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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Working Solo, Dignifying Practice, Presenter Fear + Standing Ovations

Amy Sherald, Precious Jewels by the Sea, 2019

When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it. ― Yo-Yo Ma

Hello everyone, welcome back.

This particular newsletter is a long way to the bottom.

I’ve been thinking about you.

Local and international narrative therapy communities.

Trusting you are looking out for one another, enjoying that certain spark and beauty of in session conversations, and fashioning up ways to keep your narrative practice interesting.

Throughout the years, I’ve held a routine way to handhold a therapy practice, so it remains tight, interesting, and creative.

No big secret.

May not be everyone’s cup of tea.

And it’s not always so easy.

No, it’s not, always easy.

At times, keeping a practice fresh is decidedly sweaty and awkward especially if we end up doing narrative work on our own. With a world of the hustle bustle increasing, it can be challenging to connect, with our work, and with others.

But here is the solid air – if we don’t study our work, the standing question is, what does a practice end up becoming?

Uneasy. Detached. Hidden.

I get it. We all get it.

A way off this numbing train to nowhere is first: Step one - value an ongoing weekly practice of taping and transcribing your sessions. For starters, 15 to 20 minutes will do.

Whenever possible, the second sweet and crucial step is inviting a few unruffled narrative colleagues into the transparent bare bones mix.

Alongside this, try and begin a regular study of other narrative therapy transcripts. Make certain they are unaltered transcripts, where honest therapists put the agony and the ecstasy on full display.

Committing to a close-up experience of our work, and other therapists work, on a weekly basis, is not always the norm in private practice settings.

Nor is it a regular practice supported by agency, hospital, or community social service settings.

And yes, you attend staff administrative meetings and ‘forms’ of supervision where you talk ‘about’ your clients, but really, this doesn’t count, for much. Right?

I suppose the trick in operating on this 'less than practice supportive' landscape, with the with the singular goal of fostering a deeper connection with our narrative questions, is to treat it as a self-driven, individual endeavor.

And please remember, it’s vital to make it all cheery and chirpy.

Given what our job as therapists entails, its bewildering just how little encouragement is offered up to further develop our understandings of what we do.

And given the severity and escalating intensity of problems we (daily) encounter, we have yet to establish credible guardrails to promote dignifying practices of therapist accountability. Scary.

Collectively, I feel we understand the political and economic structures promoting, governing and complicit in supporting this kind of mental health set up, but still, they remain rather puzzling.

I feel that Michael White emphasized the fundamental necessity and significance of specific practices of accountability that we, as therapists, owe to our clients. This fiat stands at the forefront of narrative practice, and always has.

Michael clearly states in an interview I did with him and David Epston, that, if we do not continually study our work, ‘therapists will not take moral and ethical responsibility for the work they do’ (see this interview on

Relational and accountable practice actions include a study of the political, cultural, structural and normative relationships that we engage with and are influenced by during the course of day-to-day therapy.

Experiencing this experience of how the complex ecology of meanings and understandings indelibly shapes how we receive client stories and then, in turn, how we respond, sets narrative therapists apart from those who are not engaged in a practice of therapy.

Respectfully, what the practicing narrative therapist does (and/or is committed to try and do) comes with existential risks and responsibilities that characterize a profoundly different experience to others who do not practice therapy.

This group Includes policy makers, academics, administrators, researchers, journal editors, agency boards, and the professional crew who speculate, publish, govern, and teach us ‘about’ (in this case), narrative therapy.

In pointing out this difference, I am not discounting the ethos of non-therapist reports, analysis, interpretations, research, goodwill, and/or personal observations.

However, the ongoing history of narrative therapy suggests the ideas driving the work and holding most influence in our practice have predominantly involved a range of non-individualist philosophical/political/cultural ideological positions that do not have their origins in psychological knowledge or come out of departments of counseling, family therapy, or social work etc.

For example, Michael's reading of French post-structural philosopher and historian Michel Foucault dramatically shifted narrative practice.

VSNT faculty David Rock Nylund’s focus on Queer and third wave Feminist scholars during his cultural studies doctorate and his ongoing work at the trans-affirming Gender Health Centre initiated a queer informed narrative therapy practice.

