Stories To Light Up The Night: An Interview With International Teacher/Trainer, Storyteller and Author Susan Perrow
"When I first experienced the power of story as a ‘healing’ for a challenging behaviour," she explains, "it was like a light had entered my life to light up the night. As time went by, my parenting and teaching became more and more illuminated by the glow
of ‘story lights’. These included my own story making interwoven with wisdom tales from other cultures. Many years later, while working as a teacher trainer in East Africa, I discovered a beautiful Kiswahili word that captured this light-filled experience - ‘ANGAZA’ : ‘to light up’ …. Hadithi kwa kuangaza usiku – Stories to light up the night.
What follows here is the complete interview with Susan, about her training and background, the model she teaches and work she is doing around the world.
Q. What gives stories their power for learning and healing?
Storytelling is integral to our humanity.
The importance of stories for learning and healing has been understood and worked with since the beginning of recorded history. Anthropologists have long observed the importance and popularity of stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell, through his extensive study of world mythology, states that our cultural myths
The traditional and very important role of the storyteller was to preserve this rich mythology. Not just a source of entertainment, the wealth of stories taught moral and history lessons to the adults and children alike, and kept (and still keep) complex traditions alive. The indigenous people of my own country Australia confirm the importance of stories in keeping their culture alive and healthy.
The great spiritual and religious teachers of the world have used 'story' as a way of passing on their spiritual truth. When asked why he spoke to the people in parables, Jesus answered that this was the way for the mysteries of heaven to be known (Matt: 13:10-35). Zen and Sufi stories today are well loved and used for their wise and succinct messages.
Stories have a quality or ‘power’ that can touch our ‘souls’, touch our hearts – they seem to be able to reach us, move us, heal us, on many levels.
Many prominent psychologists today understand the story as a way of exploring the unconscious and a tool for making us ‘whole’. C.P. Estes, in her book Women who run with the Wolves,recognises the healing power of storytelling, describing stories as ‘medicine." Twelve-step recovery programmes, and the new discipline of journal therapy, understand and work with the transforming, holistic power of storytelling.
Storytelling involves three main components: the story, the storyteller and the story listener(s). One way of studying another culture is through listening to the cultural stories. One way of getting to know another person is by listening to their personal stories. Storytelling is part of all of us, it connects us with each other. It is an integral part of being human.
In his book Teaching as Storytelling, Canadian educator Kieran Egan claims that imagination is the most powerful tool for learning that children bring with them to school. However, to date there has been very little research focused on it because, according to Egan, it is so difficult to grasp, difficult to research. He states that the dominant learning theories that have profoundly influenced modern educators have almost entirely ignored the use of children's imagination as a teaching and learning tool. The Canadian Government is now backing Egan’s planning model for teaching and learning based on principles that use and stimulate children's imagination, using the story form as a central teaching tool. According to Egan, the story reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience. His aim with his story-centred curriculum is to reconstruct curricula and teaching methods in light of a richer image of the child as an imaginative, as well as a logico-mathematical thinker.
Steiner Education, one of the largest independent school movements in the world today, also acknowledges the importance of the child's imagination in learning and uses a story-based curriculum for most subjects. In his book, Study of Man, Steiner describes imagination as a new beginning, a germ or seed drawing upon the future (in comparison to cognition, an ‘end product’) and urges teachers to bring to the child as many imaginations as possible to help with continuous, holistic growth and development.
My main objective, in both my writing and my workshops, is to help inspire others to construct therapeutic stories, to inspire others to use ‘story medicine’. Over many years of writing and collating my own stories, I have been loosely using a story-making model – a three-fold framework of ‘Metaphor’,‘Journey’ and ‘Resolution’ – as a guide in creating therapeutic stories. This model has slowly developed through ‘work in practice’, and is still re-shaping itself. Every time I run a workshop (whether in my own country or internationally) my understanding of this subject grows and evolves, and my enthusiasm for therapeutic story writing is re-kindled.
Therapeutic means ‘having healing powers’, and all stories carry this potential. If a story makes people laugh, the laughter can be healing. If a story makes people cry, the crying can be healing. Folk and fairy tales, through their universal themes and resolutions, have healing possibilities. They can offer hope and courage to face the trials of life and help the listener find ways to move forward.
