A Faculty Transcript, Are We Multi-Storied? 2021 Hellos and Goodbyes
The Seine in Flood at Vetheuil, Claude Monet, 1881
Hello Everyone . . . Hoping all remains interesting and healthy where you are.
Today’s newsletter menu includes a transcribed Zoom VSNT faculty discussion. The transcript reflects how we learn, share ideas and, enjoy hanging out, together. The transcript documents a few theoretical ideas affecting how we think and practice, led by resident philosopher Todd May. Here are the faculty:
We hope you find the topics we’re wrestling with, somewhat interesting. At least interesting enough to contemplate and perhaps, even, follow up in your own narrative practice.
However, before we arrive at the faculty transcript, the plan is to begin our year end newsletter observing a few existential reckonings that had many of us running a steeplechase course through 2021.
Loads and loads of reflective existential reckonings, beckoned us to pause and appreciate. To hold tender mercies tight. Reminding us to remember responsibilities, answerabilities, and liabilities of change, difference.
These thoughts may not be exactly, exacting. No. Rather a bit more like creative drifts spotting patterns and shapes, of difference. Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the sun, and feathered canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way . . . and now they only block the sun they rain on snow on everyone. - Joni Mitchell lyrics for the song Both Sides Now.
I do marvel at the flow of existential reckonings, these comings and goings, and changes to who and what I value, have been drawn towards, and away from, over this past year.
Like retrospective albums of who and what we wish to keep close by and, by the same token, pointing us to who and what has floated, further on down the road. Coming and goings appearing more poignant, this past year.
I’m fascinated with how the couples I serve in therapy, and the people I love so much in my life, experience the ongoing incoming parade of harnessed and hastened unknowns.
The gravity of unknown pressures like COVID, climate change, abject moral differences, to name a few. How are they affected? How are we becoming shaped by the mysteries, by a context that overlays, influences and fashions, the whole kit and caboodle, the whole enchilada.
These days I walk by the ocean suited up in rain gear, contemplating my recently turned 26-year-old twin daughters, and just how much courage and grit it takes for them to live, what we may have once viewed simply as, an ordinary life. I imagine you entertain these thoughts, about our younger generation, the ones you love and care for, deeply.
As you probably know, the place where I live, Vancouver, British Columbia, is situated in a temperate rain forest. Magnificent mountains peaks, ocean waves and lush green landscapes. Living here in the rain forests, we expect the rain to fall. Lots and lots of rainfall November through mid-March, but never, has it ever, come close to what has fallen from the sky over the past few weeks, here in BC.
Bustling, thriving, largely populated BC communities including several Stó꞉lō First Nation communities, 100 kilometres east and further on, experienced the worst of it.
The southwest of BC was smashed by both a “Pineapple Express” (an “atmospheric river” of moisture that comes from the tropical Pacific to our coast) and, if this wasn’t enough, a rare “weather bomb”, caused by a rapidly deepening low-pressure system, an event also referred to as a “bomb cyclone.” The official term is factually found in a process called bombogenesis. How quaint.
Single days of rain hosted upwards of 180 millimetres (7+ inches), and weeks later, the rain keeps falling. Holey moly.
Multiple stretches of critical highways and rail links joining Vancouver to the rest of Canada, are blown out or buried, under landslides. Imagine sewage and water treatment plants overrun and shut down, houses swept away or flooded, entire towns evacuated, farming operations heavily damaged with tens of thousands of chickens and hundreds of dairy cows dead by drowning, community natural gas supplies severed, and big dikes breached and blown open at key places. Catastrophe, and it’s only now early December.
