“Helping Others Tell Their Story,” with Cami Ostman
Amanda: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, an interview show where we hear personal stories that have universal impact. My name is Amanda Stubbert, I’m your host, and I am the alumni director at Seattle Pacific University. This is my producer.
Kyle: My name is Kyle Brown, and I am an alumni of Seattle Pacific University.
Amanda: I am also an alum of Seattle Pacific, and I’m a current parent. So we’re pretty attached to this place. But the best part of our job is that we get to hear these stories that actually change lives. So whether you are working out or sitting at your desk pretending to work, sit back and relax. Let’s tell some stories.
Amanda: With us today is Cami Ostman, an author, writing coach, and therapist who has dedicated her life to helping others tell and understand their own personal story. If you have a story to tell, then this is the episode for you. Cami is the author of the quest memoir Second Wind: One Woman’s Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents, and the co-editor of two anthologies of memoirs. She has coached hundreds of writers of all ages through the completion of projects varying in length from short poems to very, very long books. She has a passion for story. As a therapist, she received her MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from SPU in 2000, and, as a writer, Cami excels at helping people figure out what it is they really have to say. Her gift is to break down the daunting tasks in life into manageable, bite-size pieces for people so they can experience success. Cami, thank you for joining us today.
Cami: I’m so happy to be here, Amanda. Thank you for inviting me.
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. I love your writing. You are one of my favorite writers of all time.
Cami: Thank you.
Amanda: I’m just going to say that. I’m just going to be honest about that. Did you always want to be a writer?
Cami: Oh, yes. Probably since I was about 10 years old, when my family took a trip to the ocean. ‘Cause you know, I lived on the Puget Sound, so you see the salt water but you don’t see the ocean unless you go around the peninsula. And I remember I walked out onto the beach by myself, and I saw the ocean and I heard the roar of it, and I was so overwhelmed with the whole idea of this massive body of water, and the breeze in the air and the smell of it. So I ran back to the tent and I wrote an ABAB rhymed poem, and that was the end. I came home and I announced to everyone that I was going to be a writer, to which everyone said, “Yeah, but how are you going to make money?” As usual. Except for my Uncle Bruce. My Uncle Bruce had always wanted to be a writer too. And he got me — I think for my birthday or Christmas — he got me the gift of a year subscription to The Writer magazine.
“I came home and I announced to everyone that I was going to be a writer, to which everyone said, ‘Yeah, but how are you going to make money?'”
Amanda: That’s funny. Most 10 year olds would say what in the world are you giving me?
Cami: No. I was so excited in the middle of the month, when I knew it was coming, I would run out to the post box and look for it. I didn’t really understand much of what was in there. Plot points and scenic depiction and all those things that I now teach. But at the time, I was just super excited to be thought of as a writer by somebody.
Amanda: Right. Isn’t that amazing how we can encourage children, so easily, really, by just not discouraging them?
Amanda: How much encouragement that gives them for the future.
Cami: One person believing what you say when you’re a child makes such a difference. Yeah.
Amanda: Yes. When I was in fifth grade — you saying the ABAB poem — when I was in fifth grade, our teacher made us journal on a regular basis. And it was not something I liked to do, because I was a terrible speller. And I just felt like I didn’t want to take the time. So in order to write less for each of my journal entries, I would write a poem because I discovered he thought that was great. I thought I was getting away with something.
Cami: Right. Same number of lines, right?
Amanda: Yes. I thought I was getting away with something, ‘cause I was using fewer words but still getting a good grade. And yet this teacher was quietly giggling that he was getting me to write poetry.
Cami: That’s great.
Amanda: And I still have one, because in third grade, it included the line, “But, alas, I cannot.”
Cami: “But, alas.”
Amanda: Clearly trying to sound old.
Cami: When I go back through old journal entries and old pieces of writing, it’s so fun to see how wise I thought I sounded then.
Amanda: But it’s a place to grow, right? You have to start somewhere.
Cami: It is, yeah. We find our voice as we go.
