Tell me a story, any story.

The next writing exercise tries to use storytelling for personal development and well-being. These are the ideas behind it…

Fictional stories appeal to us largely because they have a metaphorical relationship to our lives. We enjoy watching a movie about a fictional romance, not because their challenges are exactly the same as ours, but because they are they are metaphors for relationship challenges in general, and so we can identify with them. Similarly, we can identify with the hero trying to stop a terrorist plot, not because we have any experience in counter-terrorism, but because we’ve all fought against some injustice, stood up for someone weaker – or at least we imagine we might.

This consumption of stories is clearly cathartic – that’s largely why the movie and book publishing industries exist. I would argue, that this cathartic effect can be strengthened by actively creating stories yourself – a far more active process. Writing fiction, for example, can be a way to playfully explore issues that we struggle with in our daily lives.

If writing fiction is hard for you, you could try using a common, predetermined structure. For example, imagine your life as a hero-quest to slay a dragon: Who or what is the dragon?; Who are your trusted companions?; What are the trials and dangers you’re likely to face on the way?; What magical powers do you have?; What is the treasure that the dragon’s guarding? Stories are in essence complex metaphorical structures that allow us to explore new problems using experience from similar-but-different problems in the past. Stories also share many of the pitfalls of metaphors: they simplify and distort. We must always remember that ultimately the world is complex, messy, nuanced and partly incomprehensible.

Taken to an extreme, common narrative structures can also create a sense of meaning in our lives. For example, once we have defined for ourselves our “treasure”, “monster”, “forces of good/evil” or “distant land of plenty”, we organize our lives around that particular goal or set of goals and feel a greater sense of coherence and purpose.

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