David Suzuki, a world-renowned environmentalist, suggests that stories can help in ‘healing’our earth by building a spiritual connection to ‘place’. If a simple nature story, for example, can help connect children to their local forest, they may be more conscious of protecting it and caring for it when they get older. Through stories a holistic relationship to the environment can be developed and strengthened.
However, as well as the healing potential of all stories, there are specific stories that may need to be written anew to help or heal specific situations. These storiescould be described as‘intentionally therapeutic’. If we use as a definition for healing: ‘restore to health; bring into balance; become sound or whole’, then such therapeutic stories can be described as ‘stories that help the process of bringing an out-of-balance behaviour back into wholeness or balance’.In this way, the stories also have the potential for nurturing positive values.
When teachers, psychologists, parents, grandparents (and any other adults in a child-caring role) create a therapeutic story for children, the story has the potential to help bring the behaviour or situation back into balance. The story may be of great help or it may help a little – either way, like natural medicine, it is worth trying a ‘dose’!
In my story-making model, metaphors are explored that help build the imaginative connection for the listener. An integral part of the story journey, they can play both the negative roles (pulling the behaviour or situation out of balance) and the positive roles (leading the behaviour/situation back to wholeness or balance). The journey is the formative part of the therapeutic story construction. An eventful journey is a way to build the‘tension’ as the story evolves, and can lead the plot into and through the behaviour ‘imbalance’ and out again to a wholesome resolution.
In writing a healing story it helps to carefully select therapeutic metaphors and to construct a journey or quest to meet the need of the situation and the age of the child/teenager/adult.
The story shouldn’t intend to moralise or to induce guilt – this point cannot be stressed enough! The objective is to simply reflect what is happening and, through the story‘metaphors’ and ‘journey’, provide an acceptable means of dealing with the behaviour and a positive resolution. A healing tale should, as much as possible, leave the listener free to come to her/his own conclusion – this way the ‘power of story’ is left to do its work, as Ben Okri suggests. "It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are," he writes. "They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you."
My intention with this story making model is to provide a guide for story making, but not a ‘fail-safe formula’ – stories are alive and can’t be predicted or regulated like this. Time and again with my story writing (and in my workshops) I find I ‘make and then break’ any formulas or rules! My model is definitely not the only way to write stories, but it can be used as a starting point for story making.
If there is any fixed guide at all, it is one that encourages ‘intuit and play’. This requires letting go and playing – something that our often over-critical adult consciousness finds hard to do. The story-maker needs openness, trust and stillness of mind, ‘letting things happen’ (in a ‘Tao’ or natural way) rather than trying too hard to ‘make things happen’.
As a story-maker I try to ‘feel’a good story rather than plan it intellectually.
In writing your own stories, a positive starting point is to hope that your story may simply help a situation … and what a bonus if it can! I have learnt that the therapeutic story writer should always work out of this ‘helping’ intention, with the occasional blessing that a story may indeed ‘heal’. Even though my books (and website) refer to ‘healing’ stories, I believe it is important to keep this‘helping’ intention close to your writer’s heart, and beware of an over-expectant or insistent attitude. There is unlikely to be any ‘quick fix’for problem behaviour and/or difficult situations. Storytelling is just one of many possible therapeutic approaches and strategies. Stories are not magic pills that have powers to fix or heal all difficulties and challenges, but story medicine can be a wonderful, and a more pleasant, alternative to nagging and lecturing. And sometimes ‘magic’ does happen and a story does make a difference!
In our busy adult lives, in our dominantly rational western society, it is easy for our imaginations to ‘dry up’. Like a muscle, the imagination can atrophy from lack of use and may need exercises to build it up again. In both my books and my workshops I include exercises and tips to ‘get the story juices flowing’ –these can help to open up one’s creativity and encourage a playful approach to story-making.
Mother Nature can be a wonderful source of inspiration for our adult imaginations. When I am pondering ideas for a story, I find that some of my best ideas have come from nature. Walking through the bush or along the beach, sitting in the park or in the garden – these experiences have fed my imagination when I have had ‘writers block’. Even when I have been housebound, looking through my window at the branch of a tree, with its patterned bark and budding leaves and silver raindrops, has helped inspire a story idea.
