How to Write Your Story

Course: Memoir I: Beginning Memoir Workshop

Institution: SF Writer's Grotto

Instructor: Rachel Howard

While a law student at Stanford I had the opportunity to take classes in their creative writing department. My professor, in his infinite wisdom, told me I should never write about what I know. According to him, this wasn’t “real” writing. Not sure what to do, I wrote fictional accounts of my stories. I started writing in the third person.

Ten years later, I find myself writing in the first person – a lot. Like here on this blog. It hit me, maybe it’s time to write my story, my truth; however unreal the effort. So this summer of self-actualization I decided to take a memoir class.

I walked into the SF Writer’s Grotto offices in downtown San Francisco and immediately judged the people I saw seated around the table. I guess I knew better than to expect Po Bronson, but I was a bit taken aback by my cohorts. Have you ever seen yourself in others and hated it?

I put my backpack down and surveyed the room. I immediately looked for the angry lesbian, the pampered Marina housewife, the retiree, and the whole retinue of writing class characters I have come to expect. I wondered which character they thought I was in my hideously bright pink cashmere sweater, dark jeans, and running shoes. I didn’t engage in conversation and instead discouraged would-be greeters by burying my nose in my blackberry until the instructor arrived.

The instructor, Ms. Howard glided in and began class. I listened to her opening preamble and thought, Why, Alicia, are you so god-damn judgmental?

Experience has taught me that the moment you find yourself judging someone else it’s invariably because you’re not owning up to something in yourself. It held true in memoir class. I realized that I want to tell my story but I am terrified of telling my story. I also was afraid that my story would somehow get lost in all the stories around the table. Would I be heard? And what if I am? I worried that telling my story meant laying it to rest. What happens after? I reasoned that once I put it down on paper I would then be really truly responsible for what happens next. A scary proposition.

While Ms. Howard is a delicate-featured, small-boned individual she is steely when it comes to the workshop process. She outlined her rules: we would each submit a piece to the group for critique. When reviewing the submitted pieces we were asked to read the piece two times, first for pleasure and the second with an eye for the positive.

I’ve taken a number of writing classes. Most of them have operated via the workshop method. Some of these classes were opportunities to display a participant’s utter lack of reading comprehension, others were tear the writer a new asshole sessions, but most operated under the guidelines of Ms. Howard’s class: first do no harm.

I have to admit that I struggled at first with the rules. I cringed at the idea that workshop was just going to be a love fest and I wouldn’t glean anything substantive from it. I found my first few critiques were very brief. When feedback was presented in class, I looked around and thought, How am I going to understand what people really think of my piece when we’re all forced to sit around and make nice? Are you saying anything good if you don’t say anything bad?

Still, I stuck to the rules and eventually, a funny thing happened, I started to see that every piece was actually good and the class discussion worthy of them. It finally clicked: How, really, do you judge someone’s story or their stage in the writing of it? When I made the connection, I stopped judging my own story so much and the words started tumbling out.

With every successive class, I felt my eyes and heart opening. I started to see the stories I had read in the eyes of the other students, or in the way they held their heads or shoulders. How they crossed their arms and leaned on the table or angled away from it. I begin to think, there’s so much pain in the world, and then I began to feel it. I wondered if it shouldn’t be required of everyone – to have to write your story. To face the truth as you know it.

It’s not always fun or easy, but I learned that those who are bravest – who do the work it requires to get close to their own experiences, are perhaps the finest writers. It’s so hard to do that very few people can actually do it. The rest of us? We’re learning how to write our stories. So when we’re ready and as we are ready – we can share them.

The Landmark Forum

Course: The Forum

Institution: Landmark Education

Instructor: David Cunningham

Location: San Francisco

A Harvard MBA grad introduced me to Landmark in 2007. She wasn’t trying to recruit me but mentioned the name Landmark offhandedly during a conversation at dinner. At the time, I didn’t ask her what it was or what it meant. But I was curious enough that when I went home I googled the term “Landmark San Francisco” and discovered its program, The Forum. I also discovered that it is a fairly controversial one.

In essence, The Forum is an updated version of Werner Erhard’s Est – the group awareness program from the high flying 70s. Est borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and many of its principles are said to have been picked up by the founders of Landmark. The Forum itself is basically an intense weekend in a basement full of about 50 strangers.

