“What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.”
– David Whyte
Language is a paradox. Words are symbols that can never capture the essence of what they point to, yet at this point in our evolution, words are the best tool most of us have for clear communication. They can also be a powerful instrument for change.
Before I get into explaining what I mean by “transformative storytelling,” let me use the phrase itself as an example of the limits of language.
When I was searching for a phrase to describe the work I do, the phrase that popped into my head was “transformational writing” — after all, I work with transformation professionals, and I liked the alignment of words.
But “transformational writing,” as an area of practice, has multiple meanings, primarily “transposing classic texts into contemporary scenarios” (for example, Jane Austen’s Emma to the 1990s teen movie Clueless, or the musical Hamilton, which is an adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton). “Transformational writing” can also mean writing that inspires social change, which is closer to my definition (and also applies to Broadway’s Hamilton), but that’s still not a precise synonym.
So then I thought, “How about ‘transformative writing’?” (“transformational” and “transformative” are synonyms in the American Heritage Dictionary, but not in the Oxford English Dictionary)
As it turns out, the phrase “transformative writing” is usually applied to first-person writing designed to heal or transform personal patterns. Journaling coaches use this phrase, and it’s used so widely that I hesitate to adopt it for the writing I do, which has to do with transforming the reader.
I considered “interpersonal transformative writing,” but that sound like a graduate course (not to mention a mouthful).
Then I thought of “transpersonal writing,” because of the alignment between my work and transpersonal psychology , but that just seemed clunky.
So I kept going. I have mixed feelings about the word story—it’s overused, and besides, isn’t part of awakening learning to see, question and detach from our stories?—but this is another example of the limits of language. My definition of story, as it pertains to writing, is “a journey,” an arc that begins with the reader in one place and ends with her having changed, in one way or another, by the end. Stories, in this sense, can be incredibly powerful for transformation. And from an artistic perspective, the difference between writing and storytelling is craft. Most people can write a sentence or two; storytelling evokes more compelling narrative.
In anthropology, “transformational storytelling” is that which aims to offer alternatives to the status quo. I like that definition a lot. Okay, we might be onto something. (This definition, too, applies to Hamilton. It hits the transformation trifecta.)
However, the distinction between transformational and transformative is that the former pertains to transformation, while the latter creates the possibility for it.
I write about all things pertaining to transformation—from science to business to meditation—yet I also write in a way that helps to create space for transformation, by weaving together magic and logic to create an experience for the reader that lives between the words and goes beyond them. My aim is not just to communicate information but also to confer an experience. So both words apply.
Maybe I needed a synonym. I thought about “alchemical writing” or “metamorphic,” but those sound really lofty, and kind of puzzling. I’m not fond of the trend of creating my own supercool title, either (Word Ninja! Language Guru! Ugh.)
After a few weeks of playing around with this, I decided it makes more sense to use a straightforward phrase that’s easily understood, rather than trying to coin a phrase that’s never been used. , I’m going with “transformative.” So transformative storytelling it is.
Next, I’ll get into how I define transformative storytelling.