Flood Waters, Claude Monet, 1896
December is dashing us away from the past year, and into the next. Reflecting on 2021, are the creative styles of connection that stand out, most, to me. Front and centre. Recalling the who and which ‘nouns’ (people, places, things or ideas) did I draw closer towards? Leave behind. I’m sure you can relate, somehow, to this. One style of connection drums an upbeat rhythm germane to the VSNT narrative newsletter. This being the ongoing bounty of kind-hearted, outrageously humorous, and intellectually thought-provoking connections I enjoy alongside my VSNT faculty friends/colleagues. I decided to share a taster with you. Sharing a transcript of a conversation the faculty enjoyed together in 2021, that is located further down the page. Wanted to raise the blinds, a little. Raise a little interest about what goes on behind the scenes at VSNT. Topics for today are: the difference between discovering and creating stories, questioning the idea of the multi-storied person, questioning Derrida’s influence on narrative therapy, introducing another new theorist and a few other little bits. Enjoy. - - - I often liken our faculty conversations to how my Irish relatives (and others met in pubs and parties), step up and accept the noble call of telling a joke (and/or stepping up to sing a song, recite a poem.) Now, the intention of a joke’s telling is purposed on an acute desire to raise the collective spirit, higher. Not any old joke will do. Not for this crowd. So, clear your throat, raise up your shoulders, step up, grab the floor: a naked man walked into a pub carrying a shovel: no three-act structure. Timing. Precision. Curiosity. Laughter. Successfully adding on to the party spirit. Joke telling, like our faculty discussions, look outward, for the common good, for the creative leap. Never inward and selfishing (if that’s a word. Ha!) A few more observations about our VSNT faculty. The philosopher Spinoza wrote: all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. To a person, and each in their own way, we seem to court difficulty. Finding interest in braving difficult situations, yearnings, politics, ideas, clients. On it goes. Another common trend I notice is to address a struggle with sincerity, together with a bit of a laugh, humility, grace. To a person, they are not the ones standing in the corner at a party holding court and bragging on about all things they know (or think they know, Ha, ha!), or alluding to how fabulous they are, or, how hard it has been, for them. Never. Running towards confusion is another attractive and common past time, with no desire for ease or, the easy way out. Call this courting failure. Faculty seem to be adherents of Samuel Beckett’s famous line: no matter, try again, fail again, fail better. Yes! The fine art of failure. If you’ve ever witnessed the faculty teach, you begin to realize they carry a self-effacing spirit (as all you Canadians can identify with), showing off the warts and all, in all they do. The faculty share being touched by good timing and fortune. Specific to growing up as therapists with the kindliness of outspoken therapists, and sitting on bar stools with authors and activists, rocking and rolling and shaking things up. Practicing, agitating, questioning, enjoying, from the district of social responsibility. Therapy as political action. Often, I find myself wanting to share discussions I have with VSNT colleagues/friends. Discussions I surely take tremendous benefit from, with each, and every one of them. Because chatting with VSNT faculty sometimes brings on a strange feeling, an unusual form of heart-breaking pleasure withholding. Wishing upon a star that everyone in our community could experience this opportunity, this feeling of spirited examination and ever so lively connection. I suppose VSNT’s intention and original design of our online learning platform VSNT.live (and the reason it took years for me to cut and edit more than 500 narrative video clips, with 65% of the original archive still to go . . .Ha!), was to somehow open-up a public gateway for students and therapists to experience conversations shared with remarkable narrative therapists, theorists and justice advocates, way back when and, now.
