Here’s a summary of scientific research suggesting that “the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”
Special Report: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? The Magic of Narrative Medicine in the ED
The special report discusses how the use of storytelling in medicine, known as narrative medicine, helps physicians better serve patients.
Here’s a New Year’s challenge for the mind: Make this the year that you quiet all those negative thoughts swirling around your brain… . constant negativity can also get in the way of happiness, add to our stress and worry level and ultimately damage our health.
This article offers not only scientific research to back up its premise but practical steps you can take to deal effectively with your own negative thoughts.
The most common advice aspiring writers hear is “write what you know.” I’ve always been suspicious of this admonition, since I believe in the power of research. Here thriller writer Brad Taylor explains how to use research to write convincingly about topics you have no personal experience with.
This article reports on recently published research into how the human brain develops, It’s a long but fascinating read.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Our inability to remember incidents from the first two or three years of life is known as infantile amnesia. It’s possible that such memories are lost, but some recent research suggests that we might be able to recall those memories with proper prompting. The research was done on rats, and much more research is necessary to discover whether the results apply to humans as well. If they do, it may be possible to devise ways to block out traumatic early memories.
Put simply an autobiography tends to be a linear record of the events of our life and requires attention to the accuracy of the memories and the detail of each event while a memoir is more free form and is usually based around a theme or themes that have meaning for us in some way.
This article offers some advice on how to write about personal experiences in a way that connects them “with the bigger picture of human experience or history.”
Whether they are writing full-blown memoirs or more modest sketches or vignettes, many older people … are telling their life stories. Some are taking life-story writing classes at local colleges, libraries and adult learning centers, while others are hiring “personal historians” to record oral histories or to produce videos that combine interviews, home movies and family photos. Some opt to write a “legacy letter,” which imparts values to the next generations.
This article explains how autobiographical writing can help people gain perspective on their lives and come to acknowledge and understand how past experiences have shaped their lives.
Some recent research suggests that optimistic women tend to live longer than less optimistic ones. This article is informative nut just for these research results, but for its look at how to interpret research reports. Learn why these study results are limited by the participant pool and why they may or may not be applicable to people generally.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Here are some of the articles I’ve been reading around the web lately.
Some suggestions for how to make your personal data”more difficult for attackers to obtain.”
Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, contemplates the meaning and function of regret, especially the type that he calls “moral regret.”
For those of us who need yet another reminder of how important physical exercise is:
Exercise may be an effective treatment for depression and might even help prevent us from becoming depressed in the first place, according to three timely new studies. The studies pool outcomes from past research involving more than a million men and women and, taken together, strongly suggest that regular exercise alters our bodies and brains in ways that make us resistant to despair.
Common wisdom advises us that there are no right or wrong ways to grieve, that all people handle grief differently and in their own way. This article takes a long look at grief, including a new approach to something called “complicated grief”:
complicated grief is more chronic and more emotionally intense than more typical courses through grief, and it stays at acute levels for longer. Women are more vulnerable to complicated grief than men. It often follows particularly difficult losses that test a person’s emotional and social resources, and where the mourner was deeply attached to the person they are grieving. Researchers estimate complicated grief affects approximately 2 to 3 per cent of the population worldwide. It affects 10 to 20 per cent of people after the death of a spouse or romantic partner, or when the death of a loved one is sudden or violent, and it is even more common among parents who have lost a child. Clinicians are just beginning to acknowledge how debilitating this form of grief can be. But it can be treated.
What I found most interesting here is that this approach to helping people cope with grief involves storytelling:
Grief is a problem of narrative. A story, in order to be told, needs a narrator with a point of view who offers a perspective on what happened. But you can’t narrate if you don’t know who you are… . Plotting out the story restores the narrator and the narrative. Then, you can begin to imagine a new story, a new plot for yourself.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Tara Parker-Pope reports that as many as 25% of adults have at least one nightmare a month. And, she says, most people don’t realize that having chronic nightmares is a medical problem that can be treated with “‘imagery rehearsal therapy,’ a pioneering technique developed by Dr. Barry Krakow at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.” This approach “looks for ways to rewrite a nightmare’s script” by allowing the dreamer “to rewrite the nightmare during the day” using basic imagery techniques. The dreamer creates a better version of the dream, then practices that version by imagining it several times throughout the day.
