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Story Shaping from Heart

Where each hidden story begins

There is something universal, we believe, in the way that we want to be told stories that can take us as deeply into creating a journey for the reader as we wish to go, while keeping the notion of a common ground.  This is what builds bridges between us, moving us from being on the outside into starting to care.  

When we are too much in the middle of our own story, we cannot see it as dramatic.  It is as if the forces that connect past and future have been hidden from our eyes.   When we begin to connect the threads through writing, and a tale emerges, we see ourselves no longer as victims of whatever has befallen us.  But as active, and often heroic movers in the plots of our lives. 

It is then that the spirit of each storyteller can shine through. The darker the reality, the more important it is to help each writer touch the spirit that took them through those darkest places.

Within the carceral arena, one’s very life can depend on how strongly and deliberately storytelling is used.  If a person floods a judge or lawyer with too much detail, so that the moments of struggle that might garner compassion get lost, there is little chance that a sentence might be reconsidered.   

How then, do we do this from the very first page? 

How then, do we do this from the very first page?

A New Way of Listening: The First Step

Below are two related exercises that will help you to get started as a facilitator of a Herstory-style workshop. They both involve listening to other people’s stories with a view as to how they are actually constructed. This is what we will mean whenever we use the word structure.

Listening Exercise One

How do shape and structure serve your empathy and attention?

For several weeks before leading your first workshop, pay attention to the way people talk to you or one another, whether you find yourself in a classroom or a counseling setting, in a courtroom or prison visiting room. 

Pay particular attention to those moments when you find yourself privy to those intimate details that usually are hidden from view…

There are reasons why one person’s way of storytelling will be more moving than another’s, or why a story will be one moment riveting and the next moment hollow. Yet it is important to note that within each person’s way is the potential to reconstruct a moving narrative. The more that you are able to understand what causes the fluctuations in your own capacity to be moved WITHIN each overheard story, the less likely it will be that you will favor a single way of telling or a single type of content when you begin to teach writing to evoke empathy and attention.

As you listen, ask yourself  


  • Does the person you are shadowing build their story more or less chronologically? 

  • Or do they pepper their story with what we will be calling invisible backstitches, giving you background as they move their story forward?  

  • Do they weave back and forth in time, or do they weave several stories together, so that they are telling two or three stories at once?   Or do they nest one story inside another, so that each one becomes its own long saga?

  • Do thoughts and ideas drive their stories?   So that they start out by musing and then weave in various tales?   

  • Do they tease the listener by stopping at the moment of maximum suspense and moving into another sub-story, so that one needs to continue listening in order to return to the first story’s climax?

In order to become the true Stranger/Reader or Listener, who will be able to dart from one style of telling to another, it will be necessary to note patterns in what is likely to work and what is likely to get the writer into trouble across many approaches and ways.


  • Track stories that are much more raw and bumpy than those you would normally like. 

  • Track stories that are so smooth they almost drive you crazy with their constant control. 

  • Track stories that are much more sentimental than those that normally attract you, 

  • Track stories that are so skeptical a part of you cringes just to know that the teller might one day tell a story about you.




Whatever the quality of the tale, whether you love it or hate it, when you see an obstacle that seems to get in the way or when you see an opportunity you’d like to seize,  we would like you to imagine that you are the puppeteer rearranging the pieces, not in one way, but in many possible combinations. You are trying to hear through the lines, not what most interests you,   but what seems to be propelling the teller.  

No one will ever know you are listening with the goal of rearranging, so no one will be hurt.  For now you are practicing the art of making mental bookmarks.

Later on, in our section on working with actual text, we will return to our various storytelling structures in a more analytical way.    For now, listen almost playfully as you let yourself notice what  works and what doesn’t, without yet paying much attention to why.   

Becoming an imaginary puppeteer in a situation in which you can do no real mischief, will help you to get used to evaluating your own solutions without jumping to impose them on another before you understand a lot more.

If You Were the Puppeteer 

Listen Ex. 2 Anchor

Listening Exercise Two

Tracking the Fluctuations in Your Empathy as You Listen

Once you have developed your own method of tracking narrative structure, you will want to pursue the same exercises while observing with free-wandering attention what happens to your empathy as a listener.   Allowing yourself to know when you are aroused by a moment of beauty and similarly, when you find yourself shockingly indifferent, might well be a first step. 

Pursue this empathy-charting work when you are visiting with close friends as well as with strangers.  Although with friends you are no longer on your Imaginary Page One, since you already have a lot of history and caring under your belt, track the moments when you come alive as a listener. 

  • Track when you are really moved and why.  

  • Track the moments when you feel your mind wander.  Try to remember the last images that wafted over you, before you drifted away.  Then try to reconstruct what was missing in between.

If you put your mind to it, you will generally find that you can retrieve not only what you missed, but also what happened within the narrative that jarred you.  

It is critical to be completely honest with yourself as you listen and not to judge where your mind wanders when the teller no longer has your attention. This will help you to find the spots of promise and power as you move into working with imaging Page One Moments for each of your students and later as you begin to work with written text.    

Beauty as it Becomes a Clue

Finally you want to hone your capacity to find beauty even in a haltingly told tale, so that when you take these overhearing techniques into consciously helping a speaker shape a story, you will be able to pinpoint the moments of promise and power where the spirit peeps through.

Once you get used to finding them (which happens with the heart, not the mind), you will find
that you are able to echo them back to the speaker in a way that will help them to build upon
them. This technique will be particularly important when you are struggling with stories that feel
too furious or whiny or boastful.) 

One Herstory facilitator in training asked: “But how can I trust myself to know a moment of
beauty?” This is a case in which whatever comes to you will help guide the writer. 

Ask yourself hard questions about beauty and vulnerability. Did the storyteller pass over those
moments so quickly that you had to hold your breath in order to catch them? Try to imagine
what would happen if the teller allowed those moments to elongate.   

As you move into working with writers who will be shy about showing the more beautiful parts of
themselves, this work will allow you to detect them more easily, so that you will be able to play
them back.

Try not to let your preferences in terms of content distract you from looking at narrative
successes and failures. Practice doing this work when you're dealing with content that isn’t
intrinsically interesting to you.

Ongoing Tools for Facilitators 

Preparing Your Listening Log to Track Overheard Stories

Keep an ongoing journal of the things you are learning about storytelling structure.  Include phrases or events from overheard stories that you remember, writing down any thoughts that come up about why you remembered each one.   Note factors that you feel moved a particular story from here to there.

Set aside several pages in your journal for moments that are obviously important to the narrator in the stories you are tracking and several more pages for moments that seem less important.  

Under each category, keep a free-floating diary of when your own caring ebbed or peaked.


  • When did your response feel out of sync with what the teller obviously felt?  

  • When did it seem in harmony?     

  • When, at an important moment, did you turn cold or even angry?

  • When did you feel that you were being dared to dismiss or look down on the speaker?   

  • Are there narrative patterns that cause these reactions?  

As you work with your journal, in whatever shorthand you decide to use, make sure that you deal with your own and your speakers’ moments of discomfort.  Try to guess whether they came through embarrassment about revealing beauty, or anger or shame.

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