Some time ago, I was catching up with two VSNT faculty members: philosopher Todd May and community worker and homeless persons advocate Aaron Munro. We were discussing the topic of writing and, more specifically, a book Aaron is writing on the stories and wisdom gained from a community of homeless persons, dear to his heart. The day after, Aaron and I received an email back from Todd to include a few more thoughts on writing and, the following add on note: “One clarification I would like to offer, which we can discuss if it resonates for, as we say in New York, youse guys. I don't think that people contain many stories; I think they contain a rich history from which many different stories can be built. The import of that is that if people contain stories, then therapy remains a project of discovery--discovering the story that helps the person flourish. Alternatively, if people contain a rich history that forms a wellspring for other stories, then the emergence of other stories is a project of creation rather than simple discovery. This, of course, is one of the lessons I draw from reading and extending Merleau-Ponty's thought.” Todd’s thread emphasizes a difference between story discovery and creating, a topic we’d discussed together before. Leading us to questions regarding how people are not, as it is sometimes written up and taught in certain narrative therapy contexts, multi-storied. Questioning . . . if narrative practice is based on discovering stories that are viewed to already be present, was this really Michael’s original intention and meaning? Or, quite possibly, has the concept of multi-storied lives and relationships been taken up into general narrative practice, supervision and teaching, significantly different and with more essentialist/individualist understandings to how Michael practiced and what he intended? Todd’s reflection intentionally bumps us towards re-evaluating Jacque Derrida’s work on deconstruction and the influence the ideas had on Michael and narrative therapy. Never a fan of Derrida, Todd guides us toward an alternative philosophical construction found in the work of Merleau-Ponty, who, by the way, he considers the missing philosophical link in narrative therapy (this of course constitutes a much larger discussion for another day, but if you just can’t wait to dip your toes into this area of thought, Todd has a few superb lectures on the subject within VSNT.live.) So, pens at the ready, all raring to go, he started off our faculty Zoom gathering with a discussion on stories and the difference between discovering and creating (that includes a discussion on Deleuze/Foucault/Derrida/Merleau-Ponty). Below are just a few bits of the discussion transcript, transcribed for the readers of this newsletter. Oh, and take please note, within the transcript, nothing is ‘rendered’ ‘edited out’ or ‘fixed up’ to have the faculty talkers look more handsome than they already are (: Are you with me? Todd has introduced the topic and we are 5 or so minutes into the discussion (and, I’ll be interested to know what all of you think of this chat at the end): Todd: But the point at which I’ve started to raise some questions, is the idea of people as multi-storied. If we interpret that as the idea that people have many different stories in them, and the idea is to help bring out the story then it seems to me that has two problems. One we could call a philosophical ontological problem. And one a problematic conception of therapy. The one problem, the philosophical problem is, where are these stories? It’s not as though people have a menu of stories in them and that you’re going to help them pick out the right story. To say there are stories that are there and haven’t been made explicit seems to me a very puzzling conception of what’s going on inside people’s experience. I’m going to propose something else, as the thing that’s going on inside of people. But the other problem is, with what’s happening if there are stories inside people, the project of therapy becomes to discover the other stories. To figure out among these other stories, which one, or which ones, are going to be the ones that are more amenable to a person flourishing. And my understanding is that’s not what any of you here do. That you will see perhaps unique outcomes in their lives. Places where the story they’re telling themselves, doesn’t fit. And out of that you work with them to build another story that can be more empowering for them. That they can see themselves in a different light and move forward. But I think it would be a mistake to say that story is already there. I think what’s probably more accurate is to say that story gets created. Now it’s not created out of nothing, I’ll come back to that. But the story gets created in your work with them, that you are working with people to help create the kinds of stories and narratives, that will be able to be empowering for the people there. (Discussion continues for a few minutes and then . . .) So, rather than seeing people as multi-storied we can see people - or put it another way - rather than seeing people as containing many narratives, I think we can see people as - and I’m going to use a term, seeing people as narratable. That is to say beings out of which narratives can be created. (Discussion continues for a few minutes and then . . .) We can see who we are, not as multi-storied, but as narratable, containing a wellspring of stories, out of which other stories can be created. Now the project that you have, with the people that you’re seeing, is one of co-creation. You are together working with them to create a story. Not to discover something in the story that was