On Being Good Stewards of Our Stories
+ a writing prompt and a fall grief workshop series
Welcome to Writing in Company. Each week I share some words and a writing prompt, meant to be jumping-off points for you to write about what matters. Use the prompts however you like—to journal, to draft thoughts for your own writing project, as meditation or prayer ideas, or for another creative endeavor. If this one doesn’t resonate, take a look back through the archive for one that does. Grab your pen and paper, and let your words loose on the page.
I spent last weekend with a lovely group of women, leading them in a retreat on Sharing Our Stories. We explored how we are story-formed people, examined our own stories alongside some favorite Bible stories, and talked about how to listen generously to the stories of others. It was a new retreat topic for me, and they willingly jumped into the project together. (Also they had the best snack table ever…)
One idea that is still rattling around in my head is something I shared from Brené Brown. She talks about our responsibility for story stewardship—to take good and gracious care of all our stories.
Here’s what she says in a post on her website:
“Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story—the ones we share and the ones we hear—and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care.
We are good stewards of the stories we tell by trusting them to people who have earned the right to hear them, and telling them when we are ready. We are good stewards of the stories we hear by listening, being curious, affirming, and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something.”1
I’ve learned the most about story stewardship from the last twenty-one years of writing out of the story of grief I carry. I carry it more lightly than I did before, and that is almost solely because writing helps me value and honor my story.
The very first day I wrote about losing our son Jack—sitting around a conference table with other grieving mothers I didn’t know—something unlocked inside me. The story needed to be told—most and first of all to myself. I had stuffed it down deep and gotten on with the business and busy-ness of caring for a surviving preemie newborn, a church and a spouse, and eventually another baby. I had tapped out of my story without even realizing it.2 Learning to write as a way to tell my grief story in small pieces helped me honor our son and tend to my soul in a way I didn’t even know I needed.
In the same way, learning to hold space for the sacred storytelling of others is also practicing good stewardship of their stories. It was so transformative for those mothers around that conference table that, after our one day of writing together, we have continued to meet together for 21 years. In between our twice-yearly weekends and a few big trips, we text and email, send funny memes and pictures, and remember anniversaries together. We continue to tell our own stories as we move farther along, and make space for the sacred stories of one another, and for others.3
As a way of literally practicing what I preach at the retreat this past weekend, I told my story—without notes (which is super weird and hard and brave of me.) I shared about Jack, and about something freezing inside me after he died. I shared about randomly reading about a one-day writing workshop in the newspaper, and about entering that room of grieving mothers reluctantly. I shared about how something in me began to thaw as we wrote and read our words, and about how we’ve been writing together ever since.
Here’s what else I shared that it took me this long to add to that story: I kept quiet about how writing was saving me for a decade and a half. Hardly anyone knew about it. We moved a few times, I changed churches, and sometimes the story of our son would come up. But apart from a few family members and friends, almost no one knew about the writing. It was private, and for me. It was my own soul care. So I didn’t share it. I wasn’t ready.
In 2018—sixteen years after I started writing with my soul sisters—I received a sabbatical grant for clergy. In the application I had to answer the question, “What would make your heart sing?” In the writing of the answer, I discovered something the now seems so obvious: the story of how writing was saving me was the closest thing to a gospel story of new life—a sacred story—that I had to tell. And it was time to tell it. Not just about Jack, but about writing about him.
During that sabbatical period, I finally took the facilitator training with Amherst Writers & Artists that I’d wanted to do for years. I co-hosted a writing workshop for church members for the first time.4 And I began to plant the seeds for what has become my writing work with Writing in Company today.
I’m still learning to steward my story and hold space well for the stories of others. As I shared my story on Sunday, I left out some things I really wanted to say, and wished I had left out a part that I did say. In writing you get to just write your sh**tty first draft5, and later edit or delete or stuff in a drawer and choose not to share. Stories spoken aloud are out there, dancing around on their own. That is both scary and sacred. Perhaps good story stewardship also means letting go once you have released your story into the universe, trusting it will make its way where and how it needs to go.
As I mark my one-year anniversary of writing here on Substack (hooray!), I am grateful for how this space allows me to share more of my story and also invite you to share yours through your own writing. Whether you get these writing prompts in your email, or read in the app or online, consider them a holy invitation to be wholly present to your own stories.
Your story matters. Your words matter. Even if you just write for yourself, you are practicing good story stewardship. Claim space on the page for your own sacred stories. And—when the time is right—think about sharing them. They just might save someone else.
a writing prompt
Here is one of the very first writing prompts we used in our very first writing workshop all those years ago: Write about something that belonged to your child.
I wrote that first day about Jack’s tiny knit cap—white with a blue band, gifted from an unknown volunteer. In the piece, I likened my small son to a wise old yogi, already tired, but with wisdom to share with those who came to see him. It’s an image that has stayed with me and nurtured me ever since.
So choose an object that belonged to someone you have lost. You might start by describing it. Let your words flow, and see what story they will reveal to you.
Writing through Grief - a fall workshop in October
Join me for a four-week writing workshop for anyone who is grieving. Whatever or whomever we are grieving, and whether our loss is old and familiar, or still fresh and raw—writing in company with others can help get our swirling thoughts out of our heads and onto the page, and put us on a path toward remembering what matters.
We’ll gather on Zoom on four Tuesdays in October, the 3rd, 10th, 17th, and 24th, from 7-8:30 Eastern. I keep these workshops small so we all have time to write and read as desired. No writing experience is needed, and grammar and spelling don’t count.
Paid subscribers (thank you!) can join for a 25% discount. A separate email has gone to you with a discount code. (Mine looked like gobbledy-gook on my phone, but was readable on my laptop. Let me know if you need it sent again.)
Let’s write together.
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Let me know what you think about the prompt, or come back and add some of what you write in the comments.
Know someone who might enjoy this prompt or others? Please share!
https://brenebrown.com/articles/2021/12/05/the-practice-of-story-stewardship/ See also her descriptions of narrative tap-out and narrative takeover. We tap out of listening to stories (including our own) when we are overwhelmed by them or when we devalue them. We take over a story when we center ourselves or our own experience above that of the storyteller, even when we think we are just empathizing/relating. Yes, yes we do…
See previous footnote and read the article for more about narrative tapout.
You can find the book about our group here: Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers, and our group blog. Both include prompts and much more about writing and grief.
See Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
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