Back in July, I had the opportunity to attend a Narrative Therapy Intensive in Toronto thanks to the generosity of The Blakeley Foundation. The summer intensive provided me with a language to integrate into the practices I’ve already been using in The SONG Project that are narrative in essence, and expanded my resources of human and holistic approaches to working with people. It was a gift to be part of a community and make connections with others who embrace these practices. I was energized and have a renewed commitment to working these ideas into my practice through songwriting and music!
Narrative Therapy is a therapeutic method that looks at how stories shape our lives – both the stories about ourselves that we choose to emphasize at any given moment, and the counter-stories/subordinate stories that are going on at the same time. In the words of Angel Yuen, Narrative Therapy “recognizes that identity is shaped by the stories we hear about ourselves,” and “asks us to think carefully about how words are used and how they operate on us.” It also “invites counselors to look at aspects of problematic talk… rather than problematic people.” Most importantly, Narrative Therapy holds and values people as the experts of their own lives!
Many of the women and girls to whom I teach songwriting have experienced many forms of violence and oppression and are trying to reclaim their lives. But they often tell me totalizing things about themselves based off of identities that have been given to them by culture and sometimes “professionals” – like “I’m crazy”; “I’m depressed”; “I’m a horrible person”; “I’m not a good enough mother”; ”I’m dirty.” It can be hard for them to see anything else when it feels like everything around them seems to be telling them these things.
I look at my role as creating space for them to share the feelings that may come through with a dominate problem story, while also inviting them to look closer, and to give their values, how far they’ve come, and all the work they’ve done just as much, if not more, strength and value. In Narrative Therapy, conversations that bring forward the wisdom, values, skills and strength gained through a journey of struggle are known as “Re-Authoring Conversations.” In The SONG Project this re-authoring takes place through the process of women telling their stories and creating a song together that expresses a fuller telling of their journeys.
As we write a song together, women not only share their own stories, they also act as witnesses to one another’s stories. As they share and discuss the parts of their experience that they might contribute to the group song, they give and receive feedback such as “she’s so strong and brave,” acknowledging and affirming subordinate stories that deserve to be told. We try to externalize problems (another central practice of Narrative Therapy) and shine a light on them, allowing the women to see that they themselves are not the problem – the problem is the problem. As Yuen writes, “All stories (even if they claim to be the ‘truth’) only express one of many viewpoints.”
In the songs we’re creating, women might list the bad things that have happened to them, but also say they’re “risin’ up,” or they’re a “survivor,” or “doing the best they can” and “asking for help.” Instead of “I’m depressed,” a woman might reframe her experience by saying, “I’ve experienced a lot of suffering and am doing the best I can each day.” As they are invited and empowered to write their views of where they are now, and what they hope for their lives, into a chorus, these women and girls often realize they’re already doing a lot to counter the hardships they’ve been through.
Through the process of writing their stories into songs together, women who participate in The SONG Project also begin to see that they have gained a great deal of wisdom along their journeys – wisdom that might be valuable to others, and worthy of being shared more widely. This opens space for the possibility of participants sharing healing wisdom with other women, or offering their communities new ways of understanding the human rights and social issues surrounding their experiences of suffering and resilience. David Denborough uses the term “Collective Narrative Practice” to name this process of uncovering of valuable wisdom held by individuals and groups, and seeking ways to share this unique wisdom with others who might benefit from it. He writes that Collective Narrative Practice can “enable individuals, groups, [and/or] communities to make a contribution to the lives of others” as it “conceive[‘s] of the person meeting with us as representing a social issue,” and “enable[s] the person to join a collective endeavor in addressing, in some local way, this social issue.”
One way that The SONG Project might participate in Collective Narrative Practice could be to share a song composed by a group of people experiencing a certain hardship with another group of people experiencing a similar hardship. The group sharing their song feels like they are contributing to and sharing their learnings and wisdom for living and surviving while also creating community with others who have suffered similarly. The group receiving the song may gain wisdom from the other group’s lyrics on how to persevere through the hard times, or feel less isolated knowing there are others out there similarly going through hard times and reclaiming their lives as well. They could even add their own verse as a response and share that with the other group!
One SONG Project group, which took place before I had the language of “Collective Narrative Practice,” has already engaged in Collective Narrative Practice! The group was held at Rosie’s Place, with women who have been marginalized by homelessness and poverty and the many difficulties that come along with these experiences. Each week, the women who came to the songwriting group would learn the lyrics and melodies written by participants from previous weeks, and would be invited to add their own lyrics to this collective song. Often the women participating for the first time felt instantly connected to the community of previous participants, because the song that was being sung mirrored their own stories in many ways, giving voice to both the hardships and the tools for getting through them. Some women just chose to listen, while others chose to sing along because at a certain point they felt the song was complete and deeply resonated in a special way for them as individuals and as a collective. The women that came back to the group got to see how others were deeply touched by their words and sharings, and got to take that with them as a gift!
Lastly and most importantly I want to acknowledge with deep gratitude the women and girls who share their stories and journeys with me. Without their courage, bravery and authenticity this work would not be possible. It’s a privilege to bear witness to their wisdom and knowledge, and I learn a great deal from them.
These are only a few examples of the ways that The SONG Project is embodying and practicing the values and concepts of Narrative Therapy. I acknowledge that this blog is not at all complete, but is a small introduction and account of Narrative Therapy being used through songwriting groups, based off of my interpretations and learnings thus far. There’s so much more to be said about these concepts but we’ll save that for another time! For further reading on Narrative Therapy check out, http://dulwichcentre.com.au/.
Special thanks and acknowledgement to Glynn Forkey, who’s familiar with both Narrative Therapy and The SONG Project, for sharing her time and talents editing this blog!