already there. But to create something. You’re not looking inside them for the thing they don’t see. So, that shift I want to recommend is a shift away from multistoried as the idea that they’re there. And away from Derrida as the theorist that promotes thinking of these things as discovery rather than co-creation terms. The issue is not the story that’s there but rather the elements that aren’t being recognized in the dominant story and that can be brought out to create a new story. There’s something there. When you work with someone you can’t just create - like not any story will do. Their history has the capacity to create that will resonate. But you can’t just create any story for a person and they’re like ‘Okay, fine. I’ll go with that’. That story must have resonance in their history. But that resonance isn’t there because the story is already there somewhere, that resonance has history because that history has elements within them that they can respond to. And out of which they can create a more flourishing story. (Discussion continues with a few faculty comments from Rosa Arteaga and Helene Grau and then . . .) Rock Nylund: I have a question, Todd. And it’s related to what Rosa said earlier. We don’t discover stories, ok. We help create them. That they’re not inside already present and would you think that a person has values or intentions that are there but are undervalued or have been underappreciated does that make sense? They’ve not yet been storied? Helene Grau: Todd I love the way you’re speaking about it. I love that you say we don’t have multiple stories about things in our life. My question is - what I’m struggling with - when I hear you talk about this in this way, it fits with how I think, how I experienced Michael talking about it. When you’re talking about how we don’t have the stories, we have the skills in creating multiple stories. The elements are there but we are creating we’re not discovering stories. I think that is how I recognize what Michael was talking about it. What I do also appreciate about what you’re talking about is when he was talking about deconstruction, I think there was a big difference between the article he wrote in one of his books where Michael was very much connected to the exception. But later on when he was talking about intentional identity and the values it was more like the elements was there and they opened the space for creating multiple stories about what people were responding to and why they were responding to these in this way because it was related to what they gave value to. So my question is how is this different from how it fits with how I recognize what Michael was talking about it? Do you see a difference between how you’re talking about it and Michael was talking about it or is it more like the difference between how Derrida was talking about it and Michael was talking about it? Todd: Good okay. So, look, Michael was a therapist not a philosopher. What he’s using are the philosophical tools to help frame what he’s thinking about therapeutically the best he can. And I think most of the time, clearly with Foucault, I just feel like he was spot on. But I think in sometimes reaching for those philosophical tools in Derrida he would be reaching to a place that might not be as accurate at capturing what he was on about. So, on the one hand Helena I want to agree, but I think this is capturing where he was headed. But I think there were sometimes ways of framing that led him away from that- that could tempt people to move away from where he was headed I think using Derrida. Again, I think he got Derrida right, but I just don’t think he should have used these ideas. And the term multistoried I think can mean not that there are stories there but rather that people, if I can use that word again, are narratable, as to which stories can be created. And I think that more accurately reflects it. But sometimes you hear that being mutli-storied is ‘Let’s find the other story’. Helene: Like the story’s already there. Todd: Yeah. So what I’m trying to do is not fundamentally question the approach but refine how we think about it. Helene: Yes. Todd: In such a way that it offers a better frame. Helene: Yeah. And the reason why I ask this is because it fits so much with in dealing with or thinking about these things because I remember having these discussions with Michael. Do you think stories are already there? And he said no it’s not there. The elements are there but we are creating the stories. Todd: That seems to be a more accurate way to put it. The worry is - I mean all of the faculty here in this virtual room have been at this a long time and thought about it a lot. But I think it’s easier for people who are coming in to training to think of it as a technique. Okay multistory let’s flip to the other story. Let’s find the opposite right? And that’s the temptation we have to get away from. Helene: Agree. Todd: That then brings me back to what Rock and Rosa are saying because, Rock and Rosa I want to agree. People have intentions that have values. And those become some of the elements out of which other stories are created. So, when the person walks into Rosa’s room and says ‘Who do I want to be?’ there isn’t that person in there. The person she wants to be in there is going to be created out of the elements that she brings. But the other thing to recognize, and again I’m telling you things that you probably know, is the values and intentions out of which they build the story as they’re building the story the values and intentions themselves might change. I think the elements- what you’re talking about, the elements are there. But I think we want to think