The Miracle of Story

In a recent post, “How and Why We Grow Stories,” neuropsychologist Dr. Diane Engelman gives this definition of “story” from Kendall Haven’s, 2007 book Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story: “…a detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.”

Too often, story can be dismissed as a flight of fancy or method of escape. But Haven’s definition helps us to see story as an integral part of the way we think and feel and live. And this perspective on story applies equally to a book, a play, a therapeutic story, or a personal narrative.

I rediscovered the power of story recently at a play. In Let There Be Love, British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2008 work, the lead character is an embittered older man. He is cut off from family due to his actions many years ago. But in talking about his past to a stranger, who is facing her own struggles, he paints so vivid a picture that she says more than once, “Tell me a story” and “I like your stories.” The play revealed how a person’s stories, or narrative threads, permeate a life and

anxiety, depression, personal narrative, growing stories

Threads of personal narrative

how those threads affect other people. Story enabled healing.

For me, the play had layers of power that went beyond the story told on the stage. The actor playing that lead role was a friend, so a set of personal narrative threads influenced what I watched. Some situations in the play also reminded me of loved ones with whom I had similar dynamics to those depicted. Those threads, too, went beyond what was written – they wove in and around the story, intensifying my thoughts and feelings.

In 1963, renowned theater director Tyrone Guthrie wrote an essay, So Long as the Theater Can Do Miracles. It explores the indefinable bond between a performer and live audience that enables something great to occur. I’ll take his observations a step further and propose that the story is an essential part of that miracle of bonding. And in creating story, some questions need to be answered:

  • Who is the character?
  • What occurred to bring him/her to the point we are watching? When?
  • Who influenced him/her? Why? How?
  • What does s/he hope for in the future?

As we write our own growing stories – our personal narratives – we can start with those questions. Returning to Haven’s definition of story, the answers will likely reveal our “obstacles and important goals.” Obstacles might be anxiety, depression, or a terrible boss; goals could include improved health, a new job, or a better relationship with a loved one. Story in the form of personal narrative “works miracles.” It gives us (and others if we choose to share it) a glimpse into our world as we perceive and experience it. It enables a bond to occur and to grow, along with our stories.

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