(This is an expansion of a post that was shared with my Patreon patrons earlier this month.)
I am learning how to do narrative therapy, how to be a narrative therapist, how to engage with my clients in ways that are narratively-informed. But what does that mean? What is narrative therapy? What does a narrative therapist do? What benefit does narrative therapy offer?
In this series of posts, I’m inviting readers to join me in the learning process. The first of these posts was shared in April, and was about using narrative practices of collective documentation as it was used in a group exercise of Connecting To Our Skills. This post is also about documentation! (I really love generating documents, in case you couldn’t tell!)
This post is about therapeutic narrative letters.
Narrative letters are an important part of narrative practice, and have been part of the field for years (and therapeutic letter writing is also present in other disciplines). I had written some letters to community members who consulted with me, but my recent trip to Sacramento to learn from the therapists at the Gender Health Center really encouraged me to explore this practice further. The therapists there, particularly David Nylund, use narrative letters regularly – both with community members and also between therapists and supervisors. I was able to hear some of those letters, and it was a moving experience.
Shortly after I returned from Sacramento, I ran a two-hour narrative group therapy session at Camp Fyrefly, and I wrote narrative letters to the participants. Each of the participants gave me permission to share these letters.
I learned a lot through this process of writing, and one thing I learned is that it takes a long time to write a narrative letter! I knew this from my earlier efforts, but writing to a group like this really brought home for me how challenging this practice is. And yet, despite that challenge, it is a practice I will be incorporating more regularly into my narrative work. This is not only because I value opportunities to create documents, but also because I think a letter can be a powerful thing and I want to offer something back to the community members who consult me. Something that, hopefully, offers them a tangible reminder of the ways in which they are responding to the problems in their lives, and that connects them with the stories of their lives.
This isn’t just my own gut feeling, though. Other narrative therapists have written about the power of therapeutic letter writing.
In a 2010 paper, published in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, Susan Stevens wrote:
Letter writing has been a wonderful way to assist my growing understanding of narrative practices, particularly in learning the various maps. Crafting a letter has required me to carefully reflect on conversations in a similar way to reviewing recorded sessions. I have found it has given me some space to really examine my practice and facilitate further learning. I have discovered opportunities that I have missed that I can then pursue in the letter, as well as positive moments that can be developed further.
Letter writing following counselling sessions has created many more possibilities for working together than I initially envisaged. It has been a great privilege to work alongside people as they revise their relationships with significant problems in their lives. Hearing how the letters have supported people to construct preferred storylines of identity and celebrating their achievements toward this has been incredibly exciting.
In 2016, also in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, Renee Butler wrote:
Letter writing in a counselling context has a long history (Watts, 2000) and in particular, the use of narrative documents has been heavily influenced by the field of anthropology (Myerhoff, 1992). Myerhoff talks about how we can be ‘nourished by our stories being fed back to ourselves’ (Myerhoff, 2007, p. 25), and one of the ways in which this can be done richly in practice is through offering documents that honour and acknowledge the stories we hear from the people who consult with us. In a narrative context, these types of therapeutic documents have been used with the purpose of creating double-story development, where the listener provides an acknowledgement of the problem as well as a rich description of an alternative story that was hidden within the dominant ‘problem’ story (White & Epston, 1990). White and Epston were interested in the value of therapeutic documents and because of this they undertook some informal research into the usefulness of this practice. They established that a good therapeutic document (or letter) was worth 4.5 sessions of good therapy (White, 1995) and concluded that engaging in this process was worth the time and energy needed by the therapist.
David Nylund (at the Gender Health Center, which I visited last month) has participated in research into the therapeutic efficacy of narrative letters. From a 2015 paper:
At the present time, there is not much evidence for the effectiveness of therapeutic letters in narrative therapy. However, both David Epston and Michael White (Freeman, Epston and Lobovits, 1997) have conducted informal clinical research, asking clients questions such as these:
1. In your opinion, how many sessions do you consider a letter such as the ones that you have received is worth?
2. If you assigned 100 per cent to whatever positive outcomes resulted from our conversations together, what percentage of that would you contribute to the letters you have received?
The average response to Question 1 was that the letter had the equivalent value of 4.5 sessions. In response to Question 2, letters were rated in the range of 40% to 90% for total positive outcome of therapy.
Such findings were replicated in a small-scale study performed at a large medical facility in California. Nylund and Thomas (1994) reported that their respondents rated the average worth of a letter to be 3.2 face-to-face interviews (the range was 2.5–10) and 52.8% of positive outcome of therapy was attributed to the letters alone. As supported by this research, the amount of time it takes to write letters seems worth the effort.
So a narrative letter can be the therapeutic equivalent of 3.2-4.5 narrative therapy sessions. And it can assist in my own development as a narrative therapist, and enrich the experience of the community members who consult me. That seems like a really important practice to develop, especially since a lot of the folks consulting me do not have the finances to sustain frequent or extended therapeutic work.
But it’s hard work! And it takes a long time. For me, as a newbie to the practice, these four letters took me almost 12 hours, and many drafts.
I’m not sure exactly how this practice will develop in my work, since I won’t be able to write a narrative letter for every session. But it’s certainly something that I am considering, and if you are interested in working with me and are particularly keen on letters being part of our therapeutic relationship, let me know!
I’m sharing these four letters for two reasons.
First, because I think that the insider knowledge shared during our group conversation was valuable and might help other folks. Sharing these letters means that you have an opportunity to read and respond, and if anything particularly resonates for you, you can send me your response and I can share it back with the community members.
And second, because I’m “showing my work” and inviting you to see what happens behind the scenes as I learn.
Anyway! Here they are!
The letter to the group:
Dear A., E., and J.,
It has taken me a while to get these letters written.
Every time I sat down to write, I got lost in the wealth of information and insight that was shared during our conversation. I could write you each a whole novel! But that wouldn’t be a very good narrative letter.
Each draft of the letter that I wrote just didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t figure out how to make it coherent, how to shape it into something meaningful. I wanted to answer some critical questions:
What stands out the most to me when I think about our conversation?
