Narrative Medicine . . . Narrative Everything

Last February I attended the Columbia University Narrative Medicine workshop led by Dr. Rita Charon and the remarkable faculty of the Columbia Program in Narrative Medicine. I had heard about Narrative Medicine while showing a Lee Gutkind video to my Creative Nonfiction students at The Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne, the M.A. program I direct and get to see unfold. Gutkind was listing the subgenres and applications of CNF. When he said "Narrative Medicine," I knew I'd found my next fascination.

In Narrative Medicine, care providers develop narrative competence, the ability to recognize, interpret, metabolize, and be moved by stories.

Be moved by stories.

Something happens when a group of people get together and close-read a story or a poem. It isn't a book club, though book clubs are awesome. It isn't a class, though classes are awesome. It is a community moment, one where strangers move through an experience together and are transformed in the process.

In reading the story, we are not allowed to self-relate the material. We aren't here to talk about ourselves. We aren't here to make it about us.

Instead, we stay close to the text. Everything that is spoken is drawn directly from what is on the page. In this manner we identify the plot, the context/frame, the literary devices at work, the temporal scaffolding, and the desire of the story. We catch ourselves drifting into our own stories then remind one another to keep focused on someone else's, the story told on the page.

This is the seed of the empathic training found in narrative medicine.

We are not here to show how smart we are, how well we can read, or how well we can analyze literature. It isn't English class. We are here to be moved, to indulge our humility, to allow a story to change us.

To allow this, we let our guards down. We make guesses at meaning, we bumble about with literary terms, we discover together passages that we might have skimmed when reading at home but which suddenly become revelatory in their significance.

We expand the story among us, each of us at the table offering a new observation. We contradict and enter the contradictions with the humility of awe and wonder.

The way stories were "taught" in school led to quizzes, right and wrong answers.
This is different. There are no wrong answers, only new possibilities.

People who are charged with the responsibility of knowing and certainty indulge the paradoxical and confounding. We are made to feel comfortable in this space, which then prepares us for these spaces as they occur off the page, in day-to-day situations and stories.

This is Narrative Medicine.
All life is a story. In these sessions, we discover how to read it.

The next session is March 18 at Lenoir-Rhyne Asheville. The story and free registration is here:


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