Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Story-Colored Glasses

Sharon Wildwind

Imagine that you are a caregiver for an elderly relative whose health is declining. Imagine further that it’s been a “dynamic” week, meaning that you’ve been run off your feet with things changing around you. Maybe some stressful events, maybe some delightful events, and likely some that you can’t yet categorize.

Pretend for a moment that you can split into three people, each of whom will attend a different meeting, all scheduled for 7:00 o’clock tonight.

Meeting #1 is a peer support group sponsored by a religious organization to which you belong. You know everyone in the group. Members take turns organizing the meetings, and it’s not your turn to organize. You’re free to come and just be. Group dynamics are based on mutual support, non-judgmental listening, and asking for support from the Divine in meeting life’s challenges. You meet in a pleasant, comfortably-furnished room. There’s usually background music, refreshments, and a chance to unwind.

Meeting #2 is a group for caregivers. It’s a fluid group; attendance is rarely the same from one week to the next. You know and feel comfortable with about 1/3 of the group. Another 1/3 is new, in fact, there are likely to be people there tonight that you’ve never met before. The last 1/3 are people with whom you’re not 100% comfortable, for various reasons. The group facilitator is a experienced health professional, who is good at making practical suggestions. You meet in a classroom at a local community college. The chairs are uncomfortable, and there is the usual detritus of discarded coffee cups in the waste can, dirty erasers, and notes left on the whiteboard. You have a list of things related to the past week’s events about which you want to ask the facilitator’s advice.

Meeting #3 is a family meeting at your house. Your sister flew in from out of town and is horrified at the changes in your relative. Something has to be done—now! She’s organized the meeting to form a plan of action that can be implemented within the next two weeks, before she has to fly back to where ever she came from. And, oh, yes, you’re expected to provide refreshments.

You have one story to tell story: that things changed over the past week, but I would be very surprised if you told that story in exactly the same way in each group.

I’m currently reading a collection of essays called Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice. [Gary Kenyon, Phillip Clark, and Brian de Vries (ed), Springer Publishing. 2001. ISBN: 0-8261-1389-3]. The nurse in me and the writer in me love it when a book does double-duty, as this one does. This week I can check off both “learned something about writing” and “learned something about nursing” at the same time.

Just before I picked up this book, I labored my way through a mystery that was just good enough to keep my interest but not good enough to be satisfying. At one point I said to my husband, “If any character says one more time, ‘Something must have happened to her at the old mill,’ I am going to throw this book across the room.”

Here’s the connection between those two books: the mystery author didn’t take advantage of the possibilities inherent in telling the same story in different ways to different groups. As the protagonist went from suspect to suspect, the story was always told in the same way, and the suspect repeated the exact conclusion, in the same words. Something must have happened to her at the old mill.

Yes, I’d gotten that already! I wanted to know more about the possibilities of the old mill as each suspect knew something a little different, reacted in a slightly different way to what might have happened. Sadly, I never got that variety.

How we (and our characters) choose tell a story is influenced by
• the storyteller’s power in relation to the people listening to the story
• the storyteller’s ability to tell the story in different ways to different people
• what the storyteller includes or leaves out
• the setting in which the story is told
• why the story is told
• the order in which different versions of the story are told.*
• what the storyteller expects the listener(s) to do or not do after hearing the story
• how urgent it is to take action or not take action after hearing the story
• how much attention listener(s) pay
• if listener(s) have different agendas than the storyteller does

*That’s why I wanted you to imagine attend those three meetings all at once. Imagine attending the same meetings in different orders. How does each sequence change how you might have told the same story?

Stories are not innocent.
Stories change things.
Stories can limit and reinforce one version of how life must be or they can open up possibilities of how life might be.

Quote for the week:
[I]n the act of reading the reader co-creates the novel the author has written. Each act of telling some portion or version of [a story] is performed before a particular audience for a particular reason are a particular time. The line between teller and listener is, in fact, incredibly fine. Each time we communicate our story, especially those parts we previously left untold, we change our relationship to it.
~William L. Randall, Associate Professor of Gerontology, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, N.B., Canada


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post! I've tweeted this one. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

Ohh, Thanks, Elizabeth. Your tweeting must be that tickling feeling I had this morning.

lil Gluckstern said...

I really enjoyed this post. I'm relatively new to this, but I never dreamed how thoughtful this would be. I really liked what you wrote about "story." I'm a psychotherapist, and we talk about our mythology, and the narratives that inform our lives. I think my love of mysteries is connected to this interest in narratives. I also appreciate the quote.I guess we aren't just passive readers.

Marilynne said...

I'm struggling with revising a book. This helps me get some perspective - and I'm sure the book will be better for it.

kathy d. said...

Gosh, I thought you were going to ask how you could be in three places at once! And, I was going to say--go to the caregivers' meeting (a necessity), have the family meeting later at night after that (since it's at your house) and call a few of the people in the spiritual group so you can exchange issues and support.

Much of life is like the story of Rashomon, different versions. Eight writers would tell the same story or chronicle of events differently, makes for good reading and thinking.