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Narrative Therapy from a Documentarian Perspective

I’ve been a documentary film editor for thirty years, and through that, I’ve come to some insights about storytelling in general. I take footage from a production and shape it into a good and compelling story, similar to how people take the raw “footage” of their lives and they shape it into the story of their identity, who they are and what they think is going on in their world.

We're all making all these little stories in our heads. We're creating them all the time. And sometimes they're good stories, and sometimes they aren’t and they drag us down. For instance, I have stories like: This happened, this happened, someone said this, and that shows how I'm unloved. This happened, this happened, and I did this and that shows that I fucked up my life. Or this and that is the story of how I’m an idiot.

We all have stories of one sort or another that we've created from the raw material of our lives.

We Can Re-Edit our Stories

From my experience as an editor of documentaries, I can see, wow, I could take those elements of my experience and I could tell them in a really different way, and I could, maybe, feel much better about my life. I could enjoy life much more if I was telling better stories on a loop inside my head all the time, the way my negative stories are on loop all the time.

So I see a big connection between these two parts of my life as a storyteller for documentary film and as a storyteller in my head. And that's why I created this thing called BioGraffs. It’s a way to take the stories out of your head, deconstruct them, get a good look at them, and think of ways that you could make better stories, and act in the future on the foundation of better stories. It’s a way to gain control of what your life means.

Landscapes of Action and Meaning

There’s a branch of therapy called narrative therapy that has a lot of parallels to what I’m trying to say. Michael White, the developer of this branch of therapy along with David Epston, said there’s the landscape of identity and there's the landscape of action. In our stories, there's the things that happen, and that’s the landscape of action, and then there’s the landscape of identity which is how you interpret those things that happen. What does it mean? How do I feel about that? Why did it happen? Why did so and so say that?

And those are two different landscapes - one of them we have a lot more control over than the other.

I do the same thing in editing. When I'm editing a scene, I've got the landscape of action which is the things that I have footage of: people (or animals) doing something, something’s happening, people (or animals) are trying to make something happen.

And then there's this other layer on top of that that is created in the edit: Why are they doing what they're doing? How do they feel about what they're doing? What are the effects of what they're doing? Is what they are doing good or bad? What's the big picture idea about what they're doing, and what does what they're doing say about the world?

That’s the landscape of identity, according to Michael White – or what I would call the landscape of meaning. And these two landscapes: the landscape of action and the landscape of meaning, weave together.

Editing the Landscapes

When I’m editing, I map out these two landscapes in service of the message that I want this show to communicate, and then weave them together for maximum entertainment.

In reading about narrative therapy, what I realize is people do the same thing, often without realizing it. Stories generate automatically in our brain, which is evolved to be constantly on the lookout for meaning, judgment, advantage, safety, danger. “A story” in this sense is something from the landscape of action with a landscape of meaning attached to it: “He didn’t call me because he thought I was boring.” The landscape of action = “he didn’t call me” and the landscape of meaning = “because he thought I was boring.” That’s a story. They can get a lot more complicated than that, or course.

I think it's really useful for people to take a look at issues in their lives by mapping out what the landscape of action and the landscape of meaning are in their stories, and see how they are woven together. To tease those two strands apart.

In the same way that I do when I'm editing a story in a documentary. I’ll weave my two landscapes together and then take a look at what I’ve done. This is called a rough cut. I’ll take a look and I think, “how could this story be better?” “What did I actually end up saying with this segment, and is that what I want it to say?” “How could I change this story to communicate better the idea I want to say?” Then I’ll rearrange the pieces and maybe bring in some different ideas. The story can change completely, and the experience of people watching the story can change completely.

Your Re-edited Story

When you "re-edit" a story that lives in your head, you can change your experience of that story.

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