The Value of Narrative Practices

Something I often ponder: What is so valuable about seeing your story told, either in your own words or through the words of others? As someone who adores writing, I find words comforting – a way of organising the messy, cluttering thoughts in my head (hence, the name of this blog).

This weekend, I read an article by Carmen Ostrander on narrative practices in therapy. This article explores different ways words and narratives can be used in therapy and how it might influence people’s thoughts and approach to things. Ostrander claims that this can “provide engaging departure points for alternative accounts of lived experience with outcomes that are unique to the individual,” (2017 p. 56). As human beings, we are quite accustomed to the idea of telling or listening to stories. An article in The Atlantic on ‘The psychological comforts of storytelling’ says: “Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives, a form of existential problem-solving,” (Delistraty, 2014). This is similar to the concept Ostrander tries to use in her therapeutic practices – alternative approaches to therapy by engaging a clients creativity. She does so by looking at few different ways of narrative practice: documentation, invitation, collaborative note-taking, rescued word poems, letter writing, waitlist letters, bibliotherapy, medicinal words and the written word.

The practices that caught my interest in particular are: the written word, collaborative note-taking and rescued word poems. These three practices link well to my proposed question of the value of seeing your narrative told in the words of your own or the words of others.

Ostrander highlights the importance of the written word. Listening and speaking can sometimes include a tangle of words and thoughts. Writing allows you to neatly tie together certain ideas and the most prominent or important thoughts/phrases/words your mind has latched onto; “writing provides an alternative means of expression, and a different way to hear what is being said,” (Ostrander, 2017 p. 62). This reminded me of a lovely piece written by Claire of excerpts from her journal. There is something quite entirely wonderful about seeing the narratives you have constructed of yourself at a particular moment in time. Ostrander goes on to explain how these constructions are valuable in understanding yourself, your problems and becomes a point of connection in your communities. While I think all of this is true, there is definitely much more to be said about the kind of reflection the written word offers us as individuals. Looking back at your words from the past is almost a form of time travel. It gives you a sharp contrast of who you were then and who you are now.

However, what happens when others take part in writing your narrative?

Ostrander looks at collaborative note taking, as a way “to adopt a decentred approach that fosters a sense of joint ownership over the documents and files,” (2017 p. 57). She actively chooses to show her clients the notes she has taken over their session and allows to them to change the words she’s written. This is a brilliant insight into the importance of being careful with the words of others. I’ve talked about this in a previous blogpost, where I question how we can respect the narratives of others, especially when individuals can be quite concerned with self-presentation. Ostrander has a lovely approach to this with her collaborative note-taking. She explains it by saying a joint examination allows for someone to have “ownership of what is said about them,” (2017 p. 57). This indicates that even when we let others take charge of our narrative, it is important that we have the most control over it. The way we should undertake writing the narratives of others is to remember that we are simply a vessel for their voices – let them do the guiding.

Rescue-word poems allow for some creativity while listening to the narrative of others. Ostrander uses it to “capture points of resonance, evocative images, words that zing and sparkle,” (2017 p. 58). She writes out words, phrases, sentences that her client has said and shows it to them at the end of session. The experience she talks about here reminded me of Kris Christou’s article, ‘Words are powerful entities which convey the values of an individual‘: he created a lumen5 video using words his mother said to him. She was surprised that those words actually came from her. However, having your own words repeated back to you in such a way can be quite confronting. A classmate of mine has said that it was rather weird to see your own words reflected that way. Ostrander acknowledges this as well, saying this method has not always been positively received. However, I do think there is merit to this practice. It allows you to understand how others might perceive your words; how they might engage with the narrative you are trying to present. Sometimes, it can provide a new perspective of your values.

This article was insightful and strengthened my love for narrative writing. I will end this on a quote from Ostrander’s article that encapsulates the value of narratives.

“[Stories] flourish when they are written, spoken, shared and witnessed, extending beyond ourselves, connecting to others, in chorus, in community,” (2017 p.63).

References

Delistraty, C. 2014 ‘The psychological comforts of storytelling’ The Atlantic, 2 November, viewed 21 August 2017 <https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/&gt;

Ostrander, C. 2017, ‘The chasing of tales: Poetic licence with the written word in narrative practice’ International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work vol. 16 no. 2 pp. 55-64

Feature Image: Power of Words (2011) is by Antonio Litter shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Presentation That Never Ends (& How We Grade It)

“Picture a situation where you had to make a decision and what lead you to make it; then think of a value you were representing when you made that decision,” was what Kate told us (well not those exact words, I paraphrased from memory) to do in our first Advanced Seminar of Media and Communications class. After that, the class left in pairs to relay our own stories to each other. When we got back, there was a little spreadsheet online, where there was a box next to our name ready to be filled in with the value we thought we represented in our story.

What intrigued me as those little boxes started filling up with different values – why those values? Each individual person knew what this activity was aiming to do. We knew what to look out for in our story. We knew what questions were going to be asked. With that in mind, why then did we chose that specific story?

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone when I answer this. However, I think there’s something to be said about the way we choose to represent ourselves in different settings. Wether consciously or unconsciously, a lot of our decisions is done based on wanting to present ourselves a certain way: especially when it comes to our own narratives.

During this activity, the story I chose portrayed me as someone reliable or dependable. Upon reflection, the reason that happened is because to me that’s one of the things I like about myself. It’s one of those things I believe is an accurate characterisation of me. More importantly, it’s how I want people to think of me.

Everything we do in the public sphere comes with the undertones of self presentation. What we wear, what we tweet, the way we interact in conversations, the kind of food we eat. Self-presentation also shifts based on many different factors and can change many times. Maybe it’s just me, but I constantly feel the need to prove myself as a person, especially when some aspect of myself has changed. This could be things like choosing to speak up on a particular discussion in class, wearing a new hat to show change of style or retweeting several articles on twitter when I’ve had a shift in political views.

In this era we are given countless platforms to curate the way we present ourselves in society. The one thing we can’t do however, is have complete control over all narratives of ourself. I was very surprised at how my classmates were unwilling to write a blogpost on the stories of other peers because it could lead to misrepresentation. It was a lovely insight into how thoughtful and considerate people can be.

I don’t think completely avoiding narratives by others is possible though. Just in this blogpost, you get my narrative of what Kate said in class and of the attitude of my classmates. This is my lens of how they presented themselves.

As someone who is studying media & journalism, I want to be able to tell the stories of others. However, I’m hoping to be able to create narratives that respect their self presentation.

The question then is how comfortable are we letting others write out narratives for our carefully curated self-presentation? And how do we make others comfortable that their narratives are safe in our hands? Because I can already think of a number of situations where I know my personal biases might factor into how I present narratives.

I’m not sure I have all the answers for that yet, perhaps in another post once I’ve sat through a few more of Kate’s classes.

The thing I’m leaving with you with at the end of this blogpost: what was I trying to present about myself with this blogpost & why? Could you curate a narrative about me that you feel is fair? (I don’t actually want to know the answers, just a thing to ponder).