We all have stories: stories about ourselves, stories about our parents, siblings, children, our own childhoods, about our trajectories in life, about our “failures” and “successes.” Oftentimes we are not even aware of these stories, so deeply embedded are they in our subconscious. The concept of “story” implies a beginning and an end. If we are living a story, we are well-advised to know where it’s going so that we don’t suffer a tragic or unsatisfying ending—or present.
There’s another element to narrative that is relevant to my work. In recent years the therapeutic and psychiatric communities have come to realize the impact that narrative can have on trauma. Trauma can mean different things for different people; witnessing a horrific act of violence might not traumatize someone whereas the illness of a pet might. Many different elements make up our resilience or susceptibility to trauma. Regardless, trauma is a fragmenting, chaotic, confusing and disorienting experience for the mind. The act of telling the story of the trauma—of narrating—necessitates the ordering of the event(s), the taking back of control by coming to fully face and comprehend it.
In some ways, I believe that all counseling is about either working through one’s traumas or building resilience to future events. Storytelling and narrative—in written form, out loud, or via other media—comprises much of the work in therapy.
Obviously, as an author and instructor, this approach makes sense to me. My first day as a teaching fellow at UNC I was presented with three student essays for workshop the next day: one was by a young man who held his best friend as he bled out from a stray bullet. Another was by a young man who was repeatedly raped by a family member growing up. The third was about surfing.
I was very anxious but those young people taught me something that stuck with me through the years: they needed to create their stories and have them witnessed. Then they were on the road to true healing.