Lately I have been intensively noodling on a philosophical idea related to story endings. It is this: when you tell your personal story, it changes the ending.

First a little back story.

When I started writing my parents’ story in 2007, I wanted to honor them, but I had no idea that it would lead anywhere else. What I thought would be a short family history turned into a book, which led to another, and then another. So, I founded Evalogue.Life, hired Rachel Trotter and we’re now doing this work full time. (That’s the abridged version of a decade).

Somewhere along the way, I noticed a phenomenon that I tucked away as a mental note like, “This is interesting. Something is going on here. What is it?” It is that as I worked with living people to tell their stories, they began to grow and change in unexpected ways, right before my eyes.

When I first began this work, I thought telling someone’s life story was a retrospective activity, looking back to see what happened in the past. I thought of it like reading a history book. What I did not expect, was that examining the subject has an effect on the person doing the research or telling the story. 

When you tell your story, it changes the ending

We have now worked with many clients which gives us a bigger sample size of data points. Now I can say with confidence that every time we work with a client on their story, they grow as a result. (And frankly, so do we). The outcome  is always the same: when they tell us their story, we reflect it back in a way that is like holding up a mirror. Together, we examine what it means, and this naturally causes the subject to think about their own story endings they have not yet lived. As a direct result of processing this together, people complete unfinished business. Perhaps they take the opportunity to say things that their loved ones need to hear. Perhaps opportunities spontaneously arise to conquer a fear or grow in unexpected ways.

Examples of people growing as they write the ending:

One example is that when I helped Norma Kier write her book, she accepted the invitation to overcome a fear of public speaking by telling her story to a room of 500 people. She sparkled, and we wrote the closing scene of her book as she lived it.

Norma Kier and Rhonda Lauritzen at the book release party for Remember When, the Jim and Norma Kier story
Norma Kier and Rhonda Lauritzen at Norma’s book release party

Another example is that as I was working with Rob A. Gentile as he wrote his near-death experience, Quarks of Light: What I saw that opened my heart. We intensively processed the story arc and searched for language to describe the unexplainable. Each time he found the words, it deepened his own understanding of what had happened and what it meant to him. As he did research, he also grew. During the process of writing, he was able to connect to family of his donor heart and form friendships with them. They heard his heart beating on a monitor – a profound experience for everyone, and he wrote about that. Through this process, he became a best-selling author and speaker, forming many strong relationships and inspiring others. One can’t help but come out the other side of something like that a better person.

I’ve had my own experiences with growing as a result of telling a story. One example is the time I reached out to my brother about making my grandma’s dumpling soup together which would become a short video. In doing so, my brother and I came together and talked in a way we had not in years, and it healed some old wounds. We had that conversation as a direct result of me wanting to tell the story of grandma’s dumplings. I could go on and on, but these are two quick examples.

The Hawthorne effect – conducting a study influences the outcome:

What I think is happening with these story endings is the Hawthorne Effect. This refers to a now-famous experiment in an industrial setting where researchers wanted to study what would happen to productivity if they brightened the factory lights. Voila, productivity increased. But here is the hitch. They found that productivity also went up when they dimmed the lights. What they realized was that the important variable was the act of conducting the study. In other words, when people knew they were being studied, they were naturally more productive. I suspect that the same thing is happening when we tell life stories: the very act of studying a person’s life changes their life—for the better. This is especially the case when we go through the storyboarding exercise, looking for threads of growth and change. The exercise causes people to view their lives in new ways.

So, one of our mantras here at Evalogue.Life is that every great story is about transformation. What we did not realize at first—is this:

The very act of telling your story is transformative.

Now that we have a name for it, it is like when you get a new car and you start seeing that model everywhere. We are now seeing examples of this phenomenon everywhere. Compelling research by others backs this up, and we have our own filing cabinet of anecdotes. Hence, a book in the making. Writing that book will be one of my projects in the coming year.

This philosophy is becoming an underpinning theme to the rest of our work. In the past we have highlighted three ideas about the power of story.

Here is a recap of the power of story:

  1. Stories have the power to save families, helping children be more resilient in times of stress and creating closer family units.
  2. Stories turn random events into meaning. Story is how we learn, teach, and process the world around us.
  3. Stories are the only way we will be remembered. Without a story, one day we will simply be a name on a headstone. We connect with earlier generations when we know their stories, and if we want future generations to gain wisdom from our lives, we must be intentional in leaving our story for them to find, like mailing letters into the future.

Going forward, we will tie these themes together with one over-arching theme, that I want to repeat here for good measure:

Other implications for the transformative power of story:

Finally, the idea that telling a story changes the ending has some profound implications that we are exploring for youth and communities. Without getting into too much detail here, we have two projects we want to share.

