I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately.

It’s partly because of an independent study I’m completing at the Queen’s Faculty of Education on narrative inquiry. It’s partly because I’m increasingly conscious of several aging family members whose stories I want to record—and of other members whose stories have been lost. It’s partly because I’ve watched some excellent biographical documentaries on Netflix recently. It’s also partly because I just love good stories.

As an educator, I embrace stories and that’s easy to do since we’re surrounded by stories: The stories we tell. The stories we hear. The stories we learn—and learn from.

We all have stories we’ve seem to have known forever that we know we will share and pass along. This is because stories are personal, usually relatable, and “knowable”—it’s a way to memorize without strict rote memory.

We tell stories to impart lessons, to entertain, to remember. And sometimes all three.

Like the story I tell of leaving a political science essay to the last minute when I was in my second year at the University of King’s College. The one I stayed up until 3 a.m. writing, then got up at 5 a.m. to type it (on my electric typewriter, no personal computers in those days). It was on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Except in my sleep-deprived state, I didn’t type it that way. Instead, I wrote of the Cuban Missal Crisis.

And my professor circled “missal” every single time it appeared through the paper. (Which was a lot). I respected this man profoundly and his was my favourite course. I was mortified when he returned the papers and I saw all the  circles (every single time). Still, he gifted me with a B+ (which was rare for him), so the content, if not the spelling, was fairly sound.

Why do I tell this story? (1) It’s kind of funny. (What would a Cuban missal crisis look like? Too many prayer books? Too few? Typos within them?) (2) It cautions against procrastination. (Which is why I shared it with my daughter when she started university and use it to remind myself, constantly). And (3) it advocates good proofreading – which we should all do, all the time. Plus, it’s relatable to many who have “pulled an all-nighter” who nod and smile through the telling (or reading) of this anecdote.

Medicine, and medical education, relies heavily on stories. Every medical encounter I’ve had as a patient has started with my story – what brought me there. Taking patient histories is one of the first clinical skills our students undertake.

What are case studies if not stories? Some are bare bones, some rich and colourful in detail. Like patients. Like people. We can’t see (or read) all, but we can see (read) enough. Stories are entrées into another person’s life, their point of view, the path they are on.

What goes into a good story? There’s characters, and place, and time, and plot – something has to happen. And woven into this, deliberately or incidentally, is meaning.

Stories can be loud “A-HA!” moments, or a gentle unfolding. They can be meandering streams-of-consciousness (perhaps a bit like this blog post), or a clear, linear narrative. Or something in between.

The best stories are conversations. What are the stories you tell? What stories will be told about you? As a student, as a teacher, as a person?

Do you have a story you want to tell related to medical education? Drop me a line at theresa.suart@queensu.ca – it may fit here in our Guest Blogger posts.

What stories do you want to tell?