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Narrative Space: Terminology

(These are not definitions in the usual sense, but are descriptions, antidotes, and my unique understandings of how these terms are used.) -- Greg

Common themes -- Events in life do not occur in a vacuum. We are organizing, story-telling, meaning-making creatures, and we are generally interested in making sense out of our experiences. One way that we do this is through themes. An example would be the theme of "dealing with authority figures." We might say "Joe is always fighting authority." Then, if Joe has a conflict with his boss, we can say "Of course, this is due to Joe's need to fight authority." This particular theme could very well be a powerful part of a dominant story of incompetence and failure.

If Joe is interested in thickening the plot of a different story, for example a story related to fighting for justice, and caring for the underdog, then this alternate story will have certain themes. One might be "resistance to injustice." If so, then it might be possible to consider whether there were any aspects of his recent conflict with his boss which fit in with the theme of resisting injustice. This does not have to do with totalizing Joe's experience. It is not about trying to prove that Joe really is a nice guy and he is only trying to fight for justice and he is being misunderstood. Rather, it is providing a new way for Joe to consider his actions, his intentions, his values and principles. Through such a conversation with Joe, he may for example come to understand that his manner of talking and interacting with his boss do not reflect his values of fairness, even though his intention was to fight for justice. This could then easily lead to other discussions about what helps and what hinders Joe in carrying out these principles.

In order for the plot of an alternate story to become prominent, examples that are consistent with the theme or themes must be remembered from the past and sought after in the future. In other words, in order for a story to be a story there must be events which occur in sequence over time according to a plot or theme. Also see re-engagement of history.

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Deconstruction -- There has been much written about deconstruction. It has to do with philosophy and language, assumptions and power. It would require making distinctions among a number of philosophical schools of thought, including post-modernist and social constructionist, among others. If the reader is interested in studying this more thoroughly, I would suggest that you check out some of the publications available through the Dulwich Centre.

My understanding is that any claim of truth about another person, about human nature or even about myself is probably a construction. Self esteem, for example, is a construction, as are the notions of drives or needs. All of these ideas were constructed at some point in history, and it is possible to trace back to approximately when these ideas were formulated, and to place them in the context of one theory or another. Mental illness is another example of a major construction, as are all the various diagnoses. Anything which has been constructed can be deconstructed.

The process of deconstruction is not done in narrative work in order to disprove the construction, or to say that this particular construction is wrong and ought to be replaced by another one which is right or correct. Rather, deconstruction is done in order to be able to notice the effects of the construction on the person's identity so that sufficient space will open up for the person to be able to decide if he or she prefers that construction or not. I have found it very useful to make the distinction between constructions and practices. Practices are sets of actions which have real, material effects on people's lives. For example, there are a number of practices of abuse, such as insults, pushing, shoving, slapping, humiliating another, etc. which often have devastating effects on people's lives. It is very useful in narrative work to identify these practices and their effects. It is not useful to try to externalize them or to deconstruct them, because they are not constructions.

If someone is consulting with me who engages in such practices of abuse, I would be interested in learning his or her position in regard to these practices, and in discovering what principles, values, hopes, dreams etc, they would have which would either justify or stand against such practices. A certain belief may emerge such as "I can't help it because I have a terrible temper." This is a construction, and it may well be helpful to deconstruct it. There are many possible questions which may be asked to begin such a deconstruction. Examples include: "Can you tell me about this terrible temper, and how it enlists you into its service?" "Do you in fact like to serve this temper or would you rather have a different relationship to it?" Or "Is your relationship to this terrible temper like that of a servant and master, or is it a different kind of relationship?" "What does this terrible temper want of you and what does it want for you and for your life?" This is very different from asking questions about why he engages in abusive practices. Those kinds of questions would very likely result in some attempt at excusing or minimizing the effects and responsibilities involved. Return to non-structuralist table.

Defining of myself -- In narrative work, identity is seen as being constantly formed and re-formed through experiences with others, and through our understandings of what is expected of us by the dominant culture in which we live. In our interactions with others, one story is often underlined, emphasized, noticed, told and re-told more than others. If the story that is told most often by most significant people in my life happens to be a story that is full of problems (problem saturated) then it would be very difficult for me to not have that story be strongly defining of my identity.

Dominant story -- Think of one of your favorite novels. There is a main plot and there are one or more minor plots or sub-plots. If your life were a novel, the dominant story would be the main plot. The alternate stories would be the sub-plots. If a novel is well written, the main plot does not completely define the main character. There are things left unsaid which the reader must put in herself or himself. We do not know everything that could be known about the character. There are surprises, but in a good novel these surprises do fit with some other knowledge that we do have of the character. As the surprises come to light, the reader will often have to re-construct his or her image of the character. There is a shift in understanding through this process. The character becomes different than he or she was thought to be.

This dominant story does not exist in a vacuum either. It is a story within stories that are being created and sustained within the larger cultural contexts of our lives. These larger cultural contexts are not neutral or passive. Rather, the common ways of thinking and believing as to what is normal or right in that context is a very powerful contributor to the creation of dominant stories. Return to common themes (above)

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Narrative space -- This entire web site is devoted to providing some understanding of what narrative space is. The term became very important to me (Greg Nooney) during an intensive training experience I had in Adelaide, in February 1999, conducted by Michael White. I had the opportunity to participate in a small group discussion with a remarkable group of people. I wish to acknowledge their significant contributions to the development of the following metaphor. They include Corky Becker, Jan Cooper, Jerry Gale, Pat Kelley, and Marcy Rivas.

There is a landscape with many large stones. The stones are the dominant story. If immersed in the dominant story, one would see a solid line of boulders. When one begins to observe from a narrative perspective, one notices that in fact the boulders are scattered about with huge spaces between them. These spaces define narrative space. Asking questions is very important for narrative work. One of the important aspects of such question-asking is the opening up of this narrative space. If a question serves to open up such space, then it will probably be a helpful question.

