Responding to problem-saturated stories

Responding to problem-saturated stories

This is a narrative therapy post! 

It’s about how we respond to recurring stories that focus tightly on a problem or complaint, whether the storyteller is ourselves or someone else. What I hope to do with this post is to describe how we might use narrative therapy practices in our responses to ourselves and each other, in order to help the storyteller feel stronger in their story. This might mean strengthening the storyteller’s connection to their own values, or inviting the storyteller to tell the story of how they responded to the problem in addition to telling the story of the problem’s influence on them.

Many of us have experienced recurring stories that focus on a problem. These recurring stories tell the story of an experience, a person or a relationship, where the problem has significant power and is central to the story. Problem-saturated stories are notable because they tend not to leave room in the story for recognizing agency, choice, and response. The problem happens to the storyteller, and throw the storyteller off course in a way that is disruptive and distressing. They are often stories of injustice, or of a social context that suddenly goes off the rails.

These stories can be distressing to hear, even if we’re just hearing them from ourselves! It can be hard to know how to respond, and sometimes we respond by shutting the story (and the storyteller) down, changing the subject without engaging in the story, asking (or demanding) that the storyteller focus on the positives, or downplaying or dismissing the impact of the problem because we don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the problem story again. Sometimes these responses are based in self-preservation, but they are not often helpful for the storyteller. The goal of this post is to offer us some other possible responses.

A problem-saturated story tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. Our goal with these responses is to flip that around, and make the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem more visible. People are not passive recipients of hardship – we are always responding. This post is about how we help the storyteller make those responses visible.

I want to add some really important caveats right at the beginning of this post:

First, this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy. I think this is at the heart of all therapy, really, though different therapeutic methods approach it differently. This practice is about listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. It is hard and important work, and it is not only trained therapists who do this work. Many of us, therapists or not, have deep skills and insider knowledge when it comes to listening and responding to the stories of problems, and all of us have skills and knowledge when it comes to responding to problems – one of the core beliefs of narrative therapy is that nobody is passive recipient of trauma or hardship.

In sharing this post, I’m not suggesting that we should all become therapists for each other all the time. Even though this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy, and it can be a therapeutic process, it’s also just part of how we can be in relationship with each other. We listen to each other tell the stories of our lives, and the stories of our problems, all the time. The goal of this practice, especially when we’re bringing it into our non-therapeutic relationships, is not to “fix” the problem and it is definitely not to “fix” the person. 

The goal is to invite the storyteller to tell the story in ways that feel strong. It is about highlighting and making visible the skills and values and responses that already exist within the story. That’s a really important orientation to the story (and the storyteller) because it involves curiousity rather than education. This practice invites us, as listeners, to locate the storyteller as the expert in their own experience, and and it invites us to carry a pre-existing belief that there are skills, values, and responses already present in the story. 

Second, I want to acknowledge the importance of complaint in our lives. Complaint is not a bad thing, and telling stories of complaint is also not a bad thing. Complaints, including retelling stories of problems in our lives, are often critical steps in standing against injustice. So when we respond to each other’s complaints, or to our own complaints, it is important to keep in mind the value of complaint, and to honour the insight that allows someone to say, “this happened and it was not okay.”

Sometimes it takes time to get to the point of saying it so clearly, and what can come across as “whining” or “fixating on the negative” can be part of an important process of sifting through an experience to understand what happened and why it feels bad.

As Sara Ahmed points out, “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.”

So, before I invite you to use these practices to respond to complaint in a way that shifts from the problem to the response, I first want to invite you to listen with care to the complaint. Is the story being told over and over to you because the storyteller (perhaps yourself!) has been “blocked by the collective will not to hear”? How can we “acquire a feminist ear” in our listening to each other (and ourselves)?

If it is the case that the storyteller has not had the opportunity to tell the story without being “blocked”, then the storyteller first needs to be witnessed in the grip of the problem and the complaint. For example, if the problem story is about experiencing racism, transantagonism, queerphobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny, or any other problem related to structural oppression, chances are very good that the storyteller has been “blocked” by the collective ear, and naming the injustice is a critical part of that person’s survival and self-affirmation. In those cases, it is so important to listen compassionately and with the “feminist ear” that Sara Ahmed invites us to develop in ourselves.

