Monday, 6 October 2008


Once upon a time - my source says it was in 1794 - a young boy had to undergo a surgical operation. There were no anaesthetics. The boy's mother started telling him a story. As she continued, the doctor successfully removed the boy's tumour.

The boy felt nothing at all. He was too wrapped up in his mother's story (for the record, it was 'Snow White').

It's surprising, really, that the NHS hasn't yet looked into the medical use of stories. Anaesthetics is a notoriously tricky practice. Perhaps the health trusts should look into hiring experienced professional storytellers (of course they do, I hear you say - they're called 'management'.)

Can anyone say for sure how much medical success is actually down to faith? And where does faith come from? Well - stories, mostly.

Stories form our beliefs. Nazism was essentially a welter of very bad stories coupled with a uniform fetish. The world's major religions are all based on books, which are themselves a collection of stories. Those of us who read right-wing newspapers are actively seeking stories which will reinforce our prejudices.

Our beliefs are moulded by the stories we're told. Hollywood has long fostered a belief that most problems can be solved by blowing away the opposition. That's another bunch of bad stories. But then, Americans are prone to believing a lot of strange things.

But if stories do shape our worldview, our belief systems, they can surely be used for good.

I was working with a writing group once when I set them an exercise. The Metaphysical Poets prided themselves on their use of the 'conceit'. This was an image, a metaphor or simile, which was clever because it found similarities between apparently quite different things. So the exercise I set was to write a short piece in which everything is described using the most unexpected images.

Exercises like this work by forcing the writer to lurch away from easy, lazy, cliched thinking. Whatever you're trying to describe, think of something that it is absolutely not like and then make a connection between the two. Genius, it is said, is the ability to make connections between seemingly dissimilar things.

One of my students wasn't getting it. I had only allowed about twenty minutes for this exercise so I asked her what was bothering her.

She was a bit distracted because she had an operation coming up. She'd had several of these operations and she dreaded each and every one of them.

I said, 'Okay, write me a piece entitled "My Perfect Operation".'

Twenty minutes later, she had finished. And her attitude towards her upcoming operation had completely changed. She had re-imagined it. Needles would feel like velvet lightly brushing her skin. Nurses would flit about her bed like butterfly fairies. She would never have felt happier or more comfortable.

She was, she announced, going to frame her little piece - 'My Perfect Operation' - and keep it beside her in hospital.

She had lost her fear by telling herself a story. Instead of repeating the same old story (needles hurt, nurses can be clumpy and brusque, hospital beds aren't designed for comfort) she had imagined a new one. As a result, her world had changed.

I doubt that 'My Perfect Operation' actually cured her. But it made her feel better. It gave her a kind of faith, which meant that she was now disposed to be cured.

Some doctors will tell you that their job is really just keeping the patient amused and preoccupied while the body gets on with healing itself.

That's where we storytellers can be useful. Maybe we can't work miracles. But we can change the way people think. We can make them feel better.

We can distract them while the nurses dance about and the doctors wield their velvet needles. Thanks to us, like the little boy whose mother told him the story of 'Snow White', they might not feel a thing.

No comments: