Forward / Story

Reflections from a transformative experience & lessons in building community


I recently had the honor and privilege of joining an awesomely impressive group of storytellers in Costa Rica for Forward/Story (“Forward Slash Story”), a residential lab for sharing our work and creative process with like-minded practitioners from across media and genre boundaries. We forged new friendships, built the foundation for future collaborations, and left inspired and transformed.

Forward/Story 2015 cohort http://www.forwardslashstory.com/storytellers/2015-participants/ -Photo by Trevor Francis
“Let go and let story”
— Matthew C. Mills

We were told very little beforehand by design — just where to meet for airport pick-up, a bit about what to pack, emergency contact information, and a request to bring a gift and to prepare a 10-minute presentation about our work and creative process.

That’s it. No agenda. No formal program.

I had no idea what to expect from Forward/Story, only that three friends of mine attended last year’s event. They all recommended it favorably, but didn’t offer me any spoilers about the details.

As the cofounder and creative director of Foossa, I’m accustomed to being in control and knowing what is going on in my day. I found that not knowing what was next to be frustrating but also refreshing. Fellow storyteller Matthew C. Mills offered the advice, “let go and let story.” I’m glad I did.

Our co-hosts Christy Dena and Lance Weiler, as well as producer Julia Pontecorvo and the local Costa Rican team, crafted an incredible experience for sharing and community building.

The weekend itself unfolded like a good immersive story does, step by step, never giving away too much at once. In doing so, we built trust and rapport with each other. We had the space to be vulnerable and open to new experiences and new connections.

I have only recently realized that what I do is indeed “storytelling” and started self-identifying as a “storyteller.” Reading the impressive bios of my fellow attendees before the event made me nervous. I felt like an outsider and imposter even. But I quickly felt at ease and found my tribe.

I had the privilege to share stories and get feedback about some of my recent work with the Inzovu Curve, Wisdom Hackers, Story Europe, the New York Capoeira Center, and the Awesome Foundation.

During another feedback session, I got some really helpful advice from my fellow storytellers about how to develop and refine my own personal and professional story. I’m grateful for the guidance towards the right direction.

I’m being intentionally vague about what we did and discussed. I don’t want to give any spoilers for next year’s cohort or to betray the confidences of my own cohort.

I would like, however, to reflect as a storyteller and designer of experiences on the structure of the event and how it was successful in starting to build a community practice.

Last week, my friend and colleague Christina Xu from the Awesome Foundation and the School of Visual Arts published a Medium post called “Signal, Space, Structure: Designing for Communities of Interest.” Christina’s post offers a helpful framework for understanding the elements we need to design and build a community.

The Forward/Story experience employed all three elements in Christina’s framework:

1. Signal

The signal is the light in the sky to call for heroes. It is the banner to rally the movement. It’s the story of what your community is about.

Sound the signal with these terra cotta bird whistles from Costa Rica!

I caught the signal about Forward/Story in my Facebook feed, as some of my friends who attended last year’s gathering posted the call to apply for this year’s cohort. I was looking for experiences to deepen and broaden my storytelling practice, and there is nothing more validating than the referral of friends who have been through it. I applied and was overjoyed to be accepted.

Our conference room

2. Space

It took me two flights and a 5-hour van ride across bumpy and often unpaved roads to reach the Forward/Story venue. Some of us came from even farther afield. This created a sense of anticipation for the experience. Just getting there was an investment in time to make the reward of the experience all the more valuable.

The seaside tropical venue provided a magical space sharing, discovery, and vulnerability. Removed from the routines of everyday work and life, we found a space and time to play and to develop friendships quickly.

We shared meals and partook in strong drink together, and through these social rituals we created space for community.

Storytellers socializing at Al Chile, Nosara, Costa Rica http://www.vozdeguanacaste.com/en/food-guide/food-news/al-chile-mexican-restaurant-home-great-tacos

3. Structure

Now that Forward/Story has happened for two years in a row, it has a history and is on the path towards becoming a tradition. History and tradition are structures that shape and offer scaffolding for a community to stay together and grow.

The continuity and commitment of the organizers to continue Forward/Story next year also provides another kind of structure to the continuity and growth of our community.

We have also set up a structure for continued conversations by forming a group on Slack to keep in touch with each other now that we have returned to our respective homes.

Campfire from the final night of Forward/Story 2015

A campfire is the primordial birthplace of storytelling and the perfect metaphor for understanding Christina Xu’s three elements of designing community.

The light and heat of the fire are the signal that draw us in. When a group gathers around the fire, we create a social space for interaction and participation. The rocks and other infrastructure we that build around the fire form the structure from which our community can grow and thrive.


“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you” — Ernest Hemingway

Travel Tip

If you are ever in Nosara, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, check out the Sunset Shack Hotel. It’s where we stayed for Forward/Story. The staff is amazingly nice and attentive, the food and drinks impeccable and the location a handy few steps from the beach.

See Also

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated leesean’s story.