Kathi and her very teacher-y co-host, Michele come to you from Writing at the Red House where they are helping writers tell their hard story. Today, Kathi and Michele give you the secret tool to finding the woven story to create a thread of connection with your audience – the metaphor.
The metaphor is a powerful tool that acts like a welcome mat to your story. In today’s episode, you will learn:
- How to find your metaphor
- Why it’s so important to your ministry
- How to use it and not overdo it
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Transcript of this Episode
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Communicator Academy Podcast # 188
Finding the Woven Story
Kathi – Well, hey friends. Welcome to Communicator Academy, where our goal is to help men and women become the communicators God has created them to be. Joining me today is my very teacher-y friend, Michele Cushatt.
Michele – Teacher-y?
Kathi – As a teacher, you probably hate that word, ‘cause it’s not a word.
Michele – I like it. Yes, I’m a teacher, but I’m still a creative, so I think it’s totally fair to make up words.
Kathi – I have looked at everybody I’m close to, everybody I consider my short sucker list friends. They’ve either been teachers or nurses.
Michele – Yes! I cross both of those off the list.
Kathi – And let me tell you the two things I could never be…
Michele – Teacher and nurse?
Kathi – I love to teach writing and things like that, but to be a teacher in a classroom? And nurse?
Michele – I know how you are with blood and weird bodily functions.
Kathi – I’m just not down for it. I have to take a first aide class and I’m dreading it.
Michele – So, in other words, at the end of life, and I need someone to help me with the potty, it will not be you?
Kathi – I would be there for potty, ‘cause that’s how much I love you.
Michele – That’s so sweet.
Kathi – But if you need something sutured?
Michele – I’m on my own?
Kathi – I’d have a head gash from passing out. There’s nothing I can do about that.
Michele – I’ll have to find other people to be in the room.
Kathi – Oh my goodness, yes. But, I would help you to the toilet. That’s how much I love you.
Michele – That’s very sweet. I feel so close to you.
Kathi – I’d have to gird myself up for wiping.
Michele – I can’t believe we just said ‘wiping’ on Communicator Academy. For all of you who have children in the car, I’m so sorry.
Kathi – They’re familiar with wiping.
Michele – They are.
Kathi – This is true.
Michele – Absolutely true.
Kathi – So, we are here, writing at The Red House. We’re doing the retreat about Telling Your Hard Story, and it’s interesting. People who hear about this retreat feel like their whole life has to be a hard story, but we all have a hard story to tell, and that doesn’t have to define us. You’re doing more and more about not wanting your hard story the defining part of you.
Michele – Absolutely.
Kathi – I think that’s so interesting. I think that really leads us into today’s topic, “Finding the Woven Thread in your Story”. The reason we wanted to talk about that is, one of our attendees this week was talking about her hard story and how do we tell it? You were really encouraging her to find the metaphor in her story. Talk a little bit about finding the metaphor in your story. It’s so funny. You and I didn’t even talk about this, because I’m teach more about the writing aspects this time. This is an advanced class. You’re teaching more on your overall ministry and things at this Writing at The Red House, but one of my sessions was going to be on metaphors.
Michele – Oh! See? I didn’t even know that.
Kathi – It was partially on metaphors and how do you tell the hard parts of your story without the hard story becoming everything? You have done this so many ways, so many times. I want you talk about why this is so important.
Michele – Well, to begin with, for those not familiar with me, I have multiple elements to my hard story, but the one that people talk about over and over again is the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer three times. Head and neck cancer. That diagnosis has ended up leaving me with permanent speech disability and a permanent functional disability when it comes to eating and swallowing and drinking and all that kind of stuff. However, it’s now been five years since that surgery completely changed everything.
Kathi – I can’t believe it’s been five years.
