Storytelling is good for us

Nobody knows what dystopian futures lie ahead and whether stories will be denuded of their humanity as Artificial Intelligence takes on a new role as storyteller. For now, though, we must continue telling our stories, try to pass them down generations, hopefully learn from them. 

Sharing our stories

In my previous blog-post, I highlighted why storytelling is such a powerful medium. We shared details on the earliest storytellers and how storytelling helps us derive meaning from our otherwise complicated lives.

I also highlighted the wonderful wisdom of Elias Canetti who, in referring to the power of narrating our own stories, said “The act of naming is the great and solemn consolation of mankind”. Naming, or to put it another way, acknowledging and if need be confronting our stories – what we have done, who we are in the world – can bring great relief. Even closure.

Did you keep a diary when you grew up?

Maybe you didn’t have quite the same growing pains as author Sue Townsend’s fictional teenager, Adrian Mole, forever pining over Pandora. But perhaps you soldiered on and kept a diary nevertheless. If so, did you write to keep yourself company? Who was your audience? Were you like Anne Frank, writing to a beloved (but imaginary) friend? Perhaps like most diarists, you never intended anyone to read your story.

I know I didn’t. I didn’t start writing a diary until I was around eighteen, when we lost Mum and I struggled with my sexuality and the onset of OCD.

I do remember reading it to my best friend at uni, and perhaps if I am being honest with myself, I enjoyed having his attention – my audience of one.  Years later, impromptu, I took the journals to my backyard and set fire to them. The ashes were pleasingly puny and pungent. They contained what by my mid-20s I considered to be too many whinges, too much self-pity. They had served their purpose.

And that’s the point with diaries, they can help you to reach for lightness and strive to find some purpose when all else fails. Some of the very best diaries work on this level, they help humanise and give dignity when life seems to have failed their narrators.

Searching for meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. In it, he describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

Now that’s an exceptional case and not all diaries could operate like this. Diaries are not always written with a literary intent and indeed many a diary has been kept without ever being conceived as a story.

But whatever the narrator’s vision, diaries often contain the core elements of a story. A character (a narrator in fact) usually intends or desires to see some change in their life. They have a problem and they have a purpose.

Stories are deeply embedded in our social fabric

Sociologist Arthur Frank (1995) contends that stories “are the self’s medium of being”. I like that. There are the everyday stories we tell ourselves, plus the grand narratives we like to think are at work and explain our fortunes or (mis)fortunes in life.

Literary critics and philosophers have long argued that stories, or narratives, are psychologically essential for humans to make sense of our experiences. And in the same way we have the consciousness and reflective faculties that other species lack, we have the make-up to arrange the facts and events of our lives and attempt to make sense of them.

We have our stories.

According to bioethicist, Howard Brody, “the primary human mechanism for attaching meaning to particular experiences is to tell stories about them”. Why did we experience a trauma of some sort? Why, damn it, why?

Upside down, boy you hurt me

In my recent memoir writing course with the London Lit Lab, writer Lily Dunn introduced me and other students to the concept that in life writing, there are two axes: horizontal storytelling and vertical storytelling.

What seemed so instinctively compelling and true is that while we’re all quite good at recounting how events unfold (I was bullied at school, I started going to the gym to toughen up, my confidence grew, I got asked out on a date), we’re also attuned to the needs of our storytelling audiences (our family, our colleagues; or our friends) who want to know the reasons why our lives unfold the way they do.

We can easily plot the timeline of our days, weeks, months and our deeper life stories – ‘horizontal storytelling’. But we also strive to understand and seek to evaluate the life choices and patterns that cause us to live the lives we do. We dig deep and look within – that’s ‘vertical storytelling’. Both are often at work in our accounts of our lives, however trivial the details we recall.

It reminds me of the Diana Ross pop song, Upside Down. We go “inside out”, we’re affected by how other people act in relationship to our own goals, and we need vertical storytelling to work out the possible motives; what caused one action to follow another. One damn thing to happen after another. That’s how history works, is it not? We look to learn from previous generations, be it their sagacity or their follies.