That act of listening carefully to the problem story is one of the most important practices of narrative therapy (in my opinion).  Michael White referred to it as “lingering with the problem” and it can be deeply uncomfortable, but also incredibly valuable. Often, only once we have been witnessed in our struggle, and the harms and injustices that we are facing have been named, can we consider moving past this to other stories.

So, if you’re the listener, and you recognize that the storyteller might need to be witnessed in the struggle before they can move to other stories, and you just do not have the bandwidth to hear the story (sometimes for the fiftieth time – some stories are very sticky, and we try many times to find the right audience or the right way of being witnessed!) it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now. Can we switch the topic?” 

You can say this to someone else, and you can also say this to yourself. Being a supportive friend (to others and to ourselves!) does not mean that we have to always extend ourselves past our limits. Being able to say, “I don’t have it in me right now” can invite consent and accountability into our relationships, allowing us to say yes to the hard conversations more openly and intentionally. This is particularly important if we are also feeling weighed down by our own contexts or problems.

So, with all those caveats and assuming that you have the bandwidth to spend some time in the problem-saturated story and you’d like to try and engage in a narratively-informed conversation with the storyteller and try to shift the story a bit, here are some ideas.

As I mentioned, the goal of responding to these problem-saturated stories is to make those values, skills, choices, and responses visible, or at least to invite the storyteller to reflect on them. This means that we’re not trying to change the topic (though that’s valid – it’s just a different thing!), we’re trying to change the lens on the topic.

Note: the storyteller might be yourself.

Additional note: This might be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable.

Third note: If the storyteller, especially if it is not you, appears uncomfortable with your questions and with this approach, take a step back. If you feel like you have to push to get anywhere with this, it’s best to stop. Narrative questions can be so valuable and so rewarding, but they can also be so full of pressure and friction. If it feels hard and bad for either of you, take a breath and pause. The storyteller may not be ready to shift the story, and that’s okay! That’s not a failure on their part, and it’s not a failure on your part. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the same story again – you have the option to decline the conversation, to change the topic, to take care of the relationship in other ways.

So, the actual practice.

Listen to the story and think about the following questions, and consider asking them if an opportunity arises:

What skills made it possible for the storyteller to get through that experience? 

For example, if they are telling the story of a relationship that has ended, and they are lingering in the stories of pain that they experienced, what skills allowed them to keep going in their life despite that pain? How did they get through the relationship up to the point of it ending? Where did they learn these skills? Who taught them, or showed them it was possible? When did they first realize that they had these skills?

As you listen to the story, you might notice moments when the storyteller did something in response to the problem. Is this connected to a skill that can be named, and whose history can be traced?

In an example like this, be mindful of not cooperating with victim-blaming discourses by suggesting that they should have had different skills, or that the hurtful situation was a “blessing in disguise” because of the skills they developed in response.

What values did the storyteller hold onto as they moved through that experience?

For example, if they are telling the story of how workplace bullying has invited problems into their life, what have they held onto that allows them to get through that experience? What do they value or cherish about themselves in a work context – do they have a value of integrity or collaboration or justice that has allowed them to keep showing up for work despite the problems? Can you see these values evident in the story, such as in the way they choose to treat coworkers with care, or in the way they do their work? What do their choices say about what is important to them?

Sometimes problem-saturated stories are so sticky because they are stories of times when our values have been violated – if we have a value of integrity or honesty and we have been lied to, this can feel like a very sticky problem! Sometimes the complaint itself highlights the value, and it can help to witness this actively. This might sound like, “it sounds like you really value treating people with compassion, and that value was not extended to you in this situation.” If this is the case, then you can ask about the history of that value – where does it come from? Is this a value that they share with anyone in their life? Have there been times when they’ve really seen this value being expressed in actions?

In an example like this, be aware of the fact that talking about our values can invite feelings of guilt or shame if we have acted out of alignment with our own values or if we feel that we’re not able to express our values through our actions. Focusing on what is important to someone, and framing it in terms of how they have held on to that being important despite contexts that don’t support it, can be one way to sidestep the shame. 

How has the storyteller responded to the problem?

For example, if they are telling the story of how sickness or disability has impacted their life, how have they responded to the ableism that they’ve faced, and to the changes in their body and social context? 

In an example like this, be especially conscious of not downplaying the impact of sickness or disability on a person’s life within our ableist culture. Naming ableism, capitalism, lack of social supports, and other structural and systemic problems is so important, because sick and disabled people are so often invited to view ourselves and our bodies as the problem. To quote Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, our bodies are not the problem, ableism is the problem. 

