Category Archives: Storytelling

ON STORYTELLING – “FOUR FORTY-FIVE AM”

A little while back I wrote this blog post about…being sad, and stuff. Then, in January, I took part of that story and added some things, changed some other things, and told it live at an event called Stories We Don’t Tell, a monthly storytelling event in Toronto.

You can hear that live recording using the Soundcloud player below. If you like what you hear, there’s a podcast available with all of the evening’s stories, available here.

Happy listening!

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on making livings and lifestyles

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between making a living and making a lifestyle. As a recent university graduate I spent the first three months of my post-university life reconnecting with friends and family and reminding myself what life looks like when you don’t close down libraries at midnight. Running into (generally older) relatives at weddings and reunions usually meant that at some point (or multiple points) in an evening I would be confronted with the question of what I’m doing next. Although it’s an innocent and honest question on the surface, if asked with the proper tone it can carry a society’s worth of conditioning to imply that the only appropriate response to said question involves a clear and detailed career plan. I don’t have a career plan and although my canned response that “I’m looking for ways to use stories to inspire and educate” receives some favourable reviews, I honestly have no idea how I’m going to put a roof over my head and food on my table in the medium to long term. But, even if my liberal arts and sciences degree didn’t give me a paint by number career path it did instil me with a careful skepticism. My initial reaction to the question of shelter and food is to ask what shelter and food mean. Sleeping on couches and in basements for the majority of my summer reminded me about the beautiful side of simple living but I also aspire to one day live as part of a larger family unit (whatever that means) and those aspiration require a less transient infrastructure. What that infrastructure will be, I don’t know. But to some extent I’m treating my current travel as research into different lifestyles. There’s a balance to strike between making a living and making a lifestyle and some folks seem to have struck it.

I spent a week in mid-august wwoofing at the Harvest Moon Organic Bakery just outside of Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula. I traded labour for food and lodging, stayed in a bunky on site, and assumed responsibility for the disposal of any and all broken butter tarts. The owners have run the bakery for almost 19 years, built themselves a passive solar home, carved walking trails and sculpture garden through the bush, and are socially engaged and lovely people. At one point they also operated both a large garden and bed and breakfast but they’ve scaled back in recent years. Although they work hard and long hours during the summer (theirs is after all a seasonal business) they produce good quality food, eat primarily from a garden they tend themselves, and spend the winter skiing, reading, and playing board games. After seven days, I left having met some of their neighbours, learned more about gardening, sided a treehouse, and been thoroughly entranced by a lifestyle that seemed to connect to both the physical and social space it inhabits. The folks at Harvest Moon make a living from a lifestyle that encourages active connection to their neighbours and physical surroundings. That appeals to me.

‘What next’ questions from my well-meaning relatives seem to focus only on the issue of making a living. My responses are sometimes met with disappointed and skeptical expressions but I’m trying to figure out what kind of lifestyle I want so that I know what ‘making a living’ means before I commit to a specific endeavor like law school or an oil rig contract that might fill my bank account at the cost of spiritual bankruptcy. While trying to avoid value judgements, I’m compelled to nonetheless acknowledge that no amount of money is worth doing things that would make me miserable and I say this from the middle of a 6 week contract that has me scrubbing toilets three mornings a week – although I am cleaning them in the middle of a national park in the Rocky Mountains.

You can only start with the question of making a living if you’ve already assumed the answer to what it means to make a life. It’s the same as asking how you’re going to get enough lumber to build your fence before you’ve figured out the height you want and the perimeter of your yard. Switching your thinking changes the question from ‘how am I going to provide for my needs’ to ‘what needs do I need to provide for and how can I meet them’. I’m still trying to figure what my needs are or could be but a week at Harvest Moon reminded me that yearly income doesn’t have to be earned over50 weeks a year at a 9-5 job and that work in something like a garden and kitchen can circumvent the need for some expenditures. Who doesn’t like homemade preserves?

I’ve got a few relatives who enthusiastically raise lifetime earning statistics to point out that I really should be starting my career as soon as possible. They’re measuring success by earnings; I’m not. And while I acknowledge that wealth affords opportunities, I’m inclined to view money as a means to an end rather than the end in itself. This perspective is the result of a certain amount of privilege. I didn’t need to work for a few months following university because I had friends and family who could put me up and enough money in the bank to move between them. And I’ve had the time to think about these things because I spent four years at an expensive post-secondary institution. Not to mention that as an articulate white male, the odds of me finding lucrative employment are good no matter where I look. Not everyone is this lucky and my thinking would probably be different if I had dependants and bills to pay. But I think that the question of lifestyle needs to come first in any case. It doesn’t matter how much you can afford to pay if you haven’t figured out what you want to buy. It doesn’t matter how you make a living if you don’t know how you want to live.

