Yesterday I had the privilege of doing a workshop with the YMCA in Durban. The YMCA was in the process of training some young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) from many countries to do research for a new program called ‘One million voices’ which is going to catalogue the dreams, aspirations and ideals of teens across the world.
I was asked to facilitate a workshop to help these young leaders develop and share their life story… and I was completely daunted by the task. Not only would I be dealing with a topic with which I am not inherently familiar but I would be facilitating across various languages – not just our official 11 but languages from Norway, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Madagascar.
It is not my usual workshop gig – I deal with young children, sitting cross-legged on a carpet, not serious-minded young adults with great aspirations for their communities. Still, there was something about this opportunity that grabbed me. I had a strong sense that I was going to come out of it more changed than anyone.
As I researched the topic and prepared by notes and copious amounts of slides (I do love multi-media), I began to realise the power of a story. I had just listened to a talk by Chimamanda Adichie about the danger of a single story and though I knew I would be dealing with life stories rather than fiction, I knew that telling their stories would help to break stereotypes. Knowing that these leaders would go back into their various communities and share their life story in hopes of helping others change their lives. A story can change a life! It can create empathy and understanding, it can break stereotypes and reveal truth, it can inspire hope and courage. Sometimes we belittle the power of a story and yet, as I researched I found so many ways in which stories have affected the people who have written them down.
The workshop participants – most of them – were not writers, so I had to set aside my word-nerd self for a moment and focus on the concept of ‘story’ itself. I dealt with practical things to help with structuring of their life narrative and some basic writing tips.
I told my own story of how I came to be a writer and how I had to persevere for many years before I saw any glimmer of hope of publication. It seemed a feeble story in comparison to the gravitas of the stories in that room – these were young men and women who had lived a life so different to mine – and yet, that little story inspired the participants to share theirs. I am so glad they did – their stories are going to have massive impact in their communities and I am so grateful for any part I played in helping them find the courage to share it. It was an uncanny experience to witness to the beginning of the ripple effect of their stories.
At the end, the organizer (who also happens to be my father) asked the participants to describe what they had learned and how it had affected them. I usually cringe when the spotlight is on me like that (hence the career in writing and not theatre!) but this time I was eager to see if I had made any difference. I was blown away by their responses… I had managed to reignite dreams in some of the participants and given others an idea of how they could use a similar process to help young teens deal with difficult situations. As they spoke about taking the workshop into their various programs I was in awe of what a simple sharing of a story could do.
I know all of this has nothing to do with fiction, or children’s’ fiction in particular, but writers, this is not a new thing for us. We understand the power of stories. We understand the power of words. And we’ve all read ‘testimonies’ of other writers who slogged and slogged and finally made it. They inspired us. They urged us on. We should be inspiring others to do the same.
Keep writing (keep sharing your story)