In this episode, Ali talks about how to tell stories in a way that promotes growth, by challenging the ways we tell ourselves stories.
One Little Word, with Ali Edwards
Ali Edwards is an expert in that very special place where stories, images, and words about life intersect.
Read on for more on Ali’s projects and how to get involved.
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Today’s guest has mastered the art of finding story in the little details of everyday life and using one little word to set an intention that makes a big difference.
Ali Edwards is an expert in that very special place where stories, images, and words about life intersect.
She’s a designer, blogger, workshop instructor, and author of four books about memory-keeping.
If the name sounds familiar, maybe you follow Ali, maybe you’ve used her memory-keeping products in the past, but also she’s been on the show before.
Ali was on about a year ago; in that episode, Ali shared her wellness story, what’s worked for her over the years and what hasn’t.
It was such a great peak behind the scenes of someone who’s running an incredibly successful business, has a blended family, and is trying to balance all the things (like so many of us do), and then also fitting health into that bigger picture.
She’s incredibly honest about the challenges that she’s faced, how she’s found help with her anxiety and depression, with her philosophy on food, feeding a family of seven, her approach to movement, and finding what works for her.
It’s one of my favorite episodes to listen to and if you haven’t already, you can check it out here.
I invited Ali back because she is a storyteller.
Over the years, she’s managed to find a way to tell true life stories through her brand and business.
The central theme of the Feel Good Effect is, “what does it really mean to be healthy”; it’s one of the questions we are always asking.
And I really think that storytelling or finding meaning, putting together those little pieces of life into bigger context and broader story, is highly related to health.
It’s not something we necessarily think about right away (it’s not a green smoothie or the latest exercise trend), but I think as you listen, you’ll hear why Ali and I believe stories to be so related to well-being and health.
In this show, we talk about stories and about how you can be really active in telling your own story.
One of my favorite takeaways from this conversation something Ali said: that part of storytelling and observing is the opportunity or the act of listening to your life.
And sometimes listening requires stillness, a little bit of pause.
So many of you have told me that you want a little more pause and presence, but that you’re not sure how to do it.
This is a very active, practical way to do that, to take the pause and listen to what you hear.
My other favorite part of this conversation (that I think you’ll be able to put into action right away) is this idea of choosing one word to focus on, as an intention for the New Year.
This is such great timing for right now, but even if you’re listening in the future, you can always start this.
My guess is that you’ve heard of the idea of picking one word to focus on instead of a New Year’s resolution, but Ali adds a lot of insight on how we can actually get deeper into it, and not just abandon that word after a few days or weeks.
So, here’s what I want you to do: if you choose a word for the year, I would love for you to share it.
One of the things Ali talks about is making that word visible, and you can definitely make it visible by sharing it.
On that note, if you want some support and community, I invite you to join the community newsletter (it’s totally free to join).
There will be so many resources, ideas, tips, and behind the scenes coming for the New Year.
I’d love for you to join, and there will be a very exciting announcement coming soon that the newsletter people will hear first!
On Ali’s journey through storytelling:
Listen to Robyn + Ali’s first interview here!
It’s so rich and there are so many takeaways on how she’s applying all of this to her life.
In case you want a quick re-cap instead, here’s an overview on how Ali got to this point, running her business, storytelling, and having a family.
Work-wise, Ali has a company that provides memory-keeping tools and products for people to do scrapbook-based storytelling.
She really focuses on encouraging people to tell the story of their lives and she wants to have products to support people in doing that.
Ali has a graphic design degree but she never anticipated that this would be her job; at one point in time she thought she would be a stay at home mom.
A big part of her story is going through a divorce in 2012 and getting remarried last year which increased the size of her family, going from two kids to five kids ranging in age from nine to 16 all in and out of the house.
One of the reasons Ali and Robyn connected was because Ali had started a wellness journey about two years ago.