Jon Farmer

on storytelling

I’m breaking the theme a bit here. This blog post is not about ambiguity (GASP). I know. Shh, shh…it’ll be okay.

If you’ve followed this blog since it’s creation about a year ago now, you may remember that it started with me talking about The Storytelling Project. It’s something that I put a whole bunch of energy into around this time last year, and intended to make into “a thing”. Then life happened and after an initial story project with Toronto band First Rate People, it sat dormant for a while, buried under the weight of life’s other priorities.

WELL, lovely reader, I’m happy to announce that I’ve blown off the dust, polished the edges and am ready to share another story. This time, with Winnipeg musician Rayannah. Check it out:

http://bit.ly/1gObBLi

Don’t worry, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming soon.

 

-t

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On 2013

I am not generally one for New Year’s resolutions. Not because I don’t think you should strive to change or improve, but because I’ve always found it sort of weird to try and use the start of a year as the impetus for doing so. If it’s actually something you’re interested in doing, shouldn’t the date be irrelevant? Anyway, not the point.

THE POINT IS. I AM one for doing some yearend reflection. And what a year it has been, both for me and for the people in my life. I’ve seen relationships end and folks take new jobs. Friends have moved continents and love has grown. There has been loss, challenges, huge successes, and lots of fun.

Part of 2013 will, for me, always be “the year that injury stopped me from running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon” (I’m saying this now – and you can quote me – I’m going to fucking crush that shit next year). From an Embracing Ambiguity point of view, my year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. I’ve tried to map the major changes out. See the highly scientific, super rigorous graph below:

amb

So clearly, things have (mostly) gotten less ambiguous as the year has progressed.

I started the year finishing up an internship at a Canadian charity and am ending the year working for that same charity. The one difference is that instead of interning I’m now (mostly) managing our major yearend fundraising campaign, and have an offer of an “actual” (non-contract) job on the table.

It’s quite a leap.

I’ve gone through a hell of a lot to get to this point: from multiple short term contracts to a sudden fulltime (contract) role, long nights and early mornings of proving that I had something to offer and offered something worth keeping.

And now, so close to the thing I’ve been aiming for since the day I graduated university (a job-job), it feels…different than I was expecting (maybe?).

In truth I guess I don’t know what I was expecting. I think*, however, that I thought I’d just feel like “me”. And in a sense, I do. But I also don’t…ya dig?

More so now than at any other time in my life, I feel certain in my uncertainty. I don’t have all of my shit worked out, and the way forward is still unclear, but there’s a greater…awareness? Like I’m no longer “faking it till I make it” – which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t to say that I’ve necessarily “made it” – but I definitely know some shit. And I’m definitely willing to fight for the chance to prove it.

The successes in my place of employment have also come coupled with a failure, of sorts, in my extracurricular pursuits. Those of you who read this blog somewhat regularly may know what I’m referring to: The Storytelling Project. Since early in the year, I’ve kept this quote above my computer:

“When I get to the end of this year, I want The Storytelling Project to be at a place where people and organizations are approaching me to have their story told, because they see value in what it is I’m doing”

Whoops.

The quote above is from a work retreat we had last January, where we were asked to think about our lives one year into the future. With one story produced and a few more stuck in development, I can’t exactly say I achieved my goal. There was a time when I would’ve beat myself up about that. A lot.

A time when I would’ve questioned what it was I had spent my time doing. Questioned if it was “enough”.

Now? I’m definitely a little bummed, but I’m also recognizing that I have done a lot this year. A lot I should be happy about and proud of.

I’m also recognizing that making a “splash” in the way I had hoped, is hard.

Like, really fucking hard. It’s uncertain, exhausting, time consuming (time you don’t have when focusing on the thing(s) that pay the bills) and can often feel like you’re trying to walk up a down escalator.

I’m recognizing that it’s okay it didn’t happen this year. All it means is that I get to regroup and try again in 2014.