Here’s the heartening story of Gloria VanDemmeltraadt, who has found the calling of her later years in serving as a volunteer life story writer for people in hospice:
When a person is admitted to a hospice program, they are able to choose whether they would like a story done. Gloria receives the assignment and then spends several hours interviewing the patient, asking questions about their lives. She said the saddest thing she often hears is “I wish I had asked my mom that” and similar regrets about understanding the lives of our older relatives. Putting families in touch with older generations is part of her mission as a volunteer.
In her interviews she directs patients to focus on the better parts of their lives, especially childhood memories and family stories that are meaningful to them. Her aim is to produce a life story of 15 to 20 pages as a legacy for the patient’s family.
I hadn’t heard anything about this phenomenon when I came across this article:
Across the nation, and even across seas, people have been calling police to report being menaced by people in clown costumes. An expert in the field of group psychology at Washington State University says there are several factors that could play into the motives of the “deviant” jesters.
According to one psychologist cited, such behavior can occur during times of tension, conflict, and anxiety. Read how these incidents may have developed through the principle of deindividuation and been spread through social contagion.
This is an interesting article from Fortune about how advances in technology affect our lives. From speech recognition to image recognition, from home computers and smartphones to X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, these developments come into play in many areas of out lives.
[These developments have] all been made possible by a family of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques popularly known as deep learning, though most scientists still prefer to call them by their original academic designation: deep neural networks.
But here’s the most interesting aspect of deep learning:
The most remarkable thing about neural nets is that no human being has programmed a computer to perform any of the stunts described above. In fact, no human could. Programmers have, rather, fed the computer a learning algorithm, exposed it to terabytes of data—hundreds of thousands of images or years’ worth of speech samples—to train it, and have then allowed the computer to figure out for itself how to recognize the desired objects, words, or sentences.
“In short, such computers can now teach themselves.” This article, which includes a glossary of artificial-intelligence terms, covers the history of technology development and looks at projects now underway at companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Intel.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Recent Articles on Psychology, Personal Writing, and Storytelling
Recently my husband and I saw a news story about a WW II veteran who had died recently. His grandson googled him and discovered that the soldier had won a medal for bravery that his family, even his wife, knew nothing about. This reminded me of a conversation that came up in my book group several years ago. Many baby boomer children said that their fathers who had served in WW II never talked about their experiences, even when specifically asked.
These facts suddenly fell into place when I came upon Jane Brody’s New York Times article about moral injury:
No doubt in the course of your life, you did something, or failed to do something, that left you feeling guilty or ashamed. What if that something was in such violation of your moral compass that you felt unable to forgive yourself, undeserving of happiness, perhaps even unfit to live? …
For some veterans, this leaves emotional wounds that time refuses to heal. It radically changes them and how they deal with the world. It has a name: moral injury. Unlike a better known casualty of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, moral injury is not yet a recognized psychiatric diagnosis, although the harm it inflicts is as bad if not worse.
Brody discusses a new documentary film called Almost Sunrise that “depicts the emotional agony and self-destructive aftermath of moral injury and follows two sufferers along a path that alleviates their psychic distress and offers hope for eventual recovery.”
Anyone who engages in autobiographical writing of any kind has to deal with the issue of whether to write about events that will adversely affect other people, particularly family members. In this piece a woman blogger describes why she continues to publish autobiographical essays on her blog:
The best writing comes from challenging life scenarios. It’s during times of struggle and duress that the captivating stories of life are forged from pain and gripping emotions. To an artist, this is a gold mine.
She concludes with “my lessons learned from writing about things my family didn’t want me to write about.”
If you’re like me, you enjoy good TV shows whose episodes tell a good story through deep, complex characterization in addition to engaging plot turns. Here, actors from five shows discuss all this:
“These are our novels,“ says “Ray Donovan” star Liev Schreiber of the quality of current television programming. And who can argue? With the depth and complexity of characters being written today, it’s storytelling at its finest – so let’s all gather around the new Tolstoy, shall we? Schreiber wasn’t alone in marveling at the intricacies of modern plotting. He was joined in a conversation with The Envelope by fellow actors Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”), Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife“), Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Jean Smart (“Fargo”) to talk about character development, changing roles for women, and remembering what it is your character doesn’t know.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Journal writing is one of the many topics I write about often. I use my own journals as a way to figure out what I think, feel, believe, dream about, or anguish over. I write for myself, with no thought of having someone else read these uncensored thoughts.
