Cathryn Wellner Q&A

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I first encountered Cathryn Wellner last year when she sent me an e-mail critical of my 9-11 blog post; I subsequently published her response as its own entry. We’ve kept in touch and become connected on some social-media venues. She is a powerhouse of thought and writing about storytelling and other topics. I’m so pleased to present this Q&A with Cathryn.

Wellner_headshot_yurt_copy.jpg Bio: Cathryn Wellner began her professional career as a French teacher and school librarian, in Idaho, Washington, and New York. She traveled for 10 years as a storyteller and workshop leader, mostly in the U.S., but also in Europe, the UK, and Canada. After moving to Canada, she spent 13 years as an organic farmer, small-scale rancher, and, when she realized community organizing was really about stories, a community developer. After serving as the first Project Coordinator for HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living in Northern British Columbia), she moved to Oakland, California to be storytelling director for Stagebridge (America’s oldest senior theatre troupe). She returned to BC to take on the post of food and health manager for Interior Health. She now lives in the beautiful Okanagan Valley and focuses full-time on storytelling and writing. She has three blogs on the go: Story Route, Catching Courage, and Crossroads.




Q&A with Cathryn Wellner:

Q: On your bio page, you talk about transitioning from a performance storyteller to an organizational storytelling consultant: “Then I realized the secret. It was all about stories. I was in a rural community that needed to be able to tell compelling stories to urban bureaucrats, politicians, project funders, and its own citizens.” How did you come to this realization? Can you elaborate on how you applied your experience as a performance storyteller to your new career? Do you still do any performance storytelling?

A: The realization was not instantaneous. For the first while, I had the usual worries: Someone would find out I was actually a storyteller masquerading as a community developer. Then it would be game up.
What happened instead was that I began to insert stories into presentations and to use storytelling techniques to prepare reports. It wasn’t long before I was seen as a storytelling community developer. Or was it a community organizing storyteller?
As a performer, I’d always loved that moment when the room goes still, when it almost feels as if everyone in the room is breathing together. When I added stories to my community development presentations or used the narrative arc to frame a report, I experienced that same stillness, that total attention.
From that point on, my performance storytelling has taken a back seat. I still do it occasionally, sometimes as a guest who’s asked to tell a few stories, sometimes in performance. But my focus has been on storytelling as a means of sharing the extraordinary work done by people and organizations working for the good of community.

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: I dived into storytelling as a survival mechanism. I’d been a high school librarian and had told stories as a way of getting teenagers to read. I didn’t think of it as storytelling. I was doing “book talks.”
Then I spent a year in Germany and decided that when I came back I wanted to try working with young children. The school district reluctantly agreed and put me in the one vacant spot, a school with kindergarten through third grade. I had no early-childhood education and no experience working with little ones.
It didn’t take long for me to realize they didn’t need the Dewey Decimal system, at least not yet. They needed stories. Two years later I moved from Rochester, New York, to Seattle, Washington. By that time I’d become involved in a storytelling guild and felt as if I’d found my vocation. For the next 10 years, storytelling was my life.
Then one of those Major Life Transitions took me to Vancouver Island. I performed and taught storytelling classes and workshops. Then came another uprooting, to a ranch in Cariboo, in the heart of British Columbia. I no longer easy access to storytelling venues. What I did have was animals to feed and bills to pay.

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That’s when I started doing community development. To be honest, I didn’t even know what it was, but I was desperate. I applied for the first contract that sounded like something I could do. The hiring organization didn’t know I was suffering from impostor syndrome. Three months later, they hired me to run the organization.
I gradually stopped discounting the value of storytelling to my work because I saw how effective it was in presentations to city councils, funders, media, and evaluators.
In a rural area, organizations don’t have the luxury of a large pool of consultants. Demands on my time grew to the point I decided to go freelance. I never had to look for work. Somehow it always found me. And it was always heavily influenced by storytelling. It didn’t take me long to realize that community development is about stories. When an existing story is no longer working or is not large enough, sometimes an outsider can help the group identify a new story that will move them forward.
So storytelling became the underpinning of everything I did. When I look back on the unexpected twists and turns of my professional life, I feel extraordinarily lucky. Storytelling allowed me to be happily employed, doing what I loved. Initially, I thought that meant performing and workshops. When that morphed into the world of community development, I realized I’d found my niche and have been happy in that ever since.

Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?

A: I’m a fan of social media. I belong to several Ning [groups], am on Facebook, write three blogs, and read others. I’m on Twitter but don’t refer to it a lot. On the other hand, I check out YouTube regularly and Vimeo and other video sites occasionally. I get tons of ideas from all of them, more than I can use on my blogs. I also make good contacts on them. And I generally keep my usage in check so as to be able to be productive rather than just be a consumer of other people’s stories.
For me, they are all storytelling media. Over the years I’ve been part of the ongoing conversation concerning how we define stories. But I’ve been only a small part of the conversation because I haven’t found it useful to my own work.