What moved me in our conversation?
What do I want to note, and hopefully in a way that offers something meaningful back to you?
You were each so generous with your time, your energy, and your stories.
After many attempts, I realized that the problem was in trying to write a single letter to the group, rather than specific letters to each of you. Although there was so much resonance between your stories, you each brought something unique to the conversation. In trying to compress my response into a single letter, I kept losing the richness of the diversity in your contributions and your shared stories. And, since camp is so much about honouring and holding space for diversity, I finally realized what I needed to do! So, four letters. This one, and one to each of you.
As I mentioned during our conversation, this practice of writing narrative letters is new to me – I have done a lot more work in collective documentation. In collective documentation, I take a group conversation, and then generate a document or resource that shares the insights and stories with a broader audience. In those documents, I am sharing outward from the group, and a single document makes sense!
What I found as I tried to write this letter (now ‘these letters’) was that it is a bit of a different thing when I am writing inward, to the group, rather than outward, from the group.
One of the things that everyone in the conversation shared was the commitment to holding space for complexity, and for valuing the well-being of the people around us.
This was true for each of you, and it belongs here, in the group letter.
There was an ethic of care that extended in multiple directions – from the counsellors to the campers, from the campers to each other, from the campers to the counsellors, and from the counsellors to each other. This multi-directional, complex, compassionate care was beautiful to see.
My favourite quote from our conversation, and the one that has stuck with me, was this – “Giving up hope on a solution by generating hope for a process.”
I think that throughout our conversation, we found very few solutions. We talked about problems that are ongoing, that are supported and strengthened by the oppressive and marginalizing systems around us. Problems with deep roots and wide-ranging impacts. We did not solve these problems in our conversation – Imposter Syndrome (supported as it is by capitalism, by individualist culture, by hierarchies of knowledge, by a culture that values “expertise” and “productivity” in very specific ways); Guilt (supported internally and externally, by our desire to take care of each other, and also by social contexts that leave very little room for imperfection, failure, and growth); Comparison; and others.
So, no solutions.
But so many steps towards process, and so much hope for process.
These processes include harm reduction, disconnecting from value-judgements, holding and curating space for ourselves and each other, imagining ourselves and each other with complexity and compassion, naming our memories, seeking external validation and choosing to receive it, recognizing the potential for growth in failure, and so much more.
These processes, informed by your insider knowledge into navigating the problems in your lives, are full of hope.
I feel fortunate to have been able to particulate in such a rich and hope-filled conversation.
And I appreciate your patience with how long it has taken me to work my way through this process. I am incredibly thankful for this learning opportunity.
The letter to A.
Thank you for being part of the narrative therapy conversation. I know that you said there are not many places where you’re able to talk about your feelings openly, because you’re worried about how that might impact the people around you.
As I worked on this letter, I kept thinking about what it means that you have maintained a connection to your desire to share, which you said is healthy for you, despite the fact that you have fewer spaces for that sharing.
What has allowed you to stay aligned with that desire to seek out safe spaces to share your feelings, while also looking out for the people around you?
I also wonder if you were able to find more of those spaces for sharing while you were at camp, and how you navigated those opportunities and conversations.
One of the stories that you shared, that has really stuck with me, had to do with how you’ve responded to and resisted one of the problems in your life. This problem is related to Comparison. There are moments when you witness friends laughing together and you might get thinking, “I should have been the one to make them laugh.”
A., you mentioned that sometimes you really get in your head about it, and even when it starts as a small thought, this feeling of Comparison can get pretty big and loud. In navigating these hard situations, you’ve developed a skill of Naming Memories, to quiet the mean voice that tries to convince you your friends might not care about you if you aren’t the one who always makes them laugh, or if you aren’t always their first choice for an activity.
This skill of Naming Memories lets you stay connected to your knowledge that you’re still important even when someone else is busy.
I wonder if there are any people in your life, either now or in the past, and either real or fictional heroes and inspirations, who might support you in this skill of Naming Memories? Do you have cherished memories that you return to more often when you are resisting Comparison and Fear?
In all of your stories there were so many references to caring for the people around you, even when expressing that care meant making hard choices; giving space to a friend even when it’s the hardest thing, and reaching out to other friends even when you might want to keep just one person close.
Your hard work is paying off, and I wonder what else might become possible as you continue to do the hard thing in order to care for yourself and the people around you.
I also wonder, do you think there might be a time when the “hard thing” becomes less hard? What might that look like?
It was really inspiring to hear about how you have taken action to respond to the problems that show up in your life.
You shared the story of going to an event, and chatting with a totally new person, despite the fact that you have a hard time talking with new folks! Your friends were enthusiastic and proud of you. J. also shared a story of receiving validation from her community, and how helpful that was. E. pointed out what an active process it is to receive validation, and to choose to believe that what someone says is true. When you shared this story of attending the conference and reaching out to a new person, it touched on a shared experience in the group of reaching for and finding validation in the people around us.
One other thing jumps out at me when I remember our conversation – you mentioned a few times that you are learning to “stop thinking in black and white”, and we talked a bit about what that means, and how there is now more range of colour in your life, and more possibilities.
What does it look like, when you can see your life in this expanded range of colours?
It was an honour to share narrative space with you, and I hope that camp offered you a rich range of experiences and possibilities.
The letter to J.
First, it was such a pleasure to meet you, and a gift to have you endorse my work to A. and E. When you mentioned that my work has been helpful for you, it meant so much to me. Thank you.
I so appreciated your willingness to open up our conversation by sharing about how Imposter Syndrome has sometimes got you thinking that you aren’t worthy of taking up space, that you don’t belong, and that you aren’t qualified.
This Imposter Syndrome has shown up for you at various times in your life, and this resonated for all of us in the conversation.
You had really noticed it showing up for you at camp.
You’d seen other counsellors making connections and demonstrating how attuned they are to their campers, and you’d felt that as a gap in your own experience so far. You hadn’t had that chance for a one-on-one sit-down with a camper, and that had been hard. It was discouraging.