Amanda: That reminds — I feel like I’m jumping ahead in our story here — but that reminds me of what you have described as your favorite quote many times. Do you want to tell us about that?
Cami: Yeah, sure. One of my favorite quotes is by the theologian G.K. Chesterton, where he says that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. And I really love that quote. I know that he meant it in one sense. What I mean is that if you love to do something, you should be doing that thing, whether or not the quality of that thing is brilliant or perfect. So if you love to write, if you love to sing — I’m well known for loving karaoke, and I cannot hold a tune, but it does not matter. I don’t even need to be drinking, like a lot of people do.
“If you love to do something, you should be doing that thing, whether or not the quality of that thing is brilliant or perfect.”
Amanda: Right. Because I think it’s two things, isn’t it? It’s if you love it, do it anyway, ‘cause it’s for you, not just for the rest of the world. But also, if you can’t start badly, you will never get to the point where you’re good.
Cami: Right. That’s a fact. The one thing that I always talk about with writers is that you have to have that cruddy first draft. You really have to sit down and write. I like to invite people to make a list of scenes and then sit down and write. And as you write, you’re excavating the clay from the ground that will become the material for whatever you finally turn out. Everything that you’ve read that you’ve loved, my book, anybody else’s book, Mark Twain — everything that you’ve read does not represent good writing. It represents good revisions.
Amanda: Right. Work. Good work.
Cami: Good work.
Amanda: yes. The hard work. Who’s the one that said, if it’s your first draft, that’s not writing, that’s typing?
Cami: Oh, I don’t know who said that. That’s great.
Amanda: I’ll have to look that up. If you’re listening to this and you know who said that, let us know.
Cami: Put it down in the comments.
Amanda: Yes, there you go. So Cami, your book, Second Wind, it’s such a journey, figuratively and-
Amanda: Literally. And every time I tell someone the name of your book, Seven Marathons, Seven Continents, inevitably their next comment is, “Even Antarctica?”
Amanda: And it was.
Cami: Yes. Even Antarctica, yeah.
Amanda: I always go, “That’s seven, yes. She didn’t invent a new one. It’s all seven.” But there’s so — as with all good books, there’s so many little stories within the larger story. Can you just tell us one? Just bring us into that world of Cami and her journey around the world.
Cami: Sure. Okay. How about a gross one?
Amanda: We’ll take it.
Cami: All right. So before I ran the race in South Africa, which was in a national park called West Coast National Park, I got sick. So like two days before the race, my stomach gurgled, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I need not tell you more.
Amanda: Bad things.
Cami: Bad things happened. And I was quite sick. I had a fever and really couldn’t keep anything down. This was enough time that I should have been able to recover from it, but when I woke up on the morning of the race, I still was compromised, let’s just say. Later, I realized I probably should not have run that race, for sure. But I traveled quite a way to do it, and I was in South Africa. So I went to the starting line anyway, and as I went, I literally barely put one foot in front of another for about five hours. You know I’m a back of the packer, so these things don’t go quickly for me. And yeah, there’s no trees at all. No shade whatsoever. And need I tell you, when I needed to take care of things, it was really embarrassing out there on the field. Also, they ran out of water on that route. So we’re running in the hot, probably 101 degrees. Here I’ve got this stomach doing all kinds of ridiculous things.
Cami: So when we finally get to the very end of the race — maybe it’s two miles before the end, so we’re at mile 24, for example — and I turn the corner and there’s this hill. This hill beyond description. You can see it weaving up the mountainside, and it’s literally two miles long. And I just burst out into tears at the foot of the hill, and some guy that was running next to me — kind of a heavyset fellow who didn’t speak English — he was watching me cry and we were chugging up this hill together, ever so slowly. And he kept turning to me and shouting in his language, shouting at me. And I don’t know what he was saying, but I like to think that he was saying, “Girl, you can do this! Come on! One foot in front of the other!” We finished that race together, and I collapsed on the ground. And they had run out of medals when I got to the end.
