Why I Follow Somerset Maugham’s Three Storytelling Rules

to tell a story.010It’s no secret that I’m leery (and weary) of posts entitled The Six Secrets to Storytelling Success, The Seven Rules, The Three Best Practices, The Twenty Must-Dos… or that I’m dismayed by folks trade-marking storytelling processes and terms that are, actually, just plain old common sense and age-old practices. When people ask me for rules, for best ways, for the one true answer, I quote Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Indeed, the twenty some years I spent as a classroom teacher and the many more than that as a writer have taught me that no one-size-fits-all in storytelling, no set of rules guarantees success, no short cut is worth taking in story-work-for-change.  Each story, each storytelling has its own set of rules–to get it right, listen hard enough to the variables: the storytelling moment and audience and context and need and elements of story, and what they do to one another.  And that takes practice, the building of skills and the exercise of patience and effort. Each time you tell a story is the first time.

And here’s another thought some folks won’t like: I think nonprofits should almost always do their own storytelling, not hire out, at least not during the first, formative steps of the telling. It is through the very act of sharing and listening to story that we learn deep truths about our work and ourselves and the people/places we are trying to help. When we are engaged in authentic, ethical story sharing and story listening together, we make ourselves vulnerable, build trust, open to empathy and understanding. The more skilled we all get at listening to story and to telling authentic stories ethically, the better work we’ll do in our change efforts. to tell a story.012

That’s why I’m grateful for the forward-looking Vermont Community Foundation and Ben and Jerry’s Foundation who sponsored the latest series of  ten storytelling workshops I’ve put together for Vermont nonprofits. My hat is off to them for helping their grantees (and applicants) with far more than grants–i.e. some theory, tools, skills and a bit of practice with storytelling through exercises designed to illuminate the power of stories to teach us and connect us and inspire us and lead to action.  And the half-day workshops are free.  Imagine that.

As a result, we’ve reached scores of tiny volunteer-based groups as well as branches of national organizations and taken the first steps to building a storytelling network among Vermont nonprofits. There’s no parachuting in to give a snappy presentation of the five steps to a perfect story then leaving these folks to sort it all out on their own (which in many cases would lead to abandoning storytelling altogether or settling for some slick version of a sort-of story). Instead we’ve designed a slate of workshops that build one to the next, aimed to provide a thorough grounding and practice in the art of storytelling and the many ways nonprofits can use story to serve their cause and community. And there’s follow-up support. It’s about these folks teaching and inspiring each other and putting together sound storytelling strategies they can actually follow. Daring to slow it down, go deep to achieve lasting results. Thank you, VCF & B &J, for getting it about story and the rules of storytelling.

So next time someone asks you what you know about storytelling?  I hope you’ll give them Maugham’s most excellent set of rules and then share a story and ask for one.



Back to My Bloggery

Into the Community

These past three years I have largely put aside blogging about my work to immerse myself in the storytelling itself. I was interested in what unplugging a bit would do to my thinking, my creativity, my ability to help small, rural communities strengthen civic engagement.  Without blogging about it or even tweeting much–the way I did for years about my adventures in classroom teaching–I have experimented and explored and mixed and mashed and facilitated and shared and mentored and guided and watched and listened and listened and listened and  played and learned about the role of storytelling in a wide range of communities and community contexts. Every community has its own way, its own identity, its own process and so the trainings I offer, the workshops and mentoring are different every time.  I do not follow any school of thought.  I do not practice a single set of processes, techniques, strategies.  I am not trying to brand anything.  I listen.

#1 Community

Wendell Berry on Community

It has been a remarkable, if blog quiet, time.  Of course, I didn’t give up blogging altogether–but I kept it to my explorations on the ground about the ground, literally, over at Open View Gardens–writing with Elizabeth and guest bloggers about stewarding the land and ecological gardening and cooking around the world as a way to build inter-cultural connections and foster effective informal learning. Also blogged about gardening at Eating Well, and I’ve written within my geographic community through a co-written weekly column in our twice-weekly county newspaper.

salmon leaping/Meg Wheatley quote

Values & Vision

I wrote a white paper for Orton Family Foundation on storytelling at the heart of community.  I’ve put together Slideshare/Youtube workshops and Flickr sets of slides for groups as well as wikis filled with resources and presentations. But now, I’m ready for some conversation, for some reflection on the work and what I’m hearing and reading, so it’s back to the bloggery I go.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that “storytelling” is the theme du jour and I hope to rescue it from faddishness; perhaps it has to do with the fact that some are calling storytelling “soft” and ineffectual in a time of crisis.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I have inched my way back to working with formal learning communities as well as with foundations and geographic communities seeking to strengthen civic engagement and foster positive, deep change. When I left higher ed, I really didn’t anticipate this sort of shift by academic institutions, this embrace of participatory community stewardship as central to all learning communities, formal or informal. And yet here I am, working with some extraordinary folks trying hard to take down silos and to build open collaboration, to deepen learning and to place community at the center of it all within their institutions. All while the world careens and the planet struggles.

Anyway, I’m back blogging and tweeting, eager to see how the practices and the connectiveness inform my work.