What is a story? What does a story do?

Over my teaching life, I’ve thought a lot about stories: what they are and what they do.

Initially my interest was in what they do. I discovered, pretty quickly in the early days of my teaching, that telling a story to my primary school students could calm a restless class, produce a kind of hypnotic spell over challenging students, and create a dream-like space that seemed to build relationship (between me and my students?) and community (a sense that we’d together taken part in some kind of meaningful and pleasurable ritual?). Stories worked, and as a young teacher I grabbed hold of anything that seemed to work.

I began to wonder, then, why stories worked. What are they? This led to an interest in the ideas of Freud and Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman. Stories, these writers told me, were products of the unconscious. Just as myths were imaginative attempts to make sense of the way the world seemed to be, so stories were ways in which we gave shape and words to impulses and intuitions that came up from what Campbell once called the unsuspected Aladdin caves beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness. [1] Telling stories, then, seemed to be an exercise in giving voice to truths. Stories were versions of realities that couldn’t be named – and were in some ways therefore inaccessible – in other ways.

During the 90s, I trained and worked as a psychotherapist, and I would often ask the young people who came to see me to tell me a story. One day, for example, a 15 year old boy [who I have called here Joseph] experiencing some unsettling internal and external conflicts in his life, created on my study floor a little scene with two small boxes, and then told me this story:

There’s the evil and the good, and between them is the sea and at each end of sea there are two boxes of mystery. At one side of the sea there are the good things, the sweet smelling, the comfortable and the good ruler. On the other side, there is the evil and it’s all enclosed in bushes, a sense of not letting the rest of the world know what’s going on inside. There are the sour smelling things, the funny and evil kind of things, and an evil kind of a ruler. And also on the evil side there is a part that the good side has conquered, and its armour is being taken off and it is being exposed and converted to the good. And in the middle of the sea, and between the two sides, there is a sun which is a meeting point, not very high where neither will fight, like a conference area where they talk.

It seemed to me at the time desperately important that I understand this story, and that more generally in my practice that I understand what stories are. Were they products of the unconscious which, when brought up into the light, released some kind of energy? Were they clues to internal conflicts which needed to be addressed and in some ways resolved? Were they indications of a teleological impulse which, when identified, allowed the story-teller to move forward more confidently? What was a story?

Slowly, though, I came to believe that it was less important to answer the What is a story? question, and more important to focus on the question What does a story do? As I worked with Joseph and with many others, I came to see that stories do many things, and that principally the sharing of stories helped to create a network of relationships: human, spatial and intellectual.  To tell a story is to attempt to create a relationship, and attempt to mate with the world. As I put it in my thesis:

My fifteen-year-old client Joseph tells me a story. It’s an exciting story and I rush off and include it in a talk I’m giving to the local Jung Society. But then my next session with Joseph is unexpectedly flat, I have a disquieting dream and I find myself wondering if I somehow missed the point of Joseph’s story. So I talk to my supervisor Giles and I tell him the story (and the story of my confusion) and Giles tells me a story or two of his own. At our next session Joseph tells me some more stories (by now I’m using the word ‘story’ to describe many different kinds of things) and the stories I tell him back have incorporated in them some Joseph-bits and Giles-bits. This three-way story-telling (with cross-fertilisations) continues for over a year and I then write a thesis (another story!) about it.

I’ve recently needed to think again about these two questions: What is a story? What does a story do? I’m involved in a project where we’re creating some fiction set in educational settings, and there’s renewed internal pressure on me to think about the nature of the stories we are about to write. What are they? Are they attempts at representing suppressed or unrecognized truths? Is that their potential value? Or are they, like the stories told in my psychotherapy practice, attempts to create an affect, attempts to create (both amongst the members of the project team and amongst readers of the stories we produce) a series of conversations and networks of relationships? Are we wanting to name truths, or create responses?


[1] “For the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but dangerous jinn abide.” Joseph Campbell The Hero with a thousand faces

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