And also, when our ability changes, this can bring grief and loss, and those feelings are valid! But the person, and the person’s body, are still not the problem. 

If you are looking for stories of response, you might ask things like – what do they do when the problem shows up? How did they respond when the sickness or disability arrived, or as it has changed over time? What has allowed them to respond to the problems that have come? 

Who has witnessed the storyteller experiencing this problem? Who has supported them?

This is such an important question, because the problems in our lives can isolate us, leaving us feeling alone. But we are not alone. Even if the only person we see on our team is a fictional character, a pet, or an ancestor… still, we are not alone. We are always in relationship, and there are always ways to find connection.

So, for example, if they are telling the story of being hurt by someone else, were there any kind witnesses to this hurt? Even if nobody witnessed the hurt, are there any people in the storyteller’s life who, if they had witnessed the hurt, would have recognized why it was so hurtful? Have they seen anyone else hurt in this way? If so, what did they think of that? How would they respond to seeing someone else hurt in this way? Who has supported them, or responded in the way that they would want to respond?

All of these questions focus on finding the moments of agency, choice, and response. 

It’s about finding the strong story that already exists as a shimmering thread in even the most sticky, muddy, problem-saturated story.

We are always responding to the hurts and injustices and traumas that we face. These responses come from somewhere. They might come from witnessing someone else respond in a way that we want to emulate, or in a way that we don’t. From our own past experiences. From the values that we learned in our favourite books or games, or from our family members or culture. From so many places!

Telling the story of our response can help us find a sense of agency and choice – we did respond to that injustice, even if that response was to roll our eyes or go complain to a friend. We did something in response!

We all have values – things that we consider precious and worth holding onto even in the face of obstacles. These values have histories. Those histories can help us feel connected to others who share our values, and can help us feel less alone.

We all have skills – ways of acting that allow us to respond to the problems in our lives. These skills also have histories! And they may be connected to our values, and together these values and skills shape our responses.

We all have connections and community, even when we are distant from these. We all come from somewhere, and we all have people who have been a positive influence in our lives (even if those people are pets, or celebrities, or fictional characters). We are not alone.

These questions aren’t about downplaying the problem or the impact it has had on the storyteller’s life. They are about making visible what the storyteller has done in response, and what has allowed them to do this.

If you end up using some of these strategies and questions in your life, I’d love to hear about them!

If you’d like to learn more about narrative therapy, the Dulwich Centre has two free online courses – an intro to narrative therapy, and a free online course focused on Aboriginal narrative therapy (taught by Aunty Barbara Wingard, who coined the phrase “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger”). You can find those courses here.

Our current economic, environmental, and political devastation offer plenty of problem stories for many of us. I offer An Unexpected Light, a six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course focused on telling stories of futures full of care, collaboration, justice, liberation, and possibility. The next session starts April 2, 2020. Find more information and register here.

The Ally Bill of Responsibilities #1

(Cross-posting from Facebook – I’m going to be posting over the next couple weeks as I work through Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.)

If you are non-Indigenous and feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do as you watch the ongoing colonial violence committed on Wet’suwet’en lands, consider this an invitation to find one specific and tangible action to take.

You can start with the Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit 2020, which is full of resources and ideas. There are places to donate, articles to read, historical and contemporary information to learn.

If that feels daunting for you, and you’d like a single specific task, you can join me in spending some time with Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.

There are 16 responsibilities listed in this bill, and I’m going to be working my way through these, focusing on one per day, for the next two weeks.

The first responsibility is –

“Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures.”

This requires us to examine our own hearts and find where guilt is our motivation. This is hard work, but it’s important.

What do you feel when you read stories and articles about what is happening on Wet’suwet’en land? When you read the racist and anti-Indigenous comments on articles and scattered throughout social media?

I think that many white settlers, like myself, are feeling guilt in these situations, and we know that we are implicated in the violence because we are part of the dominant group.

How can we recognize and validate those feelings of guilt, but NOT keep those as our motivation for being in solidarity with Indigenous communities?

Acting from guilt positions us as the ones with agency, the ones who can take actions to make things right. Acting from guilt can lead us to think that we’re the ones with the power to harm, and therefore the power to heal. It can lead us to think that our job is to “help” Indigenous communities. But this isn’t right. These larger oppressive power structures harm everyone, and challenging them is not an act of charity towards Indigenous communities, it is an act of mutual aid towards our mutual survival.

