A woman wearing a red dress and red scarf looks off into the sunset.

The Truth about about Narratives and Storytelling

First published on January 20, 2021 on TenMillionBaskets.com.

I have been collecting stories for a while now. The storytellers vary. They are veterans, immigrants, small business owners, university students, and parents, but they all share one thing. When I ask them to tell me about their experience with a thing or an event, whether working or studying overseas, changing jobs, or surviving a crisis, their first response almost always is: “I don’t think that would make an interesting story.”

These people may be modest, but consider this: some time ago, when someone approached me for a story, I also said, “I don’t think that would make an interesting story.” I was not being modest. Nor was I attempting to downplay the significance of my achievement. At that time, I genuinely believed I had no story worth telling.

The truth about narratives.

Narratives are autobiographical accounts of how people conceive and interpret cultural, interpersonal, and linguistic influences. When I collaborate with individuals to bring their narratives into public view, they are often surprised by my decision to inquire about something mundane. For example, when I ask soldiers, “What does it feel like to go into a community?” they are usually surprised. They are more accustomed to questions that would allow them to reiterate meta-narratives – the ingrained grand narratives that shadow our acceptance of the world as it is. These grand narratives tell us, for example, about the role of the sovereign state and empower the story that soldiers tell about themselves as agents of the state.

There are other kinds of narratives to be aware of. 

  • There are conceptual narratives. These are the narratives constructed by social researchers when they try to explain an individual’s behaviour from observation. 
  • There are public narratives. These are the narratives of the institutions and social formations within which we embed our sense of self and community understanding.
  • There are also ontological narratives. These are the narratives that help us to make sense of who we are.

During my research with soldiers, I discovered they felt obliged to repeat the public narrative. They often discussed their roles and identities in keeping peace or waging war until I brought them back to the ontological space.

Like many other professionals whose work is embedded in a grand narrative, soldiers are accustomed to telling stories about themselves that work to reinforce public and conceptual narratives about who they are and what they do. There is no shame here. It takes effort to grasp the power of ontological narratives. 

Ontological narratives help you make sense of who you are. When you engage with your ontological narrative, you can see the connections and relationships between the public, conceptual, and grand narratives that determine who you are and how you relate to other individuals. 

Ontological narratives often come through in the act of lived experience storytelling. When telling a lived experience story, you become aware that you set your experiences within the cultural and social frames and stock narratives. Nearly everyone takes these frames and narratives for granted. More importantly, the narratives tend to go unchallenged until we look inward through experiential storytelling.   

The truth about stories.

Personal stories, like myths or art, reflect how human beings represent and reflect upon themes like hope, rebellion, drive, victory, or despair. Personal stories, even fictive ones, help you organize life events into meaningful accounts. Stories also help you make causal connections among events you’ve experienced. 

Often, you choose to narrate the disruptions and departures from the expected and everyday stock narratives. As a result, your most exciting and memorable stories are the ones that celebrate your ability to overcome grief or setbacks, depict your desire for a change, or convey your regret for the path you did not take.

The more I ask people to share their stories, the more I recognize that it takes time for people to understand that I am asking them to engage in an open conversation with a listener who wishes to learn from and about the speaker’s true identity. People need lots of time and encouragement to understand that their stories have weight. They need time to appreciate that their story gives them an identity and voice and that the audience that chooses to listen is now part of that identity and sense-making moment.

When I work with clients, I put it this way: your narrative, which is your autobiographical account, always comes from your perspective. As a narrator, you create the context of understanding because you get to choose what you consider to be the relevant cultural, linguistic, or interpersonal influences that apply to your account of events. 

There is an asymmetry in storytelling in that the narrator is now the author of a tale; they control what story is told and how it is told. The storyteller achieves agency by creating the conditions for understanding and interpreting the outcome of the event they experienced. But telling the story is only half the job. The listener or audience plays a crucial role as well. 

The two-way process.

Storytelling is a two-way and ontologically relevant process for both the storyteller and the story listener. The teller actively reinforces and challenges narratives, yet the listener is more than a passive audience in the story process.

The story listener’s role is to ask questions and solicit answers that require the storyteller to do the vital job of being a speaker yet still be separable from what is spoken. The listener must divide their attention between what is said and the person saying it. Their job is to perceive what they hear as a story being described by a narrator, not as the personification of the narrator themselves.

Whether or not a story offers resolution, the dialogue and reflections between the teller and the listener expose them to life as one or both parties know it. Sharing the story puts a human face on a problem, and listening to that story is an act of recognition, which leads to empathy, dialogue, understanding, collective action, and community. 

In other words, as we listen, we humanize and learn the basis of our shared identity through the two-way storytelling process.

So, when I speak with my potential collaborators about sharing their stories, I explain that I am a listener, an audience, who is there to be taught by them, the narrator of an experience. As Robert Coles writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, “Stories, yours, mine, ours – it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” It is not the story's content that matters; it is the unfolding of the lived experience and the meaning-making communication that comes from the two-way process that is interesting and valuable. 

The bottom line.

To repeat a cliché, “We all have stories.”

Your stories represent how you order and sequence events in your life and speak volumes about your readiness for future challenges. When you share your stories, you convey recognition and responsibility to our audience. It is a recognition of the trust and power that you have at that moment in time as a storyteller.

As a story listener, you have to respect and protect the story you hear. Listeners may align themselves to the teller’s view or refute and question it. Notwithstanding, the listener has power. Together, the teller and the listener can produce a new story that transforms words, relationships, and identities alongside the prevailing grand, public, conceptual narratives.

When I listen, I learn more about the storyteller. I learn more about their values, their loss, their goals, their perceptions of themselves, and their perceptions of others. I learn more about myself, my values, and my perceptions by listening to people’s stories. I also learn more about my own story and the different ways that I can tell it. That is the power of stories.

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1 comment

My God , this feels like a new beginning/ world to me .but the true is that, I’m regaining more of my missing self. At one point I feel I’m loss or unable to be what I want to but with this community sharing and listening of others I have started to feel very important of myself once again 😌


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