What are the Re-authoring Ideas and Practices?
Re-authoring the World is an invitation into the adventure of being authors and co-authors of our world.
An adventure that speaks of:
- our acts of refusal and protest about the “way things are”
- the folding of the richness of our lives into our identities and relationships
- the invitation to re-member our communities and
- the ignition of hope through alternative narratives that dream of a different future.
Through a lens and set of practices what is taken-for-granted can be unveiled and precious moments can be enriched into narratives that can re-author the future. Come and join our community as we invite you to see, be seen, connect, dignify, listen, question, unpack, enrich, narrate and burst into aliveness!
The short version
What is Re-authoring work?
Narrative re-authoring work is about ways of being and working with people that seek to ignite the dignity, beauty and honour of their lives. As the authors of our lives we are invited to re-author (take back the pen in) our relationship to the moments, narratives and communities that have shaped our lives in ways that move us forward.
Why does this work matter?
Narratives are powerful because they shape, maintain and create who we are, how we relate to others and how we see the world and our place in it. As we re-author our relationship to the narratives of our lives, we are transformed and we become participants in shaping our relationship to all things as well as “the way things are.”
What is the effect of Narrative Re-authoring?
The transformational nature of the re-authoring lens and work invites individuals, communities and organisations to individually and collectively take up the pen as authors and co-authors as we re-write our lives and systems into preferred ways of being that shape our world.
Who influenced and inspired this work?
The re-authoring the world lens and practices are influenced and informed by the Dialogic OD Mindset (Gervase Bushe & Bob Marshak), Narrative Therapy ideas (David Epston & Michael White), Critical Pedagogy (Paulo Freire), Presence and Meaning cultures (Gumbrecht), Community practices (Peter Block), Interpersonal Neurobiology (Jeff Zimmerman) and Storyweaving (Griet Bouwen & Marianne Schapmans).
The Long version
The Roots of Re-Authoring Ideas and Practices
The re-authoring ideas and practices are rooted in a deep friendship that started at the end of the 70’s between two social workers, Michael White from Australia and David Epston from New Zealand whose practices were initially called re-authoring therapy and is now better known as Narrative therapy (Epston & White 1990). Their use of the word ‘re-authoring’ was inspired by the work of Barbara Myerhoff (1986:145) who wrote about people as ‘authors of themselves’.
In the last 20 years, Narrative therapy ideas have been translated into various fields and is used across the world as a powerful lens and practice for organisational and communal transformation.
As I began my studies in Narrative therapy in 2002, ‘re-authoring’ was one of the many big words in the lexicon of new words that washed over me like a tsunami. Words that I had to both make sense of and translate into my mother tongue, Afrikaans (a form of Dutch), and into my South African context. In 2010, when the fresh eyes and continuous curiosity of Peter Block looked upon my explanations of what Narrative therapy means for somebody interested in community and organisational work, I saw the word, ‘re-authoring’ again. It was as if this word could really hold the complexity and beauty of the ideas and practices in a way that helped people to enter.
When I stepped into the corporate world in 2005 with these narrative therapy ideas and practices, a journey of translation unfolded, in a no-nonsense and no-big-words context. Five years into translating these ideas, I wrote a book, Re-authoring the World, with what some people considered, a presumptuous title. I realised that the re-authoring work, amongst many things, also re-authors the world in big and small ways. The transformational nature of the re-authoring work is what most caught my attention and imagination.
Although the majority of the translated ideas and practices that I use in my work firmly stands on the shoulders of Narrative Therapy, my re-authoring practice has also been infused by Peter Block’s community work (2008), Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak’s Dialogic Organizational Development (2015), Jeff Zimmerman’s (2018) interpersonal neurobiology, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s (2004, 2014) writings on meaning and presence, many conversations with my colleagues, Tom Carlson (2015-2017), Griet Bouwen and Marianne Schapmans (2015-2018) and my beloved country, South Africa.
These ideas and practices are part of my life, my work and my body and by now, I don’t know where it begins and where it ends, where it came from and how and when it entered.
What does the word ‘re-authoring’ mean?
Is re-authoring storytelling?
In organisational work today, we cannot even imagine that there was once a time when the words, story, storytelling and narrative were “soft” words that only the bravest would dare to try out or use in this field.
But what do story- or storytelling practices have in mind? Do we merely document and relay the stories of what is? Maybe in a humane way and touching way? Do we draw on the human capacity to be moved and touched so that we can influence and sell our products, our leadership vision, new organisational strategy or the brand of our company? Do we merely use story as an ‘authentic’ method to influence others? Have we extracted the heart of stories and casted it as an empty tool for marketing purposes?
The dilemma in working with stories today, is that it has been captured. Because of countless storytelling training programmes in organisations, ‘good’ leaders are now expected to tell ‘good’ stories in a compelling way as stories are used as a marketing tool to influence and convince.
