Story is the power of meaning, the deepest insight of our world-organising perspective, the bridge from ideas in the head to those we embody and live out in our lives. Story is transformative. It can bind us in unity or separate us in fear and hatred. Story is how we shape the world and who each of us is and can become.
We live in a time of unprecedented change, threat and promise. More than ever before the stories we tell are vital. As individuals, as human animals, as communities, groups and inhabitors of a fragile and powerful ecosystem in which nothing can be separated from the matrix of everything, our stories shape the world.
Finding collaborative identity in stories
Stories change everything. The stories of religions and nations shape how whole groups see themselves, define morality and conduct relationships. In Braiding Sweetgrass the scientist and storyteller, Robin Wall Kimmerer, tells the creation story of her people.
In it Skywoman, a human, falls through a rift in the sky onto the water beneath. As she falls she grabs seeds and plants as gifts but fears she will fall to her death. Instead a flock of geese catch and save her but her weight gradually becomes too much for them and a turtle comes to the rescue.
As the fish, birds and swimming animals gather, they realise that the human needs land but there is only water. The answer is beneath them, they will dive for mud and make land for the woman. But the mud is at great depths and despite the animals’ courage they can’t withstand the pressures so far below and some even die in the attempt.
Finally a tiny muskrat bravely swims down and is gone a long time. The animals suspect he’s died in the attempt but notice bubbles coming to the surface. The muskrat emerges but dies moments later, exhausted. Yet his death is not in vain. In his paw is a handful of mud and this is spread on the turtle’s back. Skywoman dances in thanks and memory and the land swells. The animals join with her and together they create the whole land, Turtle Island.
Skywoman also spreads her seeds and trees grow for the nourishment of all life. She is also pregnant and later her daughter becomes a mother but dies in childbirth. Once again from loss comes life, the body of Skywoman’s daughter sprouting berries and squash and a host of foods for people and animals.
This is a story of co-creation and reciprocity. It’s immensely different, as Kimmerer points out, from the Judaeo-Christian story of humans put on the earth to name and subjugate everything else. There’s a stark contrast between Skywoman and Eve, who is ejected from the paradisal garden for tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and left in the wilderness to work.
Whatever our tradition and background, there are often variant tellings of stories that give us other ways of seeing. The theologian, Matthew Fox, for example, offers a creation spirituality in which the Judaeo-Christian story can be seen in terms of original blessing, co-creation and deep reverence for all life.
Of course, stories of identity are not always positive. We can see this in advertising that demeans and objectifies women or in nationalist stories that project every unwanted trait on to those seen as ‘other’.
We can see it even more tragically in stories that the marginalised tell to separate themselves after years of oppression. An understandable but ultimately unhelpful strategy, as Asad Haider discusses in Mistaken Identity, Race and Class in the Age of Trump, since separatism
…prevents the construction of unity among the marginalized, the kind… that could… overcome their marginalization.
But we can learn from the stories of other traditions and other groups. We can refuse to be separated. Collaboration and cross-pollination must be the watch words of stories that forge identities across differences and boundaries; stories that oppose divide and conquer policies or creeping fascism, as Rowan Fortune says in a brilliant book review:
Another world is possible, antifascism needs to stress and advance radical alternative solutions to society’s problems and give solidarity to all struggles for progressive social change.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer so succinctly puts it in discussing both human and ecological relationships in Braiding Sweetgrass:
Through unity, survival.
And elsewhere she adds:
What happens to one, happens to all. We can starve together or we can feast together. All flourishing is mutual.
[…] When the individuals flourish, so does the whole.
Stories change everything for good or for ill and this is the power and responsibility we have as writers. What story do you want to write?
The story we live is the story we write
The old adage ‘write what you know’ is simplistic. Writers are people of vast imagination. We can write utopias or worlds in which technology holds unimagined possibilities. We can write histories we have not lived and psychological depths glimpsed only in dreams. But what we can’t do is write what we can’t imagine or conceive of.
What we can’t do is make our readers empathise with characters we ourselves have no understanding of. Writing what we know isn’t writing within the limits of our experience but within the limits of our spirits, minds and imaginations; the limits of our height and depths.
Whether you are a fiction writer, poet, blogger, non-fiction writer, or write for personal development or your own processing, writing is powerful. And it comes from who you are, the boundaries you are prepared to engage with, the depths of your imagination and the height of your soaring soul.