“We finished that race together, and I collapsed on the ground.”
Amanda: No! Oh, okay. So a low point on the journey.
Cami: But you know, when you have a low point in the journey and you survive to tell the story, you really feel tough. Really tough. Henry James has a quote that says, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.” So when you have an experience like that, as a writer, part of you is saying, “Oh, this is hard. This is so hard.” And another part of you is saying, “This is going to be a great story.”
Amanda: Absolutely. I remember telling one of my teenagers, who was really struggling with a certain teacher, that she has a choice between suffering and just watching the minutes tick by till this class was over, or she could take it as basically food for a monologue someday. Her stand-up routine. And make this something that’s going to make other people laugh for years to come. And we had a good time turning that experience into some fun material for her.
Cami: Yeah, every trouble is a potential story arc.
Amanda: Right. That you have then for the rest of your life.
Cami: You do.
Amanda: One moment of pain can be a triumph for a very long time to come.
Cami: Right. Which is not to diminish pain in people’s lives. As a therapist, I know that there’s some pretty deep pain, and no story at the end is worth what you might go through. But in this case, for me, it wasn’t so serious. Although my doctor did admonish me at the end. She said, “You really should not have done that.”
Amanda: Right. I was actually going to say something along those lines. Ladies and gentlemen, do not try this at home.
Amanda: Or in South Africa.
Cami: Or in South Africa, or anywhere.
Amanda: You just brought up being a therapist. How does your experience as a writer inform your experience as a therapist? And I would guess it’s cyclical, and your experience as a therapist is informing who you are as a writer. Let’s talk about that for a little bit.
Cami: Well, for me, it’s all story. It’s all what we’re grappling with in our lives — as a therapist, what people are grappling with in their lives, is how they’re telling themselves the story. So a lot of the pain that we experience, not all of it, but a lot of the pain that we experience comes from what we think about what happened to us. And so a lot of what I’m doing in therapy is working with the way people have narrated the events in their lives to themselves, and whether or not they’re able to find another storyline inside of some of those really difficult, hard things. One thing that I think creates a lot of pain for people is that something happened in the past, and they’re reviewing it over and over and over again. And the conclusions that they’re coming up with are painful. Like, “I’m not worthy of love,” or “I deserved to be abused,” or “I can’t keep myself safe.” Things like that.
“A lot of what I’m doing in therapy is working with the way people have narrated the events in their lives to themselves.”
Amanda: So let’s take the story you just told. You did something that was probably not very wise physically, right? Your doctor was not excited about that. It caused a lot of pain, probably took some time to recover. So as you tell that story and think back on that story, you could think, “I do not make wise decisions. I almost killed myself, and I’m a very weak person because I should have been able to recover more quickly from the flu.” Or you can say, “I’m a survivor. I’m determined. I will get to the end of every race, no matter what’s put in front of me.”
Cami: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I dug really deep to finish that race. I also made a connection with somebody in the moment, running up that hill. I found ways of taking care of myself along the route. I had pre-planned by bringing water. A lot of people hadn’t. So I wasn’t counting on the aid stations to support me. So I’m independent. And I had to push through some shame there at one point.
Amanda: Yeah. Even — as we’re using this story as an example — I even love that in the moment, you had no idea what this man who was running alongside of you — you really had no idea what he was yelling at you. And you had a choice. You could choose to say, he’s saying, “You don’t belong here, give up now.” Or, he’s saying, “You can do this, girl, let’s go. We’re going to finish together.” And I love that even though he was speaking another language, it was, very literally, you had to choose to decide what he was saying. But even when people are using words in a language we understand, we still are choosing the motives behind what people are saying to us. And we’re still reading in between the lines.
Cami: Yeah. That’s so funny. I was just talking to a friend of mine who had an interaction, and she was telling me about the interaction. And she decided this person was just so rude. And I’m like, “Well, how did you know the person was rude?” And she describes the look on the person’s face. I’m like, “They could have just had gas.” “No no no, they were rude.” So we do this all the time. We’re making things up and telling stories about other people, and about ourselves. So that creates a lot of pain.
