Tell Me A Story:  Lessons From Parker Palmer That Can Transform Your Writing

I was still in graduate school when I attended my first American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference. I was not yet at the point of putting together a syllabus for any course but was still interested in attending sessions related to teaching religion. One course in particular introduced me to Parker Palmer and his philosophy of teaching. I still think of Parker Palmer every semester as I put together a syllabus and have used his teaching philosophy in every course I have taught. Palmer’s influence has several applications to writing as well.

 The teacher (or writer) is the lesson.

If you want students or your readers to fully invest themselves in you, you must be transparent with them. Honesty is the primary factor in this type of openness. No one expects you to be flawless. They want to see your humanity as well. Share your life through your writing, and others will be more likely to connect with you, through both low points and successes.

The teacher (or writer) is on a journey with the student.

The goal is not for the teacher to talk nonstop, communicating information one way, filling the heads of the listener or reader. But how can a writer be on a journey with the readers? It is a matter of perspective! Write to share your vision, story, and passion and invite the reader to join in your journey together. This practice may be more prevalent in religion, where one investigates matters of faith and belief and calls out others to commit to faith. But no matter your subject, you are asking others to join with you in examining topics you care about.

The model for teaching is a conversation.

The same is true for writing. Open conversation with your reader. It is OK to challenge, confront, and even bring discomfort, but it is done in a way where everyone has a voice and seat at the table. Welcome feedback. Welcome questions. Welcome doubt and disbelief. Be open to new ideas and alternative theories. Teachers and writers who do so will build an audience and following much quicker than those who are distant and uninviting.

Provide a safe environment for an equal seat at the table.

The teacher sets the stage in his classroom, laying ground rules for conversation, confidentiality, and respect. A writer does the same thing through even through his word choice. Derogatory references and outdated euphemisms can kill a reader’s trust and willingness to invest in you or your writing.

Personal experiences provide the best entryway to conversation.

I borrowed a model from the professor I heard that day at the AAR. The first assignment I do every semester is to ask all my students to write a spiritual autobiography or about a key experience that shapes their spirituality. This assignment shows how each of us have opinions and thoughts about ultimate questions, even if we don’t have specific beliefs, and provides a current assessment. Teachers and writers should open themselves to sharing this same information in order to have students and readers take risks in sharing themselves. The result should be integral both to winning trust and taking the journey together through the pages of your book.