about those elements not as we say building blocks out of which we can create the edifice. But rather that we help create stories that reflect back sometimes on the elements themselves. That dynamic type relation. Rock: Yeah I get a sense the way you’re framing it, I think in terms of discovering if it’s already there it can be really be misread and reproduced in an essentialist notion of the self along with individualism. David Marsden: The risk in my mind, I appreciate everything that’s being said and I appreciate Todd you talking about creation based on elements from people’s histories or as Helena is saying, ‘I remember Michael saying that there’s something like one or two or three percent of people’s lived experience that’s been storied. And the risk in my mind of thinking more creatively rather than in terms of discovery is that people might feel tempted then, or practitioners might feel tempted, doing future focused work. And I think it’s important that you’re emphasizing that this is based in people’s histories. And so we’re always going back in time to see how they might want to relate to their own history in the experience of creating stories. I like that idea. That we’re creating rather than discovering but I think it’s so important to then be working with memory creatively rather than in a therapy that starts to look future focused. Todd: Yeah. Let me say something about that. I think this is important. And it goes to when I try to talk to people about turning away from Derrida and including ideas of Merleau-Ponty or Gilles Deleuze within narrative. I say you’ve got to avoid two extremes. Each of which is a problem. One is the essentialist idea. Okay here’s who you are. Right? And the other, this is what you’re pointing to is the blank slate idea. Right? The idea is we can just move forward and forget. We’ll just move forward from here as though people are blank slates and you can just move them in some way. It reminds me if you’ve ever seen Young Frankenstein? David: I just watched it again. Todd: Remember walk this way? Right? Marty Feldman the hunchback, right? David: Igor! Todd: And he says walk this way and he’s walking like this? And they start following him and he says ‘No. Walk this way’. He wants them to walk hunched. Right? That would be the future orienting. It doesn’t matter where you are. What matters is that you walk this way. And you get rid of the bad thoughts. To build is not to look at a person individualistically, essentially, discovery-wise, or to look at them as blank slates out of which you can build whatever future you like. It’s to look at them like in that in-between. As having a rich history out of which some stories can be built but not just any story. And that’s what I think Merleau-Ponty offers and I’m going to just purely speculate that I suspect that when Michael was reading Deleuze near the end of his life, that may have been something that was there. Because it’s read in Deleuze. Right? That conception of us that we’re neither already with lots of identities but is not a blank slate either. Stephen Madigan: If I can just bring us back to the way I feel narrative is taught sometimes and understood. And it’s a very simplistic notion or metaphor, and this is that of a file cabinet. We have a file cabinet full of stories already there and the problem saturated story has restrained us from the back half of the filing cabinet but it’s there, somewhere. And what the therapist does is go into that file cabinet and remove the restraints and discover those already existing stories and bring them forward. And I think it’s been written up and taught like that. Maybe it wasn’t Michael’s intention but that’s how, looking through the literature and present day teaching, I think it’s been taken up like this. So that’s why the discussion of moving away from discovery and towards creativity is important. The other piece of this though, there are other ideas that I wish that you will talk about at some point, and they’re more Deleuzian than anything else. Todd: Can I just- Christine? You were starting to say something I want to make sure you have the space to come out into. Christine Dennstedt: Well what I was thinking of is I am liking how you’re talking about this because I’m liking the piece of, people often have this struggle where if we’re reaching down inside of ourselves for one part of our identity or how we see ourself. But then we’re locating problems external to us, how people have a hard time making sense of that. The good stuff is inside of me, the bad stuff is outside of me, it’s this weird dichotomy that happens. So I think that this- the way you’re talking about it helps me make sense of that in a different way. And then I’m also thinking about so much of the work that we do is about the stories that people tell about themselves that are based on stories that they’re imagining other people are telling them about themselves. Or that people actually are telling about them. Or the stories they’re imagining the problems are telling about themselves. I’m just thinking about the ways in which community and family and friends are built into this idea because that’s really so much of how we know come to know ourselves is in community. And those are the ways that we’re storied. Not just individually it’s in connection with others. Todd: Helene I know you want to say something. Helene: It can wait. Christine may like to bring something more in, so just respond to Christine, that’s fine. Todd: I do have a thought but it’s going to be a more general thought. Helene, bring your idea in and second I should tell you Helena has honoured me by coming to a number of my training