As a creative facilitator, working in Drama and creative writing with a diverse mix of community groups, story is one of my main mediums – an important tool in my practitioner tool-kit (bouncing around with the juggling balls). I believe recognising the importance of stories in all of our lives, and how we can explore, manipulate and extend those narratives, is fundamental to our wellbeing. It is not simply an artistic medium; it is a life-line.
I work with a number of groups who could be seen as pushed to the periphery, inhabiting a space beyond the societal centre, such as young refugees (with Attic Theatre Company), women who experience mental distress (for CoolTan Arts), and addicts in recovery (for a Crime Reduction Initiative), to name a few. When I enter their space to facilitate a workshop, I am, inevitability, entering into their life-narratives, if only for a couple of hours. It may sometimes resonate very little, but for some I hope the work punctuates, provides a hiatus, starts a new paragraph (or if we’re lucky a chapter), turns a page…extends a metaphor. We might shift the story a bit, or we might give them a space to write a new one; either way, we play in and with stories, and can explore and experience the enormous power of them. Thus, for those in the margins, the arts can facilitate the journey from beyond centre-page to centre-stage.
The social importance of storytelling, and its symbiotic relationship with cultural heritage, is neither a new nor an especially provocative topic. From Beowulf to The Boy Who Cried Wolf, hopefully we can all recognise the importance of sharing community narratives (for both communities of location and communities of interest). It is more than the thread that binds us together; it is an umbilical-like rope. If we think back to Scheherazade in the tale of One Thousand and One Nights, with a rich tapestry of stories as her only currency, we can see how storytelling becomes a life-saver. It is also more than just a cliché to say that literature helps us feel less isolated; as Jeanette Winterson remembers in her recent autobiography: ‘I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot [poetry book] helped me’ . Stories can be communicated in forms beyond prose: they are hidden all around us; they might be infiltrating our personal bubble from the headphones of someone’s annoyingly loud music on the tube, or found in a poem on a postcard, or in our newspaper. Whether we are looking for them or bump into them, stories are everywhere.
So, we can see that storytelling, and the told stories all around us, can both help us in our understanding of who we are and make us feel less alone. But they have more than a dual purpose. If we move to thinking about autobiographical storytelling, we can see manifold benefits to personal and societal wellbeing. In her book on Autobiography and Performance, Deidre Heddon discusses the opportunity autobiographical performance provides to allow the marginalised subject to ‘talk out, talk back, talk otherwise’ and to ‘engage with the pressing matters of the present which relate to equality, to justice, to citizenship, to human rights’ – integral to the wellbeing agenda. Indeed, autobiographical performance not only highlights the potential for sharing otherwise silent narratives with the community, in a way that can be revealing and enlightening, but can also provide a vehicle for self-examination. The act of telling an audience our story necessitates the act of self-reflection and demands self-selection on which parts we decide to disclose. It also provides the opportunity to analyse our life as a continuous journey, rather than reflecting on events in isolation; through this it may be possible to identify patterns in our behaviour, and whether there is a dominant narrative that drives us. We can thus gain insight into our own lives.
The power of self-constructed narratives has been recognised as epistemologically and psychologically crucial to the construction of our own identity; in fact psychologist, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has stated: ‘It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and that this narrative is us, our identities’. If we are aware that we understand the world and our self through narrative, then it becomes easier to see our identity as fluid, rather than fixed and inflexible; this could give us a greater degree of control over our perceptions of the world, as autonomous subjects who can mould the stories we tell of ourselves. This is even before we consider entering the world of fictitious performance, where we experiment with role and metaphor, where we can take on a new character with a tilt of the head, and relay stories miles away from our lived reality, yet which we still feel could be about us. Or don’t, and enjoy the liberation of that. Where can’t we travel through story? Through story we can take amazing journeys. Through story we can also come home.
First published as ‘Life Stories’ by Arts Professional, in Issue 253, Monday 21 May 2012