This story starts in Death Café… An event I attended last year that had been organised by Rachel Weiss from Rowan Consultancy. At this strange, yet uplifting event I met a couple called Jamie and Sarah Jauncey who were interested in people’s perceptions and plans for the only life milestone that’s guaranteed for all. They told me about a two day workshop they run called ‘The Stories We Tell’ but with a head full of funeral songs I only really took half of it in.
Cut to last September, when my friend Jane told me about an amazing workshop she’d just been on that had given her a fresh outlook on herself and those around her. Next up was James, a young, arts marketing manager who told me about this ‘weirdly good’ course running at The Birnam Institute which he had enjoyed so much he went from the two day foundation level to the two day advanced level.
Of course, you’ll have guessed by my intro that the course in question both times was indeed ‘The Stories We Tell’ and with curiosity as high as Alice’s I found myself heading to Birnam last weekend to find out why all the fuss about an event pitched as “workshops that are all about you and the personal insights you can gain by taking a fresh look at the stories you tell about yourself and your life.” Suitably convinced I’d gain something from it, although not altogether sure what that might be, I found myself telling people my weekend away was a cross between a therapy-type workshop and a creative writing course.
Disclaimer 1: It’s not really either.
My experience started a little early, sitting in Jessie Mac’s Hostel, my home for the weekend, enjoying a cooked breakfast, I am introduced to Grace, a gorgeous 23 year old woman from Hackney. Grace had arrived late the night before and had travelled all the way from London by train especially for the course. A friend of Jamie and Sarah’s daughter she is a recent Drama graduate and has found herself at a bit of a crossroads – that ‘what to do next’ stage we’ve all been through at various points in our lives.
An hour later, as the group introduced themselves, this idea of ‘what to do next’ appeared as a bit of a theme; albeit ‘I’m not really sure what I’m doing here, I was just drawn to it’ was also high on people’s lists. We were a group of eight women – unusual we were told as the groups are normally mixed – with ages ranging from 23 to 60+.
There was a yoga teacher, a therapist, an accountant, a writer, a marketing & PR consultant, an artist and both a drama graduate and an arts consultant. A wide and varied group with one common thread – everyone’s mind was open as to what they might find at the end of this course that had promised them a journey within themselves.
I’ll be honest, at first I thought I may be in the wrong place. I’ve been doing a mindfulness course recently and as much as I love the philosophy and practice behind it, there are some little bits that make me question whether these types of ‘thing’ are a bit airy-fairy for me. This was to be two days straight of self-exploration; would my inner psyche be up to the job?
The reason I tell you this is because I know some of you may reading with one eye closed behind your hand and a sceptical look across your face. However, you should know that at no point in two days did I think ‘What on earth are we doing?’ – not even when I found myself starting Sunday morning with a song (I am the world’s worst signer). Quite the opposite in fact. I loved each and every minute of it.
The course has been written and created by Sarah and Jamie themselves, and I suspect this is where my initial idea of therapy / creative writing came from. Both are very young sixty-somethings and have been married for some thirty years. Jamie is a published author and Sarah is a therapist. Over the years the two have often reflected on how much their professions cross over.
As individuals we are very much influenced by the people, society and experiences around us. In turn, we shape our lives by the narrative we tell ourselves and as any good storyteller knows there are always three versions of a truth – the one we tell, the one the other person tells and the one that actually happened. Never is this truer than when you are editing your own life in your own head. How often do we do a dodgy edit to fit what we want to believe, what others expect of us or what we expect of them?
Day one brings into play all the ‘facts’ we believe and know about ourselves; these are the things that make us who we are. More than that though, the exercises were carefully created to help you appreciate who you are. As well as talking about where you are from – think ‘I am from the love and friendship of my sister’ ‘I am from music, loud and live on Saturday nights’ rather than just a straight forward ‘I am from Perth’ – they also ventured into What Makes Me Me which included all the outside world influences as well as your own wee inner circle.
This led to producing a family tree with as many generations as you could remember attached to you in the middle; it allowed you to talk about a person who shaped you and gave a wonderful metaphor game during which we described a loved one using only prompts from Jamie.