Michele – Five years ago I was in the middle of chemo and radiation. So, it’s been five years, and at some point, my life is bigger than that one moment on the timeline of my life. Besides that, you can throw a rock and hit fifty people that have a cancer story, so at some point we have to find the woven thread that connects all of us. It’s not just about one person. The one metaphor I use with people quite often is that your hard story can very easily be the car wreck on the side of the road that people slow down enough to see what happened, but nobody really gets involved with. That’s not good writing or speaking. What we want to do is create a place of connection. So, what we’re looking for is not the car wreck on the side of the road, but the highway that connects all of us. So that highway is that woven thread. So for me, it’s not about cancer, or the fact that I’ve been divorced and was a single mom, or the fact that I have a blended family, or my adoption story. Those are all scenes in my story, but they’re not the woven thread that really defines my ministry. What really defines my ministry is two things. One, making peace with an unexpected life; learning to embrace the life you have, rather than the life you’ve dreamed of. As well as wrestling with the hard subjects about faith and suffering. So, finding God in places of pain. That’s really the woven thread, the metaphor that connects far more people. Then, my cancer story, my single mom story, my foster/adoption story, those are scenes, but they’re not the highway that connects most of us together. So, the reason this matters is, if we don’t find that woven thread, if we don’t find that connecting point, we put ourselves in a place of being a victim over and over and over again.
Kathi – We’ve heard those people and read those books where either, they want you to understand what a brave warrior they’ve been. They want the affirmation and the recognition.
Michele – Or the sympathy.
Kathi – Or the sympathy, yes. Or, they want to say, “Look at how awful everybody else has been. This is the reason I am the way I am.” Those two things don’t define you at all.
Michele – I hope not.
Kathi – We’ve all be places where we’ve wanted to justify and stuff like that, but that’s not what ministry is. So, I think there are some books that have done this so beautifully. Making sure we can see the triumph without lingering on those hard parts and being defined by those hard parts. Things like The Glass Castle, Educated, those kinds of things. A metaphor really does help you, not only explain your pain, but also connect to your reader’s pain.
Michele – Totally. So, when I first started thinking about writing my hard story, back in 2012 I think it was, I met a woman, Carolyn, who is my editor now. I asked for some advice. I’m like, “This is kind of my hard story.” And I shared it with her, and she goes, “What you need to do is find the metaphor that connects it all.”
Kathi – And you said that was the best piece of writing advice you’d ever got.
Michele – Best advice I’ve ever received. She said, “It’s not about your cancer journey. It’s not about you adopting these three kids from trauma. You need to find a metaphor that connects all of them.” She told me that and I’m like, “What?” But I went home with that, and I sat and stewed on it, thought on it, processed it and realized what the metaphor was. It became the title of my first book, Undone. It was a play on words. Even when life feels undone, topsy turvy, the fruit basket is upset, whatever, it’s not undone. Right? That metaphor applied to far more people than just people who have fostered, adopted, or had cancer.
Kathi – Right, and it can cover all of those different areas. You know what I find to be the most useful thing about a metaphor? Okay, so here we dip into Enneagrams all the time, and I’m just learning more about my Enneagram. The one thing I know about 7s is that we do not like pain. Pain is not our gain. We don’t like it.
Michele – No, you don’t.
Kathi – But here’s the thing. Clutter is a painful topic. My clutter story is very connected to my dad’s death; my dad’s life and death. I have to be able to write about that without losing myself in that. So, one of the things a metaphor can do is it can help you carry on in the story without you, yourself, as the communicator going down into the depths.
Michele – Yes.
Kathi – The metaphor I used for my dad and how he loved me? My dad was a very broken man. He came from a broken family and he wanted, desperately to love me and my mom and my brother, but didn’t know how. I was the one that gave the eulogy at his memorial service. The way I could do that is to use the metaphor of my dad had a very broken toolbox. He had the toolbox and it had a hammer and it had jelly beans in the flashlight container. It was a mess. So, all my life, I wanted him to build me an armoire. I wanted him to build me something big and beautiful. The most my dad could do with his broken toolbox was to build me a hot pad holder. That was all he could do, but he did it with as much love as he had. So, when I talk about my dad’s death, and I’m getting a little weepy right now, but it doesn’t take me back to my father’s death.
Michele – You’re not reliving it.
Kathi – Right. What I’m tearing up about now, is how much he loved me. How much he tried to love me the way he could. It doesn’t take me all the way down to grief and trying to process all of that. It takes to the surface and it says, “I can continue telling this story without going all the way there.” I think for people who are in very painful places, I know how it takes you to write a book. You’re having to process and having to write so much. When you have a good metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it’s lighter. It means that it carries more of your pain so you don’t have to do all the carrying.
Michele – It makes it easier for your reader to digest and process it and apply it to themselves.
