A gentle touch to correct my warrior pose let me know Claire Ngoon knew what she was doing. She did not push me into position. She guided me to feel what was right for myself.
The best coaches and teachers, like Claire, help their students reach their own conclusions, so the lessons are more likely to stick. Discussing that topic after our first group class, I was sold on private lessons.
Plus, the price was right. Claire would teach me an hour per week in exchange for my marketing advice and writing coaching.
The first private lesson was laughable, due to my basketball-ravaged ankles and arthritic knees. Although I had taken a few dozen Bikram and hot vinyasa flow classes at other studios over the years, I could not enter some of the poses Claire led, even one as simple as kneeling and then sitting on my heels with my feet extended behind me.
She deemed that pose important given my intention that yoga help me run hills more efficiently, which would decrease pain and increase the physical, mental and emotional benefits of both the running and the yoga. We spent much of the first class slowly flexing my ankles to point my toes into resistance bands.
Claire remarked on how little love and attention people give their feet, considering how much support their feet give them. That’s when I discovered she occasionally spoke in metaphor, which bode well for her marketing and writing.
Beyond that footwork, our first few lessons included more typical poses such as lizard, pigeon, and downward facing dog. At the start of each lesson, Claire instructed me to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice,” which is great advice for any endeavor. When necessary, she reminded me more specifically to engage only the muscles needed to maintain the pose.
She suggested using blankets and blocks to ease pressure on my joints and aid in certain stretches. I resisted at first, pridefully preferring to fight through pain. Then I reached my own metaphorical conclusion that, like medicine, I could use a block as a “crutch” that would let me stretch to the point where the block was no longer necessary for me to stretch even farther.
The more I stretched, the more I could stretch. Then, the training wheels could come off. Meanwhile, there was no shame in using the available technology.
Listening closely for metaphors of value far beyond the yoga mat kept me attuned to Claire’s voice. That way, after release from the final agonizing-but-so-worth-it lizard pose, when she led me into relaxation for the last quarter of each class, it seemed hypnotic. I lay on bolsters to open my chest, breathed as Claire suggested, and followed her advice to thank my body for its work and “simply be.”
And, “when it is time,” she would say, “I will bring you back.” She had to, because during those end-of-class moments, I was gone.
Every week, she asked me if anything had changed. I mentioned a pins-and-needles type of tingling in my left heel and the fear that my achilles would soon snap. Claire prescribed a daily dose of Himalaya salt dissolved in water. In a week the condition cleared completely.
Because that prescription worked, it was easy to follow her others, such as “intentional” stretching before and after runs and using resistance bands and foot massage at other idle times. Practicing at home like that, I also returned to the mindful state I experienced in the studio.
Even when travel canceled our sessions for weeks at a time, upon return Claire still could point out improvements. In our most recent session, I knelt and sat on my heels with my feet extended behind me. It hurt a little, but I maintained the pose for nearly a minute. Her excitement at such a small feat seemed inordinate, but great coaches and teachers know that celebrating incremental advances leads to exponential growth.
Interspersed with yoga classes, Claire received the promised writing coaching, advice on marketing tactics, and introductions to build clientele. I critiqued entries in her video series, which expounds and expands on yoga, including a recent video that is much more in keeping with advice I give most of my clients: to use some form of brand journalism to tell your story.
The story in that video covered Claire’s experience of letting a client discover she was fighting herself. Soon after watching it, I went for a run, and afterward, while stretching in a seated spinal twist, I suddenly noticed my straight leg was needlessly clenched.
Claire’s video echoed. I relaxed the leg, and my spinal stretch deepened. It became clear that Claire had used my brand journalism advice to produce a video that helped me follow her yoga advice. It proved a point from one of our sessions: that our barter agreement allowed for greater experimentation in our crafts than we would dare deliver to cash-paying clients.
Metaphorically, we both helped each other stretch.
Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.
“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.
The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”
I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.
Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.
But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”
Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.
An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.
Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.
Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”
The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”
A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.
For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.
Making my film debut as Max the Gangster in The Request was a delightful collaboration with Dania Denise and Rob Carrera of Think Post Productions. Working with them gave great insight into the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail necessary for a quality film, even within the scrappy, bootstrapped indie world.
Rob’s direction matched the best coaching I’ve ever experienced. He provided calm, clear, patient advice that instantly put me at ease even as a rookie actor. I have been on all sides of cameras as a spokesperson and journalist, but acting is a different animal. I have a whole new understanding and respect for what goes into film-making, and I am grateful for the education and experience and what it will add to my future work.
Telling Your Story was the title of the panel discussion in the video below, shot at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World event in Chicago. More than 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including:
Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).
You can scroll below the video for highlights of the panel with a guide to timestamps.
In the first two minutes, Nicole explains the importance of story to non-profits as a means of achieving a mission and raising funds: thus the panel’s focus on providing concrete takeaways for our audience to enact.
Three minutes in, Katie addresses how critical it is to define a non-profit’s audience. “You can’t target ‘everyone in the world.’ You can’t make the most impact if you don’t know your target audience.”
At the 10-minute mark, David answers Nicole’s question about storytelling as art and science: “Every person in the organization and every person the organization impacts is potentially a story. If you impact 500 people, you have 500 stories. If you impact a million people, you have a million stories. The science is in having systems in place to get those stories. One thing I advise is to embed a marketing person as a journalist within your organization and charge them with seeking out stories. Create systems that make it as easy as possible for people to share their stories and incentivize them to do so. Use YouTube, email, social media, etc. as an intake for them to invest their hearts and souls into your organization, your brand your mission. That’s the science part. The art part is the journalist understanding what will trip the wires of whichever audience you’re targeting.”