The writer you want to be and the person you are and want to become as that writer are integrally linked. This is why I believe that journaling enhances our writing. Quite simply, it is a form of personal and deep writing that helps us to become a different story, to develop a writing life that makes us more the people we want to become. And this, in turn, enriches our writing across every genre.
Journalling is one way to connect with our own stories at the deepest level so that we build the strength to connect with the stories of those, human and non-human, beyond ourselves.
The writer you want to become is the person you want to be
As a writer, journalling and keeping notebooks can be not only a source of quotes, ideas and inspirations, but a way of diving deeply into what it means to be a particular human on a particular writing quest. Journalling can be a space for solitude and meditation as well as observations of the world. It can be a space to make sense of emotions, wrestle and integrate our shadow sides as as well as a list of goals. It can be our ‘to-be’ list as much as our ‘to-do’ list.
And it can anchor us rather than separating us and leaving us in an atomised individualistic and fragmented universe. Perhaps counter-intuitively, knowing yourself and having a private place to dive in deeply, as well as a space in which to practice some radical kindness towards yourself, can make you much more ready to be generous, gracious, non-judgemental and connected to the world.
The more we flourish as writers, the more the writing we produce flourishes, whether you are a poet or historian, novelist or social commentator.
The transformative power of story begins with each of us as writers, as we grow as story-seeders for whatever place we live in and love, for whatever passion and quest calls us to write.
The transformative writer as the holy fool
I recently saw a beautiful depiction of ‘The Fool’ as a baby bird, still fluffy and new, perched on a branch in bud and about to attempt her first flight. Would she fly or fall?
The archetype of the fool is of someone not jaded and not too afraid to take a risk. She steps off the edge with the trust that she will either fly or someone will break her fall. She isn’t alone and the world is not a terrible place. She might look ‘foolish’ but that’s the journey of life, especially a life of trust, joy and spontaneity.
The fool in each of us can get over-written along the way but she’s a good model to return to. She knows that the heart can’t be strong and resilient if it is closed. The fool might get some bumps and bruises but that’s better than living in fear or freezing on our branch afraid to take the step.
In one sense, the fool is ‘self-centred’. She steps off the branch as though she is the centre of the universe and the whole of creation was made for her, to support her and catch her. But she’s right. For a huge oak tree, the centre of the universe is where the oak stands. For a massive star the centre of the universe is where it burns. For the chick about to fly the centre of the universe is the branch she’s about to launch from.
For each of us as writers, the centre of the universe is where and what we write. This is not because any of us is better than or counts more than anyone else in life but because every plant, star, creature and person is part of the whole in unity, strength and survival.
The transformative writer as connected to all things
We can learn a lot from the fool as writers — fly, trust, take a risk. It starts with an internal story, one we live, one we need to write and it pushes beyond the individual to become part of a matrix of stories that support how we connect. To go back to Robin Wall Kimmerer:
Through unity, survival.
But first the words have to find the page and we do that in solitude. It takes a lot of time being alone to connect, which is another reason why journalling can be such a fantastic tool for writers.
If we are to be people of deep connections we need inner resources. Writers need a sense of personal and communal myth as well as imagination. We need a mindset that encompasses:
We need a deep and lively inner world. We need to be dreamers and alchemists who find inspiration in unlikely places, in the air, surprise, even in the dark.
We need a rhythm that takes us into flow. And a rhythm that makes us live in time not only as successive moments but as the ‘right time’, karios time that is slow and full of epiphany.
We need to go about the world with our senses open and embodying what we experience and observe, connected to the rhythms of day and night, to the seasons of the year and of life.
And we need support to do all that. The holy fool can fly because the time is right, because she has trust and support and has learnt that she, like everything else alive, is the centre of the universe. We need mentors and guides and transformative relationships along the way. We need to be nurtured and told to take the risk, to fly!
An invitation to the transformative power of your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
As we reach midsummer, the zenith of the sun’s transformative power and a great time for creativity, I have a special offer on my major journalling course (Becoming Your Story) plus a series of 8 seasonal courses, to take as online mini-retreats through a 12 month cycle (Diving Deeply into Your Story), which I’m adding for free for everyone who signs up by June 21. You’ll find a video about the courses here
You’ll also find free courses on my site, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story or sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life.