How can we shift our motivation so that we are acting from an awareness that these larger oppressive power structures must be challenged?

What will help us stay connected to an awareness of moving towards justice, rather than simply moving away from guilt?

Acting from guilt can also lead us into trying to gain absolution from our Indigenous friends and community members. Trying to be reassured that we’re not “bad”. Seeking out comfort for the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

But acting from genuine interest in challenging oppressive power structures means that we can just do that work, without asking for reassurance and comfort from the people we are trying to be in solidarity with.

For myself, this responsibility feels more possible when I have other white settlers to discuss my feelings of guilt with, so that I’m not just ignoring or dismissing those feelings, but I’m also not allowing them to be the motivator of my actions. Accountability companions who share my white settler privilege and won’t be harmed when I talk about my guilt are important.

What helps you with this responsibility?

Shiny! February 2020

Shiny! February 2020

Dearest magpies,

This is our monthly Shiny! speculative writing group letter. Our first regular letter! I’ve been thinking about who we are as a group, and what we’re trying to do, and the obstacles that we might need to navigate.

I decided on magpies, because I love magpies.

They are inquisitive, curious, and creative. These are skills we need in this group, as we explore and investigate the complexities of the present in order to imagine more hopeful futures.

And they are forever seeking out the shiny hiding in the gutters and the trash and the deepest, thorniest thicket. We need this skill, too. The little bits of sparkle that we find together in this group will help us build nests for the future. (It is important to note that magpies aren’t actually more drawn to shiny objects more than any other bird – if you are a sparrow or an eagle or robin or a turkey vulture, you, too, are valuable and necessary and you, too, will help build the nests to hold the future.)

And magpies are brilliant and adaptable – recognizing the faces of allies and threats, using tools, adapting to hostile contexts. Magpies are one of the species that have fully adapted to urban living, and that thrive in spaces that have been fundamentally altered by human intrusion. This is another skill – to adapt, to recognize threat and to thrive despite it. (And perhaps to swoop at the heads of a threat, like Australian magpies do!)

So, my lovely magpies, let’s dive into this letter.

You’ll find the craft lesson first, then shared writing from the February session, some recommended reading, the writing prompts for March.

Craft Lesson

Shiny! is open to writers of all experience and confidence levels, and the reason we are not engaging in craft lessons at our in-person meetings is because, although ‘steering the craft’ (to borrow from Ursula K. Le Guin) is important, first we must be invited in. First, we gather up our words and our threads of story. First, we learn the sound and feel of our own voice. That’s what we’re doing in the in-person writing sessions. Once we have gathered a rich pile of words and stories, then we can figure out what to do with them.

Then we learn how to string those words together in ways that are most effective, and how to use our voice in ways that are most accessible to our audience. That’s what we’re hoping to do in these craft lessons.

You do not need to engage with these craft lessons in order to participate in either the in-person or the online group. They are entirely optional. However, if you do decide to engage with the craft lessons and would like to chat about them or receive feedback on your work, you can bring them to the group or email them to me. (We will eventually have a dedicated online space, most likely a Discord server, but since this is all volunteer on my end and I’ve got a bit of a learning curve to get that set up, we don’t have it yet. Bear with me!)

So, our first craft lesson!

We are starting with dialogue, since this was one of the requested topics at our launch party in January.

One of our participants shared that they have lots of character sketches and settings and narrative ideas, but they struggle with how to write dialogue between these characters.

This was a shared experience for many of us!

There are whole books written on the topic of writing dialogue (including a wealth of books on screenwriting, which offer insights that can be translated over to other forms of writing). Many of us speak all the time – to each other and to ourselves. We play over conversations in our minds, remembering or rehearsing. We listen to other people engaging in dialogue, too. We are surrounded by dialogue!

But it remains challenging to write, partly because we are so immersed in conversation throughout our days, and what we write on the page sounds off if it is exactly like what we say and hear throughout the day. Our writing needs to capture the feel of conversation, and that means that we need to learn which parts of spoken conversation need to be cut away in order to leave the core intact and convincing.

Here are a couple exercises to work with:

Practice rewriting dialogue

Record yourself having a conversation with a friend. This works best if the conversation is about something, so that you have some clear themes to work with. I suggest recording five minutes of rich conversation (which may mean setting your voice memo recording and then chatting for twenty minutes, and choosing the richest five for this exercise).

Transcribe those five minutes of conversation.