At 12:15, Nicole asks what types of stories are most effective, and David answers: “Emotion. A natural story, focused on an individual person, who is on a journey that is immediately understandable. Anything that is simple, emotional and can be digested into a soundbite that is ready for social media.”
At 12:42, Katie adds “Emotion is incredibly important, but it’s so hard to define, it can be overwhelming. What you think may bring an audience to tears may fall flat. There’s this rule of thumb if you’re creating a story, and in the process you don’t feel anything, then don’t use it. You have to bring out one specific emotion in your audience.”
At 14:30, Marianna explains, “I want to make people identify. If I can’t make them want to feel included, and look at it, and say, ‘You know what, I see myself in that,’ then forget it, we did a bad job. Start over.”
Starting at 15:24, the panel discusses the storytelling tactics of using statistics to generate what Nicole calls the audience’s “Holy Shit moment” in realizing a story’s importance vs. focusing on an individual. Nicole on the “Holy shit” moment with stats.
About 20 minutes in, Nicole asks about a non-profit’s story “not getting lost in the noise” of constant messaging. Katie offers perspective on understanding the target audience rather than focusing just on the number of “likes” and advises to keep in mind that “we are wired to pay attention to bad news, wired to detect a threat.” At 22:04, David hails Solutions Journalism for going against that grain and serving as an outlet for positive storytelling
At 24:43, Katie tells a terrific story about storytelling, using an example of a gala video that raised thousands of dollars, but then fell flat in the organization’s newsletter. The next five minutes covers tactics in collecting and curating content to allow for re-purposing in multiple channels to a variety of audiences, including traditional news media outlets. At 31:52, Marianna suggests highlighting volunteers’ activities to share on LinkedIn to reach the volunteers’ professional networks and generate interest from new audiences.
Much of the remaining discussion is Q&A covering such topics as decisions on using internal vs. external resources for storytelling, how to tackle a story subject’s camera anxiety (even if that subject is you!), and whether/when/how to try to control your brand’s story in balance with the desire for it to go viral.
Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.
Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.
In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.
During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.
Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.
Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.
Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”
July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…
…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist
on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the
inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.
Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.
Then this other dream came true:
Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.
Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”
Sometimes small talk becomes bigger talk. Settling onto the
bench in the yoga studio lobby, I asked Claire, “How are you?”
She sighed before answering, “This morning I woke up late, and my boyfriend wasn’t there. I found him on the couch. I wanted to grab my purse and go, but there was a huge spider on it. I just stared at it, and while I was trying to figure out what to do, the spider raised its front paws, I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him.
“I had to wake my boyfriend up, and I was like, ‘Help,’ and
he just killed it. I think part of it’s still on my book. But I was so glad
that I could just grab my purse and go, because I was running late, and today
was the last day for that public-speaking class that I teach to the
“And how was that?” I asked.
“It was tough! I had to be a little hard on the students.
One of them kept taking out his tablet. I told him twice to put it away. I was
going to take it away from him, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to confiscate
things. Anyway, I just had him come sit next to me.
“Then this other boy, he’s really smart, but he doesn’t do the work. They were all supposed to give their final speeches today, and he wasn’t ready, but I told him he had to do it anyway. He was going to have to improvise, and he did it, and he nailed it. It was so good.
“I explained to the class that it’s better to be prepared,
but sometimes in life that’s just not possible, so you just do the best you
can, and sometimes it works out like it did today. So, I made it through the
end of the class, and I was happy for that boy, and still kind of stressed from
the other one who kept playing with his tablet. When class ended, they were the
first two out, and I was holding the door open for all the other students, and
then those two boys, one at a time, both came back and wanted to give me a hug.
So, now I’m here on kind of a high, ready to lead your yoga session.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “I had something like that happen in
a middle-school writing class that I taught…”
Then I stopped – it was Claire’s moment—and pivoted. “It’s great when stuff like that happens. That’s why as a writing coach, I was happy to get your email last night with your blog ideas. Two of them intrigued me a lot: the one about what yoga instructors can learn from the dog whisperer, and the one about the real meaning of karma.”
By then, I’d removed my shoes and socks, and finished some
stretches. Claire started toward the studio, and said over her shoulder, “Let’s
talk about that after class.”
I followed her and unrolled my mat. She brought blocks and
bolsters and resistance bands. Once she started instruction, all the spider and
speech-class excitement drained from her voice. Her ability to calm herself helped
me trust that she could lead me to calm myself. I fell into the easy rhythm of
breath she prescribed.
Most yoga instructors encourage us to remain present. Claire says to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice.” That phrasing resonates, along with how she says it. But, in this lesson, mid-Happy Baby, my mind wandered to writing instruction, and after “namaste” I told Claire my thoughts.
“What you said about the spider was eloquent. You tell me you struggle with writing, but you have tremendous access to language. The way you described the spider – ‘raising its front paws,’ you said, and then you corrected yourself, ‘I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him’ – that’s incredible description. You have the words, and it’s just a matter of writing them down.
“So, based on what you told me about your morning, and given your list of blog ideas, this week’s homework is to write about karma. I see some connection between karma and the way your day has gone.”
“What kind of connection?” she asked, and I said, “If I answer that, I think you will benefit less from this exercise. But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll do the same exercise, writing about this last hour, and next week we’ll compare notes.”