“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish them–words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
The Body by Stephen King
Participants who join one of my Lived Experience Narrative courses are responsive when I stress that we are not going to try to begin at the beginning. Instead, I make it very clear that to begin we will work with a number of prompts, build up a collection of material and then, piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
As a facilitator who effectively draws material from people, I am rather fond of leaning on techniques used by literary giants. There is little dispute that Stephen King is a literary master who has the power to help us break open the lock.
The opening of his novella ‘The Body’ captures the reader’s attention immediately. He begins, what has been regarded as a piece of autobiographical work, by alluding to the perils of keeping secrets locked away. Then, when he writes “I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago… although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me” we are taken to a pivotal time.
With this strategy in mind, I encourage participants to identify pivotal times. One way of doing this is by ‘making descansos’ or by creating ‘hisstory snakes’ and then choosing a moment to flesh out in more detail.
One participant who was compiling a biography about her mother talked about her being banished from her small community to go to Melbourne to have her illegitimate child. She talked about her standing on the railway station platform, suitcase in hand, ready to leave her family and the small country town she had grown up in. I suggested she begin by having her pack her suitcase ready to go.
Another woman began to tell the story of her uncle by beginning with the moment the ship carrying soldiers back from World War 1 docked at the Melbourne port.
Both these pieces had their origins in making descansos. Another strategy is to take a look in a rear vision mirror.