Shannon Savage-Howie is a story catcher, a thoughtful, trusted listener who holds narratives of transformation, sorrow, and hope. As a spiritual director, a community storyteller, and someone who works in intensive drug and alcohol addiction treatment spaces, Shannon has made an art out of evoking stories that help people heal and grow.
“I hear more than I tell,” she said.
She’s always known that story is important, even as she internalized the belief that her own story was “boring” and didn’t matter. In her teens, a mentor helped her realize that her story really did matter, and that all stories have the power to be a source of healing and strength.
“We think of our own story as just an unfolding timeline,” she said. “It’s boring to ourselves, but not to others. Through storytelling we realize the events that have shaped us.”
It’s a lesson she’s never forgotten, and one she wishes she could share with the world. “I want everyone to know: your story matters.”
Her participation in the Community Storytelling Certificate Cohort at the Hearth helped her unlock the healing potential of storytelling. Ever since then, she’s been looking for opportunities to help someone heal with story, to give voice to their struggles and their strengths.
In her work in drug and alcohol treatment, she’s learned to invite stories that often go untold. People who are in addiction treatment are used to telling the narrative of their trauma, she said. If asked for their life story, or the story of how they came to be in treatment, they have an answer ready because they’ve been asked to tell it many times before. But with a prompt unrelated to that trauma, she can create a space for clients to access other stories about who they are. Sometimes the trauma will still be part of the story, but it comes “through a different door.”
It’s a spiritual identity, she says, that she’s trying to reach through this approach. “It’s answering the question: who do you want to be in the world?”
When Shannon provides retreats for other spiritual directors, she always taps into the power of storytelling as part of the learning process. She’ll often have attendees tell their own stories as a way to learn about the importance of stories and how they can be used to heal and guide a process of discovery. The spiritual directors often come away with a new understanding of storytelling and innovative ideas for their own work.
“I could see lightbulbs going off about the value of story work,” she said.
If she asks a group of spiritual directors to come up with a story about a sacred moment they’ve experienced, they often have a polished narrative ready to go, one they’ve thought about many times before. So Shannon takes a different tactic, asking them an unexpected question to start the story flowing, just as she does in storytelling sessions with people in treatment.
“They don’t know the right answer so they come up with a real answer,” she said.
For Shannon, stories are a reflection of a person’s values. As someone who acts as a guide, whether spiritual or vocational, she’s listening to help answer the question: “what helps you be you in the world?”
In her role as story catcher, she’s learned the power of simply holding a story, particularly for those who have never had someone to play that role before. Her calm, steady presence creates a safe space for storytelling, and she is a thoughtful, pragmatic listener who has the emotional and spiritual capacity to act as a container for the powerful stories her work evokes.
The most intense story holding she has done was part of a project called Thousand Oaks Remembers. This project was created in response to two tragedies that happened on a single day—a tragic shooting and a subsequent wildfire that ravaged the town of Thousand Oaks. While these were two separate events, they are woven together in the experience of the people who lived them, and they resulted in community trauma that the Thousand Oaks Remembers project was created to address.
These powerful stories of trauma and tragedy chronicled suffering and loss, but also frequently spoke of hope and resilience. Shannon played many roles in bringing this project to life, but key among them was that of story catcher. Thousand Oaks is her home, and she approached the project as an insider who also experienced that harrowing day. But she found that acting as a container for the stories of her community was life affirming and deeply meaningful.
“I don’t remember being overwhelmed,” Shannon said, “but I remember a deep sense of humility and gratitude, to be able to sit in that space and provide it to people.”
Now Shannon is moving in a new direction, one focused on vocation and discernment. To help guide people to a path that aligns with their values and aspirations, hearing their stories is crucial, and the act of storytelling is equally important for the person seeking guidance.
“Looking back at who we’ve been, we start to see where transformation has happened,” she said. “That helps us to understand where transformation could happen going forward.”
Through this process, Shannon helps people move forward with a deeper understanding of their own gifts, strengths and values.
In her role as story catcher, she has held stories of suffering and trauma, stories of joy and resilience, stories that approach deeply held truths from unexpected angles, and stories that have the deep potential to heal and guide the storyteller.
When she speaks about the stories she’s carried, it’s with a deep seated respect for the teller, and an openness that invites sharing and vulnerability. To Shannon, holding these sacred narratives is an honor, and one she accepts with deliberation and care.
“I want to be this container for people who maybe have never had someone listen to their story before,” she said.
To read the stories and learn more about Thousand Oaks Remembers, please visit:
Learn more about The Hearth’s Certificate in Community Storytelling Program here.
Learn more about The Hearth’s Community Storytelling Training Intensive here.