I guess what I’m really saying, folks, are these two things:

1)      Embrace the ambiguity. It will never go away completely, but you will start to get a handle on it. You will. Even when it looks like that’s impossible. You will because you’re bright and passionate and driven and a fucking baller. And don’t tell me you’re not because you are. And if it doesn’t feel that way now, it will. You just need to find your place. Everyone has one. When you do find it, embrace it, too. Fucking own it. Don’t spend your time comparing it to someone else’s. You are your own unique snowflake. Remember that it’s not where you’re at; it’s what you do with where you’re at.

2)      Take it easy on yourself. It’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to fail. It happens. But you know what else happens? Recovery. Ass kicking. Take a second and think to yourself: what’ll be your Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2014? Let’s crush it together.

I know these things aren’t “new” or even very insightful. But they are important. And they are things we can forget as we rush through the day to day, head down and feet moving furiously towards our next test. So take a minute to remember them.

All this said, I think part of what I’m saying is that (maybe) I’m growing up.

Just a tad.

Eek.

Until next time. And next year. (Haaaaaa! Yes, I went there.)

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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on facing the black hole

If you’ve been following this blog since its creation, you’ll know that a lot of what I started off talking about was my transition from University graduation, to soul crushing grocery store job, to internship with a Canadian charity and finally, to a personal venture I was really stoked about – The Storytelling Project. If you’ve been consistently following us since then, and are a particularly astute observer, you may have noticed that any further mention of the project after its launch has been strangely absent.

Things have fallen slightly off the wagon, it would seem. Not to say that I don’t still love the notion of pursuing it. Its just been, well, a mixture of things. Having a ton of footage but no time to edit it is the first problem. And to be fair, work (paid work, that is) has kept me quite busy as of late, and I’ve been doing a much better job at balancing my life – I’m still not sleeping a ton, but at least now I’m no longer working 15-20 hours a day.

All of these things aside, however, I think the main thing stopping me from pursuing it full steam ahead, is fear. Fear of the uncertainty. Of the question marks. Fear of the black hole. To pursue The Storytelling Project full time would be to risk it failing, to risk my financial well-being, to leave a job I am mostly stable in and, in general (despite recent events), enjoy.

I know that I love talking to people and collecting their stories. I know that I love using my skills in video production and narrative creation to craft a visually engaging story. I know that I love the idea of doing that as a career. I just don’t know…how. How to bring it from a fun, enjoyable thing I do in my spare time, and make it into a thing that pays the bills. I know that the answer is probably to just go for it, but it’s easier said than done. Especially when I get emails once a month from the Ontario government reminding me how much I owe in student loan debt.

Like I said last time, though, I don’t want to let money dictate my decisions. And so, the fun of transitioning to adult life. Things are never quite easy, and never quite clear. It’s a bit of a black hole. A bit of a journey through a thick fog. You know which way you want to go – it’s just the path there that is unclear.

And so that’s where I sit currently: at the intersection of where  am and where I know I want to be, one foot hovering in the air, slowly moving back and forth between the scary, uncertain path with the patch of light somewhere down the road, and the constant, familiar path that is lit along the way but doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular.

I simultaneously do and do not understand how the choice can seem so obvious and so difficult at the same time. And its not like I dislike the things that I’m doing now – my job with a Canadian Charity and contract videography work for a University – I just know that they’re a place holder. A momentary thing keeping rent paid and belly full. They aren’t leading me anywhere beyond the place I’m already in. That said, I also enjoy them enough to keep doing them, despite knowing I’d be happier with TSP.

There are other parts to this quandary, too. The somewhat hilarious notion that I’m scared to start because I’m scared to see it fail, all the while the site sits un-updated, the footage un-edited, and my dream of taking TSP to a place where people and organizations are actively seeking me out to tell their story, as far away as ever. It has, as much by inaction as by potential action and outcome, failed. Then there’s the people I feel I’m letting down – those who believed in me and cheered me on when I started, and those whose stories I’ve collected but, by my inaction, smothered. Kept hidden and collecting dust, instead of letting them out into the wild, to be consumed by others.

Part of me wants to force myself into action by quitting my jobs. Fight fire with fire and overcome my fear by injecting a new kind of it into my brain; use the threat of dwindling groceries and looming rent payments to get my butt in gear. The other part of me thinks that’s stupid and isn’t afraid to vocalize it. I don’t know which part is right. I’m just hoping that, somehow, I can find the courage to step into the black hole and get things back on track.

Whatever does end up happening, I’ll be sure to share.

