Learning From Ourselves

The Find Your Voice method has long been employing the integrated studies of acting and playwriting, as a way of transforming lives. One of the benefits of leading people through the telling and sharing of their stories in dialogue form, is that — as Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield says,

‘We are loyal to our stories…they become our identities’.

Creating dramatic characters who must reckon with one another — in response to feedback, and in accordance with the principles of good playmaking, (no all- good or all-bad characters, both must have valid wants, and communication is essential), invites them to consider different ways of approaching and resolving conflicts, in the guise of other identities.

And, through the study of acting, participants also experience ‘acting on’ a strong want, and ‘behaving as’ someone else, while their own bodies absorb (and remember!) this empowering experience. As Beck and Ellis, the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy say, “when behavior changes, all else follows”. Through these twin studies, and as our participant’s newly balanced voices are heard, they begin to value themselves, and their lived experience, in more respectful ways. When the audience at the final sharings say, “I was moved by what you wrote”, or “that was my story, too”, they come to further honor the power of their own authenticity…their core selves.

When we write, we learn things that are hidden from our ordinary awareness because writing — especially when safely guided — is itself an act of reflection. Everything we need to know about ourselves, can be learned from ourselves, and in relation to listening others we can share these universal truths to everyone’s benefit.

Making Every Word Count

What a gift it would be if every person had someone in their lives who said: “Tell me what I should know about you”…and then really listened to the answer; be it a doctor, a teacher, a parent, a friend, or a therapist. Mostly we are too busy to listen to one another’s stories…we read one another’s ‘spin’ on Facebook, we text each other ‘the bottom line’ …it is the difference between hearing about a sunset, and actually witnessing it.

When someone comes to see me for Narrative work, I begin by asking: “Tell me the story of you.” And then I listen. And not unlike encountering a piece of music, I listen equally to the words they use to language the experience of their own lives, and to the silences between the words. They weave together in a subtle interplay of summersaults…one illuminating the other.

If it is true that there ‘has never been a people without a narrative’, there has also never been a narrative without a listener. Make time to sit with someone you love this week; ask them what you should know about their week, andreally listen to the answer. To the words, and the feelings behind the words. And then sit and reflect in silence, together, for even a moment, upon how it felt to be fully engaged. It’s a practice, and it will take some!

Giving Pain A Narrative

In an article entitled Post-Prozac Nationin the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times yesterday, Helen Mayberg, a neuroscientist at Emory University referred to depression as, ‘Emotional pain without a context.’

It is this very predicament that speaks to the power of Narrative Therapy, which seeks to frame, and then re-frame, the story – or context – of what people are feeling. In the article, Mayberg connects this loss of context with malfunctions in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory. It is interesting to note that research in other quarters on ‘Reminiscence Therapy’, (Brooker and Duce, 200), has demonstrated that seniors who reminisce, display greater well-being than their non-reminiscing counterparts. Thus the power and importance of (re)connecting people to their own narratives.

As a Narrative Constructivist clinician, with a background in playwriting, I like to collaborate with my clients in a meaning-making exercise that uses deep dramaturgical questioning.  This evokes a narrative arc, based on key phrases that the clients use, right from the first meeting. In fact, I begin every initial session by asking each client to tell me ‘the story of them’;  beginning with the most important thing they feel I should know. Usually this first thing that they tell me, or the way they tell it, provides a window into the most wounded part of their souls.

I like to think that as clinicians we serve as dramaturges (or midwives) to the sacred texts our clients bring. That we not only need to listen with three ears, but to ask the right questions…those that will help them to unravel the riddles that may be dividing them, from themselves. Once the context is recovered and reorganized, the meaning of the depressed life force becomes evident, and begins to unfreeze.

Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise

Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise: This question was posed in an article by Steve Almond, in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Being both a therapist who takes a Narrative approach, and a writing Coach who has spent decades helping people to find the words and the courage to give language to their experience — to weave a coherent portrayal of their dreams, and their nightmares — I might be in a unique position to ponder this!

As a clinician, I am a firm believer that the ability to make meaning of our experience is crucial to our mental health. Equally important, is the ability to share and revise our self-story — to have it witnessed and affirmed by others. For the past few decades I have run Find Your Voice (FYV) Workshops that led participants through the process of writing short plays, as a means of giving voice to their stories, and learning to do so in an authentic and coherent manner.