Youth writing the ending to their own stories:

The first is that we teamed up with an arts nonprofit for youth in our community called Nurture the Creative Mind, as well as our local inner-city school district and school foundation and the Boys and Girls Club to teach youth storytelling classes. We will help a small group of teenagers process their own stories and it will culminate in a live on-stage telling similar to a MOTH story slam. Last year Nurture the Creative Mind worked with National Public Radio to help students create personal podcasts, and this will be a second round entitled “Hear Me Now: Storytelling Edition.” If this goes well, we’ve got big plans for working with youth. The short version relates to this question: What would happen if youth could see themselves as the hero in their own story, and envision a hero’s ending they have not yet lived?

Related article: The power in youth and storytelling

Communities coming together through story: 

What are the stories that highlight a community’s values? We know that when people have a strong sense of place, they are more likely to put down roots, volunteer and invest. How can storytelling help create that sense of place? How can listening to and telling the stories of people in a community bring us together? In the coming year, we will be doing storytelling in multiple forms: oral history, photography, videos, and the written word, to tell the story of the Ogden East-Central neighborhood to kick off a revitalization initiative with a 40-year vision. This is a partnership with Ogden City, Weber State University, the local hospitals and nonprofits. The whole thing is called Ogden CAN, and we may share some of those stories with you. As we do, we hope you know that there is a deeper “why” behind this work than simply how much fun it is. (And it is fun!)

Narrative therapy

There is a whole branch of psychology called “Narrative therapy,” which an article in Psychology Today defines this way: 

Narrative therapy is a form of counseling that views people as separate from their problems. This allows clients to get some distance from the issue to see how it might actually be helping them, or protecting them, more than it is hurting them. With this new perspective, individuals feel more empowered to make changes in their thought patterns and behavior and “rewrite” their life story for a future that reflects who they are, what they are capable of, and what their purpose is, separate from their problems.

Would you benefit from seeking a qualified therapist to help you examine narratives in your life, and write more productive ones? 

Consider adding a journal writing practice to any therapy. It can greatly enhance any therapy process. 

How narrative therapy works

The above article in Psychology Today describes the process this way: 

In narrative therapy, the events that occur over time in a person’s life are viewed as stories, some of which stand out as more significant or more fateful than others. These significant stories, usually stemming from negative events, can ultimately shape one’s identity. Beyond this identity, the narrative therapist views a client’s life as multitiered and full of possibilities that are just waiting to be discovered.

Therapeutic journaling

On a related note, therapeutic journaling can be a powerful way to process your own story and to heal. Therapeutic journaling can be a wonderful alternative or addition to therapy. Doing some diligent journaling on your own can greatly speed up and improve the benefits of formal therapy. This has become an evidence-based treatment in a clinical setting. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that therapeutic journaling is as effective as other interventions (such as counseling) for trauma. An article on their site states that, “Therapeutic journaling can be done by keeping a regular journal to write about events that bring up anger, grief, anxiety, or joy that occur in daily life. It can also be used more therapeutically to deal with specific upsetting, stressful, or traumatic life events.” This protocol works by asking someone to write about a stressful or traumatic emotional experience for 3-5 sessions over several consecutive days for 15-20 minutes per session.

Related article: How to start or boost a journal writing habit

Your ending is not yet written: 

At Evalogue.Life, we have the seen the magic that happens when you understand that you are the hero in your own story, and the ending has not yet been written. When you come to see yourself this way, you have a framework to find meaning in difficult times. 

We can each identify personal or family narratives that no longer serve us. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • What stories do you tell yourself? 
  • Are these narratives helpful or are they holding you back? 
  • What ending do you want for your own story? 

We have taught these concepts to youth, and it is wonderful to see them identify unhelpful narratives in their background, and to start taking action like great heroes do. 

In summary, we are all actors in our own stories, and have power to write our own endings. Healing can occur when we focus on transformation that came because of the pain we went through in the past, or that we are currently experiencing. 

Additional resources: 

Here are some additional courses and tools for storyboarding to help you work through the “arc” or transformation in your own story. Not only does this framework make for compelling stories, but it is a powerful way to live. You begin to see that the hard parts of your story happen right before before the answers come.

Here are some additional resources: 

How does your story end?

Have you thought about how your story might end? What will this life teach you and how will you grow by the time each episode concludes? How are you part of a multi-generational story that is still growing and changing? If you tell the story of your family, how might it strengthen your family and reinforce what’s positive about your culture? How will the challenges you face today, become pivotal turning points that helped you find new answers?

Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart

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