There are many stories about how Landmark is a cult, how they push marketing too much, they verbally abuse participants, etc. You can read one take here (btw - what's with everyone needing snacks everywhere they go? That's for another post, I suppose). I wasn’t worried about being brainwashed so much as I was concerned about missing my daily runs, but given I’m open to learning (as you all well know) I signed myself up.

Day One

The first day was a Friday and because I had returned from traveling to the east coast for work the night before, I found the main struggle of the day was just to stay awake. Not to mention how difficult it was to sit for such long periods of time. There are scheduled breaks and yes, contrary to reports, you can go to the bathroom, but it’s still more sitting than I was used to.

I thought going into it, after reading all the terrible reviews, that I would not be receptive or at least, highly combatant. Surprisingly, I was not. Because what I heard were a lot of concepts and philosophies that frankly, I had heard before.

The class is about adopting a new language with which to structure your life. The Landmark Forum premise is that the language we use, affects what we think and hence how we behave.

This is not new. There is a whole research movement dedicated to how linguistics affects cognition, perception and memory. “Linguistic relativity” or “explanatory style” are different names for the same thesis: your thoughts create your reality.

The funny thing is that while you’re learning how language can trip you up, Landmark is teaching you a new vocabulary. Like “rackets.” This is the innocent front you put on to hide criminality in the back or said another way, the lies we tell ourselves. Rackets are defined as persistent complaints plus a fixed way of being. Rackets, like other persistent behavior, have a payoff - that's why we keep them up.

The day was mainly spent learning Landmark speak and illustrating the central idea: there is what happens and then there is the “story” we attach to what happened. We humans do it so much and so quickly it’s hard to recognize when we’re doing it. When you judge people, you are creating stories on the fly. Even when you see say a wrinkled forehead, you are assigning a meaning or creating a story behind that wrinkle. The story might be negative (usually) or it might be positive (still limiting), the thing to notice is that it’s a story. If you know when you’re creating stories and learn to give them up you can, in the Landmark parlance, “create a new possibility for yourself.” How? That was for day two.

At the end of day one, I was proud that I didn't storm out or argue with the teacher. I did, however, nod off a few times.

Day Two

Day two was more of a roller-coaster. The morning started with a bit of the hard sell. The program leader reiterated the importance of getting our friends and family to sign up for Landmark. It definitely turned me off. It was also hard not to notice all the subtle things that were done to make the program "work." Like the heavy use of the Socratic method. Most people aren't used to it and it can be very intimidating. It was used in law school and I hated it. This technique, however, can make it easier to guide someone to your point. I wondered sometimes what the class "conversations" would be like without it.

This day was full of sharing by participants. One gal in class got up and shared how her ex-boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and they broke up and she was very upset. The teacher asked her several questions which led to the fact that she willingly entered a relationship she didn't respect. The leader asked how could she be disappointed with the outcome given how she went into it? I have to say that one was an eye-opener. The teacher and program were pretty ruthless in terms of getting folks to assume some personal responsibility. It also illustrated the point that you can cause a relationship that you want to be in. But only if you take responsibility for the ones you have been in; you are honest with yourself about why you’ve chosen someone. Playing the innocent victim, as the class gal was doing, it seems, is just another racket.

We also talked about the "Genesis of Identity." How because of certain events in our lives at certain ages we created core strengths (like being independent or a people-pleaser) to combat three thoughts: I'm not enough/something's wrong with me; I don't belong; and I'm on my own. The traits we developed in response to these thoughts are called our “strong-suits.”

While I struggled with this at first I came to realize my whole identity is based on not feeling good enough/thinking something is wrong with me. Is it any wonder that I’m such an over-achiever?

Day Three
Day three was about reinforcing the entire message. “Transformation,” as they call it, happens when you understand the role you play in your life.

We took another look at our strong suits and reevaluated them. The point of understanding these is to understand that you are not limited to your strong suits, your emotions, your decisions or your attitudes. That anything is possible for you when you take responsibility for your stories (which these strong suits are based on). When anything is possible, the only question is who do I choose to be?

In the end, who I choose to be is only truly up to me when I’ve set the stories aside and taken responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned I have the power to do that. Well, at least now, the vocabulary.

