Here is a powerful communal storytelling process adapted from Michael White’s Maps of Narrative Practice. It is based on storytelling work observed in the 1970s by cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff with a community of elderly Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles.
Many of these people had migrated to the United States from the shtetls of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century and had lost their extended families in the Holocaust; a number had outlived their own children. The result was a sense of isolation from the rest of the community, a sense of invisibility, which manifested in depression, deeper isolation, loneliness, and frail health.
With help from a community organizer, these elderly citizens created a community in which they could recuperate, be re-energized, and regain their sense of existence. They did this through telling and retelling, performing and re-performing the stories of their lives. It was in these small story sanctuaries that these old people had the opportunity to become visible on their own terms. Meyerhoff called these experiences definitional ceremonies—the storytellers got to define themselves and be witnessed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Australian family therapists White and his colleague David Epson, who had been using narratives with families, began to experiment with Myerhoff’s definitional ceremonies. In White’s and Epson’s practice, the therapist maintained his/her central role and elicited the stories through interviewing the clients and their selected witnesses.
In the process described below, the therapist or facilitator steps back from their central role as interpreter and expert. After explaining the process to storytellers and witnesses, the facilitator does not intervene except to gently keep the process on track and focused on the central storyteller’s sharing. I call these storytelling and story listening experiences ceremonies of engaged witness.
1. Tell a story, recite a poem, or use the fairy tale exercise to write a story. This builds a safe container and creates a focusing theme for participants in this experience. I often use myths and fairy tales, as they release people from “reality” into connection with their imagination, intuition, and inner lives. Also, these old stories are metaphors for present experience and, as such, are not invasive. I’ve never seen it fail: people universally and viscerally respond to fairy tales and classic myths.
2. Invite a collective response to it. Each member gets to say what sensory images, phrases, or dramatic moments stand out for them. This is the creative question. Not why. Rather, what resonates. Anyone can share. No one has to.
3. Invite private writing time. Each person finds their own private “studio” space, and when they’re settled, ask each to write down five words that come immediately to mind. Invite them to choose the word that most captures their imagination, and make that the first word of an improvisational piece of writing. Give them five to fifteen minutes for this exercise, deciding at the outset how much time you’ll have and affirming that everything they need to say will come out in this time. I often play meditative music during this period to create safety and privacy within the group.
4. Invite reading for whoever wants to share with the group. Again, everyone is invited. No one has to.
5. Invite each witness to tell what they heard in the reading, without interpreting, analyzing, giving advice, or judging in any way. Ask the listeners to reflect back only what they heard and felt—their direct emotional experience of the piece that’s just been read. This is the critical and catalytic part of the process.
6. Listeners, focus your feedback on the following areas without being rigid or judgmental:
· Images, rhythms, shifts in tone that stand out and the felt sense, atmosphere, or mood you get from the piece of writing you just heard;
· What matters to the storyteller or the character they’ve written about;
· Go further. What areas or memories in the listeners’ personal life that they may have forgotten are lit up by hearing this. (This last step is not necessary but heightens the catalytic process in merging storyteller and witness stories, and moves everyone upward and outward into a larger story.)
7. Invite the reader/storyteller to retell the retelling. Reader gets the last word: Ask what stands out for them in what they’ve heard from the group.
8. Finally, translate the metaphorical expression of art into concrete reality by asking the teller questions: “What does this look like in your life? What is life asking of you now?”
The importance of this last step cannot be overestimated. It’s the bridge out of metaphor back to “real” life. It grounds the creative experience in concrete action, while at the same time helping participants come forth from the vulnerable place within that may have been opened in this process.