Your Book of Life: considering imagination and the personal narrative

What’s your story?

You might feel the weight of such a casual yet dauntingly rhetorical question. Or maybe, in the age of social media, you’ve learned the shorthand: either something short and poetic, or a neat string of definitive one-worded sentences: Root fact. Current Fact. Aspiration/Raison d’être. Mostly, though, maybe the real feeling is: where do I start?

The first thing to realize: the reason why it may feel daunting is that it is important.

As we interact with the world, we experience change and our minds intuitively navigate it. Paolo Knill explains it as rituals of change:

Individuals’ or communities’ situations of change usually have ritual containers within which they are framed in space and time.

The idea of rituals of change nods to how human experience is interpreted as narrative: we sense life in chapters, milestones, eras. Sometimes this encompasses chronological sense, but narrative is beyond chronology when change is considered in a way that we look at how it impacts us as people. We are not just dots on a timeline going from A to B. We are people living lives. We have stories. We are stories.

Stories shaping our thoughts and our lives

In 1988, psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of a curious study about personal narratives. Bruner was interested in how people told stories and how language impacted their meaning and thought process. In a fascinating case of listening to the stories of a family, Bruner proposes a hypothesis that language does not only express, but can, out of habit – or ritual, to connect to Knill – begin to structure experience itself:

I believe that the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future.

In this light it feels sound to say that we need to be keepers of our story as if our lives depend on it – because it does. What we say about ourselves and our lives will eventually begin to shape us and our lives.  However, this is not only a matter of constantly taking note of and reflecting on what happens in our lives (though this is vital).

Stuck in suspension in front of a brick wall

To go through change means to move away from life as we know it: “entering devotional space for a period of time”. Thinking about change or transition as space is interesting in this way. To illustrate: perhaps you’ve felt suspended. Unmoving. Stuck. At a dead end. If you’re a writer, no matter how many pages you’ve rewritten, everything feels like the exaggerated combination of metaphors in the subheading of this portion of the blog.

Sometimes, we will walk into, run into change that we don’t have a ritual for, that we don’t have previous reference of. We’ll walk into a part of the story we have never read or seen, felt or told. Knill identifies times like this–or rather, spaces like this–often caused by disruption, loss, or conflict. The more grave the disruption to life as you know it, the more important it is to respond mindfully, lest our story begin to become a fuzzy picture, break down, or even be locked away and forgotten.

Drawing from imagination

When we are pushed to our limits and are unable to move forward to navigate through change, it can be described as a ‘lack of play range’ (Knill, 2005). Play in this context refers to an active process of interaction led by imagination, openness and even joy, with a sense of curiosity and discovery.  If you’re associating play with children right now, you’re on the right track.  The way we played as children – it helps to still know how to do it and to be in that disposition when we are older. Children navigate change intuitively and with this pure sense of openness, and this is essential in gaining fresh perspective to challenges as adults.

If we are in a situation challenges our sense of openness, the solution is to open us up. This is where expressive arts therapists begin their work: increasing the ‘play range’. Childlike but not childish, engaging in a sense of play as adults means to connect to our innate wellspring of imagination. Through imagination we create a nuanced narrative, an ‘alternative world experience’ (Knill, 2005) that helps inform us of our realities and our potential to move through it and even grow from it. It we listen to it, our lives will tell us what to do next.

Knill (2005) quotes Dutch writer Harry Mulisch (1999) to explain the connection between imagination and story:

… the storyteller is telling the story; he is also not the essential story teller. The story as such as the essential story teller. The story itself is telling the story; from the first sentence on, the story is a surprise for the story teller, and this is known to all story tellers.

Let’s not forget to be surprised, and remember just how much our life responds to us if we allow it. Look inward, read into you, and discover something new about your story.

Bruner, Jerome. “Research Currents: Life as Narrative”. Language Arts 65.6 (1988): 574–583. Web. Retrieved from

Knill, Paolo J., Ellen G. Levine, and Stephen K. Levine. Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2005. Print.

Mulisch, H. Die Prozedur. Munchen: Hanser, 1999. Print.

For more information on expressive arts therapy, or to express interest in taking an introductory course on the Expressive Arts, email us. We’d love to hear from you. 

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