Storytelling: Inhabiting Experiences, Occupying Spaces

People are storytellers. I have learned this through the diverse experiences I have had through my life. In this respect, people share their personal narratives and often attempt to make meaning of these experiences. There is also an intense desire to have our stories heard and recognized. The need to have our stories acknowledged has become ever more evident as I have started to work in the area of narrative medicine. At a weekend narrative medicine and ethics workshop in New York two weeks ago, participants were initially apprehensive, but yet urged forward to listen to stories. The silence broken by hesitant stories of sexual assault, dying patients, sick children. Before words had formed in the mouths of some, tears quietly stained the cheeks of storytellers. What seemed evident to me was that this group of professionals were eager to let loose experiences and observations that had left an indelible mark.

This is not the first instance in which I have heard narratives made up of stories that linked people’s past and present, and perhaps provided some window to their future. The individuals who witnessed and then haltingly recounted their observations of the NYPD when I investigated police misconduct. The low-income women in Eastern Kentucky who helped me to understand as a Master’s student the complex and mundane factors that prevented them from getting a Pap smear or a mammogram at the local health clinic. The shy young man in Seattle expressing his isolation, as I listened quietly and tried to provide support as a telephone health counselor.

What draws me to stories is how they offer an opportunity to occupy the same space as the narrator. Indeed, through listening and witnessing we are offered a momentary opportunity to engage with and inhabit experiences that may go unseen. Stories shouldn’t be confused as devices that allow us to merge with another. However, narratives play a critical role in trying to move beyond fissures, hopefully with the intention towards getting to the same goals.

I deeply believe the notion that the space between us can be approached in a way to respond to experiences in a meaningful way. This belief has driven my personal and professional work. As a teacher, I rely on storytelling and narrative work. At the heart of this is an instinct to help students attempt to understand and respond compassionately towards others. As a researcher, I draw from different forms of storytelling, including comics and graphic novels, in my own effort to find a place for talking about complex health and medical issues. My personal trajectory to storytelling has multiple points of origin. As I work on understanding my own narrative I am simultaneously developing a digital archive of narrative medicine. The ultimate motivation is that stories provide possibility for what can be done to make a difference in people’s lives