After going through a couple random illnesses, she just started to focus on that a lot more and started a wellness Instagram account to document that story, because that’s how she makes sense of her life- through telling those kinds of stories.
Ali has always loved reading and loved being immersed in stories.
After college, where she earned her Bachelor’s degrees in American history and literature and government, she went back to school for her graphic design degree, and then married those two together into this idea of scrapbook storytelling after her son was born.
She found that she loved telling stories in that way- of documenting everyday life and paying more attention to how the stories of her life were evolving.
Now, 16 years later, it’s the business that she does and the way that she lives.
For Ali, documenting things, writing things down, and taking pictures of things, are a big part of the way she makes sense of what is happening in her life.
With her Instagram account, Ali notes that if she’s not posting she’s probably not taking care of herself- it’s a way to keep record for herself, as well as a way to tell that story.
On documenting versus tracking:
Tracking is such an ingrained institution of wellness (we have our fitness trackers, step trackers, calorie trackers, etc.)
We’ve boiled it down, this whole idea of wellness, to things that you can count.. If you’re tracking it you either do it or you don’t, you either succeed or you fail.
A lot of the ways that Ali has documented her life through social media she has wanted to put in a story format so that she could share the journey with people (not in the sense of being an expert, but more in the sense of inviting others to come along on her journey).
But she also wants to do it to hold herself accountable to wellness.
She likes that she can look back and compare her life to a year ago, how was she managing her time and fitting wellness in compared to right now when she feels like she’s struggling a little bit.
There’s this mixed piece related to the social media aspect of it for Ali, which is rooted in storytelling, but pressures and feeling obligated to post make it challenging sometimes.
Posting to check a box is very different than tracking to make meaning.
We love stories, we listen to stories, and we learn from stories-- how can we harness that into our lives to get more fulfillment?
When she looks back at her Instagram account, one of the things that Ali sees are the questions she asks herself about the stories she’s telling.
“What is the story I’m telling myself about the exercise that I’m doing right now?”
“What is the story I’m telling myself about yoga?”
“What is the story I’m telling myself about the food that I’m eating?”
Sometimes the stories that we’re telling ourselves aren’t really accurate, and that can be related to food, to movement, or the words that we use to describe ourselves.
For Ali, the process of writing is a big piece of how she processes things, and she’ll include these things; these are the questions she’s asking herself.
On resistance to this practice:
For Ali, asking these questions and telling the stories has always been a piece of her, but it has become clearer over time.
One of the projects she does is called “One Little Word”.
She picks a word to focus on each year, and one of the activities around it is the asking, “what is the story we are telling ourselves, about ourselves right now?”
As you ask the question, you start getting curious about it.
“Reality is that that story may not be true, and it might be some other reason completely why your behavior is manifesting itself in a certain way”.
For Ali, this is not science-based-- it’s more feelings-based.
It’s an opportunity to check in with yourself.
For example, it’s an opportunity to explore whether something, like yoga, is a good fit for you right now.
Maybe you’ve been telling yourself the story that it is a good fit for you, but maybe it actually isn’t.
On the other hand, for Robyn, this is science and feelings-based.
When we are presented with a task, situation, or stimuli, the neural pathways in our brain respond automatically.
And that automatic response doesn’t mean it’s the only option, it’s just the way we’ve practiced responding.
The way to change it is to become aware of the response and give yourself other options.
On rerecording to tell a new story:
This last year, one of the things Ali saw when she challenged others with this idea was that a lot of people noticing that the stories they were telling were telling themselves were really negative
Taking a step back: growing up, Ali’s dad was a hard person to live with.
Over the years, she’s had many conversations with her mom about the tapes that play in our head, and her mom has mentioned the idea of rerecording the tapes that you are telling yourself.
“If you listen to that voice inside your head, what is that voice telling you? Whether it’s telling you negative things, things about your self-worth, or… negative things [others have] said… how could you rerecord the tapes that you're hearing in your head?”
