Every month in the intentional community where we live, we have an "Andiron Talk" (rather than a "Fireside Chat") where one of the residents shares the story of his or her life. Every one is different, though people usually start with where they grew up, what their parents were like, how they decided upon their vocation, and where they lived and worked. Usually they also weave a theme through this personal narrative. Since most of our neighbors have been in some kind of religious or community service, and have lived all over the world, their stories are fascinating.
We thought about why we so enjoy the Andiron Talks when reading Diane M. Millis's book on telling life-giving stories. She emphasizes storytelling in community: "Persons of all ages need listeners who are willing to mine the meaning in their stories with them: that is, one or more persons who will encourage us to dig deeper and consider alternative interpretations of the stories we tell."
Millis opens with a key question: "Is your life what you thought it was going to be?" It's one she has encountered frequently as a spiritual director, a teacher and adviser to undergraduate and graduate students, a counselor and coach, and a retreat leader. She invites her readers to:
- Discover the story you are currently telling yourself;
- Develop your capacity to re-create your story through the telling of alternative stories;
- Discern the story that is waiting to be told by you and through your life.
When you have a companion or listener to your story, you both benefit. Walking in someone else's shoes, even for a short time, increases your understanding of what "fits" in your own life. Storytellers learn from the insights others offer in response, and listeners discovers how someone else's story might influence their own.
Millis provides plenty of storytelling prompts and illustrates them with incidents from her own life. What would you name the book about your life? What is the fairy tale version of your story? Who are the heroes or villains in your story? What stories are you tired of hearing yourself tell? What stories would you like to better understand? What stories break your heart? What is one of your most meaningful artifacts? What is the story of your best possible future self? What is your life story in six words?
Most likely, especially if you are a regular journaler, you have lists of questions to ask yourself periodically, or books full of them. What's different about this one is its encouragement that you make sharing and re-creating your life story not a solitary activity but a group one. In the last chapter, "Hearing to Speech," Millis writes:
"The measure of a well-told story is the extent to which we as speakers convey the truest, most authentic story we can tell at this moment in time about our lived experience. Although it may not be a pretty story, a tidy story, or an easy story to tell, I believe we can learn to tell our stories beautifully if we have listeners who create the conditions to hear us into speech. . . . [In turn] hearing others all the way to their own story requires that we continue plunging courageously into our own."
She offers "The 4, 4, 4 Storytelling Format" (see excerpt) to turn the experience into a spiritual practice. One step, in which we as listeners "notice" what stirs in our hearts as we hear a story is likened to the practice of lectio divina or divine reading. The step of "appreciating" uses the other's story as a portal into our own, increasing attention and gratitude. And the step of "wondering" counters any tendency we might have to judge or assess a story as we craft contemplative questions.
We're sure the next time we listen to one of our community's Andiron Talks, we will find ourselves noticing, appreciating, and wondering. And we hope you'll do the same as you share and listen to life stories.