Kathi – If you’re constantly rehashing everything about your cancer story; everything about your father’s death; everything about the hard places, that’s a lot for a reader to take.
Michele – It is. Again, it’s like that car wreck. People might slow down and peek at the car wreck on the side of the road, but they won’t park and stop and get out and interact with it. Our job as a writer is not to sit there and create a sideshow to entertain people with our victimization.
Kathi – We’re not trying to shock people.
Michele – We’re not trying to shock or sensationalize or whatever. We’re trying to use our story as a point of relationship and connection to help the reader with their story. A metaphor is a great conduit to make that happen.
Kathi – I love that. Okay, how far can you take that metaphor?
Michele – You can overdo it.
Kathi – I was going to say that there are some that have been beaten to death. I’m like, “Okay, we get it. It’s cute. Let’s move on.” So, how do you instinctively know, “I need to pull back on this.” Or “I need to talk about the actual event and leave the metaphor at the door.”?
Michele – Well, sometimes you have to have outside voices, right? You have to have other people who can have fresh eyes on it. The truth is, we’re too close to our own story the vast majority of the time. Having other people let us know, “Hey. You’ve taken this far enough. Let’s drop it. Let’s move on.” The metaphor is a welcome mat that allows people to enter into your story in very safe, welcoming way. It helps people connect with that, but it can become cheesy. That’s why you have editors. That’s why you have friends, to let you know how far is too far and if you’ve explained enough. Another good piece of writing advice I’ve heard it multiple places: Don’t try to do all the thinking for the reader. Lay it out there, but trust that they have brains and that they will be able to process this. You don’t have to lay it all out there for them. You hint at some things without being quite so overt. Trust your reader to process and apply the way they need to.
Kathi – One of the best devices I’ve ever seen for that, and I hate the word device, ‘cause it always seems contrived, but The Bridges of Madison Country. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that. So, the sister showed up at the dinner table with her dress inside out. So, what that says is, “Something happened.” We, as the reader, are smart enough to figure it out.
Michele – You don’t have to overtly say, “There was some hanky-panky before dinner.”
Kathi – Exactly. So, to understand, that trusts your reader to say that this is what’s going on. Okay, so how do you find that metaphor? That’s the million dollar question.
Michele – It really is. Some of it requires dialogue and interaction. Whether it’s dialogue with other people or journaling, where you can see your own thoughts.
Kathi – That’s why I love the brainstorming we’re doing here with our group. We can see things in other people’s stories that they can’t.
Michele – Yes. So, one example. I’ll use this as an example. One of the people were sharing about having an eating disorder as part of their hard story. So, the metaphor is not the eating disorder. What was underneath that? The eating disorder is the symptom. What was underneath that? That’s making a list of some possibilities. It could be about control. It could be about fear. It could be about identity. It could be about all these things. Well, all those different things become the connecting point with the audience. The hard story, even if the eating disorder may be the visible expression of that, what we need to find is what was really the driver beneath it. So, one of the exercises I recommend doing is, write down all the hard pieces of your story. So, I have a lot. In 48 years, I have a lot of different pockets of hard things. Write them all down. What would be a similar characteristic in all these hard parts of your story? Yesterday, one of the things we came up with is that the thread was this need for control.
Kathi – Right.
Michele – Right? There was almost an avoidance. A need to step back and avoid pain and need to have control over pain. That control factor was really the connecting metaphor between all the different, specific pieces of the hard story. The best way to find what it is, is to list them all out on a piece of paper and say, “What was the driving factor here?” and see if there’s any similar answers for all the different parts of your story. So, for me, with divorce and church split and cancer and kids from trauma, there was the unexpected. Unexpected circumstances I was not prepared for. What do I do with that? I was thrown completely for a loop because of all these unexpected things. That was Undone, as story about making peace with an unexpected life.
Kathi – Right. Well, it was interesting. A couple of days ago, and I told you and Cheri Gregory about this. One of our favorite people here at Communicator Academy, Tonya Kubo, was here at The Red House, and she was going to visit a friend. She said, “How long do you think it’ll take?” and I said, “I think it’ll take about three hours.” Well it took her four and a half to five hours.
Michele – Which is a lot longer.