Cami: So both in the therapy room and in working with my writing clients, I’m working with people on how they tell the story. And one of my main focuses is, can you turn yourself into the hero or the heroine of your story? I feel like that’s really important for transformation, that each of us can find a way, through the hero’s journey. We can find the elixir, the thing that will bring healing, that will bring strength, that will bring wisdom to other people. And we can emerge from the story as the hero, even if we started out as the victim.
“We can emerge from the story as the hero, even if we started out as the victim.”
Amanda: Right. I just want to clarify for people who are hearing this for the first time, that you are not advocating changing facts.
Cami: That’s correct.
Amanda: This isn’t fake news. You’re advocating changing your perspective on the facts.
Cami: Yeah. I’m advocating that we work with the meaning we make, out of the things that happen to us. I think that there can be a lot of damage done in denial of what happened. I think it’s well known that with addiction, a lot of people go through a period of denial where they can’t see their loved one as addicted, or they can’t see the addiction in their own lives. And I think denial can do a lot of damage. So once someone is safe on the other side of a scary, difficult, dangerous event, then we’re doing the meaning making. In the moment of that event, we’re just trying to survive, as it should be.
Amanda: Sure. For those of you who haven’t met Cami in person, I find you one of the most light-filled, happy, shiny people — and I mean that in the best possible way. I suppose happy and shiny could be — see? Narrative, right? Could be seen as-negative.
Cami: Thank you.
Amanda: I’m saying, very positively, you are so full of light and yet you spend so much of your life dealing with and making meaning of some hard things that people have gone through, as an editor, as a writing coach, as a therapist. People are constantly coming to you and saying, here’s the worst thing that happened to me, and laying it at your feet. How do you deal with that? How do you continue to be the light when that’s what you do?
Cami: Yeah. Well, thank you for that compliment, first of all. That’s really sweet. I’m happy to know that you see me that way. Well, I definitely have some dark, angsty moments. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I don’t come home and cry sometimes. People go through things that are so incredibly difficult that crying is sometimes the only right response when you hear a sad story. So I think that’s part of my release. I will cry sometimes. I watched a movie the other day that had absolutely nothing to do with me, and I bawled my eyes out. And it felt super cathartic and good. I knew all along I wasn’t crying, really, about the movie. So there’s that. And then, because I do work with story, I really do believe that most people can find their way into a transformation, where they experience themselves as the hero or heroine of their story. So that’s just a deeply held belief for me. I feel like I’m actively engaged.
“I really do believe that most people can find their way into a transformation, where they experience themselves as the hero or heroine of their story.”
I genuinely feel like I’m changing the world when I’m in the therapy room, or when I’m coaching clients like yourself and other writers. Because I know that those stories will go back out into the world. I have clients who have influence. So I’m behind the scenes holding space for them to craft their story arc, to find new meaning in their lives. And then they walk out the door, and I know — I take a lot of solace in the fact that I’ve changed the world by my work.
Amanda: Right. It’s that old adage about being Billy Graham’s Sunday School teacher. You don’t have to be Billy Graham, but if you had something to do with part of that story, if you were a piece of that puzzle, then you can take just as much pride and joy and success in that.
Cami: Yes. That’s exactly right.
Amanda: That’s great. So for the rest of us, we may not be coaches and therapists, and yet, in this day and age, you can’t turn on the radio or talk to a friend, hardly, without having some of these negative stories coming at you. And many facts coming at you, and many facts being interpreted purely with the negative in mind. How can we wash some of that off? How can we go about our lives and build our relationships without taking on all this negative narrative around us?
Cami: Yeah. Oh my gosh, that is the conversation for an hour. That’s such a great question.
Amanda: Episode with Cami, part two.
