Who gets to tell the story?
When I worked as a psychologist my daily life was filled with stories. They were poignant and personal, the intricate happenings in the lives of my clients. There were recurring themes, there was drama, there was the interplay of what was felt inside with what was going on outside.
Sadly, acculturated into the practices of my trade, I was expected to turn elements of those stories into symptoms. And once that was done I was to add up those symptoms into a medically acceptable diagnosis. When I worked in a mental health agency, I was expected to go looking for related symptoms my clients didn’t even think to mention so I could meet diagnostic criteria. The premise of this all was that if I went through that process I would know objectively what to treat. Notice the use of the word what. When subjective suffering is turned into symptom, the person gets lost.
During a bizarre half dozen or so years of my life as a psychologist I was required to tell those client stories -- once they had been reduced to symptoms, of course -- to a team of colleagues. We operated under the illusion that this was a quality assurance mechanism to make sure we had found all the symptoms and added them up correctly. We all got quite proficient at presenting our cases so that our diagnoses would not be questioned.
But we were telling someone else’s story, morphing it for our own ends.
Over my decades, I gradually came to see that this process does violence to others. As much as we might rationalize it as being for the good of the client, the objectification of the felt experience of that other person harms. Reductionism wounds.
If we lose the sense of story, we can lose the human being who lives it.
And in the process we can lose ourselves.
Now as an author, I still deal in stories. And I have this sense there is also a set of practices I am to observe to objectify this process too -- there must be a proper number of characters to inhabit a novel of a particular length, the right balance of dialogue and description, the optimum number of plot points and twists, the right length of denouement. I suppose that if I got good at all that, publishers would want my work and readers could enjoy it with the least amount of effort.
But I find I’m grappling with the same issue all over again. Whose story is it, anyway? Who should get to tell it?
I have a confession to make, one that my former colleagues might wish to reduce to symptom rather than subjectivity. It is this: I experience my characters as real presences with me. I hear them speak and then transcribe what they say into dialogue on the page. They do things and those things become the plot of the story.
For several years now I have been working on the sequel to my novel An Incoming Tide. At the moment (or in these months) I’m doing a massive re-write. In the process I’m shifting from it being a third-person story with a narrator who sees all, to a first-person story with only events that occur in the presence of my main character, told only as they are perceived her.
Yes! I’ve decided to let the story be told by that character, Estelle: not by me as the author with some all-knowing presence, but by her as the one who said the words and experienced the events. And the story is not just the words she said out loud or the happenings she witnessed, but what was going on in that troubled mind of hers.
For much of the story, she -- the capable Estelle, a psychologist, no less -- wasn’t coping very well at all, her mind kept going away. I don’t think Estelle would mind that through the novel we know all the troubled stuff about her. Given her personality, she’d be generous in sharing that intimacy with the reader so we can understand better things like trauma and healing. And, no spoiler alert here, when you finally get to read Dead Daffodils you’ll probably feel relieved by where Estelle got to in the end.
But it is Estelle’s story. As raw, and as vulnerable, and as hopeful as it happens to be.
As an author, as a conveyor of Estelle’s story, I am always looking for beta-readers (prepublication readers who give feedback to the author). Let me know if you would be interested by sending me an email. email@example.com.
Clickable links to all of my blogs
April 2023 - Intersubjectivity. Hunh?
March 2023 - A disturbing trend
February 2023 - About being in the middle
January 2023 - Can we have a little heart here please?
December 2022 - A story about story
November 2022 - Facing One's Fears
October 2022 - Transitional folk
September 2022 - Transitions
August 2022 —At the other end of life's journey
July 2022—The problem with what emerges.
June 2022 — So who am I doing this for anyway?
May 2022 - Wait for it ... wait ...
April 2022 — Someone called me a Nazi.
March 2022 — Shush! Don't tell anyone.
February 2022 — So does life imitate art? Well, maybe sometimes.
January 2022 — The two most powerful lines in the book.
December 2021 — About time and being human.
November 2021 — Not a tidy little murder mystery
October 2021 — Flow versus focus.
September 2021 -- It's beautiful because it tells the truth.