Story Circle Network
A Guide for Story Circle Facilitators

by

The Story Circle Network


Telling a true story about personal experience is not just a matter of being oneself, or even of finding oneself. It is also a matter of choosing oneself.
--Harriet Goldhor Lerner

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection . . . We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth.
--AnaÔs Nin

Each time I write, each time the authentic words break through, I am changed. The older order that I was collapses and dies. I do not know what words will appear on the page. I follow language. I follow the sound of the words, and I am surprised and transformed by what I record.
--Susan Griffin


Contents


A Letter from Susan Wittig Albert

Dear Story Circle Facilitator:

The women of the Story Circle Network have published this guide to help you create a Story Circle in your own neighborhood, church, or community. We hope you will encourage your friends and acquaintances to join you in sharing their life stories and enjoying the benefits that come, many-fold, from the empowering act of re-creating our lives through story.

Please use this guide freely and imaginatively, not as a ďhow toĒ that dictates the structure and organization of your Story Circle, but as a collection of ideas, suggestions, and possibilities. After your Circle is in place, we invite you to share your own ideas and suggestions and possibilities with us, so that we may expand, enlarge, and enrich the guide, and introduce the Story Circle idea to as many women as possible.

With joy for your journey,

Susan Wittig Albert
Founder, The Story Circle Network


The Power of Story: Telling and Sharing Our Stories

Womenís lives are lived in the language of story. From the beginning of human time, while we worked, we told stories--stories of joy and fear and achievement and pain. But it is only in the past couple of hundred years that we have been able to write our stories down. In fact, much of womenís experience is only remembered because it has been retold by men. Over the centuries, men have written our stories for us, and since they didnít share our experience, they usually got it wrong. They told about us the way they saw us--and they often didnít see us whole or real, in all our infinite human and female variousness.

Thatís one of the reasons why it is so important for us to tell our own stories, in our own words, with our own voices. We need to tell the truth about womenís experience, about our lives, our achievements, our tragedies. For the truth will be told only when we have the courage to tell it. The women who come after us will know how we lived only when we tell them how it was.

But it isnít only future generations who will benefit from the stories we tell about our lives. Putting our experience into words, giving voice to our joys and griefs--these are healing acts that help us to ease old pains, comfort old wounds, and understand old puzzles. Story is a therapeutic art. As we reveal ourselves in story, as we reorder our often chaotic experience into a meaningful flow, we become conscious of the continuing core of our lives under the fragmented surface of experience. We learn who we are as we put ourselves into words, and our new understanding of who we are can help us create a whole new story for ourselves.

Telling our own true stories straight from the heart, and sharing those stories with women who know what weíre talking about because theyíve been there too. Thatís what the Story Circle idea is all about.


What is a Story Circle?

A Story Circle is a group of women who come together on a regular basis to write, read, share, and celebrate the stories of their lives.

A Story Circle may be made up of women who have never met one another, and have come together just for the purpose of reading, writing, and sharing. Or it might be made up of members of an existing organization--a church, for instance, or a reading group, or simply a group of friends. Circles vary in size, from three or four to twelve or fifteen. (Larger groups may want to break into smaller circles for sharing.) In terms of organization, a Story Circle may be led by a facilitator or teacher who chooses a place and time, invites participants to join the group, suggests writing topics, and keeps things going. If the facilitator contributes a substantial amount of time to organizing and leading the group, she should feel free to ask for financial contributions from group members or to set a fee for joining the Circle. Or a Story Circle may be led by the group itself (this works well when members are already used to working together), or by individual members taking turns leading sessions, which may be held in participantsí homes. Story Circle participants do not have to be members of the Story Circle Network--but we hope they will want to join, once they find out about the purpose of the organization and read the quarterly Story Circle Journal. (We also hope that a Story Circle might even grow to become a local chapter of the national organization!)

A Story Circle may be open-ended, the members continuing to write, read, and celebrate together for months or years. Or a Circle may be time-limited--that is, it may decide to meet for six to twelve weeks, and work through a set of topics, such as the ones listed in this booklet or suggested in the Story Circle Journal. There are many other ideas for Story Circle activity--such as publishing the Circleís work, or creating reading circles or sharing circles--which we will describe later in this booklet.