As you’re transcribing, pay attention to all of the filler in the conversation, and all the bits that could be edited out in order to make the dialogue easier to read.

Once you’ve done this, rewrite the conversation. Keep the core of it – the meaning, the flow, each person’s separate voice. Work on shaping that dialogue into something that reads smoothly but remains true to the actual conversation you had with your friend.

Dialogue or description?

(This exercise is adapted from the book Writing Dialogue by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto.)

Put two characters in a setting where they’re stuck together. (The book recommends a car, but I’ve also found waiting room, plane ride, or ticket line settings useful.)

Write the same scene twice, once using only dialogue (what are the characters saying to each other?) and once using only description or summary (what is happening around the characters?)

Which works better?


That wasn’t the plan!

Write a two-part scene.

In the first, have your character imagining what they will say in a conversation that they’re anticipating.

In the second, write them actually having the conversation.

We’ve all had the experience of anticipating a conversation and then having that conversation actually happen, and it rarely works that it goes exactly as planned. (When it does go exactly as planned, this is its own kind of shocking!)

If your character’s conversation does not go as planned, what are the variables that push the conversation off the anticipated track? What is the result of this?

If the conversation goes exactly as planned, what is the outcome of this? How does your character feel? What are the effects on their life or the lives of those around them?

Shared Writing

One of our writing prompts was rolling three Magic & Fairytale Story Cube dice. We got a wizard, a treasure chest, and a knight. Agnieszka wrote three haikus, and has allowed me to share them here.

The Wizard
Cloaked in patient leadership,
They stand with courage
An alchemy of wisdom

The Knight (for Tiffany)
The pursuit of truth,
Through deepest sorrow of loss,
Your shining armour

Treasure Chest
Oh, the joyful abundance
Of being open
To the beauty of pleasure


If we are going to, as Walidah Imarisha suggests, write “fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures,” then we must be actively and intentionally working to decolonize, to be actively anti-racist, to be working towards justice. And I think that if we want to write good speculative writing, in any genre, we also need a sense of hope and possibility – sometimes our efforts towards justice, especially if we are writing from a place of privilege and trying to be in solidarity, can feel stripped of playfulness and joy. I think we need to find that joy. Our selected links for this month are tied to these ideas.

With the colonial violence being enacted against Wet’suwet’en by the Canadian government, knowing what is happening and how to be in solidarity is important, even if our writing is on other topics. These big moments in our collective narrative are important for speculative writers because in these moments, possibilities for other ways to be in the future open up. So our first link is not related to writing speculative fiction, but it is related to our goal of imagining more just futures. The Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit offers a wide range of ways to support, including links to further resources. As you read through this, what becomes possible in your writing? Does the history shared here, and the story of resistance and resilience, change how you might write possible futures?

Our second reading is Kate Heartfield’s article at Article Magazine, Decolonizing the Future: How a new generation of Indigenous writers is changing the face of science fiction. This is a beautiful read, full of recommendations for books and articles and to read, and clearly articulating why Indigenous science fiction is so important. One thing I love about this essay is that it makes clear that Indigenous communities have been imagining possible futures for themselves that have always stood against colonization, and have affirmed Indigenous rights. Written a couple years ago, I think that this essay is a beautiful pairing with the Supporter Toolkit – the land defenders are holding the future, and Indigenous speculative writers have been imagining that future into possibility. “The concept of “the future” only exists in the present. It can be shaped by the same colonial structures and narratives that shape the North American present, or it can affirm Indigenous land and sovereignty.”

Our third reading is for those of us who want to write, and may not be sure what stories are ours to tell, and how to tell them in respectful ways. Amal el-Mohtar offers a brilliant and comprehensive answer to the question, “How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories? How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves? How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?” It can be found in her essay, Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries.

And lastly, the joy and playfulness, and how friendship makes the future possible. Read more from Amal el-Mohtar in her story Pockets, at Uncanny Magazine. The thing I love most about this piece is how it demonstrates what friendship can mean – the care that Tessa and Nadia and Warda take with each other, the way they check in about what they each need… it’s beautiful. It reminds me of some of my own friendships, the ones that make it possible to stay in this world even when the world is hard and terrifying. The friendships are my favourite thing about this story, but I also love the pockets!

In addition to the readings, I have an announcement!

The Spring 2020 round of An Unexpected Light is open for registration! Participation is limited in this six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course. Shiny! is an offshoot of the first round of this course, which has been really well-received! If you’re enjoying this group, you might enjoy the course, too.