Storytelling is good for us

I’ve recently had an opportunity to consult some of the literature on the health benefits of what is referred to as autobiographical writing or storytelling. In May 2020, academic Jussi Valtonen published an excellent paper taking an Interdisciplinary perspective combining insights from experimental psychology, neuroscience, medical humanities and literature.

Valtonen summarises what many in this field have reported for a long time now, which is that there’s a large body of experimental evidence in the empirical sciences that shows writing about life experiences can be beneficial for mental and indeed physical health.

This has been observed in expressive writing techniques where individuals who have experienced trauma, stressful or emotional events, tasked with writing about them, have found the act of writing results in improvements in both physical and psychological health.

Health benefits from expressing ourselves in writing

Spring

Different studies have illustrated the varied health benefits to individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, breast cancer and also fibromyalgia. Studies were set up hypothesising that relative to control groups, patients engaging in a writing intervention (typically for 15-20 minutes on at least three to five occasions) whereby they had to express their emotions about stressful and difficult issues, would experience improved health status and psychological well-being.

In Valtonen’s 2020 paper in the Journal of Medical Humanities and in an earlier paper by Bakie and Wilhelm on ‘Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing’ in Volume 11, Issue 5 of ‘Advances in Psychiatric Treatment’, evidence suggests people do indeed experience improved health on these variables.

Now there are different theories posited why these health outcomes occur and I can’t do justice to that literature here. But there are robust academics working in this field and a simple way of summing up their findings is that writing expressively about the difficult things that have occurred in one’s life, especially if you have experienced trauma or stress, can help. Really help in terms of helping with reported reductions in pain and fatigue, albeit over a medium term timeframe.

The power of story for advocacy and campaigning

There are of course exceptions to every rule. Unlocking past secrets and confronting trauma or retrieving difficult memories is never easy work. But there’s decent evidence, some of it anecdotal of course, but some of it scientific, that writing ‘expressively’ or dealing with one’s emotions can bring health benefits relative to no such writing intervention. And remarkably this can be true in non-clinical populations too.

Right, enough of the science.

I’m also interested in what patient and carers groups and advocacy organisations are doing right now. The agency they see in their campaigners and the platforms they give to their members because the power of their work is in their members’ lived experiences of public services such as the NHS, or the Covid pandemic.

National Voices is an excellent national health and care organisation collectively representing millions of people with long-term health conditions or who are disabled. I so admire their recent work facilitating people up and down the United Kingdom to share their individual stories on living through the Covid pandemic

Likewise older people’s organisation, Independent Age, has been enabling seniors to share their stories and everyday experiences of ageism.

Having worked for and with these organisations in the past, I have heard with my own ears how powerful storytelling and strong narratives can be. Not simply in aiding individuals, and not just in terms of improving their sense of agency or a feeling of being respected and listened to. But in sharing these same stories with people who are responsible for the decisions that affect their everyday lives, be it politicians or clinicians.

The gift of narrative

According to literary scholar H Porter Abbott “The gift of narrative is so pervasive and universal that there are those who strongly suggest that narrative is a ‘deep structure’, a human capacity genetically hard wired into our minds in the same way as our capacity for grammar (according to linguists) is something we are born with”.

Who knows? But this does remind me of the words of Sue Williams Silverman, who I quoted in my previous blog-post on storytelling when she said, “we scrutinise our lived lives in order to find our plots”.

We possess this gift, us humans and we’ve been exploiting it and deriving pleasure from this gift for tens of thousands of years.

Nobody knows what dystopian futures lie ahead and whether stories will be denuded of their humanity and power as Artificial Intelligence takes on a new role as storyteller, as well as driver, cook, medic and thief. For now, though, we must continue telling our stories, try to pass them down generations, hopefully learn from them.

As you can probably tell I am a great believer in the power of story and this informs and guides both my writing, but my coaching practice too.

In my next blog-post I am going to be sharing exciting new details on my forthcoming life histories service to complement my coaching services. This will be a platform to enable people to share and write their own stories especially with a view to recording their life stories as a keepsake for them and their families or loved ones.

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