Organizing a Story Circle

If youíre already a member of an on-going group or club, organizing a Story Circle may be as easy as deciding when and where to get together and what topics you want to write about. In that case, you can skip this section and go on to the pages that describe how a Story Circle functions. If youíre forming a new group, however, youíll want to give some thought to the way you select members. Here are some ideas for going about it.

You might start by discussing the idea of starting a group with friends and relatives. They may not be interested, but they may know someone who is. Then, as you contact possible members, they can help with the recruiting process by talking to their friends and relatives. Or you may already have a mailing list, or know friends who have mailing lists, and can mail a postcard announcing your idea for forming a Circle.

You might also contact the manager of your local bookstore. The store may have an on-going reading or writing group whose members would be interested in hearing your idea for forming a Story Circle. Or, you might ask the manager if you can put up a notice about the Story Circle on a bulletin board in the store. (Before you put up a notice anywhere, though, give some thought to it. Youíll have to post a phone number, which involves some risk. If youíre worried about this, you could ask interested people to leave their names and phone numbers with the storeís manager, and you could get in touch with them.)

You might contact local teachersí groups, librarians, nursesí organizations, or writersí clubs, and explore local community and volunteer organizations, such as PTAs, churches and synagogues, and other womenís groups. You might also try the local YWCA and womenís centers. Most of these organizations have newsletters and might be willing to include a notice of your newly-forming Story Circle.

Use your local newspapers, particularly those that target an audience interested in personal growth and development. You might get a good response from a small classified ad. If you intend to form a series of groups, or more than one group at a time, you might want to invest in a display ad.

This brings us to another topic: the cost of creating and supporting a Story Circle. If your Circle is an informal group that shifts the responsibility of leadership from one member to another, the only costs of membership are postage for meeting reminders, space rental (if necessary), food (if preferred), and group child care (perhaps). On the other hand, if you are organizing one or several Story Circles and plan to facilitate them or structure them as a class, you may want to charge members for their participation. (Donít be shy about this, if itís the way you want to do it. After all, the members of your group will benefit from the time and effort you put into organizing and leading the Circle--and time, as some witty person once remarked, certainly is money.) The arrangements vary from person to person and might be formal or informal, business-like or casual, depending on the circumstances.

Here are some organizational questions that you (or you and your group) will want to think about:

If you are a counselor or therapist and are forming a Story Circle as an adjunct to your practice, you may already have office/conference room space that would be suitable for a meeting place. Perhaps you already publish a newsletter or maintain a website, or have a mailing list of clients or customers, and find it relatively easy to organize a Story Circle. A different facilitator might already have a consulting business and be used to calculating and handling fees, while another might decide to volunteer her leadership skills at no charge to the group.

Fees for organizing and leading groups of this kind depend greatly on the experience and background of the facilitator, and on the local situation. Check to see whatís already being offered in your area, what fees are being charged, and what skills and experience different teachers offer. Many group facilitators find that teaching is not only interesting and enjoyable work, but also profitable.


What Makes a Good Facilitator?

If you have participated in reading or writing groups, you probably have a pretty good idea of the importance of the facilitator--a person who helps members get the most out of the groupís activities. This person might be a group member whose turn it is to lead, or the person who organizes and leads the group.

A good facilitator is just that--someone who makes it easy for each woman to participate in the group to whatever extent she chooses, whether that means active contributions or passive listening. A good facilitator

The facilitator may also be responsible for finding a place and arranging times for meeting, for coordinating food and refreshments, and for contacting members. Some Story Circle facilitators also gather writing selections and reproduce them so that members can have copies of one anotherís work, or they develop reading lists to broaden the discussion.

In the experience of most Story Circle members, the facilitator is key to the success of the group. Group leadership is like leading a choir: bringing out the best in every voice, urging some to sing out and others to be less exuberant, and reminding everyone that while they are distinct individuals, they are also part of the same choir. The facilitator is also largely responsible for the tone of the group, whether itís casual and friendly, scholarly and academically-oriented, or emotional and sometimes dramatically charged. And the facilitator is crucial to maintaining the groupís energies, and keeping everyone focussed on the work at hand. An active, vigorous group engaging in reading, writing, sharing, and supporting is a delight for everyone--including the facilitator who helped to make it happen!