You can find out more (including a link to download the updated syllabus) here.

Our next in-person writing session will happen on March 1, 2020, from 4-6 pm at Loft 112 in Calgary, Alberta. We’ll be writing on the following prompts (probably not all three, unless we are a very small group!) Since our craft lesson this month was dialogue, our writing prompts are loosely themed around communication.

Shiny! is explicitly a speculative writing group, but “speculative writing” can encompass a vast diversity of genres and styles. Whatever you write, keep an eye on the speculation of it. What are you imagining to be different than what is currently known of reality? And Shiny! is also an explicitly justice-focused group, hoping to write our way into more just, more liberated, more possible futures. So if the dread rises up in you and the only future stories feel dystopian, reach in for your inner magpie, wise and adaptable and possible, and find even the tiniest sparkle to grab onto. Bring that sparkle into your story.

If you will be attending the March event, you can choose whether to write on these ahead of time and then polish them at the event, or write another piece on the same prompt at the event.

If you’re following along at a distance, you can write along with these prompts and share them by email if you’d like them included in next month’s letter. To write along, set your timer for 20 minutes and write! Feel free to edit and rewrite or keep writing past the timer, but also don’t feel obligated. Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get a little bit of writing done, even if it’s not perfect or complete.

  1. “I trust that help will come eventually if I persist in my curiosity, my investigation.” – Susan Power. Write about the help that comes to your character, and about the curiosity and investigation that made it possible.
  2. A hand-written note from another time. (Note, you can take this in many directions – a note found in a book far in the future, a note sent to the past via time travel, a note from or to an ancestor, a note never meant to be found and discovered somehow, etc.)
  3. A portal opens (or closes).

Good luck, my lovely magpies!



Welcome to Shiny!

Welcome to Shiny!

Welcome to Shiny!

This is the text of the introductory email sent out to participants in the Shiny! speculative writing group. The email is a digital version of the launch party we hosted in Calgary on January 26, 2020. (This email will also be sent out to new participants who sign up for the email list.)

The goal of this post is to let you know what to expect from the group, set out the various ways to participate, and share the schedule for 2020. This email also includes some writing generously shared by participants at our first Shiny! writing group meeting on February 2, 2020.

Our monthly emails (the first of which will be coming out mid-February, 2020) will not include quite so much background, and will not be as long.

So, first, introductions.

The first introduction is for the group itself.

Shiny! a speculative writing group is an offshoot of An Unexpected Light, a six-month online course in narrative therapy and speculative fiction. Although Shiny! extends the work that we’re doing in that course, and exists because course participants asked for it, you do not need to be a past or present (or even future) participant in the course in order to be part of this group. You can download the syllabus and find out more about upcoming rounds of the course here

An Unexpected Light was created in response to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair within my communities, and Shiny! extends this work into an ongoing, inclusive, joy-and-justice oriented writing group.

Then, me.

Hello! I’m Tiffany. I will be our facilitator.

I’m a white settler on this land, and the in-person events for Shiny! will happen at Loft 112 take place on Treaty 7 land. This is the traditional and ongoing home of the Indigenous signatories of Treaty 7, which include the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations; the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations; and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This land is also home to the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and to all of the Indigenous folks who live here. The ongoing effects of colonization and capitalism mean that this land is home to many Indigenous folks whose traditional land is elsewhere or unknown. Shiny! is explicitly an anti-colonial and anti-racist group, and recognizing the ongoing effects of the colonial project is part of that work. 

I am non-binary, and use they/them pronouns. I co-facilitated a Non-binary Superpowers narrative therapy group with my colleague Rosie Maeder in Adelaide, South Australia, and we published a collective document in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. You can read a PDF of that document here.

I’m also bisexual, and am the founder and facilitator of Possibilities Calgary Bi+ Community Group. We meet once a month at Loft 112 in Calgary and have been running, with one extended break, since 2010.

I’m also fibromyalgia-enhanced, and constantly working to make peace with my inner demons.

I have degrees in English (Hons) and Women’s Studies (Hons) from the University of Calgary, and a Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work from the Dulwich Centre and the University of Melbourne. I’ve been published in a few places, and have worked as a professional editor for quite a while. I’ve been facilitating writing workshops and groups for over a decade.

We will be getting together in person most months in 2020, with the opportunity to write together, and to share our writing and respond to each other.

The next introduction, you!

