Each of us carries stories that shape who we are and the steps and directions we take in life. As a writer, these stories are part of the rich background from which you draw inspiration for characters, themes and plots.
Most people concentrate on particular stories when they describe themselves and their lives. We all have a story about the time that something happened – to us, around us, or because of us. For example, there may be a family legend about the time you got 3 speeding fines in the space of 3 months and the fateful day when you drove your car off the edge of a road and ended up in a ditch. As a result, you might describe yourself as a ‘terrible driver’.
However, because this story is told over and over, it sticks as the only story about your driving, when all of us have many stories, scattered across our histories. If you came to me and I asked you about your driving history, digging a little deeper, asking you to recall what happened when you got your licence, perhaps what sort of driving you do each week, you might mention that you passed your test first go, and that you drive your children to school safely every day.
These events don’t fit with the story of you being a ‘terrible driver’ and I would be very curious to explore these further. I would invite you to step into those alternative events and to describe them more vividly, making them rich and complex, which over time creates a multitude of stories about you as a driver. The original terrible driver story still exists and has a valid place, but it is not the only story anymore.
This is about creating multi-stranded stories, which opens opportunities for you to choose to step away from problematic stories that might be causing difficulties for you. This also provides you with a much richer pool of ideas from which to draw inspiration for your writing.
The Impact of Power and Single Stories
Seeing only single stories about the world and other people, particularly those you think are ‘different’ to you, those who you have learned about only from books, or news, or commonly held ideas in popular culture, leads to discrimination and stereotyping.
When you assume things about someone because of their background, gender, sexuality, culture or disability, for example, there is reduced opportunity for connection, reduced opportunity for understanding, reduced opportunity to learn and grow. When we represent a person, or an entire culture, over and over again in popular media and literature as a single story, it becomes impossible to see their complex, diverse and powerful histories and potential.
Power is the ability to not just tell the story of another person, but to represent this as being the only story. Where you choose to start a story, where you take the story, the events you include or leave out, the aspects of character you choose to show, all of these things have the ability to create beliefs in your readers. If you choose to tell the dominant story, you choose to keep the status quo. But when you start a story about someone’s history somewhere unique, somewhere others might not have ventured, you open up possibility for that story to blossom, to make meaning, to offer alternative ideas.
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 12 years old and I struggled with that diagnosis. When I was 16 years old, I fell into a violent relationship for a few years with a man who was 3 years older than me and I spent most of my time in fear. When I was 19, and part way through my social work degree, the relationship ended. Later, I experienced PTSD as a result of many years working as a social worker with children who were living in dangerous and violent situations. For a time, my entire world seemed dark, and all I could see was the dangerous and the terrifying and that I was a failure.
If I looked only at this story of my past, I would think that I was weak and incapable of standing up for myself, that I was a victim, a failure – which I would support with evidence of the bullying I received as a child. I would also think that ultimately, I failed as a social worker, because I had a breakdown and had to leave this area of practice. But this would not be true. This would be a single story.
In fact, after that breakdown, I worked very hard to move towards a different path, to deal with the bullying and the violence I personally experienced and had witnessed. I founded a national online counselling service and charity for people with diabetes, which I ran for 16 years. I married a wonderful man. I had 3 children.
Now, when I feel the story of failure creeping in, I remember those other stories – about how I dealt with the breakdown, how I forged onwards and created something special, something unique, something that helped thousands of people, how I completed a PhD, how when I struggled (and trust me, I struggled!), I didn’t give up. And how I have lived with and managed type 1 diabetes for 43 years, how I am here, still learning, still growing, still being brave and courageous.
Single stories take away the opportunity to connect, to see how we’re all different, but we’re all similar, to understand how we walk on the same earth and experience the same feelings as each other, to enable us to better understand each other and create a more equitable and deeply varied and beautiful world.
As a writer, you have an opportunity to create multi-stranded stories, to share alternative ideas, to highlight diversity. By beginning with yourself, learning to pick apart single stories about you and your life, and the ones you hold in relation to other people, you will experience life in a richer and more diverse way and ultimately become a better writer and a happier human being.