Mark Brown ‘Powerful magic: On personal stories’

Stories have always been a powerful magic. Human beings are wired for them. The story we choose to tell about ourselves is a kind of spell, a way to write upon the world. But what if the narrative ‘tell your story; change the world’ is itself another story?

Stories have always been a powerful magic. Human beings are wired for them. The story we choose to tell about ourselves is a kind of spell, a way to write upon the world. But what if the narrative ‘tell your story; change the world’ is itself another story?

Cutting through noise

Campaigns, charities and political speech writers know that a well chosen personal story can cut through the noise of facts, figures and opinion. Journalists, filmmakers and TV news crews know that such human interest can make or break a story.

In mental health, the area in which I spend most of my time, people are encouraged to speak in public about their experiences to dispel stigma. We step up like soldiers, ready to do our duty. If social change is a war for hearts and minds (and wallets); what might the damage be to those who fight it?

Not all roses

Our personal story is indivisible from us; it goes out with our face upon it like a stamp on a letter. Filmmakers move onto the next subject; campaigns to the next goal; journalists to the next assignment. A personal story is one forever connected to us.

We embody our personal story. We don’t have the safety of distance. Sometimes others may doubt our story or question elements of it or find it unpalatable. We may be telling our truth; but that does not guarantee others will respect it. The things that we hope to change may not be willing to change. This can be terribly hard as a disagreement with our personal story can feel like a disagreement with our fundamental right to be.

Some of us may be selfless in sharing our personal story; but, if we’re honest, the motivation is often more complicated. We might wish to right personal wrongs; become famous or recognised; to set the record straight or even to redeem our past experiences. The only part of telling our personal story we control is how we tell it and when. Telling some stories in public can be actively dangerous. Sometimes our personal story can be used in ways that run counter to the change we hope to see.

Taking your personal story into the public realm also makes very visible to others. It’s very difficult to put a very public personal story back into its box when a group of people take exception to it. Having a brilliantly told personal story doesn’t make anyone immune from racists, sexists, homo or transphobes or people who take exception to what the substance of the story suggests about society, institutions or others.

If we are sharing an ongoing story we will want change to happen for us, preferably sooner rather than later. If the situation of our story is historic we may be tempted to shape the story to a presentable narrative arc with redemption and a happy ending which may not represent the reality of the problem for others. Others may doubt our motives for sharing.

Powerful magic

Stories can be so powerful they somehow begin to start to telling us. Like all potent magic spells, these words of power don’t just transform their target they also begin to transform the person casting them. The story takes on a life of its own. The more we tell the story the more we can only remember the story as we tell it; not the original events from which it stems.

If we are lucky enough to get a large audience we are left with the problem of being known as ‘that person who had that thing that happen to them’. We are invited to speak or write or broadcast about that and that alone. This can be difficult if we want to move on; or if our circumstances change. We may find that people want ‘that story’ and no other story or idea that we may have. Despite our efforts to escape from the events that have shaped our story we may find ourselves being drawn back to it with no clear route of escape beyond stepping down from speaking, writing or broadcasting in public spaces.

I hope I have always defended the value of personal stories and that I have never shirked the responsibility of being honest about the potential costs. While we applaud people for their bravery in sharing their personal stories, we often forget to continue to applaud their bravery for dealing with the results.

Stories are powerful magic. And no magic is without risk.

About the blogger

Mark Brown is the development director of Social Spider CIC. He is @markoneinfour on twitter. He created and edited national mental health magazine One in Four between 2007 and 2014. He also created A Day in the Life, a year long project where people with mental health difficulties wrote about their everyday lives across 2014/15.

Being the Story – Friday 16th September, Conway Hall, London
As part of our quest at sounddelivery to get people to understand the power and impact of firsthand storytelling for their own organisations we’ve curated an event to give a platform to important storytellers. The day will provide powerful insights which will provoke ideas and stimulate conversations that will inspire charities and other organisations to think about how they tell their stories. We hope that many of you will join us.
Being the Story takes place on Friday 16th September 2016 in London.

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