December 7th, 2010


The Psychology of Storytelling

Some flisters have heard my tales about my early years as a writer. I would camp out in front of the fireplace, yellow doctor’s bag loaded with crayons on one side, and an endless supply of paper on the other.  I penned The Magic Mittens by the age of seven. I completed Clean Your Room Sara Ann before I turned nine.  Stories oozed out of my fingertips, into my crayons, and onto the wide-ruled paper.  Those were the glory years.


And then there were the dark days, the barren years—graduate school. No stories were written. At least, not stories normal people would want to read. (My thesis and dissertation are for insomniacs only.)


Interestingly, during those dark days, I was a great storyteller. I told stories day after day, session after session.  Some true, some made up. 




Storytelling helps clients step outside their world and gain a different perspective, find a solution.  Telling a client who survived a rape that she needs to face her emotions is a HARD sell.  Emotions can wrap around your ankles, snake up your leg, and yank you into a dark, foreboding place. But saying this… 


A few weeks ago I was dogsitting for a professor. He has this great hyperactive, adorable dog. Think Wishbone.  *client smiles* One day I decided to toss a Frisbee to Wishbone. He got soooo excited. I mean, he was hopping around, running in between my legs, darting back and forth in the yard. It was great.  Until…I moved my hand, ready to throw, and the dog jumped up and bit my finger*. Hard. I said all kinds of choice words as the dog danced around me ready to fetch the Frisbee. My heart raised as I watched blood seep from the wound. My finger throbbed. Thump. Thump. I thought, “Oh no! My professor is going to think I did something to provoke the dog. He’ll be mad.” I took a deep breath, told myself to shake it off. I washed the wound, swiped at my tears and wrapped a band aid around it. It was no big deal, right? Just a bite. I won’t die from a dog bite.  And it was my fault for getting him all worked up in the first place. The next day that wound still hurt. BAD. BUT, I shook my finger and told myself it was no big deal. I distracted myself with school work and teaching the dog how to use the doggie door (installed two days before I arrived). One week later, my professor returned and my finger still ached. I said nothing. Then about two weeks after the bite, I helped a friend move some boxes.  I bumped my finger on the wall.  Tears came to my eyes.  I told my friend what had happened and showed him the bite.  He looked at the wound and said, 1) it was infected, 2) it was a deep wound that should have received medical attention, 3) I would probably have a permanent scar, but he knew what to do to make it less noticeable (I do have a scar. See?) and 4) the dog bit me, it wasn’t my fault.”


Sure the story is not a work of literary genius, but it is a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has conflict.  It has choices.  It has consequences.  Using life experiences and metaphors enables connection and understanding.  It presents an idea in a nonthreatening way.  And isn’t that what writers do?

 karen_w_newton  sent me an article here asking the question: Do psychologists make better novelist?  I don’t have an answer. But I do know that many psychologists tell stories everyday. Each time I consult with colleagues, I share the stories I tell my clients. Each time I consult with colleagues, they share the stories they use with their clients. Storytelling is part of my job description…it’s in the fine print…on the back side of the page…below the watermark.


(*I have a bite mark on my left index finger.)