In addition to this pursuit of the ‘good’ story that will sell and influence, most people believe they don’t have a story, or their story is not worth telling or seems too insignificant to share. Therefore, working with narratives in organisations has become increasingly difficult as you have to wade through all of the meanings and the effects created by these dominant understandings of the storytelling industry.
In this maze of meaning in storytelling-work, re-authoring work opens magical doors into untold stories through human dignity and connectedness. This re-authoring lens and practices opens up moments as a portal into the multiplicity of stories of people’s and community’s lives, beyond the good and right single story. It does not wish to influence, convince or to merely re-tell familiar stories. Re-authoring work dares to invite communities into collective meaning-making as they re-imagine a future as part of a context, as part of this world, whilst transforming familiar and dominant stories on their way.
What is re-authoring work?
Re-authoring work facilitates ways of seeing and doing that invites individuals, communities and organisations to take back the pen in the authoring of their lives and their worlds.
Our Lens: What do we see?
In this understanding, a lens is a way to see humanity and the world that opens up possibilities and exposes that which presents itself as fact and given. In re-authoring work, we see human beings and the world in ways that open up moments as doorways into transformation.
Taking back the pen in the authoring of our lives and our worlds builds on the human capacities to make meaning and to make story (White 2007) through language and through our bodies. In the re-authoring work, human beings are seen as knowledgeable about life, are connected to various communities and social histories from which they draw conclusions about their identities, their relationships and the world. In addition, human beings are seen as the keepers of a multiplicity of stories of their lives that draw from values, dreams, commitments and hopes that move them forward.
The smallest unit of a story is a moment (Zimmerman 2018). Through our meaning-making capacity we can weave various moments into narratives. These narratives are quite powerful as they shape and maintain people’s and communities’ identities, relationships and how they see the world.
The way things are
The re-authoring lens also provides a way of seeing the world, or ‘the way things are’ as built upon societal discourses that have been crafted in history across time in a certain context and influence how we see ourselves, one anther and the future. ’The way things are’ is not seen as facts and can therefore move or shift in an instant.
In re-authoring work, transformation can happen in a moment, as if by magic (Gumbrecht 2004). Transformation is invited when our meaning-making and story-making capacity is ignited in connectedness to other human beings in spaces of dignity. In these spaces of dignity, a different kind of knowing and being is invited where meaning can shift and new possibilities become available that have not previously been seen or noticed. In these transformative moments, the future and its possibilities open up from a deep knowing of experience with the past and the present.
Our practices: What do we do?
The lens described in the previous section brings a particular kind of seeing and therefore invites alternative ways of doing called practices. In re-authoring work our practices invite moments and counter-narratives, deconstruct the context, facilitate the movement between meaning and presence whilst building on re-dignifying practices as we do so.
Re-authoring work creates conversations or processes that invite participants to make meaning of significant moments in their lives that have often been shifted to the background or have been treated as mere exceptions. These significant moments are then further explored and enriched through the social and cultural histories that they grow from as they offer new possibilities for conclusions about identity, relationships and the future.
Deconstructing the context
Moments and meanings that get individuals and communities stuck are cast in a larger context with taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs about what is good and right in a particular time and age, sometimes also called the status quo or the norm. Re-authoring ideas and practices therefore unpack and challenge these favoured ideas and practices and its influence on people and communities and questions “the way things are” (White 2004). Through this set of practices what is taken-for-granted can be unveiled and emerging counter or alternative moments can be enriched into narratives that can re-author the future.
Re-authoring work is an invitation into the joy of being authors and co-authors of our world. A joy that speaks of our ‘acts of refusal’ and ‘protest’ (White 2004) about the ‘way things are’, the folding of the richness of our lives into our identities and relationships, the invitation to ‘re-member’ (Myerhoff 1982) our communities and the kindling of hope through alternative or ‘counter-narratives’ (Lindemann Nelson 2001) that dream of a different future.
Both the listener and the teller are transported to other worlds in these processes and conversations that invite narratives that move us forward to transform the way things are and therefore also the future. Re-authoring work opens up new possibilities and imagined futures wherein human beings can co-author their relationships with all things of the world.
Host conversations based on re-dignifying practices
The re-dignifying practices are invitations to:
- situate the storyteller outside of or separate from the story (Carlson & Epston 2017) in ways that set them up as the ‘primary authors’ (White 2005:9) of the narrative
- create spaces for human connectedness
- honour, understand and work with the importance of language in the construction of identity, meaning, community and the naming of the future (Swart 2013:20-29)
- ask transformative questions and listen in ways that individuals and communities can again become surprised and fascinated with their own lives (Swart 2013:51-59)
- be aware of the privilege and power that our position holds by deconstructing power and using privilege towards the common good.