I wonder if you did get that chance to have a one-on-one sit down with a camper before camp ended?
I also wonder what it might mean to the campers, if they knew that you were paying such close attention to their needs, and so committed to making sure that campers who needed a one-on-one chat were able to access it?
I saw this awareness and commitment to community care put into action when you witnessed E.’s story and immediately responded by sharing that you had heard from campers that E. offered “the queer space to feel safe in.”
When you were talking about the effects of this Imposter Syndrome and the dreams you had of showing up for your campers and connecting on a personal level, I heard a strong commitment to community care, and an awareness of the people around you and what they might need. I heard you wanting to be part of creating safer spaces, and offering campers the opportunity to have their experiences even when those experiences might be uncomfortable or challenging. Rather than simply looking for solutions, you were, as E. framed it, “generating hope for the process.”
I also want to honour that you had experienced some disappointment, and even some guilt, about not having had those opportunities for one-on-one connection yet. In those moments when Guilt shows up, sometimes it has you wanting to disappear in order to make things better, because you are valuing other people’s experiences and their well-being.
This really seemed to resonate with what A. said about sometimes feeling like a downer, and Guilt showing up in those moments. E. also seemed to connect with this idea.
I was really interested in the story that you shared about receiving validation from your coworkers, and how this was a bit of an antidote to the Imposter Syndrome.
You actually went into social work (amazing!) because of the feedback that you got from your coworkers – they saw something in you, and encouraged you in this direction. You actively sought out that feedback, and chose to accept it. As E. pointed out, receiving validation is an active process of choosing to believe that what someone says is true.
I wonder what it means to your coworkers that you valued their opinion so much?
And I wonder if it makes it possible for them to feel connected to your work in the world, knowing that they were part of that process?
What might you say to Imposter Syndrome if it shows up for you again?
Do you have any ideas for how you can resist Guilt when it makes you want to disappear?
Are there ways that you can strengthen your relationship with Trusting Validation?
I would love to hear how things go for you as you continue to resist and respond to these problems, and cultivate your values of community care, connection with others, and doing justice in the world.
I hope that the rest of your camp experience was rich and rewarding.
The letter to E.
Thank you for being part of the narrative conversation at Camp fYrefly.
I really appreciated your contributions to the conversation, and some of what you said about holding complexity has really stuck with me and informed some of the narrative sessions I’ve facilitated in the last week.
I’m new to the process of narrative letters, and still trying to figure out where my voice is. I’ve left your letter to last, because I want to respond with my Big Feelings, and I’ve been worried about whether that’s how I’m “supposed” to do narrative letters. But I’m taking some advice from you, and removing my value judgement from these Big Feelings.
E., when you spoke about feeling like you were not able to be fully present because some of your own big stories had been brought up at camp, that really hit me. I struggle with this myself, and with the guilt over it. I want to make a difference in the world, and I want to create spaces and facilitate conversations that open up a wider range of possible responses for people who are responding to the problems in their lives. Michael White, who was a founder of narrative therapy, said that “deficit-focused stories present a narrow range of potential responses” and I really agree with this. But it can be so difficult to move away from a deficit-centered story when painful history intrudes into the present.
It was so encouraging and inspiring for me to see you show up, be present, despite the stories that had come forward for you. Even though you said that you were struggling with being present, your contributions were still so compassionate, insightful, and resonant.
This made me think about whether we make a difference even when we feel ourselves to be at a distance. It got me thinking about the value of my own work, even in the moments when I feel so far away from the self and the work that I most want to be and do. Thank you.
During the conversation, you shared your insider knowledge into what an active process it is to receive validation, and to choose to believe that what someone says is true.
This is a valuable insight, and I became curious about how you came to this knowledge. Have there been people in your life who made this work, which is often so overlooked, visible? How have you learned to see and validate this work in your own life, and in others’ lives?
You also shared that you have worked hard to value your big feelings, which happen in lots of directions. You’ve had some help in this work from skills like Introspection and Challenging Ideas, but you’ve also worked on holding space for feelings even when they are “bad” ones. You talked about how much growth and opportunity exists in failure, and how failure makes things possible but it still sucks.
I really appreciated how each of your comments demonstrated your close relationship with complexity and space-holding.
I also appreciated what you said about how you’ve worked with reimagining yourself as the villain. I’m really interested in this idea.
What villains have inspired you? Which villains have offered you insights into holding space for your own complex story?
It was a pleasure to meet you, and I hope that camp offered you a rich, and deliciously complex, set of experiences.
Friends! Where did May even go?! Wherever it went, it’s gone. Here we are in June! And here’s my review/preview post, which was posted for Patreon patrons on the first. It’s a miracle.
Okay, let’s start with May:
The new Patreon rewards have launched, and the first hand-drawn art cards have gone out! I’ve gotten really great feedback on them, and I had a lot of fun designing and drawing them. (If you’ve received your card and feel like sending me some feedback, I’d love to hear it!) The next batch of art cards will be going out in August to all patrons at $10 and up.
I’ve also created my first zine! It’s a tarot-themed zine, not in line with most of what I post here, but I’m really happy with it. I sold it at my first-ever “reading tarot at a fair” event. I think I was the only tarot reader there who wasn’t doing any kind of mediumship or divination – not telling the future, just using the cards to invite the person in front of me to think about their narrative in new ways. I am actually really interested in how tarot and narrative work can work together – I find the metaphors and symbolism in tarot so rich and inviting. Even though I was reading tarot differently than most folks, it worked for me and I got some good feedback, and it’s the only way I can feel ethical about using this tool. And it was a lot of fun! If you’re interested in that zine, it’s available for $5 in either digital or physical form. Send me an email and I’ll send you the zine!
The next zines will be more clearly in line with my narrative work – check the bottom of this post for the call for contribution links! These zines are both open to contributors, and will also feature my original content. All of the zines I’m creating (I am aiming monthly-ish) are sent out to anyone who supports my Patreon at $20 and up, and they will also be available for sale on my website.
