If one is asked the same question often enough, no matter how difficult, one sooner or later comes up with an answer that can be given without too much further thought. It may not be precisely the right one, but it has the feeling of something that does the job. This is where I seem to have got to with The Stories We Tell.
“What exactly are these weekends you run?” we are regularly asked. And it feels as if we still struggle to explain them with real clarity. It’s almost easier to describe them in terms of what they’re not, which is to say either creative writing workshops or therapy groups.
Yet they contain elements of both. I know for my part that I owe a huge debt to the 12 years I’ve spent running Dark Angels courses, gaining experience as a facilitator and understanding just how far writing and stories can take one; while Sarah would undoubtedly acknowledge an equal debt to her many years’ work both as a counsellor, and as a trainer of counsellors.
But writing is only one of the tools we use to help people take a fresh look at their life stories, while a basis in sound therapeutic practice is the sine qua non for any work of this kind. Neither actually define what our weekends are about.
So I look for something else and say: “we create time and space for people to think about what really matters in their lives, and to connect more deeply with their sense of purpose and natural creativity.” Well, it’s better … but it still doesn’t quite do justice to what goes on in that big airy room at Birnam Arts.
I went to a gathering of Lapidus in Glasgow a few weeks ago. Lapidus is a network of writers and storytellers who practice what is described as ‘writing for wellbeing’. They work with groups and communities of all kinds, encouraging people to discover the development and healing potential of writing their own stories.
The guest speaker was a well-known storyteller called Michael Williams. He talked about the many discoveries neuroscientists are making about what goes on in the brain when we tell stories. One of these is that only when we have been able to tell a story from start to finish does it get moved into the part of the brain where it becomes a memory, and so can be processed. Until the telling is complete it remains alive, so to speak, and therefore potentially unruly and troublesome. This has a scientific echo of what Maya Angelou said in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The main thing that happens on our weekends is that stories get told, sometimes for the first time, and previous obstructions can start to fall away. Which is not to say that telling stories is the universal panacea, nor that every story told is a crisis in search of resolution. But when something does shift as a result of a story being told, it is always as much to do with the listener or listeners as it is with the teller.
It’s in the sharing that the real magic takes place. Being heard, properly heard, with empathy and without judgment, allows all sorts of things to happen. Old hurts can be soothed, inner connections fired up, hearts opened, new horizons unfurled, and that deep human craving to have someone bear witness to one’s experiences fulfilled. The remarkable thing we’ve observed over the last three years is how quickly people are willing to take part in that sharing, and how generously they do so.
We had no idea when we set out what powerful medicine the simple sharing of a story could be. We’re still finding out, which may also be why we’re still finding it so hard to articulate exactly what takes place on our weekends. But if they start with a willingness to share, and culminate in a capacity to live more fully and completely as oneself, everything that happens in between must in itself be part of the story. So it would seem that we have at least got the title right: The Stories We Tell.
There are still places available on our next weekend, 9/10 April. See here for more information.