The power of stories


I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. After finishing (and loving), Frank’s “The Wounded Storyteller” I’ve been looking for restitution narratives, chaos narratives and the rest in the stories that I now see all around me. The approach of narrative inquiry rests on the foundation that life is storied; we make sense of who we are through reflection and telling tales. Also that the story and the Truth (in the pre-post-modern sense) may/will differ, and that there are thousands of versions of the truth – and they may change every time we retell our stories. Pretty intense for someone steeped in the world of “evidence” and the mono-culture that is modern health care.

Examples abound. I’m involved in a project to re-design our old “tick-box-Likert-scale” patient satisfaction tool. We read the literature on patient experience, talked to patients and designed it with some wide open space for people to tell us their stories. We’re told now that this is “hard to quantify” and “not useful for automatic data reporting.”  I’ve also been honoured to be reading a friend’s cancer treatment story, and to see firsthand how she (with grace and humour) finds meaning in her experience in her dual roles as radiation therapist and patient. The multiple points of connection with what I do at work (e.g. write recommendations for skin care for patients) with her lived experience (using a 99p pot of cream and some cabbage leaves) has shifted something fundamental and led to an opening of new possibilities. How can we move forward and reconcile, or entwine, these two viewpoints? How can we offer these stories to future patients and caregivers?

Moving focus to my reading at home/on the bus/at the hairdressers – the wonderful and painful memoirs of Jeanette Winterson and Dorothy Allison who literally write their way out of abusive childhoods that would break most of us. Both of them equate their ability to move through the world, and their subsequent success, with reinventing themselves through stories.

Compare this (from Winterson):

“I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.” (P. 9)

To this (from Allison):

“The stories that other people would tell about my life….those are the stories that could destroy me, erase me, mock and deny me. I tell my stories louder all the time: mean and ugly stories; funny, almost bitter stories, passionate desperate stories – all of them have to told in order not to tell the one the world wants, the story of us broken, the story of us never laughing out loud, never learning to enjoy sex, never being able to trust and love again, the story in which all that survives is the flesh. That is not my story. I tell all the others so as not to have to tell that one” (P. 72)

Both authors talk about “writing over” – Winterson calls this a ‘fossil record” – a retelling of the same stories but the imprint of the common theme, the lesson, is still visible.  The words we chose, the language, has been used many, many times. No story is truly unique. They move us and teach us because we know them deep inside. Coming back to health care, Frank tells us that

“No story stands alone. Each story weaves threads that are original in that person’s experience. Yet everything that is said carries the resonance of previous stories, because every indignation and aspiration, every expression of despair and act of courage has been told before” (P. 220)

Whether it is published work, a blog from a friend or the stories of our patients – stories have power. And we ignore them at our peril.


Allison D. Two or three things I know for sure. Plume. New York. 1995

Frank, A. W. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness, and ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Pres

Winterson, J. Why be happy when you can be normal? Vintage Canada. Toronto, Ontario. 2012


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