Updated: Oct 24, 2022
When we talk seriously to each other our conversations soon turn to sharing stories and we do something with stories that delights us. We make links. We see patterns. If we don't think we have got the thread, we ask questions. Where are you going with this? We offer our own perspectives and, in the process, the story telling becomes more conversational. This conversational quality of story sharing is important to making links but also for seeing where the gaps. It opens a space for reconsolidation of the story and our individual working memories are in joint action and create a bigger space for reflecting in the moment. This conversational working memory space is extended even more with a map of the key words of the story on paper between us.
When we say we like a good story we might just as well say we like a good pattern where all the links join up. We like to meet our deep need for narrative coherence and see all the links in the chain of a story connect. We like 'loopiness'.
Part of the dramatic art of storytelling is to have twists and turns in the chain of links. It is almost as if we the participants in a story are being teased into fearing there wont be a plot or tidy ending. The loop wont loop. This is where the art of storytelling in fiction differs from the art of talking through stories in therapy to help and to heal. In storytelling in the majority of cases we expect narrative coherence. We expect the story to fit together and everything that gets mentioned must have some purpose in the plot or in the development of the characters. This is often yearned for in therapy but there is a benefit of seeing that when we are helping or counselling each other making links involves also finding and meeting gaps. In the context of therapy, the enthusiasm for loopiness and smoothly storying the story should be regarded with some suspicion. Our more troublesome and painful life stories may have missing links or gaps. Or we cannot bring ourselves to make the links that are calling out to us. The coexistence of links and gaps is clearer when telling stories together is assisted by pen and paper to keep track of the key words. We can leave question marks or make a blank space as the sign of something not yet voiced or understood. The gaps point to what Donnel Stern calls unformulated experience or Philip Bromberg points to as an absence of autobiographical memory that leaves us with feelings that haunt us. I would like to call these unstoried memories and mapping some of the feeling words that point to them can help begin the process of storing and authoring the unstoried memory. You might have read the word unstoried in the preceding sentence as unstored and there is a connection in the sense that unstoried means not stored in the maps of individual and shared experience and not part of my story or our story. In the healing process of therapeutic conversations and storytelling, the gaps are as important as the links. The big gaps in our stories don't get the eureka shout out that the big links get. The tools and methods of Cognitive Analytic Therapy and the methods of talking with a map help us build relational awareness so we can move between picture and detail, past and present, attention to inner life and outer life, life alone and life with others.
Making a link means tolerating the awareness of knowing that A led to B. Noticing and naming a gap means tolerating not knowing if there is another link or story between A and B. To make sense of gaps we need to avoid rushing to closure around one story of explanation or another. Rushing is always tempting for everyone. It is what for me is storying the story too quickly. We do this when we want to avoid embarrassment, cricisim, and shame, we close the story prematurely or in a superficial manner of covering up.
Of course, links are essential. Cause and effect, call and response, push and pull. Links give us leverage -something to go on. We help each other link the links. It gives us orchestral ability. It gives us confidence to untangle the tangled memories and see patterns. Like untying knots and unravelling wires and cables, it takes time, co-operation and patience. In the process we discover gaps and ties that are broken. We need to notice the gaps and give attention to the process of unravelling and straightening. The gaps may appear and then vanish. We might want things to add up, but we need to notice when they don't. We need to make friends with gaps. I learnt slowly as a therapist to be able to say I don't know how that led to this or how these things fit together. Gaps can be invisible and easily bypassed. Gaps are where links lie ready to be made or circled round carefully and respectfully with a promise to return now and then with compassion and curiosity.