The re-dignifying practices will be discussed in more depth towards the end of this article.
Facilitate the movement between Presence and Meaning
We facilitate the movement between ‘presence’ and ‘meaning’ (Gumbrecht 2004) as the ground from where transformation can unfold.
Gumbrecht (2004) talks in this regard about the oscillation between meaning and presence or in this article we will talk about the facilitation of movement between moments as a portal into presence and the embodied meaning that grows from these moments.
In western society we live in meaning-making cultures, and we cannot but ask ‘what does this mean’? Therefore, we are invited to pause in these significant moments before we too quickly move to the meaning of these moments. Once we pause in these moments with all our senses, with the presence of nature, the arts and our relationships, we can move to meaning, which is then embodied meaning.
When we facilitate the opening up of moments through the above-mentioned portals, we put into motion a continuous movement that might sound like:
- Take me to a moment using all your senses…
- Where did the remembering of the moment take you?
- Is there a moment that will help me understand why you were taken to this place?
Once we have explored significant moments, we then ask, ‘what does this moment mean?’ These explorations give us an embodied meaning that grows out of the different senses of our experience. And as we do, the magic of transformation is on its way!
The unpacking of moments, the deconstructing of the context, the invitation of counter-narratives, the re-dignifying practices and the facilitation of the movement between meaning and presence are re-authoring practices that facilitate the transformation of identity, relationships, organisational/communal culture and ultimately the future. These practices will be further explored through examples in the following sections.
 In many conversations Tom Carlson and I shared between 2015 and 2017, Tom spoke about the ‘re-dignification of the other’. Over the years I have referred to practices of respect in various ways, but since my conversations with Tom, I have come to call these practices, re-dignifying practices.
The Re-authoring Approach
Although storytelling is one of the fashionable words in some organisations, leadership and marketing fields, narrative re-authoring work goes further than storytelling.
The Re-authoring approach sees human beings as storying beings who have three very important capacities with which we navigate our lives: meaning-making, embodied knowings and story-making. As human beings, we connect the dots of our lives through our meaning making capacity as well as through the rich storehouse of knowings that reside in our bodies. These threads of meaning and embodied knowings are expressed through language that again informs the narratives we tell about who we are (identity), what our relationships are like (community) and how we see the world (reality).
But these narratives do not exist in an individual bubble or fall mysteriously from the sky. They are crafted in a particular cultural and societal context governed by taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that inform the narratives we tell about ourselves, teams, communities and organisations. Examples of these taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas are the dominant belief in the scarcity of life, the competitive nature of mankind, the inevitability of war, and the belief that only certain elites are authorized to “know” and declare what is true.
These beliefs and ideas then influence what we do and don’t do, say and don’t say and choose and don’t choose. Therein lies the constant experience of human beings who feel that they have failed, don’t measure up or are not good enough.
The re-authoring approach makes visible and helps us realise how these societal beliefs and ideas are influencing and shaping our lives as it asks profound questions about them and provides ways of working and being that creates distance from these ideas and beliefs. Dominant problem-saturated narratives flow from and are supported by these societal beliefs and ideas that often make claims about what is normal, good, right, development and successful in a particular time and context. Some of the dominant problem stories we tell sound like: “I am always alone”, “We never work together as a team”, and “We are a violent nation”. These kinds of stories are thin descriptions of our lived experiences and are informed by taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs from our different contexts and societies; they often tell us, “This is just the way things are.” Not so!
In the pursuit of handing back the pen in the hands of individuals, communities and organisations, we look through the lens of dignity and careful curiosity that grows from a willingness to be moved and touched by what we hear and experience. Participants are invited to name the narrative or to create or name a metaphor or image because in a word or an image, lies a world! In our questions, ways of working and being with participants we explore how their relationship with these problem moments or narratives are influencing their lives, what ideas and beliefs are supporting them and what is the nature of the history of these problem stories in a way that participants are not the problem, but the relationship to problem moments or stories is the problem.
The work continually looks for moments, embodied knowings and relationships in our history where the dominant problem moment or narrative was not true, was not the whole truth or was not present. Those different or exceptional moments, embodied knowings and relationships become the seeds for exploring the counter moment or narrative. We then give this counter moment or narrative a name or an image and we further explore the ideas, beliefs, hopes, gifts, dreams and community that can support this counter moment or narrative.
The re-authoring approach seeks to address and confront us with our relationship to authorship, as it invites us to live a life where our participation in our narratives and in the world, really matters. As we re-write the narratives, we once held to be the truth – and the only truth – about our lives, our communities, our organisations and our world we shift the future of our own lives and the communities we form part of. Re-authoring work invites us to live a life where our participation in the world really matters.