My first blog post for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services went up. You can read it here! It’s about how to support your partner if they have experienced sexual violence.
In the Masters program, I got a ton of work done. There were five assignments due in May:
– A 15-minute segment from a narrative therapy session
– Transcription of that segment
– A 1000-word analysis of the segment (these three not posted for reasons of confidentiality)
– A 1000-word reflection paper on the topic of re-membering conversations (posted for $5 and up patrons here)
– A 1000-word reflection paper on the topic of ethics and partnerships (posted for $5 and up patrons here)
The May Possibilities meeting was fantastic. We talked about media representation, and I’ll have the shareable resource completed and posted next week.
I did not get any blog posts written, but I did get the Feminism from the Margins May contribution up, and that was quite a bit more effort than usual since Mel Vee wrote four pieces rather than one. Those pieces of writing are powerful and deeply personal reflections on living as a queer Black woman. You can read them here, here, here, and here.
I did make progress on the Possibilities Youth project. I had two meetings with folks to talk about the logistics of running a youth group, and I have a space booked for a six-week pilot group. I’ll be announcing more details within the next month.
And I facilitated a lunch-and-learn at Chevron on the topic of “Pride 101: LGBTQIA2S+ Terminology” (the handout for that has been posted for $5 and up patrons here), and the feedback was fantastic! (One person wrote, “Thank you so much for organizing this incredibly interesting and very meaningful event. Tiffany was amazing! I learned a great deal and plan to work hard at being a good ally.”)
Sadly, I did not get the grant that I applied for. I’m going to keep trying, though. I just need to find some other ones to apply for!
And now, what’s coming up in June:
The first, and most exciting/terrifying thing for me, is that I’m finally taking this “figure out the marketing” thing seriously. I’m going to get the shop set up on this site, update my page to reflect all of the new services I’m offering, and revise my social media strategy. This won’t happen quickly, but it’s ramping up.
Figuring out my marketing honestly should have been at the top of my priority list a long time ago, but sometimes we don’t make progress until we’re forced to, and that’s okay. It’s not like I’ve been slacking, I just haven’t been focusing on marketing (because marketing is not a natural fit for me, and gives me the Bad Capitalism Feels).
What does that mean for what’s coming up?
I’m going to be posting more often on the Facebook page, here my blog, and on the Patreon (mostly cross-posting, but I’m curious about whether folks have a preference in that regard!). Since I’m going to be posting more often, I’m going to start writing my posts in advance, sharing them on the Patreon early, and then posting them on the blog and the Facebook page. I’m working on getting a little stash of posts written so that I can get that ball rolling. I’m hopeful that this will build interest in the Patreon, and also allow me to engage with my social media audience more effectively.
I’m also going to figure out how to actually be present on Instagram in a more meaningful and effective fashion. And on LinkedIn. And maybe Medium? This is literally me:
Image description: A five panel comic. In the first panel, a person with a beard says, “keep going! you’re almost there!” In the second, a person with a ponytail is running towards a ball labeled “goal”. In the third, the ponytailed person is still running towards the goal and, a shiny golden ball labelled “new goal!” rolls past. In the fourth, the ponytailed person looks after the shiny new goal. In the fifth, the ponytailed person is running after the new goal, and the bearded person says off-screen, “noo, finish the other one first!” This comic is by Catana Comics, and they are so cute!!
And I’m going to figure out this networking thing. I have a coffee date in June with the person who brought me in at Chevron, and she’s going to give me some advice on networking into more lunch-and-learn opportunities.
I’ve also sent a message to a friend of a friend, who has reached out to a few of her connections in HR positions, to see about bringing me in for lunch-and-learns. I still need to figure out how to start networking into more narrative therapy work, but… I’ll get there.
The two blog posts I had hoped to write in May, I will be writing in June. So you can look forward to a post on Self-Care and Caring What Other People Think About Us, and an interview post about major life transitions. I’m also going to be writing a post on re-membering conversations, similar to the post about connecting to our skills that I wrote in April. I’m aiming for once-a-month-ish “intro to a narrative practice” posts.
I’ll be recording and sharing a short series of videos answering questions about narrative therapy. If you want to submit a question, send it to me this week! I’m working on this video series now, and am using it as an opportunity to learn some editing skillz.
The questions I have so far are:
– How do I explain narrative therapy to someone?
– Is it counselling or writing your life story?
– Why would I pick narrative over cognitive behavioural therapy?
– How do I know if narrative therapy is right for me?
– What are the risks, if any, of narrative therapy?
– Isn’t it just pretending that things are different? Isn’t that just avoidance or delusion?
– Do I need to be a writer / creative type person to benefit from narrative therapy?
– How would someone with dissociative tendencies be able to use narrative therapy around periods of time when they weren’t present?
– Can I use narrative therapy to get dates? (This was submitted as a joke, but I’m legit considering answering it because we could certainly talk about what it is you are valuing in the desire to “get dates” and what your previous experiences has been in this regard, and why you are looking for therapeutic help in this way. It’ll be a funny but informative answer, is what I’m hoping.)
Do you have questions about narrative therapy? Send them to me, and I’ll answer them in a video!
I have two assignments due in the Masters program, both 1000-word reflections that I’ll post on the Patreon after they’re written. (Update since this was posted – the first of these is up! If you want to read my Masters program papers, you can get access to those exciting pieces of work for just $5/month.)
And! Very exciting news! Back in April, Cheryl White (one of the directors and founders of the Dulwich Centre) sent me an article that was going to be published and asked for my thoughts. I sent her my thoughts, including some critique. She appreciated the critique and….
*pause for dramatic effect*
… the Dulwich Centre is sending me and another narrative practitioner to Sacramento on a two-day trip to meet the author of the article, David Nylund, and tour the Gender Health Centre and do some narrative sessions with the therapists there, so that I can then share my learning with the Dulwich Centre and help support their increased trans-inclusivity and awareness, and also co-author a paper that will be included in next year’s course readings.
