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 they 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. Writing in the Atlantic on the psychological comforts of storytelling, Delistraty suggests: “Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives, a form of existential problem-solving,” (2014). This is similar to the concept Ostrander tries to use in her therapeutic practices – alternative approaches to therapy by engaging a client’s 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).
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/>
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