Nature has the potential to relax us, to cleanse us, to strengthen us and to nurture us. Especially if I am writing stories for young children, it has been my experience that I need to bathe in the wonder and beauty of nature on a regular basis to keep myself open to the wonder and beauty of life.Reading collections of folk and fairy tales can also help us with ideas – giving inspiration for metaphors and showing examples of different kinds of story journeys.
Finally, a tip for new writers is ‘don’t get stuck with expecting your creations to be perfect’. They may have cracks – to quote Leonard Cohen, ‘that’s how the light gets in’. What is important is that you give it a go! The light that gets in through the cracks may be your best teacher. As Leonard Cohen wrote in his song Anthem:
There is a crack, a crack in everything - that's how the light gets in.
Before considering any more bushwalks in my weekly program, I visited the forest by myself, desperate for some creative ideas. As I reached the path, I noticed that next to the entrance was a large tree with what looked like a ‘door’ at the bottom. This gave me ideas for a poem about a ‘Knocking-Door-Tree’, and over the following months and years, the poem led to many stories:
I know a little secret about a Knocking-Door-Tree,
A Knocking-Door-Tree that waits for you and waits for me.
At the edge of a forest of shimmering gree
With a pathway that leads to where the little folk are often seen.
Knock three times, no more, just three,
Then wait together by the Knocking-Door-Tree.
And if together very quietly we wait,
The little folk may come and open up their magic gate!
Before any more walks through the forest, I would gather the class near the tree and recite the poem. This made an enormous difference to the mood of the bushwalk. Without any prompting from me, the children would all delight in taking turns ‘knocking’ on the door, with the older ones making sure the younger ones didn’t knock more than three times! Then I would cup my hand over my ear and say, ‘Listen, I can hear the gate opening. Follow me and we shall see what we shall see’. This ensured that I was always the leader and the wild running was channelled into careful walking and watching. We would see lizards, birds, butterflies and dragonflies, and the children were sure they could see ‘little folk’ dancing in the sunbeams shining through the trees. In this way we were able to spend much longer times enjoying the forest.
After many years of using many different stories in my parenting and teaching (documented in my first book, Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour), I completed a Masters Degree on Storytelling in Education, and then set up a Storytelling Unit at Southern Cross University, NSW. I then took up a new role: piloting programs for a ‘Developing Stronger Families’ Project funded by the Australian Government. This work involved home visits to families and visits to local schools where I observed parents and teachers struggling with difficult situations. Often the visit was followed up by me writing a story, or encouraging the parent or teacher to write a story to help or heal a challenging behaviour.
These experiences encouraged me to continue writing and collecting therapeutic stories, as well as keeping notes documenting their use and effect. The final outcome of this has been two books, Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour and Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children. These have been sold worldwide and translated into many languages (something I could never have predicted!), resulting in invitations to different countries to run seminars and promote my work. In between travelling and working overseas, I am currently working on an e-book series of behaviour stories, plus collaborating with a Japanese publisher and illustrator on a collection of stories to help bring resilience and hope to the Tsunami survivors.
One day, while walking slowly and with great difficulty, the girl tripped and fell. She had fallen before, but this time as she fell, the stone slipped from her hold and cracked open as it landed on the ground, revealing its brilliant purple from within, its inner color and shine. Illuminated by the light of her stone, the girl continued her journey through life.
Here is the letter from Kristina, the girl who was helped by the story:
Thanks to your knowledge and assistance in writing therapeutic stories, and the workshop that Erika and my mom attended, they wrote a beautiful story that gave me strength to go on and to lift my head high - no matter how difficult it can be at times, to get up each day and continue with a smile.
Each of us has some sort of stone to carry in our lives, and it is up to us to find the beauty in our stone so we can carry it more easily and be at peace with our destiny.
The story is special and very dear to me, it has certain elements with which I feel a special connection.
Thank you for sharing your gift. You are a great teacher, and your workshop students write more than just stories, their stories have that special touch not found in many stories.
Two years ago in Nairobi, in some workshops for Medecins sans Frontiers, the participants included HIV patients (writing their life stories) as well as doctors (working on themes like treatment fatigue and ways to cope with opportunistic infections). In contrast to this, I sometimes run workshops for parents who are struggling with day to day children’s behaviours like whining and fussiness and sibling rivalry.