VSNT faculty Harjeet Badwall’s exhaustive studies/teachings on Critical Race Theory and Post-Colonial studies has influenced narrative practice and invited narrative therapists and VSNT faculty to question the very foundations of counselling itself.

And of course, there is resident VSNT philosopher Todd May’s ideas, teachings, and 18 books of philosophy (his latest came out last week entitled CARE – Reflections on Who We Are) that are dramatically changing how we view and practice narrative therapy.

It is in the company of these inspirations (and others) that the VSNT faculty (and in turn the thousands of participants who continue to train and supervise with us) are forever creating passageways to re-think, re-paint and build upon the foundations of narrative therapy that Michael White so graciously tutored us in, before he died.

In my personal account of narrative therapy history of practice, Michael walked us away from 120 years of psychological knowledge. So, (and no complaints here!) we have pretty much been left on our own creative journey to find alternative, non-individualist theories to shape our practice.

It is then up to the practicing therapist who studies the philosophical, political, historical, and cultural movement of ideas, to labour inside the therapy room (or out in the community) and create an applied practice coherency with the ideas they take up and stand for.

Who, working relationally alongside insider couples, families, individuals, and group experience they meet with, find ways to understand, elucidate, and explicate how relationships to problems are culturally and contextually formed, challenged, and changed, within our practice of narrative therapy.

I sometimes imagine how beguiling it would be to hear a cascade of day-to-day narrative therapists speaking out and holding culturally weighted influence on what gets to be said about therapy through outlining the up-close, non-individualist experience of the practice we do.

OK then.

Irving Penn, Summer Sleep,1949

The Move

Since mid-April, I’ve been working, but not at my usual pace.

So newsletter readers, I admit, despite my written encouragements above to move you closer to your work, I haven’t been taping sessions, writing out transcripts, nor studying the ecology of my practice with anyone, all that much. Hypocrite! Ha!

The reason?

Nothing too dramatic.

I made a recent move out of Vancouver.

Not too far away, in fact I’m only a 20-minute ferry ride away.

To a little house, on a little island, located in a big temperate rain forest.

The sweetest of decks sports a wide-open glorious look back over the Pacific Ocean onto snow-capped Rocky Mountains and the city of Vancouver shoreline.

Welcome to Bowen Island.

Super fortunate a good friend, roundly respected as a master builder, crafts person, and artist, was moving back to Vancouver after more than a decade living between Hong Kong and Shenzhen China.

Thrilled to hear about the move he stated, “I would be honoured to work on your house.” Now I ask you – who in the world says that kind of thing about renovations?

A moving truck company trekked me in on Thursday, and we began our sold out 5-day VSNT Foundations immersion certificate course on Friday.

Thank you ever so much to VSNT faculty members who co-taught the 5-day Foundations certificate course with me (in order of appearance) Todd May, Christine Dennstedt, David Marsten, Rock Nylund, Helene Grau Kristensen, Harjeet Badwall, and Rosa Elena Arteaga.

And to Robin Evan Willis who runs this band of hooligans and keeps all the many moving parts of VSNT flowing.

As per usual, the BIG narrative conference (Therapeutic Conversations 17) is ramping up and organizing through inclusion, welcoming presentations from a variety of social locations, and acting on a smoky desire to highlight the beautiful best of where narrative practice is traveling towards.

We are only at TC 17 because the Vancouver School named the first 5 conferences Narrative Ideas and Therapeutic Practice conference.

If my math is correct, VSNT has sponsored 22 international narrative conferences. Including the first ever in 1993. Oh my, could this actually be our 30 year anniversary?

VSNT has hosted the majority in Vancouver, along with two in Toronto, two in Trondheim Norway, and one in Bergen Norway.

As per usual, this year’s BIG narrative conference represents a reflective surface facilitating a supportive proving ground for a presenter’s latest ideas. The experience proves exhilarating and frightening (just ask them!)

VSNT views narrative therapy’s history of practice and ideas on a long, rousing arc. Part of the arc of our conference involves sibling debates and differences about what we do. And leaves it up to participants to gravitate towards or away from what is presented.

It’s that simple.

TC conferences are a gymnasium for experiencing, examining and scrutinizing a presenter’s work, honestly.

Beautiful to experience. A seat at the grown-up’s table.

Often intoxicating, always respectful, and creating long-lasting supportive friendships.