But I have a secret dream: that I find, in an old trunk somewhere, a pile of journals left behind by someone who died long ago. Reading those old journals, I would get to know the person who wrote them.
And even though my mother is still alive, I have especially imagined finding and reading her writings from the time when she was an 18-year-old bride marrying her sailor returned safely from World War II. What were her dreams and aspirations? And when did the fairy tale sour, the marriage begin to crumble? Was she ever aware of her ambivalence toward me, the baby whose birth she insists was so wanted and anxiously awaited after the stillbirth of the first child 14 months earlier?
There is no stash of journals written by my mother, but I still fantasize about finding someone’s—anyone’s—journals. They would be a window into somebody’s consciousness, into a particular life lived in a particular time in a particular place.
That must be why I’m so drawn into stories in which other people describe finding those journals. Here are three examples of how a journal can become a legacy.
In Love, Mom: Journals Left By My Mother alto, whose real name is Allan, provides an excerpt from a journal his mother left for him when she died of brain cancer at age 78 in September 2010. The long passage he transcribes is one of the last entries in the journal she left him.
I am publishing this to demonstrate that people are more than their histories. My mother was an example of someone who did not let a painful childhood completely define who she was and how she would parent. She overcame her history to be a mother that, in my estimation, defined the term.
In this passage his mother explains to him, the grown man, that in reading over her earlier journals, “when you come across the entry that refers to August 17, 1973, the day your grandfather died, I need you to know that your mother is telling you a complete fabrication, a very well executed and intentional lie.”
She explains that she told him the lie when he was younger to avoid confusing him and burdening him with the reality of her own relationship with her father, Allan’s grandfather, whom she calls evil. But at the end of her life, she wishes to correct this family secret, the lie told to protect the child and probably herself as well, the lie that allowed her to avoid explaining and processing her own complex and, probably, shameful feelings.
All of the journals she left her son are her legacy, but most especially the final one in which she insists on telling the truth to the son who is no longer a child.
Over at transcribing memory a blogger (I haven’t been able to find her name) is transcribing the journals of her husband’s 97-year-old grandmother, Babu.
Unnamed Blogger (UB) is just beginning the transcribing process with the oldest volume they have, from 1935, the year Babu turned 17. UB types up the journal entries, then prints them out in a large font for Babu to read over. UB then talks with her and asks for more information about the people and events recorded in the annual diaries.
Of the hand-written journals UB writes:
I turn every page eagerly yet extremely cautiously, looking for what happens next. The cover has a tendency to shed tiny painful black flecks whenever handled in anything but a tender way. The blue bleeding ink, written in cursive, is consistent for as many pages as I had read or peaked ahead to and it is not always easy to decipher. I widen my eyes and look closer searching for answers to questions: Did she finish her story and what did her teacher think of it? Did she get a part in the senior play? Will anything ever happen between her and D? In fact, has something already happened?
Later UB writes about the universality of the experiences she’s finding in the journals:
She [Babu] is allowed to write a short story as her theme in English and she signs up for auditions to the school play. How hilarious, I was probably doing exactly the same things during the last few months of my sixteenth year. The two of us have more in common than either of us thought. Or maybe this is always just life, no matter who or when.
The value of this journal transcription project lies not only in Babu’s memories from her teenage years, but also in UB’s ability to respond and relate to what she’s reading and learning. Although they’ve just begun this project, I look forward to following new entries. These journals and Babu’s ability to discuss them with UB are a legacy for her family and for anyone else interested in what life was like at that time.
Koppel, Lily. The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal
Most apartment buildings in New York City allot residents a wire-enclosed storage space in the basement. These storage spaces are often not emptied when residents move out, and some accumulate stuff for years. One day, when unclaimed things had been put out on the sidewalk to be hauled away, Lily Koppel saw and rescued a red leather diary with a brass lock.
Inside the diary Koppel found entries for every day between 1929 and 1934:
Opening the tarnished brass lock, Koppel embarks on a journey into the past, traveling to a New York in which women of privilege meet for tea at Schrafft’s, dance at the Hotel Pennsylvania, and toast the night at El Morocco. As she turns the diary’s brittle pages, Koppel is captivated by the headstrong young woman whose intimate thoughts and emotions fill the pale blue lines. Who was this lovely ingénue who adored the works of Baudelaire and Jane Austen, who was sexually curious beyond her years, who traveled to Rome, Paris, and London?