sessions in Denmark. And I will be a little disappointed if you don’t profoundly disagree with me about something the way you have in the past. Helena comes to my session and she has, of course she’s much gentler than I am because in New York it would be like “Yeah well what about this”. Helene: No, actually what I was thinking about while I was hearing you talking, I was thinking about the way Stephen was talking about how Narrative Therapy is taken up, how it’s being talked about, how it’s been thought about and taught in a way where it becomes like we’re discovering the positive stories. And I think what I really love about working in a narrative way is that it’s not about discovering the positive stories and if we did that Narrative Therapy would be like Positive Psychology. And I think when we are into the idea that we are able to create multiple stories and we are connecting it to the elements that are already there but the story has not yet been developed. We can develop many stories. I think that is where Narrative Therapy for me is more about dignity. It’s not about just making up a powerful story but it’s about taking the elements that are already there connecting them to actions and creating new stories that are in a way more into creating dignity around the person’s way of how the person has been already in life and how the person is in life now and how the person is in the future. So just thinking about for me the stories are not already there and if I start to think about it n that way I think I lose what is very important for me to think about being critical of what I’m creating all the time and how the creation of these stories- it’s creation not discovery. So I think it’s very important for me to think about it as creation because in creation we think about how I’m also contributing to the stories that are getting developed and how these stories connect in with how community is participating in these stories. So that is just my reflection around these things. Todd: Yeah. And that connects to what Christine was saying. About the community and- actually all I was going to do here was make a recommendation that that term narratable, is one I borrowed from the philosopher Adriana Cavarero, and what I’ll do Stephen is I’ll email you a link to the book. She’s an Italian philosopher. She’s known as a Feminist philosopher but I actually think her work is much broader than that. I mean she does do Feminist work but it’s not just Feminist work. She has a book called ‘Relating Narratives’, where she talks about how the kinds of narratives we tell often come from outside of us. She’s a scholar of ancient Greek thought. She uses this story of Odysseus and others. Every once and a while she can become sort of technical but mostly she’s not. But this idea that we’re narratable and a lot of our narratives come from the outside is something that she focuses on a good bit. And so that might be- I think that will resonate with what you’re saying Christine, I think that will resonate what you’re saying as well Helene. And once we see that of course, we also see that with the stories that are coming from that outside these now are not internal essences of who we are. These are ways in which, as Foucault would point out, that we’ve been created. Which means that these creations are contingent which means that we can create ourselves in other ways from the ways we’ve been created. And part of Cavarero’s idea opens out on to that. Helene: Can I add one more thing? When I sometimes do supervision with people who are acting or thinking they are very much influenced by narrative ideas and I can see what Stephen is talking about. Sometimes therapy’s seems like pushing the person to discover the positive story that’s there. And this gets storied as the person’s resistance to really discovering alternative aspects about themselves. And I think that is the danger when Narrative Therapy gets written up as ‘the stories are already there, you just need the person to discover them’. Stephen: I also feel this may tie into ideas about how people practice the absent but implicit or their understandings of the absent but implicit and how they then preform the idea in the therapy room . . .. But perhaps we can leave this for the next time we meet in January.
The Flood, Claude Monet, 1872
If you’re at all interested in learning about the many new theoretical and practice developments VSNT faculty are presently entertaining, please feel free to join us: The first six months of VSNT 2022 training schedule for a) Foundations & Fundamentals of Narrative Therapy, b) Advanced Narrative Practice Topics, c) Third Nordic Narrative Therapy conference in Bergen Norway, and, d) Narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships . . . Feel free to read all about the first half of 2022 certificate training courses here:
The faculty of VSNT would like you to join us in wishing ALL the very best to our illustrious and creative Operations Director, Robin Evan Willis. Robin has recently left on maternity leave and, any day now, she and her partner Chris welcome baby Max into the world and our community. Robin plans a return to VSNT on April 1st. In the meantime, we offer a warm and inclusive welcome to Caleb who will be working the VSNT phones and appointment bookings, and Kaelee who steps into overseeing all VSNT training questions and development. If you’d like to respond directly to me about the newsletter please write to: email@example.com. Thanks. From all of us here at VSNT we want to wish you and all the people you love a healthy, adventurous, and interesting year ahead. Peace,
Rising Tide at Pourville, Claude Monet, 1882