Narrative theory is based on the assumption that “narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change”. (Project Narrative). Simply: we create stories out of life experiences as a way of making sense of what has happened to us.
Breaking this down a little further, Baumeister and Newman suggest that micronarratives, people’s narrative accounts of single experiences or events, conform to the four needs for meaning;
- purpose – goals and fulfilment;
- value and justification;
- efficacy – autonomy and control;
In re-telling an experience, in writing out our stories, we become our own heroes.
We need to tell stories of our own experiences. In The Life Story Interview, Robert Atkinson writes, “Storytelling is a fundamental form of human communication.” He continues, we, “bring meaning to our lives through story … When we tell a story from our own life we increase our working knowledge of ourselves because we discover deeper meaning in our lives through the process of reflecting and putting the events, experiences and feelings that we have lived into oral expression.” (Atkinson 1998) Telling one’s story seems to be a way of saying, ‘this is who I am now’. I’m new, I’m better, this is my reformed identity and everything I have been through has a purpose.
The Wounded Storyteller looks at illness as a ‘call for stories’. (Frank 1995) Arthur Frank writes that, beyond the everyday need to tell your story to friends, family, your doctor, “Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she may be going. Stories are a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations.” Frank breaks illness stories into three types of narrative: the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative and the quest narrative. These three types can be enmeshed in a single person’s story, or one can dominate for a moment of retelling.
- The restitution narrative. This, Frank says, dominates, particularly in those who are recently ill. It’s about wanting to be healthy again. It furthers mortality by rendering the illness transitory. Medicine triumphs.
- The chaos narrative. In this, which imagines life never getting better, the suffering is to great for a self to emerge from the story. There is a loss of structure and this may not even be recognised as a story. “The voice of the teller has been lost as a result of the chaos, and this loss then perpetuates that chaos.”
- The quest narrative. This type of story accepts illness, which then becomes a quest: something is gained through experience. Most published illness stories are quest stories, according to Frank.
There is more to this and I’ll be coming back to this topic. For now, we know that there is something in telling a story, writing it, blogging it, sharing it with a journalist, with the nation, online or in print, that is about the need to be seen, acknowledged. Who am I through your eyes, through the eyes of the world, who am I since I have had this experience, who am I now?
- Baumeister Roy F. and Wilson, Brenda Life Stories and the Four Needs for Meaning Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 4 (1996), pp. 322-32
- Atkinson, Robert The Life Story Interview, (1998, 1st edn) London: SAGE
- Frank, Arthur The Wounded Storyteller, 1995, Chicago Press