Let’s just pause for a second before freaking out about this, and then freak out about this, because this is amazing. This is exactly what I want to do with my life – travel, meet and interview people, create content that will increase justice and decrease marginalization in the world. This is what I want for my life! (Just imagine if this Patreon grew and I could do this kind of work with crowdfunding. *wistful sigh*)
Because May was so challenging in my personal life, I am going to head down to Sacramento a few days early and take a few days to write, read, and recover.
I will definitely post the paper that I write, and any other documents generated as a result of this trip, on the Patreon and probably also on the blog.
I am pretty excited.
And, I’ve also got a couple events coming up in June:
On Sunday, the Self-Care Salon will be running, this month with a focus on Justice and Access to Support. I am very excited about this discussion and the resulting collective document. (Update: This event was fantastic and I will be generating the collective document following the conversation within the next couple weeks.)
On June 19, Possibilities will be talking about Queerness and Parental Relationships (both relationships with our parents, and as parents ourselves).
Now, the zines! (You can also find all of the open calls for contributions in a new album on the Facebook page.)
Image description: A rusty lock and chain on a wooden door. Text reads “Restraint: A zine about small, silent, and subversive methods of responding to injustice. Send submissions or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Submission deadline July 31, 2018.”
1. a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control or within limits.
How do we experience restraint?
How do we resist injustice?
How do we break free, break open, break stigma, break barriers?
How do we speak?
Many of us are resisting injustice from a place of external or internal restraint. Either being controlled or controlling ourselves, or both.
We may not “come out” because it wouldn’t be safe, or because it isn’t the way we want to move through our world, or because it would jeopardize our relationships or our work.
We may not “speak up” to bullying, abuse, or injustice because it would put our career in danger, or it would put people we love in harm’s way, or because other people have power over us and we can’t afford to antagonize them, or because we have other ways of resisting those injustices.
(Disabled folks who can’t speak up to injustices committed by their carers because of the power differential, racialized folks who can’t speak up to injustices in the office because they’ll be labelled “angry”, trans folks who can’t speak up to injustices in the medical community because it would put their access to transition support in jeopardy – there are so many of these situations!)
But despite these restraints, people are never passive recipients of trauma or injustice. As David Denborough says in the Charter of Storytelling Rights, “Everyone has the right for their responses to trauma to be acknowledged. No one is a passive recipient of trauma. People always respond. People always protest injustice.” (https://dulwichcentre.com.au/narrative-justice-and-human-rights/)
There are many ways to resist, challenge, and respond to injustice.
This zine celebrates and recognizes the small, silent, and subversive responses to injustice.
It is inspired by the April Possibilities bi+ community discussion of “the closet”, and by the March Self-Care Salon discussion about being a professional on the margins, as well as other conversations and experiences of restraint (both restraint that is painful and externally imposed, and restraint that is joyful and internally chosen).
Do you have a story of restraint?
Send your submissions of art, comics, short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or essay to email@example.com before July 31, 2018. You can also send your questions.
(Depending on the number, size, and content of submissions, some may be edited. Nothing will be put into the final zine altered without the author’s consent.)
Image description: Cut daisies are scattered on pavement. Text reads, “Everything happens for a reason? a zine about making our own meanings. send submissions and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 14, 2018”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“The universe must have a lesson for you.”
As a response to grief, to loss, to pain, to injustice, these phrases that are meant to be comforting can end up being incredibly hurtful.
Although people do always respond to the traumas, injustices, and hardships in their lives, and these responses often leave us with valuable skills and insider knowledges, the idea that we experience trauma, injustice, and hardship because we’re meant to, or because it’s “good for us”, or we have somehow attracted it, or we need to experience it, is often a bitter pill to swallow.
So spit that pill out!
Let’s write, draw, poem, collage, photograph, paint, and talk about the meaning we make from our hard times (the lessons we learn, skills we develop, knowledges we gain), and the nonsense of our hard times (the *lack* of lesson, the pain that we just feel and do not ever appreciate), and let’s resist the idea that these hard times are somehow necessary, or “good for us.”
Send your submissions to email@example.com by June 14, 2018!
And if you have thoughts but aren’t comfortable writing them out, let me know and we can do an interview!
My big collective document projects – extroversion, self-care for queer geeks, financial self-care on the margins, and bad gender feels project, as well as my on-the-to-do-list smaller documents – self-care and the closet, the write-up of the first professionals on the margins meeting, are all in limbo. I hope I’ll have time to get to them in June, but I’m trying to keep my goals reasonable. They will happen eventually, but I’m not entirely sure when!
I really need to book more narrative therapy clients, too. So, if you know anyone, or if you’re interested in working with me, let me know!
Anyway! That’s the review/preview!
Thank you so much to each of my patrons and supporters. The vast majority of what I do is not funded and I don’t charge for the work, and without your support, I don’t know if I could keep going. You make this work possible. <3
Image description: A black and white close-up of wood, twigs, and metal twine, with dry grass in the background. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.
This is a guest post by Mel Vee.
Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.
This post is the first is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note for suicidality, illness, and threatened violence.
Wake up early for a change. Stop being such a lazy fuck.
Go to morning meditation – it is important for you to be there.
Make your partner breakfast and lunch.
Try to make breakfast for yourself but you’re distracted. Will get back to it later.
Your friend is suicidal and she needs help – she doesn’t have much support.
Put on clothes.
Another friend lost her job – she might be homeless soon. You have to help somehow.
Put on shoes. Walk out door.
Another ambulance is at the house across the way. Last week there was a man covered in blood wielding a knife. Need to look for a new apartment. Another item on the to do list.
Your friend could stay with you if she needs to. You don’t just leave friends like that.
Walk back from meditation. The community is struggling and needs money. You decide you should probably volunteer more.
Plan for the next meal. You have no energy to cook but cannot afford to eat out.
You remember the days where there wasn’t enough food in the house and you ate peanut butter for dinner; sardines if you were lucky. Curse yourself for being so damn ungrateful – at least you have food to cook! Hear your father’s voice remind you of how ungrateful you are.
