Celtic Junction Arts Review
Connecting the World: Sharing Stories on N4
I’m telling a stranger about one of the darkest days of my life.
The gist of it I know by heart: the cast of characters involved, what led me there, where I was at the time, all those thoughts and emotions. While I haven’t talked about it much before, I’ve “been there” many times, replaying the circumstances in my mind over the years.
Suddenly, though, I’m in uncharted territory. Details I had forgotten about come to the surface, and I see connections previously hidden. I go beyond what I normally think about, perhaps because the person I’m telling this to, this stranger, is listening completely and without interruption. I sense her taking in my story, her empathy, the gift of her undivided presence.
This stranger is not a therapist or a bartender.
Until a few minutes ago I hadn’t laid eyes on her before. Yet, here we are, each of us telling the other about a time in our lives where we experienced despair. And later, hope. This stranger is a fellow participant in a virtual story exchange, hosted by the nonprofit organization Narrative 4.
N4, for short, was co-founded by Irish author Colum McCann, who believes that “stories are the great democracy of the world.” By “stories” here, McCann is not talking about published literature. He means everyone’s stories, that the stories of our lives matter and that voicing our stories to each other is a powerful way to understand how we are all connected.
McCann believes in “the power of stories and storytelling to go across borders, to go across boundaries, to shatter stereotypes and to open up our own hearts and the hearts of others and indeed the heads of others in order to fulfill some sort of idea that we all matter in extraordinary ways.” N4 has been connecting people globally through story exchanges since 2013. These gatherings have included people with different beliefs on a social issue such as gun use as well as those from different cultures, countries, and religions.
The “4” in N4 refers to four components of the story exchange: voice, story, life, and action. “We aim to give voice to the stories of our lives so we can turn empathy into action,” McCann says. By sharing stories, participants “dwell” in another’s body, country, and life for a while. Practicing this kind of empathy gives people the power to act, in small ways or even to change the world.
Recently, these story exchanges have gone virtual. The story exchange I’m participating in is on Zoom, with people in Mexico, England, and the United States. Twelve participants are paired up and go into breakout rooms where we each have about 5 minutes to tell our story while the other listens without interruption. We are given a number of suggested prompts but are free to tell whatever story we choose.
Once we finish telling our stories to each other, we rejoin the full group to share: but with a twist. We are to tell our partner’s story as if we were that partner. We’re nervous about this, worried about “getting their stories right.” The facilitator reassures us: the goal is not perfection. It’s about experiencing something from another’s perspective and to “hold two truths of your story in one hand; yours and your partner’s version of telling it.” This stepping into another’s story is an important part of the N4 story exchange.
So, one by one, we tell our partners’ stories. We listen. When my partner tells my story, I recognize myself in it, but I also see it through fresh eyes. Wow, I really made it through that awful time, I think with pride. Then, in telling my partner’s story, I feel her anguish and ultimate hope, living her experience for a moment.
After all the stories have been told, the facilitator asks what it is like to share, to tell, to hear these stories. Recognition, honor, and gratitude are mentioned. We end by sharing our hopes for the person whose story we shared. “I hope you continue to listen to your instincts,” I am told. “I hope you know how brave you are,” I say.
I go downstairs, where my daughter is anxiously gathering back-to-school supplies. When she starts to tell me that she’s not ready to go back to school, I don’t interrupt.
For more information about Narrative4, including how to participate in a free virtual story exchange: https://narrative4.com/
Brenda Hudson is an award-winning teacher and author whose passion is helping others express themselves through writing. You can take Brenda’s online class “Write Your Family Stories” through CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota on Wednesdays, 8-9:15 pm. October 13 – November 17, 2021.