Crafting and sharing powerful narratives in Guatemala City


By Ethan Gilsdorf

Editors’ note: This seventh blog marks the half-way point in our series, Think Tanks and Gender, which is the outcome of a writeshop organized in March by Gender at Work, IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative and ASIES. We were very fortunate to be supported by a gifted writing coach, Ethan Gilsdorf.  When asked if he would be willing to share his reflections on working with researchers and other staff from think tanks, Ethan kindly obliged. And we are very glad he did. Take a look.

It was around my fourth cup of coffee on the second day when I finally thought, “OK, I think this is going to work.”

Researchers, academics, non-profit administrators and warriors on the front lines of gender equity work: perhaps they can write powerful personal and reflective narratives. Even without much previous training writing in this form.

But I wasn’t so sure at first.

I’m a creative writing teacher, a journalist and an author. I’m accustomed to teaching students who are interested in writing novels, memoirs, personal essays and topical opinion pieces. Those with aspirations to be writers with a capital “W.”

So when I was asked by Gender at Work and the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to participate in the TTI Gender Action Learning Project “Writeshop” in Guatemala this March, I was somewhat skeptical.

The goal was to instruct representatives from think tanks around the world —  Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala and Nigeria — in the art of reflective writing. The team leaders and co-facilitators gave me plenty of latitude in choosing inspirational readings and writing exercises.

But I worried. Would these esteemed and accomplished professionals be even remotely interested in what I had to say?

If I asked participants to write about sometimes risky and intimate experiences from their personal and work lives, how would they react? Could I get this motley crew to write outside their comfort zone?

Would any of my teaching methods I’ve attempted to perfect over the past 20 years make sense to this audience, and cross the divides of gender, race, and national origin? Would my freewheeling, touchy-feely, comical style inspire a love fest of creative storytelling, or mutiny and outright rebellion?

As it turns out, I shouldn’t have been so doubtful.

Within the first few hours of in-class exercises, I began to see the magic blossom around our U-shaped seminar table overlooking the Hilton Garden Inn’s leafy courtyard. Fueled by copious Guatemalan culinary delights, representatives from Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (ASIES), BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Fundación Salvadoreña para El Desarrollo Económico y Social (FUSADES), Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) and the Centre for Population and Environmental Development (CPED), not to mention our facilitators from Gender at Work and IDRC, all began to write. What emerged in the pages of their notebooks and on the screens of their laptops astounded me.

One by one, the writers began by crafting moving and powerful narratives of their own formative experiences with gender roles and gender norms. Circumstances varied: some wrote about their upbringing, early school years or other early experiences; others about university or first jobs. The participants bravely read their stories aloud to their colleagues: poignant, inspiring, dramatic and sometimes traumatic memories of their families and parents, conflicts in the workplace, moments of vulnerability and triumph.

By the second and third days of the writeshop, participants were, from my perspective, eagerly capturing, in narrative form, moments at the intersection of gender and their own work lives. What emerged were accounts, in their own voices, of transformative experiences — times when assumptions about gender were challenged; when unexpected epiphanies bubbled up from their research; when attempts to get bosses and colleagues to buy into initiatives for organizational change worked, or didn’t, and why.

Questions were posed. Answers were sought. Reflections were reflected upon. Sense was made.

All in an effort to not only pass on the wisdom of what they learned, but also to move the needle forward toward a greater understanding of gender gaps and gender awareness in our big, bad, messy world.

I left our four days together in Guatemala City feeling energized and inspired by what a group of committed, open-minded and open-hearted people from the four corners of the world can accomplish in such a short time.

By the end of our time together, I was convinced of one thing: that the power of storytelling is universal, and that the art and craft of storytelling can be taught.

I hope you enjoy the diverse voices and perspectives in this series. I am thrilled and proud to have been part of the experience.

These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, and his work has been included in Best American Essays 2016. His essays, articles, reviews, commentaries, fiction and poetry regularly appear in the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Wired, Salon, Poetry, the Southern Review and elsewhere. A regular presenter, performer and event moderator, he’s been featured on NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, the TEDx stage, and he has lectured at schools, festivals, and conventions worldwide. He teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, the U.S.’s largest independent writing center, in Boston, Providence and online. Follow Ethan’s adventures at; Twitter @ethanfreak; YouTube.

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