Think of resources for your suicidal friend.
Know mental health resources for LGBTQ folks are often a joke – but you try anyway.
Realize you should exercise – it’s important for your health. Promptly delay exercising by answering emails. They never stop coming; someone is always itching to hit send.
It’s the same old – “We need you to volunteer. This is an important cause. We can’t afford to pay you but we appreciate your time. You can build up your profile. It’s only temporary.”
Your aunt is sick again. Her no-good kids keep hitting her up for money. She needs someone to talk to even though you could use a quiet moment but you love her and it’s the least you can do.
The timer you set to write for 10 minutes has 8 seconds left. Guess you won’t be writing today.
Deadlines are piling up. All the shit you said yes to is finally catching up. You vow not to say yes to anything else EVER AGAIN and yet you say yes to even more.
You still need to exercise.
Go to work. Radiate warmth and kindness to people with a pathological sense of entitlement.
Be expected to have read every book written in the span of human civilization. Get cussed out for daring to manage others expectations and refusing to tolerate abuse. The customer is always right. Fight back tears in the washroom. Remember this job is all you have and your mother told you never to rely on anyone for money, especially a man. Smile even bigger at the next customer.
Yet another friend is about to be out on the street. You want to help but you just cannot. Feel helpless. Useless.
Go to your second job.
Meet one friend for coffee after.
Go to that show tonight. You need to show your face or else people will think you don’t take this seriously and that you’re not paying your dues.
Your partner is tired from their job so they cannot really help with chores. You try not to get upset because they are not trying to make your life difficult on purpose. But still…
More emails and texts.
A friend you rarely see becomes upset and demands to know why you don’t have time for them.
You cannot think of a good reason to say no and they are not that bad. It will only be an hour.
Schedule her on the only day you had free.
Another friend is having a breakdown. They simply want to talk.
Your partner is in the mood even though you barely have the energy to keep your eyes open but you can’t remember the last time you two had sex. Feel ashamed.
The laundry is piling up. The floor needs to be vacuumed. That’s for another day.
Try to go to sleep. Spend at least an hour wondering how your life got like this. Wondering where you went wrong, if you went wrong, if you should be more selfish. What should you cut?
Realize you’ve already cut everything extraneous from your life.
Realize you don’t even have time to appreciate the irony in this.
Know you will do it all over again the next day. And the day after next. And the day after that.
Know you will keep doing this and know you can’t stop. Know that you want to stop but also know you never will.
This post is the third in the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
(This is an expansion of a post that was shared with my Patreon patrons last month.)
I am learning how to do narrative therapy, how to be a narrative therapist, how to engage with my clients in ways that are narratively-informed. But what does that mean? What is narrative therapy? What does a narrative therapist do? What benefit does narrative therapy offer?
One of my favourite things about narrative therapy, and the piece that comes most easily to me, is the creation of documents to extend conversations from one individual or group out into a wider community – collecting, formatting, and sharing the insider knowledges that marginalized communities have developed and are using to resist injustice. I create courses, interview communities and generate resources and posts, host workshops, and I love when this facilitation work can be extended into a shareable resource or document.
Since documentation is my jam, I am going to create a series of blog posts that explore and share some of my favourite pieces of narrative practice. If you’re interested in these practices, and you’d like to set up a narrative session, or ask me further questions, comment or send me an email! My goal with this series of posts is to invite you into the process, offer you some tools that you can try out on your own, and maybe even entice you to get in touch and work with me.
In this first post in the series, I’m going to talk a bit about collective documentation and share an experience from the Advanced Narrative Skills teaching block that I attended recently.
(This story is shared with the permission of my collaborators, Julia and Tarn.)
Part of narrative practice is the creation of collective documents. These are documents that are meant to honour shared experience without erasing difference, and they are often used to make visible the skills, stories, and knowledges that people use to get through difficulties or resist injustices.
At the teaching block, we spent some time in groups of three, practicing this work. We each took turns being the interviewer, the interviewee, and the witness. The job of the interviewer was to listen to carefully, notice the phrases that were repeated or the themes that were emerging, and ask questions to elicit rich descriptions and preferred outcomes. (This idea of preferred outcomes or stories is one that I’ll come back to in a later post.) The job of interviewee was to respond to the questions. And the job of the witness was to take notes, which is often referred to as “rescuing the said from the saying of it” (this is a phrase of Michael White’s, explored in some depth in this article by David Newman).
This “rescuing” (which can be a problematic word to use, especially for white therapists working with people of colour, because there is a long and violent history of “rescue” being something done to marginalized folks, done by privileged folks) is used in many therapeutic documents, not just collective documents. (In a later post, I’ll write about some other types of therapeutic documents, and how I use them.)
Tarn, Julia, and I each asked, answered, and “rescued” on the following prompts (from the “Generating material for collective documents: What gets us though hard times” hand-out in the University of Melbourne and Dulwich Centre Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work):
- Describe something that gets you through hard times
- Share a story of a time when this special value, belief, skill, or knowledge has made a difference to you or others
- Speak to the history of this skill, value, or belief. How long have you done this? Who did you learn it from/with? Who has recognized this /acknowledged this? Who would be least surprised to know about this?
- Is this linked to particular groups, family, communities, or cultural history of which you are a part? Is this linked to collective traditions and/or cultural traditions?
Then we each had an opportunity to hear what the “rescuer” had recorded while they listened to us being interviewed, and to correct or change or add to the story that we heard back. This is a critical part of narrative therapy, and part of my practice – you are the expert in your own experience, and you have control over the story that you tell and that is told about you within the therapeutic setting. Your words, your meanings, your stories – those are yours.
One thing that I appreciate about narrative therapy is that there is an accountability back to the people we are working with, to ensure that their stories, words, and experiences are taken up and interpreted in ways that feeling honouring, respectful, and accurate. This is part of how we resist pathologizing or further oppressing the people that come to us for help in navigating their stories.
