From the minute I started studying how creative writing could be therapeutic, I became interested in narrative therapy. It makes sense, right? Narrative is about the creation of a story, the order of events that leads us to a conclusion.
Narrative therapy is really useful at encouraging you to look at moments in your life in detail, considering why you picked that memory, why you used certain words and phrases, and what those choices might say about you. It’s also great for encouraging empathy, and opening up different ways of viewing a situation.
When I heard about narrative therapy, about activities like titling and organising the chapters of your autobiography, or putting different definitive events in your life in order, I became obsessed with the concept of truth.
Here’s the problem:
My father recalls sitting in the first row when I played Joseph in Joseph and The Technicolour Dreamcoat when I was nine, and he remembers that he was fifteen minutes late because he got stuck helping an old lady change her tyre on the A41. He remembers how proud of me he was.
I remember playing the angel in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, when I was eleven, because that was the same year Natalie moved away and I was left without a best friend for a few months. I remember he sat in the third row because I couldn’t see him at the beginning, and he was sat behind a lady with really big hair. I remember forgetting one of my lines and that my halo was crooked.
Who’s right? Who’s memory is correct?
Whilst it’s something I probably won’t get a clear answer to, with memories being so malleable and changeable, the truth isn’t really the point. People’s narratives say something about how they see themselves. The things we put into a story, and the things we leave out, define how we want to be seen. Some people define their narratives by places they’ve been, the bad things that have happened to them, the successes they’ve achieved. In this way, it’s almost a self fulfilling prophecy. If you ask me who I am, and I tell you three stories about how I’m a clumsy failure who keeps messing stuff up, I’m determining my narrative, and how you see me.
We create our own narratives. We create our world through detail.
In narrative therapy, adding these details is called thickening. It’s adding texture to a memory. So you might stand up at a wedding and tell a funny story about how Phil got lost in Amsterdam, but you’d skim the details, you’d keep in the funny stuff. You’d adapt it to your audience, and remove some of the details that were a little more morally ambiguous. However, if I asked you about getting lost in the shopping centre when you were five, you might simply say, ‘I remembered looking around for my mother and feeling really scared.’
A narrative therapist would ask for details to thicken the narrative, and access the memory. Where were you? How old were you? What shop were you in? Was it the first time you’d been lost? What were you wearing? What could you hear? What did you see? Who did you talk to? What happened, point by point, until the situation was resolved?
In writing novels and stories, narrative is often about pacing and movement – it’s about keeping the story going. It’s about structure. And yet, using thickening techniques can really add a fullness, add texture to your characters and your stories.
Do it now with your own memory – a moment you were disappointed, elated, running late, made a fool of yourself. You will remember a moment, but it’s when you search for the details, the context, that you start to remember more clearly, and get a fuller picture. Not only that, but what you’ve revealed in that moment will tell you something about yourself.
You might not want to do this directly in your writing. It doesn’t suit everyone’s style, and some readers don’t want all that detail. They just want to know your character was lost in the supermarket aged four, and how that relates to who they are now, and their actions. They might not want to know that it was a dark day in October, that she was wearing a red dress with white stars and that her mother had lost her three times already that month. That she knew the security guard by name, and that he had given her a pack of white chocolate buttons.
But they might want to know that. It’s visual. It’s real. And maybe it’s relevant, I don’t know, it’s your story. But this narrative thickening, these details and relentless questioning of a character’s memory and perspective can be really useful to you. Sometimes the writer needs to know these details, even if the reader doesn’t.