Narrative therapy and the link to literary narratives

At a conference the other day someone asked me if I thought that a novel was an example of a psychological narrative and if it was therapeutic to the writer and/or the reader.

The word narrative, used in the context of describing language, is broad based and therefore complex. The word is used in both literary terminology and in psychological language and although the dictionary definition is ‘a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious’ the word has different depths of meaning in these different contexts.

The key word here is ‘story’. The obvious use of narrative is the telling of a story, and in literature this has become popular terminology to describe the strands and structure of a story which is told via an author. This story can be an autobiography, a biography or fiction; all of these have a narrative. The main aim of this storytelling is for artistic value and/or to publish commercially.

On the surface the meaning of psychological narrative is the same, it means to tell a story. However, this is where the commonalities end, as psychological narrative has a different context than literary narrative in that the storytelling is a representation of the storyteller’s identity. In these terms, the psychological personal narrative with its multiple truths is a vehicle for a two-way communication with the world.

Psychologists use narrative psychology to understand how people relate to the world in the context of their own lives. Their stories may be told through many different mediums such as video, storyboards, poetry, music and of course conventional storytelling. Each story has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and has peaks and troughs; even so, it is based in the mundane normality of everyday life for most people, with the occasional peaks and troughs providing a heartbeat of crisis and joy in the context of feelings and emotions. This is fairly different from the literary narrative that often takes the form of mountains of joy and valleys of crisis joined together by very little normality, as this is what sells books, magazines, newspaper and TV media.

Narrative therapy is used to look at the identity story of a person, identify the crisis and the joy in their lives, understand how this has affected them, and reframe this positively. The underlying intention is to help the person come to terms with events in their lives that have left them perhaps uncertain and fearful about the future. The aim is to form an awareness of your continuing narrative and to form a deeper relationship with both the internal and external world.

In contrast, the literary narrative, whilst perhaps resonating with the life experiences of some people, is providing an alternative, often fantasy, narrative in which people can hide from their ‘selves’ and temporarily integrate, as a reader, with the writer’s imagination and creativity.

In some cases the relationship between the writers personal narrative and the literary narrative they create is strong, as in the autobiography. Even in fiction the personal narrative of the writer can be the basis of a novel. Possibly the main difference here is the audience; for a literary narrative it is the readership transaction and this is fixed at the narrative end of the communication. For the psychological narrative it is everyday life in the communication of identity, which is fluid and flexible at both ends of the communication, as demonstrated by the effectiveness of narrative therapy in reframing experience.

An example of attempts to merge the two kinds of narrative were the recent climate change advertisement on national television, where the media illustrated reality through a fairytale. A child was shown reading a book of fairy tales which outlined the dire effects of climate change. Parents complained vigorously about this symbolism, and this is an example of the difference between what we expect from the ‘reality’ of everyday narratives and escapism of mediated narratives.

So, be it entertainment of therapy or a mixture of both, storytelling involves narratives and this is why the two often become confused. Ultimately, storytelling is storytelling, yet the difference between psychological and literary narratives, from meaning to mediation, stretches the boundaries of truths just that little bit further as we realise that both are ultimately works of fiction filtered through experience. Its the expectations of the story, the transmission media, the width and depth of the audience and where the story ends that differentiates. Literary narratives end on the last page yet have the capacity to preserve a story and cultural detail, whereas psychological narratives are circular stories, generational and enduring in memory, overarching culture and society. Micro and macro? You decide.