Jim Ballard Q&A
I connected with Jim Ballard when he contacted me after reading my Q&A with Karen Dietz, with whom he has worked. When he told me he had written several of his books as fables, I felt he’d be a good subject for his own Q&A. He was also kind enough to send me a couple of his published works. And, he responded to my Q&A questions faster than any other subject ever had! Since then, we’ve also begun collaborating on a project. He has just re-launched his blog, mind like water, which is terrifically inspirational.
Bio: Jim Ballard spent 10 years in schools as a teacher, guidance counselor and principal, and another 10 years conducting teacher training seminars in classroom management, team building and affective curriculum. When he met Ken Blanchard in 1973, Jim moved into corporate training. As a consulting partner with Blanchard Companies he designed and facilitated award-winning management courses and coauthored books with Blanchard, including Managing By Values, Everyone’s A Coach, Mission Possible, Customer Mania, and Whale Done! On his own Jim has published What’s the Rush? (Random House), Mind Like Water (Wiley & Sons), and Little Wave and Old Swell: A Parable of Life and Its Passing (Simon & Schuster). The primary writer of Whale Done! and Whale Done Parenting, he has compiled his coauthors’ stories and suggestions and worked them into a parable. His writing focuses on positive relationships, change, and empowering people to deal with problems like information overload. Jim is a life coach and enjoys coaching readers through his blog and other writings. Jim lives in Amherst, MA, with his partner Barbara Perman.
Q&A with Jim Ballard:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: When my kids were small, I was a summer camp director a couple of summers, and I would spin yarns to them every night in our tent. (Even now they joke about the series we did about the exploits of a superhero insect named Snyder the Spider, who could spin a steel-strong filament to catch criminals and save falling people and breaking bridges.) During years I spent training teachers, I owned a small publishing firm for printing and disseminating the story-based curriculum I wrote. Four fables I published for my children were sold when we sold the business, and have made the rounds. One entitled “Warm Fuzzies” became widely told, and in time became a part of the language.
I have had a number of fables published in the business and spiritual-self-help categories. Ken Blanchard, a frequent co-author, taught me how to write fables, following the lead of his and Spencer Johnson’s best-seller, The One-Minute Manager. I came to see, with Aesop, that storytelling is still a way to get a point across. I continue to use the fable as the basis for my books, including five projects that are under way now.
Q: What motivated you to write some of your books as fables, notably your work with Ken Blanchard, the story you wrote with your wife of adult children who are facing having to move their aging parents out of the home they’ve occupied for 40 years, and your spiritual fable, Little Wave and Old Swell?
A: I’ll focus on No Ordinary Move; Relocating Your Aging Parents — A Guide for Boomers, the book my wife Barbara and I have published in both paperback and audio-book form. In operating her senior move manager business for 14 years, Barbara has amassed a host of stories from the many moves she’s helped clients make. When it came to our putting the strategies and wisdom she’s accumulated into a book targeted at adult children facing this issue, it was plain that the usual how-to approach (omniscient voice saying, “Do this, do that,” laced with case studies) would not work for us. We wanted to convey the emotional issues for both the adult children and the aging parents. We wanted to treat the inter-generational points in a way that would help readers understand “the other side.” Storytelling was the answer; in this particular case, it was the way to round in so many of the stories Barbara had heard and been a part of. Seniors and family members, when given the chance, become natural storytellers during the process of a move. Storytelling can produce deep understanding and healing in families.
We created a fictitious family who are facing this issue, and followed their inner and outer journeys through the eight stages of a move. We included all the frustration and consternation people feel with their older parents, the resistance and fears that the parents feel, and the sense of overwhelm both groups experience when they face a major move. We also inserted a wisdom voice in the character of Moving Mentor, the professional move facilitator. The depths of wisdom Barbara has gleaned through her work are revealed in Moving Mentor’s journal entries. This particular instance of storytelling has already given countless people insights into how to help their parents relocate. It also teaches senior move managers to be aware of the opportunities for storytelling inherent in the work they do.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Not long ago I heard Bruce Springsteen say on “Larry King Live” that “When people are in trouble, they go to storytellers.” That intrigued me, because the link must be age-old. We certainly live in a time of confusion and uncertainty. I guess when people find themselves cut off from their accustomed assurances, their minds and hearts open to things they would have dismissed before. The usual image evoked to illustrate the age-old-ness of story is that of our ancient forbears around a fire, listening as someone spins a tale that helps them forget their hunger and cold, or the wolves at their backs. This time is no different than others, for today’s stories continue to take us away, entertain and inspire us. But this moment in history may, as you say, be special. Perhaps a storyteller will arise that will do for our nation what Abraham Lincoln did for a farmer who said, “I went down there to Alton feelin’ pretty burdened, but ‘twan’t long after he begun to speak that I felt I had no troubles a-tall.”
My wife and I went to see “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” last night, and thrilled again at perhaps the greatest Bible story of all. It was about a storyteller, a man who could interpret dreams. He was ill-treated by his brothers, who sold him away into slavery, but in the end his marvelous ability to reveal the meaning of dreams enabled him to save Israel. A story of how storytelling redeemed a nation. Perhaps it will happen again, Perhaps, in a world weary of scandal and subterfuge, a truthteller will arise. Perhaps he already has.
Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: Being a lover of stage musicals, I have long dreamed of the opportunity to see a story of mine called “Milo’s Beam” done as a musical. A few years back I took an online screenwriting course (Authors’ Boot Camp) and developed a movie script of the tale, which I’m presently re-working for live theater. In my study of musicals, I’ve learned the actual function of the musical number from the standpoint of the architecture of a show. Whereas before I thought a song was merely an enjoyable interlude in the story, now I know that songs play a crucial part in a scene or play. They move things along exponentially. Whole scenes can be skipped through the right number. When a song begins in the play the audience, characters and show are at a particular place. By the end of the number, if it’s done right, everything is in a new place. Not only is the character of the singer revealed, or an action taken, the number has served as the vehicle for carrying the essence of an idea (or meme). It is this skill of storytelling through lyric-writing that I hope to develop.
Q: You wrote to me: “To me, each of us has a Story Mind (as against what I call Lecture Mind), that allows something that begins ‘There once was …’ to bypass the left brain and go straight to the part that wants only to know what happens next.” How did you develop this philosophy? Can you give an example or two of how you’ve seen it work? What’s the advantage of going to the part of the brain that wants to know what happens next?
A: Over the years a frequent question I have asked people (even strangers such as wait-persons in restaurants and helpers in airports and hotels) is: “What’s your dream?” I like seeing the reaction: the eyes go up and usually to their left, and they always tell. Asking people about their dream gets them to tell stories, and I am always careful to show respect and belief in the dream. This enables me to encourage them, and many have said that being able to tell makes their dream seem more real and more possible. I often share an idea or refer the dream-teller to a book, article, or person that might further their aspiration. [Editor’s note: Jim wrote at greater length about this phenomenon in his blog.]
In my coaching business working with authors and creative people, I often coach them to put their ideas into a short story that encapsulates the main points; some have ended up publishing these. I also offer myself as a consultant/ fable writer to companies and organizations, promising as an end product after my study of the company’s DNA an engaging myth they can use with employees and customers to say, “This is us.”
In a time when so much is known through the intellect, there are three factors that contribute to a special need for stories: (a) we think that all our knowing comes through information; (b) we are desensitized by our overexposure to everything; (c) we lack the cultural stories that were common before we became a global village. Stories provide a way into the hungry heart.