Once we’d had a chance to try out each of the three roles, we collaborated on creating a document. We went for a long walk together through the park near the Dulwich Centre, and talked about where we noticed echoes and resonances between our stories. Once we found the thread that we wanted to use to tie the stories together – in our case, it was an experience of flow between togetherness and aloneness – we wrote the document through a series of drafts, shared back and forth and added to by each of us.
This is the document we created:
Together and Alone: How We Get Through Some Hard Times
A window into some Hard Times.
In Calgary, Tiffany is making a strong Earl Grey, adding double-fold vanilla extract and vanilla sugar, frothing hot milk, and assembling it all in a blue-and-purple octopus mug. The skill of the London Fog.
In Kathmandu, Julia is making a cup of coffee and writing three pages in the quiet of the house before bringing her practice into group sessions, where she will rescue words, shape them into poetry and stories, and share them back. The skill of writing.
In the Blue Mountains where she grew up, Tarn is sitting on a rock, the river far below, gum trees and black and white cockatoos all around, and across the river the white stripes of gum in the deep green of the trees. The skill of going into places of space and nature.
These are very different skills.
They have very different histories.
Tarn grew up on 50 acres of bush land, and the birthmark on her forehead is the same shape as Tazmania, where her parents have hiked every year, for 45 years. Now she lives in the redness and dryness of central Australia, near Honeymoon Gap, surrounded by all that resilient life, trees that have adapted and grown prickly and dry. She’s loved the land since she was tiny, and has made choices to live where she can get out into that vastness. But even in the city, she finds the flowers on the ground and the mice scurrying through the bushes. This is a skill with deep roots.
Julia learned to love writing stories at the same time she learned to write. Her stories were a survival strategy during a difficult time, and she loved books and reading. She lost touch with her love of writing after a betrayal of trust by a teacher, and now that she has it back, she is learning how to use it for herself and for others. This is a skill that has been reclaimed.
Tiffany learned to make London Fogs when they were housebound with pain, when the kitchen was as far as they could get in a day. Now they can move again, walk again, get out to cafes again, but the London Fogs have stayed, and have become a cherished ritual shared with others. This is a newer skill.
Despite all this diversity in history and expression, there is resonance.
There is a flow here, between togetherness and aloneness and everything in between.
How we engage with the flow is unique to each of us – Tarn connecting to generations of people who have lived on and loved the land through time spent alone – togetherness in the alone time; Julia, who grew up with books as friends and teachers, writing alone before writing with others; Tiffany engaging a skill learned in the isolation of illness and now shared with friends who are struggling.
But, despite the fact that we each enter the flow in our own ways and with our own histories, we each bring both solitude and multitude into these skills that get us through hard times.
We wonder how others engage with aloneness and togetherness, and how people find other flows that include other ways of getting through hard times. We especially wonder where these diverse flows lead.
The next day, Julia shared this drawing with me, which I am planning to frame and hang in the office where I meet with clients.
Image description: A piece of art made for my by my classmate. Text reads ‘Making London Fox/Fog/Frog out of Lemons in an Mug ~ How Tiffany makes time and space for getting through hard times.’
The fox/fog/frog piece is an inside joke based on some pronunciation chaos, and the art itself has become another part of the collective document, and a gift that tethers me back to the idea of community, connection, and collaborative learning.
So, how does this have the potential to help my clients?
The idea that the skills, values, beliefs, or knowledges that get us through hard times have their own histories, their own roots into our communities, and their own rich stories is one that can be incredibly helpful when we are struggling. Often, we breeze past the skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges that get us through our days – small things, like a mug of tea, or larger things, like the ability to plan a trip or create art.
Narrative therapy offers practices to help us recognize, honour, and document these skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges.
This can be useful for groups, such as partners or family groups going through a hard time. It can also be useful for individuals. And the process of documentation can help translate those skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges into something tangible and material, that can be reviewed when needed, or shared.
If you’re going through a hard time, maybe this practice will help! You can answer the questions for yourself, or with someone in your family, friend group, or community. You can also create the document yourself. And if you’d like help with it, I would love to work together.
At the beginning of January, I posted about upcoming projects. At the beginning of February, I posted this on my Patreon! If you’d like to see what I’m up to in a more timely manner, I definitely recommend the Patreon. One of the benefits is you’ll see posts theoretically a week early, but actually more like a week and a half, since I am forever struggling with herding those to-doodles. This version of the post is updated to add details that have developed in the last 12 days. Phew! What a moving target life is.
One reason I’m going to keep up with the review/preview posts through 2018 is because I tend to set unrealistic goals for myself, not attain those unrealistic goals, and then feel like a failure. I would like to start documenting my goals and my work, so that I can bring my goal-setting more into alignment with my actual available time, energy, and financial resources.
This will be particularly important in this upcoming year because my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program starts this month. (Yes!) Update: Today! It starts today! Once I hit publish on this post, I’ll be hopping over to the UofMelbourne site to get started on my readings!
I work with people to help them develop sustainable self-care strategies and to help them make progress on the goals that are important to them. I want to help myself in that way, too. And the first thing I tell almost every client is – start noticing. If a client came to me with my life and asked for help, I would say – Notice what you’re asking of yourself, notice what you’re accomplishing, notice how it feels, notice what choices you’re making to support and care for yourself. See it, name it, make space for it.
So that’s what I’m doing in these monthly posts, and I’m hoping to keep that up throughout this year.
So here’s what I accomplished (and didn’t accomplish) in January, and what’s on tap for February.
– The Caring for Neurodivergent Kids book club has soft-launched. The Facebook group has been created, and the first book has been chosen. We’ll be reading No You Don’t by Sparrow Rose Jones, the author of Unstrange Mind. There is still space available in the book club, so if you’re in Calgary and interested, let me know! Our first meeting will be happening at the end of February. If you’re not in Calgary, or not able to attend, I’ll still be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on the blog. Update: mid-March for the first meeting, so that we have time to read the book, which hasn’t arrived yet.