This group is open to participants of every gender, orientation, ability, neurotype, race, class, body size, and experience with writing. Youth over 12 are also welcome.

You do not need to be a published or experienced writer to join us – everyone has a unique and valuable voice, and imagining possible futures is work for everyone. 

You do need to be interested in and invested in justice and liberation in order to participate in Shiny! The goal of this group is to write possible futures that are more just, more inclusive, more free than what we have now. The status, as Doctor Horrible so rightly put it, is not quo. I hope that this group will help us find ways to challenge the status quo, to find ways forward into futures that are more colourful and more liberated. Futures that refuse patriarchy, colonialism, racism, fatphobia, ableism, ageism, transantagonism, heteronormativity, and all the host of other systems and structures of harm that surround us in the present.

I am so excited to share this space with you!

So, what can you expect from this group?

The in-person meetings will include time to share snippets that we’ve read and appreciated over the last month and to reflect on writing that has really resonated for us, time to write together, and time to share our writing.

These meetings will happen on the first Sunday of most months at Loft 112, from 4-6 pm.

Our confirmed 2020 dates are:

  • March 1 (at Loft 112)
  • April 5 (location and time TBD – this will also be the launch party for the spring round of An Unexpected Light!)
  • May 3 (at Loft 112, tentative)
  • June 7 (at Loft 112)
  • July and August dates TBD
  • September 6 (at Loft 112)
  • October 4 (at Loft 112)
  • November 1 (at Loft 112)
  • December 6 (at Loft 112)

Participants are welcome to write between sessions and bring that writing to the group if they want. 

The emails will hopefully support that writing! And also be a way for people to fully participate from a distance.

The Shiny! online component exists in order to make the group accessible to participants who can’t make it to the in-person meetings because of work schedules, childcare, disability, distance, or any other reasons.

There will be two emails per month. The first will be short, and will be sent out the day of the in-person writing group and will share the writing prompts that set for that session. 

The second will be more substantial and will go out mid-month, with the first email going out mid-February 2020. 

The longer emails will include:

  • Some reflections on our topic for the upcoming month.
  • A couple writing prompts. 
  • Selections of writing shared by participants in the last month.
  • A small link roundup relevant to our topics.
  • Submission opportunities.
  • And a craft lesson each month!

These lessons are entirely optional, and nobody will be grading you! But if you want to fine-tune your craft, hopefully these lessons will be a resource. The craft topics requested at the launch party are: 

  • Dialogue
  • World-building
  • Plotting
  • Narrative voice and perspective
  • How to write short fiction
  • How to write mystery

These longer monthly emails will be shared as blog posts, which you can find on my website or on Patreon, with a link to the blog post sent out to the email list. If you would like to be added to the email list, let me know!


Here are the two prompts we wrote on at our first writing group session on February 2, 2020.

First, we read an excerpt from Alexis Pauline Gumbs story Evidence in Octavia’s Brood. This was a letter written from Alexis beyond capitalism to Alexis within capitalism. (Although I can’t share that excerpt publicly here, you can find more of Gumb’s amazing future-thinking in this podcast episode.)

The prompt was: Write a letter to yourself from a future beyond an oppressive system that currently constrains you. (Some of these letters are generously shared below, and brought me to tears in the session!)

Our second prompt was generated using the Magic & Fairy Tale Storycubes, and we wrote stories that included a knight, a wizard, and a treasure chest. 


Letter to Self from a Post-Apocalyptic Future.

February 2, 2020

Dear Agnieszka,

(How amazing that I can send this to you! So much has changed over all these years…)

The world made it through!

Somehow, we were able to stop destroying.

I don’t think anyone believed it would ever actually happen… that humanity would finally see Itself as intrinsically part of the Organism that is Earth… that all the self-harming practices – even if they relieve the pain of regret-isolation-sorrow – could be lessened respectfully… and that we-Earth can love us/Itself with compassion again.

Yes! We forgave each other! And Earth forgave us! Forgiving/forgiven for all the damage and harm done out of fear and misunderstanding. We moved forward, toward a patient re-learning how to care for and respond to the loneliness that drove us to distraction, production, the whole illness of progress.

Honey, I know that you *know* how hard this is to do. When the pain strikes, and it seems like nothing will stop it and pretending to “be normal and go shopping” seems like the only way out.

Sweetie, forgive yourself for not knowing. Continue doing what you are doing. I am telling you from here that imagining different possibilities in response to the pain and the regret and the fear, is exactly what was needed.