In my travels I occasionally encounter cultural differences and it is important to be receptive to this. Once in Africa I was suggesting a monkey as a helping metaphor in a story. I noticedthat the group of African teachers grew silent, and then someone informed me that in their particular culture monkeys are not a good omen in storytelling. In Eastern Europe, when sharing a circus story I once wrote for an 8 year old boy who was being verbally abusive towards his mother, I was told that in Bulgaria a circus usually has grotesque connotations (two headed sheep, etc) and they couldn’t understand how I could have used the circus as the central (and positive) metaphor (in Australia a circus has healthy connotations – in fact many modern circuses in my country are based on skill and acrobatics).In China I have had a diversity of experiences – on the positive side the Beijing publisher has given my books the insightful title ‘Stories Know the Way’ – this captures the essence of my work and I am ever grateful to them for this. On the more challenging side, I have struggled to convince journalists and some of the workshop participants that imagination is a healthy aspect of child development (and not to worry if they can’t ‘control’ it!).
There are definitely elements of my program that transcend cultural differences. One is the universal ‘thirsting for stories’ that seems to live in 99% of the participants, no matter what their profession. Another is the buzz of excitement when the ‘storyteller’ inside each participant finds ways to burst forth. Each workshop (no matter what country or what culture) usually begins with anticipation and nervousness (we could never write stories!) and ends with creative story sharing! This is what is so satisfying about my work – knowing that I have helped many people onto a story making / storytelling path.
Q. Why is storytelling significant in today's world? Do you see any special role or importance to storytellling in our high-tech, information-intensive, networked world?
I believe that stories are significant in our world – in the past, present and future!
In our high-tech, information-intensive, networked world, perhaps stories and storytelling are needed more than ever before. Stories can bring hope and strength in times of stress and trauma; stories can help build bridges between peoples and cultures; stories have the potential for nurturing positive values (social and environmental) and building emotional resilience and character.
Stories have a special role to play in our often out-of-balance fast-paced world – they are like natural remedies – and like natural medicine, they draw on the listener’s own latent forces and capacities to redress an imbalance. Sometimes, however, acceptance of storytelling is akin to the struggle for acceptance of natural medicines: common sense tells us that it should be welcomed with open arms, but the commercial and scientific world sets up huge opposition to this. Likewise, a more materialistic mindset finds it difficult to appreciate that a problem can be better dealt with by enlisting imponderable, hidden forces of the imagination than by tackling it head-on.
Fortunately this is slowly changing. From time immemorial storytelling has been used as a powerful educational and healing tool, and there is an exciting trend to re-awaken this age-old art form. As discussed in a previous question, it is encouraging to know that a small but growing group of educational thinkers, researchers, teachers and practitioners now give due acknowledgment to expressive, imaginative ways of thinking and knowing, thus helping to revive the art and practice of storytelling. Storytelling guilds and groups are making a comeback in both western and developing countries, with storytelling events (e.g. story slams in NY attracting long queues of people, seeking real, human, face to face experiences.
In the forward to my book Therapeutic Storytelling Dr. Jennifer M. Gidley, President of the World Futures Studies Federation writes:
Children born in the last 10-15 years in affluent countries have never known a world without computers, the Internet, mobile phones and now “social networking.” As a result of globalization these technological inventions are increasingly available across the globe, yet most of us are sleepwalking, oblivious to what we are becoming as a result of the hyper-information bombarding us every day, compelling us to buy the next upgrade of everything. Marshall MacLuhan indicated decades ago that every advance in technology is an amputation of an earlier ability … obviously email and SMS can dramatically truncate the richness of living friendships. By contrast, a live storyteller offers the richness of voice intonation, eye contact, gestures, facial expression, body language, emotional nuance and soul warmth ……….
Because of the fragmented style of education most of us have received, what we “know” is often disconnected from our hearts, thwarting our courage and thus our ability to act to make changes. Stories can play a role in shifting all this. Stories have the power to reconnect what we know in our heads with what we feel in our hearts. Stories can inspire, encourage and empower us to take the actions we know we need to take to make this world a better place for our children and their children.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Her storytelling show Crazytown: my first psychopath will be performed at The Triad in New York City on May 18, 2014 at 3 pm. To buy tickets click here