Raising Our Voices, Writing Our Lives

There is a hypnotic quality to a story well told  for both the listener and the teller --  through the rhythm, the movement, the texture,the metaphor, the listener is inducted into the story and the teller breaths life into it -- her/his own. A good story integrates mind and body.  A good story is sensual by nature and involves  image making for both listener and teller - the highest percentage of space for one sense in the brain is reserved for image/vision.

As human beings, we have been telling our stories since we first invented ourselves, since we gathered around communal fires.This activity is the basis of community and something our ancestors formalized through ritual (which to us at Ashlar, means repetitive and predictable processes, rather than having a religious connotation - though they can have that too); celebration, birth or marriage, the hunt, disasters  and death and the stories of survivors of war, or warriors  all of these human experiences private story with its history - personal and collective -  with fairy tales, myth, dreams, the private story in relationship to the public story: writing for yourself, writing for performance. Finding the voice. The embodied story: the role of the voice in the story. Story telling as a community building activity.  Telling or writing the personal story for healing. There are many ways we make coherent the story -- our Shoe String Stories act to record life events -- good an bad, the highlights in beads, feathers, ribbons and charms.  we have noted that many non-literate cultures have used a method similar to this, for instance; the Yakima Native American women had a life-ball where they tied knots on a thong, each knot indicating a life event. And then the stories are told one at a time.  This is one of the means through which you can create a coherent life narrative.  Something most of us don't do but should at some point. 

Many of these ancient practices, like the Yakima Life Ball,  were more effective than current ones and we look to mythologist Joseph Campbell for this explanation of ritual: Preparation: time was taken to prepare to leave the mundane world to enter the sacred world of the story.  Entrance: shifting out of the Ordinary mind and opening. Ritual brought telling to another level, the story was repeated again and again. The story was ended and the place of No Time was left in a very specific way.  Ritualized activities exist invisibly throughout our modern lives  as human beings are ritual creating animals though we have few where the complete story is offered.  And when the story has not been told but remains silent and avoided, we worry. This is not a good thing.

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. 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.  Individual and community are one in our groups.We created effective methods as we went a long as the students became the teachers. We learned from them and they learned from us. Literally, the students became the teachers.  We use a a very solid and easily learned format that provides the novice in our Story Circles the means to confidently take a leadership role.  We suggest that leadership rotate.  Our goal has always been to create Story circles in communities that are lead by community members. The techniqueWriting Through the Body, developed thirty five years ago (by Ashlar Director, a poet and Jungian trained psychotherapist), allows the writer to access to the Authentic Voice. Once this Voice is found and the stories are 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 (as was the outer world) and creativity has atrophied. Our writing groups serve(d) 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.  The performances are deeply moving, fun and have inspired many new writing groups. This is an important aspect of  exercising The (newly found)Authentic Voice and giving Witness an opportunity to take place -- most people want others to know what has happened to them -- unless there is a great deal of shame or there is potential danger. We plan for both possibilities.

Ashlar's workshops are different from other writing groups in that participants learn a very precise format with exercises/prompts  that build toward a coherent story.  We also teach a method to  help the writer continue writing when the workshops 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 -- one has gone for 20 years.  We will only teach few classes before the students take over. We are interested in empowering our students not creating dependencies and gurus. We do remain accessible as a resource when the group wants to celebrate their accomplishments, take the group to another level or if a leader may need help. We offer some other writing groups dream work and voice work. 

And always, there is The Word Jazz Theater which in one community became a tradition that has lasted for 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, offering, play and fun -- are quite possible even when the content is tough. 

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 stories of adverse experiences that we felt the need to seek out  the most effective toxic stress resolution techniques. When appropriate, methods have been adapted to our writing groups  and are included in our training for lay people. 

We ourselves 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 either. 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 or diagnose.   

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. 

As a participant you will learn: 

*to access the creative source from which Story emerges. (This access provides a richness in experience and develops problem solving skills that carry into    everyday life.)  The method  developed 30 years ago is called: Writing Through the Body. 

*to process stories of severe stress to resolution

*Deep Listening and Presence in group members 

* how to help a reader free her voice when she is not inside of the story.  This is a powerful process.  

*work through conflict -- in yourself or with others

* learn to lead, to become a Narrative Arts Facilitator

* to create a script for writers

* create a structure through which the story writing/telling process continues beyond the workshop.

* Word Jazz theater -- build a performance piece that integrates the stories gathered at the workshop, yours alone or as part of  a group. 

*create a coherent diverse community in which all stories have a place to live

* our additional workshops include, working with nightmares or dreams using a variety of methods including writing.  

* Arts process for Redemption, Grief and Reclamation, Writing through the Body. 

* A demonstration group using the Life Line and The Shoe String Story. The entire program has a spiritual non-religious focus in a Jungian context. Our goal for our own program participants is that they continue practices that lead to resilience, and well-being, and are productive community members who engage in creative problem solving and expression.