Relieving the pain makes perfect sense! No judgement against any human on Earth! Searching for true relief – the collective relief, for everyone, every life – through patient, respectful questioning – that is the work that eventually brought us towards Healing. Hope and peace.

We finally saw what really mattered! We saw how incredibly beautiful it all was, we all were! How unbelievably “enough”! And we could stop the cutting, the burning, the packaging, the injecting, the improving. And we stopped!

We looked at each other and at the Earth, and we were stunned. By the sheer beauty and wealth of just being and wealth of Being Just.

We really breathed! We breathed the Air. The Water that remained was slowly but steadily healing Itself because the Earth loves to heal. The Green things gracefully returned.

We were patient and respectfully waited. We used language and music and art and all the ingenuity of Earth to bless Life. With respect and awe.

Agnieszka, I know you offered yourself in Love and Compassion to People/Earth around you.

And I know you were often bound by rules/constructs in your society that created tensions and fear. I am so glad that you didn’t let it stop Your loving and forgiving (despite the harsh pressure to focus on the capitalistic bottom line).

I am so glad you persisted, because your persistence kept the Love growing, and practicing forgiveness allowed it to grow big enough for the Healing to take.

This Healing couldn’t happen without Forgiveness. So, thank you.

Love yourself fiercely. Always.

It’s the fuel of all our Potential.

To Me,

From a  place where you have all the time, the energy, space to do things.  Where you are no longer obligated to keep a space in your mind for bills, money and the like. 

Don’t worry, each step takes you closer.  Each choice, and while it seemed impossible, you weren’t the only one.  Everyone wanted to be free of the burden that is capitalism.  Time has the value you want in it, and not defined by dollars.  Passion is first and no longer questioned as a “side hustle”.  I remember the horror, the sadness each time someone asked “what next” expecting the answer to be monetizing. There’s no worry about those kinds of things.  There is space enough for everyone to explore, enjoy and live.

Lazy and productive are opposite sides of a coin that is no longer valid.  And with them went famine, suffering and the pain of depriving people of the necessities. 

The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends.  I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity.  I remember loving them.  I know you love them.  Imagine a world like that.

Don’t worry.  You’ll see it.  You’ll enjoy it, and it will all be surrounded by the wonderful relationships you, we, spent so long cultivating. 

I wish these letter could carry pictures to show but they only carry words and you’ll have to trust.  Trust me.  I am you.  Trust yourself, and walk forward.


Dear Joseph,

It all fell apart.  Everything broke.  Nothing is the same.  The toil and pain, the exhaustion and the sadness, the aches, the darkness.  And more than anything, the fear.  It all came crashing down around us.  We just couldn’t keep it aloft.  It had gotten too heavy.  It got wide, and tall, and blocked out all the goodness in the world.  It grew sharp edges that tore at our hands, covered in the salt of our sweat, and seeped into our aching muscles.  Our nerves were on fire, and our tears streamed non-stop.  Until one-day we gave up.  We gave in.  We stopped holding it up.  In the end, it fell heavy upon us.  Set to crush every person to nothingness.

We were crushed.  We died.  But it was not at all what we expected.  For what died was not our spirit.  Not our bodies.  No.  What died that fateful day was our fears.  Our old ideas.  For when it all came crashing down, we realized its immense size and weight were illusions.  It’s needles and knives, imagined.  Like kinetic sand, it only held its shape because of we all pushed so hard to keep it up.  Once we stopped pushing, once we stopped caring, it crumbled into such a fine dust that a light breeze was enough to whisk is away. 

Now a warm wind blows, unencumbered by our fears.  It fills our souls and lights our minds.  We understand that we do not need towers, we need plains.  We are all important.  There are no gods among us, because it will only create devils.  There are no leaders, only advisors.  We are all peers, on different legs of the same journey.  With different destinations, but all going in the same direction.  Towards hope, and love. 

So, Joseph, keep your hope.  Do not give up as you may have thought about.  Be ready to give in.  And together we will all get through.  The other side is so different and so much better than anything we know right now.  Better that we could have imagined.  You can do it.

I am so excited to share this space with you.

(Though also excited to never again try and create so many rows and blocks of content in the email list platform. Yeesh!)

There is no cost to participate in this group, but if you’d like to support the work, you can find me on Patreon or you can make a donation through etransfer or at the events.

Much love and hope,