Kathi – A lot longer. Well, what she figured out, when she got to her friend’s house, is that her GPS was set to bicycle instead of car. So, she was taking these weird country backroad routes that no car should ever have to go.
Michele – It was conditioned for a bicycle.
Kathi – Right. It took her 50% longer to get to her friend’s house. Well, what some people on Communicator Academy may not know is that Tonya talks a lot about a neuro-diverse marriage. I said, “Oh! Tonya! This is the best illustration for a neuro-diverse marriage.” What she really talks about is really understanding and accepting that your partner is sometimes going a different route; a different direction; a different speed than you are.
Michele – Using a completely different app, different map, than you are.
Kathi – Right. A set of guidelines and a set of rules. I said, “This is the best metaphor for what you’re talking about in your marriage.”
Michele – What’s interesting, in using that metaphor, I’m not in a neuro-diverse marriage, but that metaphor connects with me, ‘cause I know what it’s like to be married to someone who’s different than me.
Kathi – Right?
Michele – We’re not in a neuro-diverse marriage, but we’re just different, so I get that there are moments where he’s on a bike map and I’m a car map or vice versa.
Kathi – Exactly. You know, it even helped me with my relationship with my son. We think completely different. I’m like, “Okay, he’s on the bike route.” To me, saying, “My son is on the bike route.” has no judgement attached to it.
Michele – None. It’s just a different route.
Kathi – A different route, a different way of going. I admire people who like to bike. Those guys are warriors. Up here in the mountains you see ten people. They’re going up. I’m like, “It would be just as easy for you to get out and push. I can’t even believe you’re doing this.” It’s amazing what they’re doing. It’s no judgement for them. No judgement for me. We just have a different set of guidelines, different tools that we’re using. I love that the metaphor can take the judgement out of a relationship.
Michele – So, not only does a metaphor become a way to connect with your reader, it also removes the judgement from your relationship with your reader. The other piece of that metaphor is that it opens the door to a wider variety of connections with people who you would never have been able to connect with.
Kathi – It’s so true. Not many people I know have had tongue cancer.
Michele – If I write a book just about tongue cancer, there would be a very tiny audience that bought it.
Kathi – And if you think that your story can only connect with people who their whole lives are marked with pain? That really limits your audience. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the people who come to the hard story retreat. This is one of the most joy-filled groups.
Michele – It really is. We have fun. We laugh our heads off.
Kathi – I was so tired last night. I came up to bed, but it made me so happy to hear everybody just laughing their heads off yesterday. To say, “My pain point can connect with somebody else, but we don’t have to be defined by it.”
Michele – One last piece I wanted to add at the end. Now that I’m five years out from it, this is a new value I’m discovering on the back end, a metaphor increases the longevity of your story. If my story was only about what happened five years ago, there’s an expiration on that. I’m tired of talking about it. People are tired of hearing about it. So having a metaphor that this is bigger than just that moment on the timeline, having that metaphor increases the longevity of my brand, my mission, what I’m about, what I do professionally. It’s no longer confined to a certain circumstance. It’s really bigger and broader than that one thing.
Kathi – Okay, so let’s recap a little bit. The things that a metaphor does for you. One, it includes a bigger audience, because they are able to take all that in. There’s longevity in a metaphor. Here’s the thing. If you have a message and you have a metaphor. Yours started out with cancer and fostering and divorce and single parenthood, but, sadly, there will be future pain.
Michele – Sadly, yes.
Kathi – Sadly, there will be, and that metaphor can continue to carry you. A metaphor helps you to tell your story without judgement. It bears the facts. It also helps you to tell it without judgement, which is amazing. It keeps you on a level to be able to tell your story. I know there are people who should not be telling their story too soon, but when you get to a point of healing, that doesn’t mean the emotions stop. It’s okay, when you’re speaking your story, you’re writing your story. Tears are good. Tears are healing, but you don’t want to be a person where they rush up on the stage to comfort you. A metaphor can help carry through the telling of that story in a healthy way. Michele, this has been so good. This is cornerstone content for us, and I really appreciate it.
Michele – I agree. I love how you do the same thing with Clutter Free. Friends, thank you so much for listening to us today. You’ve been listening to Communicator Academy. I’m Michele Cushatt.
Kathi – And I’m Kathi Lipp.
Michele – You’ve been given the best message in the world. Now, go live it.
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