And that stuck with Ali in terms of pausing to recognize what the tapes are, which are repeating in her head.
Rerecording those tapes is the same idea as checking in with yourself, because it’s possible that you need to tell yourself a new story.
The idea behind Ali’s One Little Word class is to provide simple, creative prompts to just get people thinking; she’s not providing a solution.
Asking these questions can be hard and scary because a lot of people do tell themselves negative stories that are getting repeated over and over again.
Once you give yourself the space to actually listen to the stories and evaluate, “is this true”, then you can start telling yourself a new story or you can be rerecording a new tape about who you really are or what you really want to do
“The things that are challenging to us can also be the most beautiful parts of our story”.
For Robyn, the struggle comes from being raised by a dad who was a professor, and having gone into academics as well.
When you’re writing professionally, especially in the research world, you don’t tell a story or fluff it up-- you get to the point and get out of there.
If you’re going on and on in the scientific, quantitative world, that’s not real.
It’s only real if you can quantify it, which is part of her bias.
But also in Robyn’s family, growing up, if you couldn’t get to the point fast enough you’d get shouted down.
And for Ali, that says a lot about how the word “story” can be viewed.
In this case, “story” can be interpreted as meandering and fluffy, versus Ali’s experience, in that a story is what’s real.
“Story is what’s real. Story is what you see in front of you right now. Story is what’s happening to you and the way you’re responding to things”.
And over the years, Ali has learned that stories come in so many different formats.
Sometimes, she tells stories that are just a list of things; story can be a list of five things you love about your life right now.
Letting go of thinking it has to look a certain way, that it has to have a beginning, middle and end, or it has to sound a certain way.
A lot of people get stuck in this writing, related to memory-keeping, thinking that it has to fit within a certain structure.
We have a lot of rules in our minds that get us stuck: you have to be a good writer, a good photographer, you have to know how it ends, or what the greater meaning behind it is.
And not all stories are even ready to be told at any given time.
For Ali, some of the harder stories need time for her to process a little before she’s ready to tell it.
On storytelling + how to get into these practices:
First, notice. Pay attention.
If you’ve seen Jerry Seinfeld's, Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars, you’ve probably heard a little about the comedic process, part of which is noticing the things that are so part of life that they become invisible.
By pointing them out, it becomes funny.
Ali talks about the little stories that are present in her home, and paying attention to those.
Like when there are no kids at home, and she notices that even the laundry room is clean (which never happens with five kids!)-- that’s a story she tells.
A lot of the ideas from positive psychology and neuroplasticity (changing your brain to be more resilient, be more optimistic, have more well-being), are around rewiring your brain to see gratitude in your everyday life.
Our brains are wired to see threats, the opposite of what’s good, and the way to change our brain is to start noticing those things.
But for Robyn, the tactics often given for gratitude, like keeping a journal, are centered around trying noticing things.
But this storytelling lens feels so much more natural and organic.
By practicing through scrapbook or storytelling, you’re able to see those stories in a more natural light.
This just gives it more format and structure.
Another one of these practices that Ali does, about three or four times a year, is called “Day in the Life”.
For this, she encourages people to take pictures, for example, every hour of whatever it is that they’re doing.
With her current take, she’s doing this practice through the lens of gratitude.
Throughout the course of her day, she’s identifying and documenting 10 things that she’s grateful for on Instagram.
“It’s the practice of looking for the things that are good, looking for the things that you’re thankful for, even the very basic things”
On “A Day in the Life”:
One of the things Ali likes to do in memory-keeping is have projects with a beginning and an end.
And the stories she treasures the most are the everyday, basic ones.
She’s found that people are more likely to participate when there is structure, so that might be taking a picture every hour, wherever you are.
“What’s happening in the life that you’re living right now, and what’s real?”
From a practical standpoint, Ali has resources to print the pictures, jot down the journey on cards, and stick them in an album, but it can also just be documenting your journey on Instagram.
