Learning to "Story Listen" from the Brave Boys of Alchemy, Inc.

Sometimes we find ourselves on the wrong mountain. And in that, everything is wrong. If we mistake that moment for our whole story, we misunderstand. When our journey is truly epic, the periods of our lives can take decades. Much of that is a messy, hard middle. A constant failing forwards.

On my road to understand how to work with stories, I went wrong for many years, even though following my bliss to develop my craft as a scholar.

Listen to my story and tell me whether parts of it sound like something you've lived too.

“Who is this idea for?”

I can still see the kelly green ink of my dissertation chair’s careful scrawl in the margin of chapter four—perhaps the most ornate part of my theory. He was frustrated having to suffer through my battlefield of ideas. And I was desperate, recognizing that despite all my efforts, the theory I’d produced wouldn’t matter to anyone. I was mostly finished with my dissertation—an aggressive take down of how my field, psychology, approached working with stories.

I used then the same strategy I use now—deconstruct to reconstruct- only I hadn’t yet learned design theory’s first rule: empathy as strategy. I’d crafted a method my audience could neither use much less understand. Brilliant and useless.

No wonder I was miserable. I’d come to graduate school to find helpful methods for working with stories. Instead, I’d discovered the most powerful theories came with a caveat: only elite specialists could use them.

As I plotted away in my fairy tale cabin at the top of Sunset Plaza Drive mapping the story line of how we become our highest potential, the world around us crashed in the financial melt down of 2009. The machinations of biblical narrative form modeling the tapestry of identity in a multiplicity of voices illuminating how our self stories its Self into becoming seemed not to matter as our collective myth imploded.

And then something happened that changed the course of my life, my work, and my heart.

I met the brave boys of Alchemy, Inc.

I was invited to teach by a colleague, Dr. Kwame Scruggs, the founder of NPO, Alchemy Inc. The award winning organization uses myth to mentor urban at risk youth. I chose to work with Parzival—a story about the greatest hero of the land who fails in the center of his journey.

Parzival’s story was my story and I was sure, having delved into the arch form of this story in my dissertation, that this would be the students’ story too. I might as well share a myth model that told the truth.

Besides it was a last hurrah for me. I’d deconstruct Parzival using my impossible method. For two weeks I’d poured over the text and amplifying resources in nerdish ecstasy. The insights gleaned were like downloads from the divine. What I saw within the text, using these careful reading strategies revealed a true myth map of our life. A very road map for “amor fati,” love of fate, through failure.

I arrived on site at a youth center in Akron Ohio, plan in hand in the form of a giant binder exploding with notes. I’d teach the boys to deconstruct a text—so that we could see through to the great patterns within. “What version of Parzival have the boys read?” I questioned Kwame, hoping that they’d read a version based off of Wolfram von Eschenbach rather than earlier tellings, as Eschenbach’s was obviously the more nuanced.

“Oh. Reading?!” He belly laughed with his sunshine warmth. “The boys don’t read. We drum. We tell the stories and drum.”

A sickening spread through my stomach—anxiety digesting its way from inside out. Although I repeated the sugary mantra of “You can do this. You can do this,” I needed to come fast to terms with the truth that what I’d prepared was not what the audience needed. This felt like cruel fate teaching me once again the lesson of my dissertation.

But—we were live—and what I love about the fire of being in the room is that there is no choice. It’s pivot or die.

Although I’d never worked with teaching in this way before, we drummed as we story-told in short installments. After each big scene in the plot, I asked the boys to think on the themes, conflicts, characters, and questions and to ponder on when, how, and if, they’d experienced similar moments in their lives?

They wrote answers down by way of prompts and then shared.

What happened in their sharing was one of the most beautiful collective experiences of what I’ve come to call “social story” that I’ve ever experienced.
In vignettes, full of emotion, sometimes tears, sometimes anger, the boys filled the circle with the stories of the lives they’d lived.

I’d sent out the call of Parzival’s troubles and learnings—and the boys answered with their own stories, plotted to the larger frame of a great hero’s becoming.

Herein was a collective experience of a community of learning wherein we were mirroring to one another our becoming by way of story sharing.
Whatever this work was that we were doing…that’s what I wanted to do, what I’d meant to do all along.

It was in this experience that the great insight I’ll be sharing with you again and again through many lenses hit me in full force.

Storytelling begins with Storylistening. We must cultivate both practices simultaneously.

From that moment on I’ve been obsessed with unleashing the power of story sharing as collective ritual.

I believe with all my heart we do this with one another in conversation and we can do this collectively in meetings—when we design the experiences to open up meaning by way of sharing rather than dumping information.

Thank you to Dr. Kwame Scruggs and the boys of Alchemy Inc for showing me the way.