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On Transitioning to Real People Life (Pt. 3)

It started back in December of 2012. I can distinctly remember sitting in a café in Toronto; my good friend Anna was there and we were in front of a window. I was unloading all of my recent stresses and Anna was doing her best to ensure me that my life was not, in fact, falling apart at the seams (looking back, the number of times that this scenario has played itself out is alarming…).

Normally, Anna is able to talk some sense into my terrified, overly critical and self doubting brain, but on that day there was just too much going on. If you have been following my series of posts (“On Transitioning to Real People Life”) you’ll know that I had a somewhat (read: entirely) terrible University experience. I spent much of it freaking out about what I wanted to do, and never felt truly attached to or passionate about anything that I was studying.

BUT THEN! I found a home in social justice and videography. In doing so, a lot of my uncertainty disappeared. I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it…or how I’d know when I had, in fact, “done it”, but I did know that I wanted whatever “it” was to involve video.

What brought me to pouring out my stresses over coffee on that December morning, however, was the disappearance of even that small certainty.

See, I’d started to question myself. Did I really want to do video? That’s what I had been telling people for two years, but it seemed as though I was only doing enough to be able to keep on saying that. If I really wanted to “do video”, why wasn’t I out entering film contests, connecting with the Toronto film community, or even showing much interest the various film and documentary festivals Toronto is blessed with?

I had also begun to question if video was actually my value add. I was (if I may say) moderately talented, but when I looked at the landscape of “people doing video work” there were also plenty of others who were much more talented. Sure, I could improve – but I questioned if there wasn’t some other skill I could be leveraging, to greater effect, to achieve the kind of change I wanted to be contributing to.

All of those things would stay in my mind over the next couple months; slowly stewing like fine borscht (do you even stew borscht? I should really research my metaphors before committing to them). In January, however, after watching a Ted Talk from Jacqueline Novogratz (of Acumen Fund), the elements came together in a flash…in my mouth (cause they’re stew, remember!).

The Ted Talk was about a single mother named Jane that Jacqueline had met while in a slum in Nairobi. What really stuck in my brain after watching it was this one part (this is Jacqueline, paraphrasing Jane):

My dreams didn’t look exactly like I thought they would when I was a little girl. I thought that I wanted a husband but what I really wanted was a family, and I love my two children fiercely. And I thought that I wanted to be a nurse, but what I really wanted to do was to serve…

(You should watch the whole talk some time – for context, but also just because it is great).

I was thinking about this while sitting in a strategic planning meeting at Engineers without Borders when it hit me like the flash of a light bulb (which is ironic, given EWB’s logo).

I thought that what I wanted was to “do video”, but sitting there in my own little world, in the middle of a meeting, I realized that what I really wanted to do, was to tell stories.

Thus, The Storytelling Project was born…kind of. I spent the rest of that meeting furiously scribbling down notes, thoughts and ideas. I began going over all of the video work that I had done in the last couple years – work that, at the time, I hadn’t thought twice about. The creative thought process around video planning and editing had always been a near instantaneous one for me; I just knew what to do instinctively, and so was never very conscious about why I was doing the things I was doing.

Looking back in that moment, however, I began to notice that there were, in fact, clear and distinct reasons, ideas and philosophies behind the creative decisions I had been making around videos; around storytelling. It was a fascinating process. A conscious exploration of previously unconscious thoughts. Over the next couple of weeks I would develop these thoughts further, forming everything from the vision of the project, to ideas around how the actual storytelling process with people would work.

Instead of sharing those lovely details here, though…

I instead (very excitedly) invite you to check out my newly launched website for The Storytelling Project. On it, you’ll find my first story and a write-up of working through that process. Ambiguity abounds.

www.thestorytellingproject.ca

So as you can see, exciting things are happening. Some of the most exciting things that I’ve been involved with in…ever. But, that doesn’t mean that the ambiguity is gone. Next week I’ll share some of the fun questions I have been dealing with most recently.

 

Until then.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

 

Ps. Moral of the story: Not that I (by any means) have things “worked out”, but I think that what this story points to is the fact that things do, eventually, work themselves out. I know that I’m not there yet but it feels like I am, at very least, beginning to move down the correct path. It’s a long, treacherous, scary and booby-trap laden path, but at least it’s a path.

It is sometimes hard to remember that life is not, in fact, falling apart at the seams. But perhaps we don’t have to remember that. Perhaps we just have to hold the seams together long enough to reach a tailor.

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