The goal is to document what’s real right now, what one day in your life looks like.
Then, it allows you to go back in time and compare how your life today, compares to your life at another point in time.
To see how you’ve grown, how things have evolved, what lessons you’ve learned.
Having this practice has helped Ali build resiliency and make sense of the harder times, like going through a divorce.
On “One Little Word”:
This practice started as an alternative to resolutions.
The idea to choose one word to focus on for the calendar year is really the heart of it.
Each year, Ali sits with herself and thinks about her intentions for the coming year, what she wants to focus on, be curious about, or investigate more.
This year, Ali’s word was “space”.
She wanted to investigate questions about the physical space she lives in and the physical space her body takes up.
One year she focused on “light”, and another was “open”.
She uses it as an opportunity to look up quotes and tell stories themed around that word to figure out what happens if she spends a year focusing on that one little word.
Ali leads a class along with the practice with monthly prompts to make it easy to return to the word, rather than making a resolution and forgetting about it.
About a year ago, we had a Feel Good Effect episode on goal flipping.
Instead of being 100% goal-focused and you’re either meeting the goal or not, you can flip it to focus on process and just doing it more than you don’t.
There’s such pressure to change everything and make a massive New Year’s resolution, but in this way, we can flip it so there’s not so much failure in the immediate future.
Really, it’s just an ongoing process.
This practice allows you to root yourself into a word for the year and come back to it as a focal point for what you’re working on this year.
This is a perfect example of simple steps to becoming more intentional.
Another common theme on the Feel Good Effect is self-improvement versus self-acceptance, and how it tends to be framed like you can only have one or the other.
However, you can go into a New Year (or a new day), and want to grow but also not feel like you’re failing.
For 2019, Ali’s word is going to be “habit”.
When she picked it, she was thinking her practice would be focused only on movement above everything else.
Now, she still wants to investigate it and see what it would look like to put that above everything else, but she also wants to be curious about her habits in general.
How you can pick one little word:
1 | Pay attention to things that keep coming up for you.
“Listen to your life”.
Listen to your life for the next couple weeks and see what comes up, a path you want to walk down or an intention you want to focus on.
There’s never a perfect word, they’re just words to give us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
2 | Pick a word that you can connect with and learn about.
Pick a word that relates to something you want to invite into your life-- maybe you want to invite more joy, peace, slowness, or calm.
You can participate in this workshop by just listening, you don’t have to take pictures or scrapbook.
In fact, there is a vibrant Facebook community that not everyone scrapbooks in.
With the class membership, are prompts and activities, and this year is an added journal piece with space for monthly intentions, reflections, and an additional monthly activity.
But you can even just have personal check-ins using your phone camera-- it doesn’t have to be a big project.
It’s just about adding some intentionality and incrementality.
On what it means to be healthy:
Ali is struggling with what it means to be healthy right now; her mental health feels good, but she’s not sure about other aspects.
So, we aren’t wrapping up this episode with a bow, because this is what’s real.
Sometimes in wellness, we proceed as if there is a definitive answer about what it means to be healthy.
But, it’s okay to be right where you are and not know.
Ali Edwards' passion resides in that very special place where the stories and images of life intersect.
Designer, blogger, workshop instructor, and author of four books about memory keeping, Ali is well known for authentically capturing everyday life with photos and words and creating memory keeping projects from those moments that pass by in an instant.
Guided by simple principles such as not making things more complicated than they need to be, focusing on the things that matter most and embracing imperfection, Ali Edwards is proud to be a work in progress.
She believes without a doubt that there's no right or wrong way to do all this, that the real stories are worth telling, and there's a whole lot of celebrating to do even in the midst of the challenging pieces of life.
Since 2004, Ali Edwards blog, workshops and memory keeping projects have inspired tens of thousands of people to share their own stories and enrich their own lives through the process.
Ali lives in Eugene, Oregon with her two children and their cat George Washington.
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