# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
My name is Salma Hasan Ali and I’m an author, writer, speaker, and nonprofit leader. I describe myself as a “storyseeker”, a word and definition that I’ve coined for myself: someone who gently uncovers the ordinary stories that make our life extraordinary. I believe in the power of our personal stories to change the world, by connecting us more deeply, more humanely, to one another. Through my storytelling consulting practice, I help individuals and organizations figure out their story, and help them capture, write, and present it for impact and legacy. My writing, including my book of personal stories 30 Days: Stories of Gratitude, Traditions, and Wisdom, and information about my consulting, speaking, workshops and nonprofit KindWorks, is available through my website www.salmahasanali.com (Instagram @salma.hasan.ali).
My most recent book is for Nature Sacred, a nonprofit organization that inspires and guides communities to create public green spaces particularly in areas that don’t have easy access to nature. In each “Sacred Place” they create, they put a wooden bench, under which they tuck a yellow journal. For the organization’s 25 th anniversary celebration, we decided to produce something really special. We went through thousands of journal entries from the hundreds of little yellow journals that they had gathered from over 100 green spaces across the country, and selected the most poignant wisdoms and lessons that people had shared. BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature is a unique, inspiring, curation of gems, that remind us of the beauty and healing power of nature and of our deep connection to one another.
“We all walk around with our told and untold stories, behind the professional face we put on. Medicine and mutual healing are about hearing others’ stories and not forgetting to listen to our own stories, as well.”
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
I was invited to a picnic gathering where Nature Sacred CEO Alden Stoner was speaking. It was one of the first events after Covid social distancing, and it was refreshing to gather outside in nature. Alden talked about the inspiring mission of Nature Sacred, an organization that I was not familiar with; Nature Sacred creates healing green spaces in communities that don’t have easy access to nature, like underserved neighborhoods, hospitals, prisons, and more. She talked about the benches that are placed in each green space, and the little yellow journals that are tucked under the bench—an invitation for people to reflect, share, and unburden. My curiosity was instantly piqued. I had just published my own book of personal stories around gratitude and reflections, and wondered what people had shared in these journals.
I reached out to Alden a few days later telling her more about my background as a storyteller and sharing information about my book. We met a couple weeks later and the idea behind BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature was born. It was clear from the start we had the same vision for what the book could be and what we hoped it would inspire. BenchTalk is a collection of heartfelt reflections, culled from hundreds and hundreds of yellow journals collected over 25 years from more than 100 “Sacred Places” that reveal our deepest hopes, fears, yearnings, and wishes. We reproduced several of the original handwritten posts and sketches, and used handmade paper with rose petals and leaves so you feel, literally, that you’re in touch with nature. We produced a limited edition of hard cover books that are handbound and have unique design features, along with a paperback edition. The book is a testament to our shared humanity, and an ode to nature’s beauty and it’s healing powers.
“The only way we will survive as a species, and the only way the earth will sustain our continued presence, is if we transform and evolve “I” into “we”. There is no “other”.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Heartfelt stories are always what inspire my creativity. There is nothing more unique, more beautiful, and more eloquent than the expression of our individual stories, honestly conveyed and captured. In this case, the stories were already there; the creative aspect was deciding which stories to include and ensuring the integrity of the process. I read through thousands of journal pages, deciphering people’s handwriting to make sure to respect each person’s contribution, and gathered hundreds of reflections, as well as many sketches. Alden and I finalized the 200 or so that we include in the book, each one an ode to human connection, resilience, hope, and community.
An additional beauty of these reflections is that these are not quotes by famous poets or literary giants like Rumi or Wordsworth or Aristotle. These are “our” quotes, people’s everyday ordinary reflections on love and loss and life—and they are just as profound, weighty, and inspiring. And now, they’re published, too.
Because I believe our stories are precious, I think the book that contains them should feel like a treasure. That’s why each of the books I write and produce is handmade with unique, distinctive features that highlight the beauty of the stories. For me this is as important a part of the creative process as writing or editing. For BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature, we used recycled paper from Italy and handmade paper with rose petals and leaves; the cover is embossed with a tree and a carved wooden bench is glued on each cover (there is a cut out on the bench through which yellow, painted on the cover and representing the journal, peaks through). We’ve traced some of the original handwriting and sketches so readers get a sense of the actual script; the ones done by children are especially touching. The whole experience of holding the book, feeling the paper, reading the words, seeing the handwritten messages and hand drawn images, is a visceral, natural, palpable experience. It’s all part of the creative communication of the message we hope readers will take away from this book—hope, connection, and our shared bonds.
“ No matter where we go in the world, no matter how much “progress” our society achieves, we will always need open places filled with nature that let us recharge our soul and see the world in a fresh light.”
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
It was a privilege to be able to read through people’s heartfelt reflections captured in page after page of these little yellow journals; sometimes it even felt like I was intruding into private moments. But the beauty is that people knew their writings would be read by others—perhaps that’s why they revealed so much of themselves. There’s something life affirming about sharing your pain and joy, about being noticed and heard, about simply saying your piece. As a storyteller, reading these entries revealed what I’ve always known to be true—that people want to share what they keep deep inside, if given the chance; that writing allows us to unburden and gain some perspective; that we all want our story to matter, if only to say, “I was here.”
The most difficult part of the process was of course culling through thousands of entries to select the couple hundred to include in the book. Each entry captures a moment in a person’s life; each person who wrote in the journal took a chance to share something of themselves. And this makes every page of every journal important; and each person an author of their life story.
“I find comfort in the writing of strangers. I find peace in this shady spot. I find perspective when I look outside myself.”
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
Emotion tied with creativity was at the heart of the genesis, curation, and publication of BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature. First, to recognize that what people write in public journals left out in nature is important, has value, and can be turned into a book that others will relate to requires an emotional sensitivity. Reading through people’s reflections and selecting the ones to include in a book is an emotional experience; you have to feel the weight of people’s words, even when the words themselves may not be overtly emotional.
It’s a creative process that turns the emotions conveyed in these writings into a tangible form so others can see it, feel it, and be touched by it. Reading this book is an emotional experience; there is no doubt that every person who picks it up will be moved. Perhaps even inspired to share their own reflection in the pages at the end of the book. And so, the story continues…
“Hi my name is Ella and I am 7 and I love this place because this book brings all of our feelings together.”