Additional contribution by Jerry Gale:

Even with the boulders, from a narrative perspective, they can be unpacked (deconstructed) and there is space even within what looked like a solid block. One can even find alternative stories within boulders, that are like embedded diamonds or other gems, that were covered up or obscured with layers of dust over time. Double stories can be found too sometimes when there is a boulder hidden behind another boulder.  

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Narrative therapy -- refers to a particular set of therapy practices which are informed by non-structuralist thinking. Michael White in Adelaide and David Epston in New Zealand have contributed significantly to the development of these practices. They in turn would list many others who have contributed to the development of their work. For a number of one minute answers to the question: "What is narrative therapy?" check out an article by Erik Sween.

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Non-structuralist thinking -- This is a way of thinking and looking at the world that is actually quite different from the way in which we are used to thinking, which is called structuralist. From a non-structuralist (or post-structuralist) perspective, it is not possible to make truth claims about the identities of human beings. Rather people are seen as multi-storied and multi-motivated. See structuralist table. Go up to definition of Narrative Therapy (above).

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Problem saturated -- To say that a person's dominant story is problem saturated is a very different thing than to say a person has a lot of problems. This is not using language in a fancy or confusing way or adopting a new kind of "lingo" that serves to separate people who understand and are "in" from those who do not and are "out." Rather it speaks to a very powerful set of assumptions that are commonly made in modern Western culture about where problems exist. For me to say "I have a lot of problems" is to identify those problems as being either in my possession or somehow within me. To situate the problems within the dominant story, and as actually saturating that story, is to identify a very different notion of where these problems are situated. Rather than being defining of my identity, then, the problems can be seen as having a powerful effect on the story that most prominently constitutes my life. This allows for a much more powerful set of options available to me in dealing with those problems. I then have room to stand as I work to re-negotiate my relationship with these problems.

For example, if I say: "I am depressed" then I have already accepted the idea that a depressed way of being is defining of who I am as a person. If I say: "Depression is having a very powerful influence over my life," there is a little more room to maneuver. I may, for example, be able to distinguish between my aspirations, hopes, and dreams and those of Depression. I might be able to find the support necessary to take a stand against Depression's idea about who I am as a person, and find ways to amplify or express my own aspirations for my life.

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Re-engagement of history -- There is a distinction made here which may be a very different way of looking at history than one may be used to. It is not a re-framing of history, because this implies the ability to sit in the present and define the meaning of historical events by changing my point of view. It is not a re-interpretation of history, as that implies that one account is as valid as another and that I only need to understand my history in the right way and it will serve me better. A re-engagement of history involves remembering events of my history that I may not have considered important. It involves re-engaging with those memories in an active way, so that the details are known and the connections between those details and various aspects of myself, my motives, my hopes, my principles, etc. can be made. Also see common themes.

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Stories that constitute our lives (multi-storied) -- This is a very important idea in the narrative perspective. Stories are not seen as "reflective of our lives," nor are they seen as something that must simply be seen in the "correct frame." Rather they constitute our lives. In a sense, stories live us. However it is important to note that it is never possible for one story to completely speak to the identity of an individual. There are many stories involved in this process of "living us." In other words, we are multi-storied beings. Some of these stories are the stories of the dominant culture in which we live. Some of these stories are the stories told to us by our immediate families as we were growing up. Some of these stories are the stories that we consciously create in our lives. In narrative work, one of the important activities involves distinguishing among these stories, and making choices about what stories we prefer and which ones we are interested in taking a stand against. (Sometimes there is a part of a story whch we wish to embrace and another part which we wish to reject or step away from.) There is not, however, the idea that it is possible to stand in some place which is beyond the reach of these stories. Go to non-structuralist definition (above) | Return to tellings and re-tellings (below)

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Tellings and re-tellings -- In the narrative perspective, our identities are constantly being formed and re-formed through our experiences in the world. We are multi-storied. As we interact with others, one or more of those stories are strengthened. Whenever someone in our life listens to our story (the telling) and is affected in some way by it, and then shares with us the effect on him or her of hearing this story (a re-telling), we will be affected. That story will be strengthened. The plot of that story will be thickened. This happens all the time with stories that we do not like or prefer. It is usually not difficult to find people in our lives to contribute to a thickening of the plot of a story we do not like. Let's say for example that I have had some experiences with others that have contributed to me developing a strong belief that no one is to be trusted. I will not have much difficulty in finding people in my life who will help thicken this plot.

In narrative work, there is a conscious effort to find people who might be interested in helping us to thicken the plot of those stories that we prefer. It is then possible to participate in tellings and re-tellings, and possibly re-tellings of the re-tellings, and on and on until these preferred plots gets thickened enough to where these preferred stories will take a dominant place in our lives.

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Thickening of the plot -- This is not simply a fancy use of words. Rather, it refers to the kinds of distinctions that are made from a narrative perspective. There is a distinction between a thick or rich plot and a thin conclusion. This is very different from the distinction which is often made in therapy (and increasingly in our daily lives) between surface and depth. We often hear that a person must discover what is true in "the depth of their being" or their "true self." In order to achieve this, it is necessary to call in an expert who will help the person to interpret the events of their lives. More information is available on the structuralist table.| Return to common themes (above) | Return to tellings and re-tellings (above).

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The creating of narrative space, narrative therapy, and narrative work in general is based on post-structuralist or non-structuralist thought. My understandings of this is informed by the work and writings of Michael White of the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia. His contribution to my understandings is considerable, but my explanations are my own and I take full responsibility for the content.--[Greg Nooney]
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