Initially developed at NYU as a way to lead reluctant freshmen toward a love of writing, my goal with this FYV method was always meaning and voice-making, rather than art-making — thought the results were almost always artful. We began the process with a picture, a sort of Rorschach inkblot stimulus intended to open the imagination and override the editors that had been installed by years of training to spit back the answer that the teacher sought. Students were asked to write freely, briefly, about what had happened — or was about to happen — in this image. I always chose pictures that were free of figures, inviting the viewer to populate this pictorial stage with their own. Almost universally, respondents wrote about whatever was most pressing in their hearts and on their minds: if someone in their family had recently been mugged, an image of a park bench would elicit a moment of violence. If someone had recently been diagnosed with cancer, the same bench was the scene where this news would be divulged. In other words, they picture was merely a can-opener, they wrote about that which they most needed to make sense of. These free writes were then shaped into treatments for plays, as we co-constructed scenarios in which their two characters would grapple with one conflict, and then resolve it…not necessarily happily. And these characters were given fictional names, and they enacted dramas and spoke truths that their creators had never dared to. And across many rewrites, as we in the room asked hard questions about: the logic of the plot; the redeeming motivations of the characters; and the back-story that preceded the moment of crisis around which the play revolved; the writer made sense of their own experience, safely, under the (dis)guise of their artistic creation. And along the way Workshop members learned to love one another’s stories; to empathize with one another’s struggles in articulating them; and to celebrate one another’s [literary] breakthroughs. And when the plays were ultimately presented to an invited audience, the participants saw in the faces of both the strangers and the familiars in the room — the glowing light of recognition. And in the Q&A that followed, they spoke not about their autobiographies, but their process of creation. And they were healed as much by the affirmation that others had identified with the story they’d heard, as the applause for their craft.

Since leaving academia, I have worked with hundreds of people of all ages in this manner, and have used elements of it in private practice. While FYV Workshop members would not have deemed their experience as ‘therapy’, they would certainly credit it as therapeutic — as transformative. Without ever discussing a symptom, or verifying a ‘truth’, members of these groups were relieved of blockages far greater than the inability to write or share their writing. They were relieved of their silence, their frozen positions, and their isolation. The writing cure is indeed and underutilized resource.

Find Your Voice Goes to Therapy

As I have presented my work to clinicians in many different settings over the last few years, I have discovered that I bring a unique perspective on client ‘material’, having been a playwright and a dramaturge.

Clinicians are all looking for creative ways to reduce people’s suffering and I have, perhaps, something creative to offer. I agree with Dan Siegel, [the cutting edge psychiatrist who has brought the science of brain development into clinical practice], In the most recent issue of the Psychotherapy Networker, when he says that, “the most important thing about a person’s history, is how they’ve made sense of that history” — in other words, the story they tell — or have been told. A dramaturge helps a playwright find a coherent narrative; a therapist does the same, and within a safe relationship.

Clinicians are often trained to ‘ignore the words’ and focus on the affect. While client’s tell their story in many ways (body language, symptoms, facial expressions, feelings, etc.), their words are an essential part of the story…especially if the right questions are asked, and if the material is handled with respect, flexibility and transparency.

The Find Your Voice approach to clinical work grows out of the approach we’ve taken to Narrative Coaching for the past twenty-five years. This approach begins from the first critical question asked at the first client meeting, to paradoxical sentence completions, to transcript sharing, to in and out of session writing assignments, to the creation of dramatic dialogues that bring chair work to life and offer clients the opportunity to balance their view of the characters in their lives; resolve conflicts; speak the unspoken; effect revision; and safely activate that which has been frozen.

The Importance of Re-writing Our Narratives

Those of us at Find Your Voice have long understood and cultivated the power of writing our stories, and then revising them. In the Narrative Therapy tradition, our clients are encouraged to give voice to, and make sense of their life experiences through the creation of plays. These become ‘healing dialogues’ in which they are able to speak to, negotiate with, and seek resolution with key figures in their lives…past and present. And these resolutions can offer new possibilities; possibilities they may never have imagined if they had not made the ‘write choice’ to stand in the shoes of both characters, and to consider anew their own words once on the page, and then enacted.

At the Imagination Summit held at the Lincoln Center Institute this past July, Deepak Chopra speaks to the importance of re-writing our narratives. Chopra said, “If you want to change something, change the story.” Teachers, clinicians and participants of all ages who take our workshops are being taught how to do just that.