaning of our story. The function of the therapist is to be both a ‘deep-listening’ audience and depending on the approach, the coach/inquisitor/dramaturge of our telling.

In our book, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking about Difficult Stories” Elizabeth Ellis and I point out that our workshop is not therapy though it may be therapeutic. The fact is that there are two parts to working with difficult stories. The first is to come to an understanding of what it means for you. Therapy is, in theory, the place to do that. The Difficult Stories workshop is focused on understanding what it can mean to others. In looking at the specific choices you have in structuring your story, you may come to an understanding or a better understanding of what it means to you but our focus is on how to shape the story in a way that lets others have an understanding of your story – the who, what, where, when, and why of experience – that illuminates the meaning of the story for you.

We say that difficult stories are those that are hard to hear and hard to speak. We say telling them is valuable and necessary. Whether they are testimony or a cautionary tale, a lesson learned, a mistake made or corrected, we are committed to helping you make the conscious structural choices that will allow you to speak truthfully (to the facts and the meaning) and artfully (to images and themes that move a story to the universal and human).

Priced at $200 and limited to 10 participants, the three-session on-line version begins Thursday, July 8th at 7 PM Central and as a bonus, if you do not have a copy of our book, “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories” I (Loren) will send you one upon completion of the workshop.

Register today!

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