Cami: Yeah, right? So there’s a few things that I think about. First of all, I do believe that it’s important for all of us to stay informed about what’s going on in the world. But who makes the choices about which stories come forward? Usually the stories that we’re reading are stories of tragedy, of illness, of violence. We’re hearing a lot of those stories, but it doesn’t mean those are the only things happening in the world.
Cami: Right? We don’t have breaking news, “This just in, someone just did something kind for someone else.” But those things are happening all around us all the time. Our gaze is pointed at these hard things, and while it is important to know what those are, because we need to stand up against injustice, we need to do our civic duty. We also need to raise the volume on the stories where beautiful things are going on. Where victory happens, where transformation happens.
One thing that I really like to tell people in therapy is about John Gottman’s work. That for every difficult moment inside of a marriage, you need five positive experiences, five connecting experiences, in order to counteract that and to rebuild trust. So one thing I want to say is that we want a lot of input. We want to create for ourselves as much input, with laughter and joy and happiness, as we can. And we want to tell those stories over and over again, even when the hard stories need to be transformed into positive stories, like the one that I told you. So I told you a story of getting sick and having a hard run, but in the end, I felt like a powerful woman. I felt like a warrior, like a goddess, crossing that finish line. And the picture of myself at the end of that race is of me sitting on the ground with this tortured look on my face. And every time I look at that picture, I think, “I cannot believe what you pulled off, girl.”
So I think it’s about really engaging in our stories very specifically. First of all, providing some experiences, as many as possible, for ourselves where we’re laughing, where we’re connecting, where we’re living in joy. And then when we do encounter something difficult, really working with those stories on a conscious level. So often, we don’t look at what happens to us or our thoughts that are passing through our mind. We just let them go. They’re not there in consciousness. And the more conscious we all are on the planet, I really think the better this place is going to be.
“The more conscious we all are on the planet, I really think the better this place is going to be.”
Amanda: And I know that’s one of the many reasons why you work with people to write their memoir. Because I think some people have a story that truly needs to be out in the world, to change many lives. And I think some people just want to write that memoir so they understand their own life.
Cami: Yeah. I have a writing client right now who said something the other day that brought me so much joy. When she first started writing her story, she was writing one event after the other of these terrible, traumatic things that had happened to her. And her one-on-one coach said to me, “I think she’s really stuck in the trauma.” And I said, “Just keep pushing her to write, keep pushing her to write.” The other day in the class, she said, “You know, when I first started writing, all I could see was all the terrible things that happened to me. And right now I see what a strong person I am.”
Cami: Yeah. So that is true. I don’t know if she’ll ever publish her book or not. Some of the people in my program, in the narrative project, are definitely heading toward publication. That’s their goal. They know they have a story that can be informative and supportive for other people, and they want to publish. And then there are others who really just want to work through their own hero’s journey.
Amanda: One thing I’ve recently noticed, in describing to someone what the hero’s journey is — we’re not going to get into that here. If you don’t know, Google it. It’s fascinating. But really in literature, the hero isn’t the superhero, as we think of them. It’s not the savior. The hero is the one who allowed themselves to be changed.
Amanda: And I’ve just been really marinating on that in my own life. The hero of the story is the one who allowed themselves to be changed. So no matter how put upon or painful our moment in time, we realize that we become the hero as we allow ourselves to be changeable. And that’s something we all actually have the power to do.
Cami: Yeah. That’s exactly right. The hero isn’t the person who starts out strong. The hero is the one who goes into the dark cave and comes out the other side with a new perspective.
Amanda: Well, thank you so much for being here today.
Cami: My pleasure.
Amanda: Thank you for bringing new perspective to my life and to so many other lives, and to the lives of the people listening to this. And I hope you will come back another time and talk us through some more ways we can help get through all these negative narratives coming at us on a day-to-day basis. But today was very positive, and I really appreciate you bringing that to us today.
Cami: Thank you so much, Amanda. I’m really happy to be here.
Amanda: We hope you liked today’s interview and learned something along the way. From Amanda and Kyle, we ask you to rate, review, and subscribe so we can keep bringing you these personal stories with universal impact. See you soon.