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I define storytelling very loosely, if at all. What interests me is how we are affected by the Big Ideas we absorb from our cultures and how they influence the way we act in the world. I call those Big Ideas stories because abstractions have less power over us than stories. So we tell stories to support our world view and have a hard time recognizing that the totality of our life experience shapes what we think, say, and do. We can’t step outside our minds and see the world totally fresh.
The various social media are a means of entering the world of story from different points. We can assume an avatar and jump into Second Life. We can try out a new story and test it on Twitter or Facebook. We can blog a different perspective and see who responds, and how. We can invent our professional persona on LinkedIn.
To me, it’s all part of the larger arena of storytelling. If we don’t fall into the trap of becoming an observer, if we actually engage and become creative contributors, we can experiment with creating new stories.
And perhaps we can be part of creating the new story that will persuade us to take care of our planet.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: Although I know many instances of transformation through a story or storytelling act, I keep coming back to two I had the honour of witnessing. Both were published in The Healing Heart~Communities and are on my Catching Courage blog.

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The first is about a woman named Paula Ziegelstein. I had no idea she was facing some inner and outer giants when I told the story of The Little Hen and the Giant. In fact, I didn’t even meet Paula at the gathering where I told the story.
The story was new to me, and it was my farewell story. I was moving from Rochester, NY, to Seattle, WA. I wanted to tell a zinger of a story, something for people to remember by.
From my perspective, the story fell flat. I was really disappointed and did a fair bit of self-flagellation over it. So imagine my surprise four years later when I met Paula at a storytelling conference in Rochester and learned the story had been life-changing for her.
The second story happened in Seattle. I’d been invited to tell stories in the burn unit of Harborview Medical Center. One of the stories I chose was Bill Harley’s “The Freedom Bird”. The bird of the story gets hacked, boiled and buried. Adults squirm when they hear it, but kids love it.
The bird had been shot out of the tree, hacked to pieces, and was bubbling on the stove when it hit me. My entire audience had been roasted in horrible fires. I didn’t know what else to do but finish the story, but I went home mortified, ready to hang up my storytelling shingle.
A week later, I got a call from the burn center. A 15-year-old boy, burned over nearly his entire body, had lost his will to live. Had he been physically able, he would probably have committed suicide. The story of the unstoppable bird, who could not be killed, became his talisman. He became the freedom bird.
I haven’t told either story for a good 20 years, but remembering the impact they had has kept me believing in the power of stories.

Q: I’ve had quite a few Canadians as subjects of this Q&A series, giving me the impression that storytelling is thriving in Canada. As a transplant from the US, what similarities and differences do you observe in the storytelling environment between the two neighbor nations?

A: John Ralston Saul may have the answer in his extraordinary book, A Fair Country. He points out that one of the major differences between the US and Canada is the latter’s M├ętis roots (which he also says we ignore at our peril). Saul writes that the first European arrivals had an egalitarian relationship with the First Nations people who were already here, a relationship destroyed by latter settlers, who brought cultural genocide.

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The book is a bestseller in Canada and has led to a great deal of vigorous dialogue. If he is right (and from my perspective, he is), then perhaps it is not surprising this is a fertile land for storytelling.
When I arrived on Vancouver Island in 1990, I found a thriving storytelling community in three communities that were reasonably close by: Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo. Coming out of a milieu in which personal stories had become the darling of the professional storytellers’ repertoire, I was surprised by how small a role those narratives played among Canadian tellers. Traditional stories and mythology were acceptable fare, but stories of a personal nature were considered self-indulgent.
I think I was under the same misperception so many Americans are, that Canada is really just like the States, just colder. In fact, with a different founding mythology and a different history, it is a country unique from its southern neighbour. I had to learn how to be a storyteller in Canada.
It wasn’t until I got into community development that I discovered storytelling in organizational settings had more of a history in Canada than the U.S., at least in the health realm. That was where the bulk of my contracts came from, and my storytelling background was viewed as an asset, not as some quirky bit of fluff.
Back in 1996 Ron LaBonte and Joan Feather wrote an excellent manual for Health Canada, Handbook on Using Stories in Health Promotion Practice. Reading it, I found a methodological underpinning to some of the work I’d been doing on a trial-and-error basis. (It is referenced widely, but I haven’t been able to find an online source. However, an Australian manual based on their work is available online.)

In subsequent years I came across other Canadian resources that helped to inform my work. I found a receptive audience for the value of storytelling in all the work I did and am grateful to my adopted country.

Here are some Canadian storytelling resources your readers might find interesting:

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