Throughout the day we shared only what we wanted to share, privately read what we wanted to keep for ourselves and smiled with sheer joy as seven strangers described the people they love most in the world by way of a vehicle, plant and item of clothing.
The end of the day came all too quickly and with it I felt a deep sense of genuine gratitude. I have never had the luxury that Jamie and Sarah had allowed us, to spend an entire day talking at length about the people that mattered to me, describing them in all sorts of ways so that I might see what they mean to me on a new and deeper level.
We were encouraged to tell the story as we saw it, as it was and as we wished it to be. You could draw a line around areas you wished to fence off, a big red physical line, and it was as though you were keeping only the good stuff in the narrative you used to feed to your soul. It was uplifting in a wholly unexpected way.
This, a few of us discussed much later over dinner, was down to the effortless manner in which Jamie and Sarah conduct their course. They hold the room together in a manner which is so effortless it begins to feel though they are fellow participants rather than facilitators.
The reason it is difficult to pin down is because it is truly unique. ‘The Stories We Tell’ wasn’t plucked from a self-help shelf before being bastardised and relabelled as something newer and shinier. It evolved from years of talking, of Sarah and Jamie telling their own stories and listening intently to those of other people.
Day Two, as mentioned previously, started with a song. ‘Does everyone feel comfortable singing?’ is usually a question that has me running for cover and yet I stood tall, breathed in deeply and joined in. Others simply listened and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
And then the telling of your story. Armed with a piece of flipchart paper, we sat at tables, along the floor and plotted the milestones that made up our lives. Above the line siblings were born, marriages happened, graduations took place, travels around the globe, children arrived and careers flourished. Below it, parents died, divorces came, health issues grew and the darker corners of our lives appeared. Of course, there were addictions beaten both above and below the line, boarding schools attended both above and below the line, unplanned children tottering just below and also soaring higher than any other cross on the chart.
Two things struck me:
I won’t give away too much of what happens; it would ruin the element of joy you experience as the two days unfold, but it is safe to say each task, each game, each exercise brought something to the overall experience of the weekend. I can see why it would be very difficult to do a taster session – the sum of the overall parts is so much greater than the individual components and the space we created together was as much about the short silences and reflections as it was about the tasks and sharing.
Jude, who was our Accountant / Singer asked me to include this, which I loved.
“Rather than a workshop, ‘The Stories We Tell’ was, for me, a very personal and thought provoking journey, which has most definitely moved me along in the right direction to advancing my writing aspirations whilst at the same time allowing me much needed personal space to reflect on where I have been in my life, where I am presently and where I wish to be. I am so grateful to Sarah and Jamie and the 7 other delegates in my group who joined and supported me over the two days. I look forward to attending the advanced course at a future date.”
At the end of day one I found I had reconnected in my mind with the people who had shaped me and helped me on my life’s journey. I had a new found gratitude for those folks I sometimes struggle to make time for. What I hadn’t expected, was to feel an overwhelming sense of being loved. Grace hit the nail on the head when she said she wanted to go and call up all of her friends and tell them just how much she loved them.
By the end of day two I was a little more in tune with what I needed for my own story to feel true an authentic. I hadn’t gone looking for anything, I didn’t need a fix or a cure or a path to be cleared and yet I found one, hidden in the undergrowth of my thoughts that I hadn’t even realised was there. It was astonishing to see and as we made our way around the group it was clear that a sense of contentment and appreciation had bonded our little group of eight strangers.
‘The Stories We Tell’ is a journey inside your own life, a chance for you sit in the passenger’s seat, looking on and listening as your entire story – the good, the bad and the beautiful - unfolds before you. At the end of it you will know yourself a little better, you will have happily discarded the bits that you don’t need and will glow from the contentment and nourishment of having spent some time in the company of your most honest and authentic self.
The Stories We Tell is designed as a two part workshop consisting of Appreciating Who I Am (which is the course I attended) and Living Life To The Full.
The advanced course has a very high rate of returners which speaks volumes for the quality of the workshop and I know most of the group I was with are hoping to meet up again at the advanced course in June. See their
Sarah and Jamie also offer residential week long stays at various locations in southern Europe and I for one am hoping to join them in Sardinia this September, so if you’re tempted I may see you there.
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