A Six-Week Story Circle Schedule

Story Circles work in different ways--as many ways, actually, as peopleís imaginations can conjure up! Some groups use a text (such as Susan Wittig Albertís Writing From Life: Telling Your Soulís Story, which was written especially for women who want to write their memoirs and contains many ideas specifically for Story Circle activities). Other groups use topics suggested in The Story Circle Journal, which offers ideas for both individual and group memoir-writing projects. Still other Story Circles simply choose topics in which they are personally interested and write about them.

If your Story Circle already knows the topics it wants to explore, you probably donít need much help in coming up with ideas. If, on the other hand, you would like some guidance in creating Story Circle activities, here is a schedule for a six-week series of meetings. The topics here are only suggestions, of course--you can probably come up with other interesting writing topics that are relevant to womenís experience. Also included are suggestions for kinds of writing (timed writings, lists, etc.) that are often done in groups. Additional ideas are available in the Story Circle Journal.

Week 1

Start off with introductions, then choose one or more of these topics for a brief discussion. What is memoir writing and why is it important to women? Why do the women in the group want to get together to tell their stories? What is a Story Circle, and what can we gain from it? Youíll also want to cover business matters (meeting times, places, fees, food, etc.) Possible writing topics for this first meeting include: Depending on the number of people in the group and the amount of available time, the group might write for 5-8 minutes (use a timer), then share what they have written. (The best and most encouraging kind of sharing does not involve criticism. Encourage participants to say what they like about each piece, rather than offering critical comments.) At the end of the time, suggest that participants commit themselves to writing for at least 20 minutes a day for at least five days. A good topic for the week: Who I was at the Age of 10 (20, 30, 40, 50).

Week 2

You might start off by sharing what went on in the writing sessions during the week. How successful were people at setting a writing plan and sticking to it? How useful were the topics? Ask for volunteers to read one of their stories. The group could also discuss their methods for keeping and filing their work--on computer, in a loose-leaf notebook with sections for different kinds of writing or different periods of the life, or in a bound notebook.

This week, you might want to explore the topic of "Beginnings" through a series of short timed writings (we call them "popcorn" writings). Here are some possible subjects for 3-minute writings, which can then be read aloud to the group:

You might try varying the person and tense of these writings, in order to see how it feels to write in different styles: At the close of the session, suggest that people expand some of these short pieces in their writing times during the week.

Week 3

Start, as usual, by sharing stories and trading ideas for methods of writing (what works, what doesnít). Remind one another that one reason to do memoir writing in a group is to learn from other peopleís writing methods, and to encourage one another to write regularly.

This week, you could focus on homes (a fruitful topic which is the subject of many published memoirs). List-making is a very effective way of encouraging the flow of ideas, so start by asking everyone to make a list of all the homes they can remember, in chronological order, and the names of the people with whom they lived. (They can use their own definition of "home.") Give ample time for this activity. When the lists are completed, ask people to study them and see if the homes fall into any patterns. Discuss the patterns and see what insights emerge. Then choose one or more of the following questions as writing prompts for 5-8 minute writings:

Share your writings and discuss the issues that come up for you. In the coming week, suggest that people write a short history of the homes theyíve lived in, including as many details as possible about both the physical place and the emotional ambiance.

Week 4

Start by asking people to read some of the stories about their homes. Discuss the weekís writing activities--are people staying with the writing? What new ways have they found to compile their work?

This week might begin a two-week focus on relationships. Begin by asking people to make a chronological list (with names and dates) of the important relationships in their lives. Give ample time for this activity. When people are finished, ask them to go back over their lists and write (in one sentence) the most valuable lesson they learned from each relationship. When thatís done, you could go on to one or more of the following writing topics, which are suggested here in the form of a letter. (When weíre writing about our lives, it is often helpful to write letters--which of course need not be sent--to people with whom we have had intimate relationships. Memories of the relationship come clearer as we write the letters.) It is better to choose one of these topics and write for a longer period (say 10-15 minutes), rather than trying to cover them all in shorter writings.

When the writing is over, share what youíve written. For the coming week, suggest that participants write take one letter a day, using the above questions and suggestions as guidelines.

Week 5

Begin by reading some of the letters that were written during the week, and discussing the process of writing. What was most helpful about doing the letters? What did people learn from the process? Did memories emerge that might not have come up in other ways?

This week, continue to write about relationships. Ask people to go back to their lists of significant relationships, and choose one to write about in detail. Here are some short writing topics to help people explore the relationship. It is best to do them sequentially, one after the other, without interruption.

