Raising Our Voices, Writing Our Lives
The personal story, whether written or told belongs to all disciplines and has existed since humankind invented itself.
Ritualized story telling is hardwired -- it's our human inheritance.
We have been telling our stories since we gathered around communal fires.This activity is the basis of community and something our ancestors intuitively knew and formalized through ritual (which to us means repetitive and predictable processes); celebration, birth or death, marriage, the hunt, disasters and war survivors all had a story whose telling healed and ultimately involved the whole community. The story was sung. It was danced. It was drummed. It was told in poetry and chants. It was painted on walls and on cloth. It was sculpted in stone and carved on bone; in these ways it was created and shared. The ritual took hours, days even weeks to complete.
Now the sacred story of our lives when wounded is allotted fifty minutes a week. Many of these ancient practices were more effective than current ones and we look to mythologist Joseph Campbell for this: Preparation: time was taken to prepare to leave the mundane world to enter the sacred. Entrance: shifting out of the Ordinary mind and opening. Ritual brought telling to another level, the story was repeated again and again. Ritualized activities exist invisibly throughout our modern lives. Offering; ourselves, our pen, our paper our story. And when the story has been silenced, we worry.
Raising Our Voices, Writing Our Lives is the original workshop out of which the Ashlar mission emerged, it began over thirty years ago with women's stories in groups so powerful that we were inspired to open more and more groups. We created effective methods as we went a long and the students became the teachers. Literally, the students became the teachers. We use a format that frames the groups for a leader and we suggest that leadership rotate.
Writing alone in a group with other people was what was needed for these powerful stories to be released: a safe and predictable place where stories were received by others and held with great care.
The technique Writing Through the Body, developed thirty five years ago (by a poet and Jungian trained psychotherapist), allows the writer to access to the Authentic Voice. Once this Voice is found and the stories expressed, shaped and shared -- first with the writer and then, when the time is right, with the group -- lives change and creativity flourishes. For some of our beginning writers, the inner world is very frightening place and creativity has atrophied, then our writing groups serve as a safe re-entrance into the inner world of memory and imagination. The more intense the adverse event, the more the inner world is avoided. As the writer/story teller continues, fear is no longer paralyzing or silences the writer. The untold story is then the Embodied Story and this is the point where life begins to change.
As the stories take shape and people gain confidence, we provide an opportunity/choice to participate in The Word Jazz Theater, where stories are publicly performed. This is an important aspect of retrieving The Authentic Voice and giving Witness an opportunity to take place -- most people want others to know what happened to them. The performances are deeply moving, fun and have inspired many new writing groups.
Ashlar's workshops are different from other writing groups in that participants learn a very precise format with exercises that the student structures so that all writing done in the workshop can be continued when it is over. If negative feelings and experiences emerge as the result of the writing, the means for re- mediating negative feelings is embedded in the process. During the orientation to the writing groups, people learn what to do when their toxic stress overwhelms them. They learn how to take care of themselves. We believe in empowering and creating community so students learn the format so they can continue the writing group as a community. Some of these writing communities have a very long life span -- some 20 years. We will only teach few classes before the students take over and when the group continues with their own leaders, we encourage that leadership of the group is rotated -- responsibility and leadership are also part of the healing. We are interested in empowering our students not creating dependencies and gurus. We do remain accessessible as a resource when the group wants to celebrate their accomplishments, take the group to another level or if a leader may need help.
And always, there is The Word Jazz Theater which in one community became a tradition that has lasted over twenty years as have the groups. People perform together in a improvisational mode using their writing from the workshops to riff and share. We have been told that this is one of the most powerful performances of the personal story that has been witnessed. And that is our point: witnessing.
In the contemporary world, all too often people have been isolated inside their stories. We believe that the community at large needs to share and receive the story. Writing in community is where we learned true reverence for the untold Story and the need for community containment. Because so many of the stories were traumatic stories, we felt the need to seek out the most effective trauma resolution techniques. When appropriate, methods have been adapted to our writing groups and is included in our training for lay people.
We do not stop learning, we continue our search so our work does not become Yesterdays Best Method. At the same time, we are grounded in many years of experience so we do not get caught in fads. In the last two years we have been through university training in Germany, Italy and here in this country. A large part of our mission is training lay people to do this work as well as training people in the public section. We have trained staff in Native American settings in hospitals, veterans organizations, battered women's shelters, young people, other public agencies and always, in community generated groups. However therapeutic this writing/story telling is, we do not do psychotherapy -- we do not analyze, advise or interpret.
Many share their written stories with the rest of the group but only those who wish to share do. The rest of the group practices Deep Listening which brings a reverence in how they hold and contain the story for the story-teller.