Koppel manages to track down the diary’s owner, Florence, then a 90-year-old woman living in Florida with her husband of 67 years. In her book Koppel combines the diary entries with information from interviews with Florence to create a picture of upper-class life in New York City in the 1930s.
My library book group back in St. Louis read this book a few years ago, and everyone was fascinated. Through her diligence and effort Koppel has turned an almost-lost journal into a legacy for anyone interested in history.
All of these articles are from a collection called Self Portrait. There are more articles in the collection than the four I have chosen to focus on here. All of the articles deal with how or why to write about oneself, and what happens when someone does.
Whether writing a memoir, personal essay, confessional blog post, or private journal, examining your own life is far from easy — even for the professionals. For this week’s Self-Portrait series, we’ve rounded up 25 women’s thoughts on the joys and struggles encountered by female writers in telling their stories. Read on for their wisdom on everything from the tricky nature of memory, to sexism in the literary world, to the question of other people’s privacy.
Read more of what these women have to say:
1. Maya Angelou
Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me.
2. Cheryl Strayed
I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.
3. Lena Dunham
I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences.
4. Zadie Smith
I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.
5. Nora Ephron
In the way I grew up, we knew that you might write about almost anything if you could just find a way to tell the story.
6. Roxane Gay
Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable.
7. Joan Didion
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.
8. Elizabeth Wurtzel
The reason it’s very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I’m just like everybody else. I know when I describe what’s happening with me that it’s going to ring true to other people.
9. bell hooks
One of the things that I found, as I tried to cross boundaries, was that I had to give people something that allowed them to identify with what I was saying, and not just offer some abstract idea that might not have any relevance to their lives.
10. Elizabeth Gilbert
It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires.
11. Maxine Hong Kingston
What is universal? There could be some peculiarity that you have in your self, but if you can make it an art, make it part of a story, then when another person reads it, it becomes part of his or her life. And so one’s odd self and ideas become part of the human universal story.
12. Meghan Daum
Honesty is not the same as confession … Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions.
13. Alison Bechdel
For most of the time I was working on this book I found myself in varying degrees of self-loathing.
14. Jesmyn Ward
The memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was so hard for me that I plan to never write another memoir again.
15. Mindy Kaling
You can choose not to write about your embarrassments and things that make you feel vulnerable, but it’s not like people can’t see them anyway.
16. Diane Keaton
I did discover things about myself in the process of having made the choice to write a memoir.
17. Sandra Cisneros
The only reason we write — well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize — is so that I can find out something about myself.
18. Janet Mock
I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent ‘difference.’
19. Sloane Crosley
There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning.
20. Audre Lorde
With any oppressed people — and this is true of women, although it started with the Black poets — the ability to speak out of your experience and see it as valid, to deal with your definition of self and recognize that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem.
21. Leslie Jamison
I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.
22. Janet Malcolm
Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. … The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins.
23. Marjane Satrapi
Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil.
24. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Of course, not all fiction is honest, but fiction, by its very nature, creates the possibility of a certain kind of radical honesty that memoir does not.
25. Stevie Nicks
I won’t write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care.
Maureen O’Connor writes about the ghostwriters responsible for a lot of the celebrity memoirs that we read:
Intimacy is the currency of memoir, and to preserve that feeling of direct access, the ghost’s job is, quite literally, to disappear.
While some ghostwriters have enough credentials to land them co-author status, most must accept a contract that pays well but requires them to keep their authorship a secret.
Isn’t a memoir written by someone else actually a biography? No, one prolific ghostwriter told O’Connor:
“Biographies are about looking at that person from the outside,” whereas “memoir is really trying to give the reader this person’s experience.”
How many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten? A senior editor at a major publishing house told O’Connor, “I’d reckon 95 percent of memoirs by public figures involve a ghostwriter to some degree.”
O’Connor also discovered that “The problem with writing an article about ghostwriters is that nobody will go on the record.”
Naomi Jackson pays tribute to the women whose memoirs taught her that she, “the child of working-class West Indian parents,” could become a writer.
About Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she read at age 12 or 13, Jackson writes “Her book showed me that it was possible to survive the scrapes of a rough childhood and to come out on the other side as a whole person.” In college Jackson came across June Jordan’s Soldier:
Reading Jordan’s memoir prodded me to consider writing about my own life; it convinced me of the value of my story, which I wasn’t sure anyone cared about until then, and illustrated the benefit of writers’ bravery in breaking the taboo, especially strong in Caribbean communities, of telling family secrets.
The lesson that Jackson learned from reading these two memoirs was that “books could help heal readers.” Those books taught Jackson that writing the truth would make her stronger and would also help strengthen readers of the books she wrote.
Mac McClelland’s memoir, Irritable Hearts, is “about grappling with post-traumatic-stress and major-depressive disorders.” She wrote the book because “reading it from someone else during the grappling would have helped me feel less ashamed.”
Yet there was one detail in the original manuscript that a friend warned her about:
“You and I both know that some people won’t bother reading beyond that. It’s easy for a reviewer to pull that detail out of the book and throw it into a review, out of context.”
McClelland never tells us what that detail was, but she does explain why she chose to leave it out because its inclusion would have detracted from the larger story about the nature of trauma that she had to tell.
The point of a memoir is not just to narrate events that occurred, but rather to shape those events so as to find their meaning. Sometimes figuring out what to omit can be just as hard as—or even harder than—knowing what to include.
I know I post on the topic of the healing potential of writing your life story a lot, but I can’t say it too often. In this well researched newspaper article Martha Ross examines the healing power of story with examples from people in a local life writing group supplemented by research results and comments from professionals.
Although some may aspire to become the next Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed or Mary Karr, many simply want to explore their lives and experiences, including those pivotal events that might have been difficult or even traumatic. Indeed, it is the confessional nature of memoirs that makes writing them a potentially powerful tool for emotional healing. A growing body of research demonstrates that taking pen to journal or fingers to keyboard can improve the physical and emotional health of people dealing with everything from ordinary turning points, such as leaving home for college, to serious misfortunes or major trauma, like childhood abuse, addiction, a death in the family or terminal illness.
In another newspaper article, Elizabeth Hamilton explores the healing potential of both writing and reading. On writing, she mentions poet Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, who “teaches writing as a way of healing to cancer patients, at-risk youths, doctors, families and just about everyone else.” Coke’s own writing has helped her come through her own life experiences that included living with a schizophrenic mother, growing up in a series of foster homes, having cancer, and struggling with drug abuse.
Coke also points out that reading about others’ experiences, such as Frank McCourt’s in his memoir Angela’s Ashes, helps us empathize with them. Hamilton then turns to the work of Raymond Mar, associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, whose research has demonstrated that reading both fictional and nonfictional stories makes us better able to empathize with others.
The article also addresses narrative medicine, a movement that “has grown from the idea that both writing and reading literature can help doctors and patients communicate better and discover meaning in the illnesses they battle.” She cites Dr. John Harper, a cardiology consultant at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, who founded an annual Literature and Medicine Conference at the hospital. Harper teaches his residents that writing about their experiences is an effective way to release deep emotions:
“If you have an experience and you sit down and write about it, you can pour that emotion out,” Harper says. Purging these thoughts and emotions helps to find meaning in what happened — the death or the survival of a patient — and then allows you to move on with your life.
We are all the main character in our own life stories, but we are also minor characters in other peoples’ lives. The concept of life story is not limited to writing our own life story or reading other peoples’ memoirs.
Teacher Lori Gard demonstrates the wider application of life story to help teachers understand their students better:
We are not the only characters and players in our students’ stories. The chapters we are involved in are not the only plot in their unfolding life narrative. The setting we observe them in perhaps is not the setting they believe defines the true essence of their life. We as teachers are merely characters in our students’ stories.
Gard also implores teachers to be mindful of the part they are writing for themselves in their students’ life stories:
They all are composing their story, each and every day we encounter them, whether they be sitting in front of us, standing defiantly at the back of the room or laying under the easel. This is their story. Our verse will be significant, for one reason or another. Significant for the grief it has caused or for the joy it has brought. True, we as teachers are but one character. It might seem a small role. But we are crucial in that we are those who can make a difference if we so choose, making the verse or role we write for ourselves as inspiring and uplifting as we choose to dream it to be.