And yes, there are times when presenters are heavily challenged, but no one (for the most part) ever dies. Grown-up’s table, indeed.

I can’t tell you the number of honeyed veteran narrative presenters and friends who have taken me aside and/or stated publicly at the beginning of a TC keynote or workshop, “I am so bloody nervous”, or says casually (with a bit of a laugh) “this is the only conference that truly terrifies me”.

These are the same presenters who travel the teaching world of narrative therapy and find this conference petrifying and gratifying - just ask them. :)

And it’s not for the reason that conference goers are mean-spirited. No.

It’s generally because our TC participant group are the most knowledgeable and creative narrative audience anywhere. Full stop.

I suppose it’s similar to what musician’s experience when playing live before a room filled with other great musicians.

There is absolutely no room for BS. And, if following this creed, the experience eventually warms and proves virtuous and noble.

Participants will rarely find presenters unnecessarily blowing their own horn, ill-prepared, or trying to pull a fast one.

They respect the TC audience far too much.

Another fun fact: Over the course of 22 conferences there have been over 100 keynote presentations. All have been tremendous and the majority very well received (well, there was that time when a keynote speaker was far too intoxicated – bad case of nerves I think.) Over these years, a grand total of 12 audience standing ovations have been offered.

Given to: Michael White, Charles Waldegrave/Kiwi Tamasese, Ken Hardy, Rachel Hare-Mustin, Esther Perel, America Braco, Alan Jenkins, Liz Evans, Aaron Munro/Gwen Haworth, Rachel Hare-Mustin, Imelda McCarthy and Todd May.

I was offered one once, but I don’t feel mine qualifies as I gave the keynote the year after Michael died to a room full of remembering, and tears.

Presenters go through a lot preparing for a TC conference.

And relationally, crowds tend to be generous, kind, and supportive even when presenters have an off day, or didn’t quite bring their ‘A’ game.

After months of labouring, presenters show up, take a deep breathe, discuss, demonstrate their session work and welcome critiques and complex questions. All the time hoping to hell the presentation flies.

Solid rock and roll, but maybe not for the faint of heart.

Last February the BIG conference put out the word that the Vancouver School was ready to throw a live conference and, just like that, a ton of international presenters populated our inbox with proposals.

What emerged from the blanket invite was an absurdly talented presenter roster. Seriously. I’m not kidding.

Over the coming months, we plan to introduce newsletter readers to various presenters and the ecology of ideas that support their practice.

How about we begin with:

A socio-cultural look at the phenomenon known as Hikikomori. Hikikomori is viewed as an extreme relational and social withdrawal response initially from young persons and now includes young and old.

The term hikikomori (derived from the verb hiki “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”) was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito. The term is used to describe how many young people were in relationship with an extreme social withdrawal.

In Japan, Hikikomori effects 1.2% of the population (roughly 1 million people). The problem is spreading fast and has exported its way into numerous countries.

Big Narrative Conference presenters Jack Chiu Tak Choi (Hong Kong), Keswick Chuk Wing Hung (Hong Kong), and VSNT faculty Sharon Leung (Hong Kong/London UK) speak with participants on: Hikikomori: A Unique Narrative Project.

This set of highly creative presenters outline a unique narrative project carried out collaboratively with other communities, NGOs, animal intervention agencies, and animal shelters.

They explain - “In capitalist Hong Kong where people's worth is based on competition, greed, and selfishness (and of course other dominant discourses related to academic achievement and job advancement)”. 'Hikikomori', as they view the phenomenon, is a 'proclamation of response' (Michael White) from young people who want to maintain a close relationship with their values, commitments, and purposes of life.”

What they found in their work in Hong Kong was a large group of young people retreating to their bedrooms full time , 24-7, who were no longer willing to participate in social interactions with humans.

As a side note, I’m sure it is not lost on you how Hikikomori represents a new set of persons stepping into the role of ‘canary in the cultural coal mine’.

First wave responders protesting mind numbing expectations of modern-day neoliberal culture. In much the same way young women struggling with anorexia and bulimia demonstrated a deadly riposte to body politics and pressing patriarchal specifications during the late 1970’s.

The veteran narrative therapy teaching team from Hong Kong discuss how they found isolated, walled up youth able to form strong and meaningful relationships in the past and present with their pets/animals.

