Picture Credit: Andreas Liebhart
The word came to me from a podcast I listened to on my way to the StoryCamp in Lingenau. In the podcast, three historians discussed the peace treaty negotiated in 1919 in Paris, ending what is commonly referred to as the first world war. The discussion centered on the parts of the agreement and the circumstances around it that made it one of the root causes for conflicts throughout the 20st century.
What captures me about the word is that it is still used as a shorthand to refer to a very complex story: the historians named a few references in which the word “Versailles” was used to describes situations in which a country or a political power was forced in a situation that necessitates a strong response in terms of counter-aggression. A reaction that was forced through the terms of a forced agreement. Effectively situating the responsibility for the aggressive response with the parties involved with the forced agreement.
A few days after the camp, the word lingers around my mind as an example of what one could call a “one-word story”, a term inspired by my colleague Joanna Sell. One-word stories in my understanding are words that are so soaked with a particular narrative that they become a shorthand for a whole story.
Without having searched for different examples, the notion of one-word stories reminds me of a quote from Julien Rappaport:
„While some community narratives are quite direct, many well-known narratives are coded as visual images, as symbols, as stereotypes, and as performances of behaviour so ritualized that we may be unaware of the narratives we implicitly accept and enact, [...]. Underlying much of what we know, and can recall, are encoded stories indexed by certain cognitive handles. These indices are like headlines in a newspaper account. They are cues to the underlying story. They affect both the target and the source. Overlearned stereotypes primed by adjectives or coded words are the handles to underlying stories (Rappaport, 2000, S.5)
So, one-word stories are basically these handles for the underlying stories: stereotypes come in that form. Large battles take on a meaning that resound universal tales: Waterloo, Hastings, Stalingrad. Social dynamics are framed in that way: the wave of refugees and so on.
What strikes me is the power of these one-word stories to frame a complete discourse or dialogue with one word. A word that can tip the scale of dialogue in one way or another by situating the conversation in an engrained, widely shared, image-laden narrative.
What´s in a name?
During a walk at the Story Camp, I shared a story with an old friend. A story about how I am reluctant to give a name to a certain situation. I realized that this reluctance was keeping my mind busy and made me unstable in how to relate to that situation.
Naming a story is an important part of narrative therapy and re-authoring practices. Naming a thing is making it real. Giving substance and form to something that did not have a shape. From an unnamed feeling or perception, we discern a Gestalt.
Naming is an act of creation which entails all the references that make up the web of meanings leading from and to the name. By naming we summon the context to the stage that the story will unfold on (consciously or unconsciously – but that´s another story).
But giving a thing or a story a title or a name has more implications than that: it is an important part in a process to relate to that story. Naming is the singular step that can make the difference between living into a story and the decision to live into it. The distinction between a story you choose to tell and live and a story that tells you.
It puts the story outside of a person or a community and gives it a live on it´s own. A problem becomes a problem story - ready to be told differently. A solution becomes a solution story – ready to be lived into.
Melting and freezing: From cold to hot stories and back again
Naming a story might turn that story from a cold into a hot story. A cold story is a story that we unconsciously live into, a story that impacts the way we are in this world without having awareness of it. These stories might be rooted in our biography, in our society or the organization we are with.
Hot stories are stories that we are conscious of, stories in the making, stories in transformation (The distinction of hot and cold stories is borrowed from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, probably inspired by Claude Lévy-Strauss` distinction between hot and cold societies).
We need cold stories and metaphors. We need to have structures of meaning that guide us through the world. As sign posts in the land of possibilities. That we can rely upon while thinking fast. That we can rely on in exploring the unknown.
Every transformation moves between cold and hot stories. It is about “unfreezing” (Kurt Lewin) the clay the story is made of and shape and relate to it in a different way. Warming it up to form something new.
Attorneys of maneuvrability
When I started this writing, I did not know where it will lead me. Posting it on the slack channel for the StoryCamp, I got some valuable impulses about how to continue. About the complexity of the distinction between hot and cold and between freezing and unfreezing.
I will borrow a term coined by Wolfgang Tonninger in his first reflection on the StoryCamp: as people concerned with transformation and change, we are attorneys of manoeuvrability. Our concern is and should be about the flow of the story and restoring the ability to maneuver, to act, to set one foot before the other, unearthing the potential to remove obstacles for development and new insights:
In some cases, this involves naming a story so it can be left behind, to heal and to move on. In some cases, it needs a re-naming of an all-to-familiar story, to find a different opening, a different meaning in it. Sometimes it needs a name for a story not yet written, to clear the path, to open doors into the unknown, to think, feel and act differently.
Being present with the process of naming, re-naming and un-naming is the work. Opening cracks, so that light can shine. Opening passages, opening doors. Story-Work.