Big Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you should attend any of Landmark’s programs or that you shouldn’t. While I’m open to learning about myself I do have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter which is to say I like to think I wouldn’t have drank the Jonestown kool-aid. Ultimately though, you have to do what feels right to you.

I should add that Landmark is one way to hear a message that many other organizations, authors espouse, like Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, etc. Below is a diagram from, that while snarky, illustrates my point.

Alicia Morga The Landmark Forum

Graphic Facilitation

Course: Graphic Facilitation

Institution: Individual

Instructor: Diana Arsenian

Location: San Francisco

I don’t know about you but 2010 has hit me hard. I just sold my company and my 20 year high school reunion is this June. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on my journey and think about what’s next. I didn’t know where to start so I consulted a friend, Rebecca, who in previous times of transition has been a fantastic sounding board. It’s no wonder as she runs her own Career Coaching service: Next Step Partners. 

Rebecca suggested I meet with Diana Arsenian. Diana does what she calls graphic facilitation or put another way, artistic visualization. She draws or “visualizes” your words for you. The idea is for you to have a mirror of what you’re saying, projecting. This is part of the theory that everything you need or want is within you. You know the answers to your questions or problems, the goal is to help you clear away the clutter of thoughts, agendas, etc. and lure your answers out.

So, because I’m willing to try any sort of personal development class, I emailed Diana. After a few exchanged emails we scheduled a call. On the call Diana told me our session would be 2 hours and that after I’d have a series of posters I could take home for future reference. She also asked me a number of questions to understand where I was in my life. I told her, I’m in transition. She then gave me some homework. She wanted me to think about all the major turning points in my life. So the night before I was supposed to meet her I stayed up late and listed all the moments I could think of in my past, concentrating on the positive ones.

The next morning, I grabbed a hot tea and met her at her office off of Market Street. She has a cozy one room office with a big picture window that let in lots of light on even a foggy day. On the wall was a large strip of white butcher paper with my name written in graffiti-like block letters in the upper left hand corner and the rest of the paper was blank.

I had a seat at a desk facing the wall with the poster and Diana began by telling me a bit about her life and then the process. She said we would start by talking about my past, then go to another sheet and talk about who I am and then end with a third sheet where I would talk about my future. I would leave with three posters of my past, present and future.

She got me talking by asking about those turning points. Unsure about where to start, I started chronologically. Soon a number of colored markers appeared and every so often Diana would write something on the paper, draw a flourish, or highlight something in yellow. Before I knew it, a rhythm had developed and we were at the far edge of the paper – it now filled with words, color and meaning.

After we hit the end of the paper, Diana asked me to look at the paper and notice what jumped out at me. I was surprised to see a few recurring themes. But I was really moved to see that I have been able to make whatever I want happen my entire life. Even as a kid. My decisions were good ones – the best ones I could make with what I had at the time. And I was shocked to realize I have been, all along, a whole person. As someone who is constantly working on herself, this was a big one. I realized that I don’t need to change to be acceptable; I just need to trust my own inner voice. To wit, I learned I am a very powerful person.

The realization hit me hard between the eyes and then it started to slip away. I felt flustered and grasped to hold onto the feeling. We went on to do two more posters and I began to see how my present and future have been so informed by my past, “my story.” It was overwhelming. Eventually I stumbled out of her office and into the streets of San Francisco and felt blinded by the sun that had broken through.

A week later my poster and digitized versions of them came in the mail. I eagerly opened up the shipping tube and pulled out the first poster. I was excited to see all the colors and wondered what I’d see when I looked at it again. I put up the first poster, the “my story” poster, in the den. The next night, I wandered into the den to watch television and started looking at the poster from the corner of my eye. Then a funny thing happened, I started to feel really angry. I wanted nothing in that moment more than to rip down that poster. I wanted to rip it down and shred it into pieces.

At first, I didn’t quite understand my reaction. I just spent real money to go through this experience and get this piece of work, why do I want to crumple it up? The fact that the poster is the only original actually stopped me from doing it. I left it hanging while I tried to figure it all out. At the end of the week, still no closer to understanding my reaction, I took the poster down and put it back into the shipping tube and into my closet.

It’s taken me a few months now, but I finally understand what my body already knew (my body always seems to know before my mind does). I’m ready. I’m ready to let the past go and create a new story for myself. Now the question is, what will that look like?