~ Alright then – ready for more?

OK. Spark up the Ken Kesey bus.

VSNT faculty Christine Dennstedt has the chops and know-how to present on a variety of narrative practice topics.

This year she’ll introduce participants a right off the grill, fresh ‘work in progress’ entitled: Rituals, Rites of Passage, and Transcendence: Narrative approaches and the therapeutic use of psychedelics.

Christine guides you through her growing understanding of work that brings together psychedelic medicines and narrative therapy practice.

Adding to the ecology of her theoretical backdrop is the use of ethnographer and folklorist Charles-Arnold Kurr Van Gennep and anthropologist Victor Turner. Drawing on their ideas including, rites of passage, ritual process, separation, liminal space, and re-incorporation.

Christine also guides participants inside the importance of set and setting, the process of preparation, and use of psychedelic medicine.

She then integrates the ethnographic and anthropological driven stages, the psychedelic medicine journey, and demonstrates the use of a narrative informed therapy framework. Christine offers multiple examples of using narrative informed questions in each of the three phases of the work.

~ OK – how about we outline two more workshops, and we can wrap this up, for now.

Our next TC 17 workshop highlights the practice ideas of Dr. Virgil Moorehead Jr, the Executive Director at Two Feathers Native American Family Services in McKinleyville, CA., and enrolled member of the Big Lagoon Rancheria (Yurok/Tolowa nation). He presents alongside narrative therapist Jennifer Oliphant who is the Clinical Director at Two Feathers.

Their combined work together has led to the Two Feathers practice team becoming a model Indigenous youth mental health program.

The title of their workshop is: Plotting a Course for Connection with Indigenous Youth and Families by Decolonizing Mental Health Services.

Jennifer and Virgil discuss the use of indigenous knowledges, narrative therapy, post-structural, and social justice ideas to resist the influence of systemic oppression acting on mental health and wellness outcomes for indigenous youth.

Participants witness the ways Jennifer and Virgil continually strive to transform the field of mental health services for indigenous communities through innovative and Indigenous practices by creating an agency culture of sustainability and connection, promoting the traditions and inherited knowledge of their clients, and the unique collaboration between their agency and the communities they serve.​

~ Whew! One final BIG TC 17 conference workshop for newsletter readers to peruse. Let’s see. Hmm.

Oh, I know. How about an awesome new workshop that travels far beyond trauma informed somatic approaches and towards a narrative informed, feminist, decolonizing practice of the body.

Now we’re talking.

Introducing long-time VSNT faculty member the incomparable Rosa Elena Arteaga. She hails from Mexico and works in Vancouver Canada as the Clinical Director and Supervisor to an inspired multi-disciplinary team of women working within a non-profit anti-violence women’s organization.

The presentation title is: Rich Stories of Strength, Resistance, and Transformation: Engaging persons in a healing process through collaborating with their body.

Rosa’s latest creative practice endeavour demonstrates her direct intentional interviewing of the person’s abused and violated body.

She then shows how to co-create relational contracts with the person and body as a way to heal and reconnect this (very) often severed relationship.

Through her original narrative therapy informed, feminist inspired, just therapy approach to practice, Rosa's work takes the learner inside the complexities of gender violence and unforgiving traumas through a production of slides and multiple session transcripts.

Participants learn from her twenty-five years of experience and thousands of narrative informed practice hours engaging individually and collectively with girls and women who have experienced gender-based violence and trauma.

~ More BIG TC conference presenters and their work coming in July.

Lynne Finlay, Carolina Beach Swimmer, Lynne Finlay, 2014


Thought I’d bring you up to speed on a completely unsolicited, lovely and active (as we speak), narrative phenomenon.

Scores and scores of members are spontaneously writing to VSNT to simply express their gratitude and joy connecting to hundreds of one-of-kind narrative session videos, workshops, discussions, courses.

In a few months, VSNT begins hosting live one-and-two-hour narrative practice and theory discussions and fascinating insider therapist interviews.

Access to these consultations and discussions are only for members. Community. Cool.

Ok then.

As always, I wish to thank you for the time spent reading this little narrative newsletter piece.

If you’d like to contact me directly, please write to:

Wishing you well and thanks again.

See you back here in July.

Stephen x

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