When these five three-minute writing segments are concluded, ask people to share. (They need not read all of the writings--just the one or two from which they learned the most.)

During the coming week, suggest that people choose other relationships on their list and use the questions above to explore each of them.

Week 6

Begin by reading and sharing some of the writings that people have done during the week and talking about the process of life writing. What have people learned from the group? How has their writing changed? How has their commitment to writing changed as a result of the Story Circle?

The writings in this last session might have a kind of "wrap-up" theme. Here are some topics for possible 5-8 minute writings:

Share your stories. Then take the time to celebrate your stories with a special dessert or a bubbly toast or something other special event that will make the session more memorable. And donít forget to make plans for getting together to continue your Story Circle!


Working Together in a Story Circle

The following passage is borrowed, with permission, from Susan Wittig Albertís book, Writing From Life: Telling Your Soulís Story, pp 217-218.
"When we come together in a Story Circle, we take on responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another. My most essential obligation is to tell my story, with all the clarity and insight and truth I can summon. But I have another task, and that is to be present to the stories of others in the circle, to bear witness to their clarity and insight and truth--our common truth. Because it is our truth we are groping toward, we support one anotherís efforts, however faltering, to tell it. And we respect one anotherís privacy by agreeing not to reveal anything we have heard within the circle.

Put simply, within the Story Circle we are safe, for we honor one another. We are safe because we may say anything and know that it will not be revealed. We listen with respect and regard, without interruption or sarcasm or envy or rivalry. We are midwives (the literal meaning of the word is "with-woman") to the vulnerable soul as it is being born, privy to all that is deep and intimate. Our relationship to one another is one of trust and mutual respect. We recognize that pain and anguish, as they are in childbirth are signs of breakthrough, of great progress. We are witnesses to that labor, and as women, birth-givers, we know when to urge pushing and breathing and simply being still with pain. We are mutual presences, simply, and in that attentive being-with, that delicate, careful listening, we help one another bring forth--ourselves.

To listen. Such a small word, so ordinary. And yet, not to be listened to, not to be heard, is not to exist. So in the Story Circle, we listen one another into existence, into true life. We listen in suffering and in celebration, putting ourselves out of the way, and let others know that we have heard.

And listening completes the story. Our story. Our sacred story."


More Story Circle Activities

If your Circle wants to keep writing, there are lots of topics that are of special relevance to women. And once people have experienced the transformational magic of writing their personal stories, they will discover many ways of organizing them. Here are a few ideas: Publication is an appropriate Story Circle activity. You could collect Circle membersí writings, assemble them into a booklet, and publish it. Inexpensive publication is available through copy shops, and an attractive cover adds only a few cents to the cost. In addition to personal stories, contributions might include poetry, essays, and drawings. Even a group photograph can be easily reproduced. In addition to print publication, your Circle might want to audiotape themselves reading their stories aloud.


Books for the Journey

If your Story Circle would prefer to use a book as a guide, here is a list of some useful texts.


About the Story Circle Network

The Network was founded in early 1997 by Susan Wittig Albert, Ph.D. Its office, which is staffed by volunteers, is located in Austin, Texas. It is governed by a board of directors which oversees its regular programs and special projects and devotes substantial time to developing new activities to better serve the membership. Recently, the Network received a $100,000 grant to fund the Older Womenís Legacy Circle, a memoir-writing project for women over 60. Publications from that project, including the workbook and facilitatorís manual, will soon be available.

One of the Network's most important on-going projects is the publication of the 16-28 page quarterly Story Circle Journal. The Journal offers articles about memoir-writing, ideas and tips for organizing and writing memoirs, members' writings, and membership news. (Sample copies and back issues are available for $6 each from the Story Circle Network office - see address below.) The Network also publishes "A Guide for Story Circle Facilitators" (this document) and plans to develop other occasional publications, including bibliographies of women's memoirs, reading group guides, and publications of members' writing.

Go here to become a member of Story Circle Network. For a brochure or additional information about the organization, write to

Story Circle Network
PO Box 1670
Estes Park CO 80517-1670
or visit the Story Circle website, at www.storycircle.org.


©2005 by Story Circle Network, Inc.
All rights reserved. This document, or parts therof, may not be
reproduced in any form without permission.

Last updated: 04/19/05