Powerful magic: On personal stories

Stories have always been a powerful magic. Human beings are wired for them. I love them. The story we choose to tell about ourselves is a kind of spell, a way to write upon the world. Much of my work over the last thirteen years has been about stories and people and making stories visible that might otherwise have been unheard. But what if the narrative ‘tell your story; change the world’ is itself another story, one that might be true or might not?

Cutting through noise

Campaigns, charities and political speech writers know that a well chosen personal story as a case study can tell a story more effectively than pages of facts and figures. They cut through the noise. Journalists, filmmakers and TV news crews know that such human interest can make or break a story. These personal stories, we hope, make issues feel human-sized and bring them to life.

In mental health, the area in which I spend most of my time, people are encouraged to speak in public about their experiences in the effort to dispel mental health stigma. We step up like soldiers, ready to do our duty, ready to deploy our stories on the frontlines, ready to face the forces of prejudice and tradition. If social change is about a war for hearts and minds (and wallets); what might the damage be to those who are the soldiers?

Not all roses

Our personal story is indivisible from us; it goes out with our face upon it like a stamp on a letter. Filmmakers move onto the next subject; campaigns to the next goal; journalists to the next assignment. A personal story is one in which you are wholly invested. At the beginning, at least, all you have is something that has happened to you which others find interesting.

Some of us may be selfless in our wish to help the cause of our choice through placing our personal story in the public domain; but, if we’re honest, the motivation is often slightly more complicated. There are many reasons why we might want to go public. We might wish to right some personal wrongs; become famous or recognised for our ability to convey such complex experiences; we may wish to set the record straight or even to redeem our past experiences by turning them into something useful. This can make navigating the wider waters of public opinion difficult. The only part of telling our personal story we control is how we tell it and when. We can’t control how others respond to that story. Telling some stories in public can be actively dangerous. Sometimes our personal story can be used in ways that run counter to the change we hope to see.

We embody our personal story. We don’t have the safety of distance. Sometimes others may doubt our story or question elements of it or find it unpalatable. We may be telling our truth; but that does not guarantee others will respect it. The things that we hope to change may not be willing to change. This can be terribly hard as a disagreement with our personal story can feel like a disagreement with our fundamental right to be.

Taking your personal story into the public realm also makes very visible to others. The personal and the political often intersect. It’s very difficult to put a very public personal story back into its box when a group of people take exception to it. Sadly, having a brilliantly told, compelling, personal story doesn’t make anyone immune from the attention of racists, sexists, homo or transphobes or people who take exception to what the substance of the story suggests about society, institutions or others.

If we are sharing an ongoing story we will want change to happen for us, preferably sooner rather than later. If the situation of our story is historic we may be tempted to shape the story to best fit where we want to end up; to shape it into a more presentable narrative arc with redemption and a happy ending which may not represent the reality of the problem for others. Others may doubt our motives for sharing.

Powerful magic

When someone sits opposite us and tells of something that has happened to them it feels like a window into a life we haven’t lived; a way of feeling things we’ve never felt. When their story reflects something we too have lived through it feels like suddenly finding a sister or being welcomed to a home we never thought we’d find.

Stories can be so powerful they somehow begin to start to telling us. Like all potent magic spells, these words of power don’t just transform their target they also begin to transform the person casting them. The story takes on a life of its own; gets better in the telling until we end up belonging as much to it as it does to us. The more we tell the story the more we can only remember the story as we tell it; not the original events from which it stems.

If we are lucky enough to get a large and repeated audience for our personal story we are left with the problem of being known as ‘that person who had that thing that happened to them’. We are invited to speak or write or broadcast to speak to that and that alone. This can be difficult if we want to move on; or if our circumstances change. We may find that people want ‘that story’ and no other story or idea that we may have. Despite our efforts to escape from the events that have shaped our story; we may find ourselves being drawn back to it without a clear route of escape beyond stepping down from speaking, writing or broadcasting in public spaces.

I hope always defended the value of personal stories and that I have never shirked the responsibility of being honest about the potential costs. While we applaud people for their bravery in sharing their personal stories, we often forget to continue to applaud their bravery for dealing with the results.

Stories are powerful magic. And no magic is without risk.

Mark Brown is the development director of Social Spider CIC. He is @markoneinfour on twitter. He created and edited UK national mental health magazine One in Four between 2007 and 2014. He also created A Day in the Life, a year long project where people with mental health difficulties wrote about their everyday lives across 2014/15.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared at Sound Delivery.

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