– The Extroversion and Self-Care/Mental Health resource is progressing slowly. We ran into a few hiccups with scheduling because January was full of migraines and illness for myself and the people I was trying to coordinate with. It’s progressing, though! And there is definitely still opportunity to get involved, if you’re interested. Update: I had an absolutely fantastic interview with someone for this project, and have a refined vision of what kinds of issues to include in the resource. Namely, the expectation placed on extroverts to be perpetually resilient and constantly available.
– The collaboration with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, has a name. Well, This Sucks will be a resource to help support that self-care and recovery process for folks following sexual assault – both the survivors and the people supporting them. I’m not 100% ready to reveal the major changes to the plan but trust me when I say… it grew exponentially. It started as a plan for a downloadable resource, similar to other resources I create on specific topics, and over the course of this month, during discussions between Domini and I, and one really fantastic interview with a community member, it grew. And it grew in ways that made my therapist say “wow, that sounds really exciting!” Domini and I are heading out of town for a day of planning, budgeting (yes, it has become a plan that requires a budget), and preliminary-outlining. I’ll have more to share after we get back! Update: Ye gods, is there a lot to share. This will be a whole post.
– The Bad Gender Feels resource is also slowly progressing. Very slowly, but that’s okay.
– The January Possibilities event was great, and the Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers resource was posted earlier this week. In February, we’ll be talking about Self-Care in Queer Relationships. I think the upcoming discussion and resulting resource will be important, and I’m really excited about it.
– The February Self-Care Salon will feature Rein Sastok presenting on self-care for teachers and other child-centric professionals, with the conversation also extending to parents, stepparents, and other carers. To be honest, I have been struggling with the Self-Care Salons – attendance is low, and I have yet to cover the costs of renting the space and paying the guest speakers. Update: This was cancelled. We are still going to generate a resource, to be completed in May, with companion modules for professionals and parents/stepparents/non-parent carers.
– Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care has launched, and I am really happy with how it’s going! I also had the realization, as I finalized the Week Two content earlier this week, that once I’ve run each of the four core courses this year, I will have 200+ pages of work, which could form the backbone of a book on self-care. That’s not something I’m committing to, it’s just sort of floating around in my head as a thing that could happen.
– Speaking of books… the 100 Love Letters book is… still going to be happening. I did make some progress on it this month – I won that package of coaching sessions for writers back in December and I had the first coaching call on January 18. I’ll be slowly (emphasis on slowly, and on low pressure) moving ahead with this project.
– I haven’t made a ton of progress on pulling my work off of Facebook and onto the blog more consistently. For some reason, that extra step just feels overwhelming. I am considering figuring out some kind of content management system that will let me cross-post to multiple platforms at once. But I’m not 100% sure when I’m going to do that so… we’ll see. But I do know that many of my favourite people have fled the mess that is the books of face, and I want to stay connected. It’s simmering in the back of my head. I’ll figure something out, but I’m not sure what or when.
– I started working on the disenfranchised grief project(s). There is a set of grief-related projects that are coming up. One is a resource on sibling loss, and I’m collaborating with a new friend, who has lost a sibling, on that project. We’ve started pulling notes and resources together. Another is on the loss of someone who is addicted or street-involved, because that grief is so complicated by our victim-blaming culture. And the third is a project on anticipatory grief. This is all in the preliminary stages, but I’m including it here because it’s been floating to the front of my mind pretty regularly this month and I’ve spent time and energy on it.
– I’ve kept up with the Tender Year posts, and am posting those on my personal facebook page (almost) every day! I’m really proud of this project, and of the fact the three of us collaborating on the project have stuck with it for 120+ days so far. I don’t know what will come of this work, but I am excited about it either way.
And in terms of new goals and projects for February.
– That Master program thing. I’ll be doing a lot of reading in February, but I won’t have my first written assignment due until early March. Would patrons be interested in hearing about what I’m reading and learning? I will definitely have to slow down on the output of my other writing (look, aiming for sustainability!) and this would be one way to keep up my end of the Patreon deal. (I will still be producing the Possibilities resource and the Patreon reward posts each month, and I’ll still be working on the other resources, just a bit more slowly.)
– I’m going to take one day off every week this month. That’s not an “output” goal but I think it is important to take note of. I had hoped to do that in January and it just fell apart after the … honestly, I only managed it one week in the whole month. So, I’m putting it here as part of the accountability part of this project. Update: Lol. BUT! I am trying. This week, for sure. For sure!
– I have two outstanding Patreon reward posts for January, and one Patreon supporter whose birthday is in February who has asked me to do something super terrifying rather than write them a reward post. So, I’ll be catching up on those two posts and also considering the absolutely mortifying idea of setting up some kind of crowdfunding for the financial gap I’m looking at over the course of this year. I will, even if I don’t set up any crowdfunding, definitely be writing about the process. I think that money shame is a topic I’ll be tackling in February. (And by “tackling” I mean “sidling up to slantwise and with much trepidation.”)
– I’ll be hosting another Smutty Story Circle facilitated writing group for the Calgary Centre for Sex Positive Culture on March 2. (I know that’s not February, but I’ll be doing all the prep in February.)
– I’ll be meeting with a professional grant writer this month to talk about finding some funding for the (suddenly enormous) collaboration with my sister, and possibly for some of my other work. Update: Wednesday! Wish me luck.
And, of course, continuing to post about self-care, including Stick Figure Sunday and Woodland Wednesday, on the Facebook page.
If you want to be involved in any of the collaborative projects, let me know! And if you have any feedback on the projects, or other projects that you’d like to see added to the slow-moving list, let me know that, too!
I really could not be putting as much energy, time, and effort into creating the self-care resources without the support of my Patreon patrons. When I get discouraged, and feel like my work isn’t making a difference because the world is just so sharp these days, the fact that people consider my work worth supporting keeps me going.
Two more updates: First, I lost one of my paying jobs. This is a big deal, because I was already facing some challenges on that front. I’m applying for more editing work, and renewing my focus on finding ways to get the word out about the coaching business. And second, I am launching an exciting new tarot project. It’ll be separate from this work, so if you’re interested, send me a message and I’ll connect you with that!