Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Creative Composition: Change of Perspective

Creative Composition: Change of Perspective

This entry on a photography site demonstrates dramatically what a change of perspective can do for your outlook.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We See What We Expect to See (Part 2)

The previous post (see the most recent post before this one or click here) about assimilation and accommodation made me think a bit more about perception.

What do you see when you look at this picture?



If you're like most people, you probably saw a white vase on a black background. Some people instead saw two heads facing each other in profile. (To see the vase, concentrate on the white part of the image and bring it to the front. To see the two faces, concentrate on the black parts of the image and bring them to the front.)

Once you know that both images are there, you will probably be able to switch back and forth between them, seeing first one image, then the other. But you cannot see both images at the same time. Our brain must select which one it will perceive at any given moment.

The concepts of differing perspectives and selectivity of perception are not exactly the same, but they are very similar. Both concepts demonstrate that there is more than one way to look at something and that the way we see something is not the only possible way to see it.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Friday, November 23, 2007

We See What We Expect to See

Yesterday my husband and I watched the movie The Sixth Sense on one of the movie channels. Seeing this movie again reminded me of the great lesson I learned when seeing it the first time: We see what we expect to see, or what we want to see.

The first time I watched The Sixth Sense, there were little things throughout the movie that didn't seem quite right. I noticed them, but didn't dwell on them. Instead, I went on watching as if I hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Only after the film was over did I understand the significance of those little blips on my mental radar. (I'm trying not to give too much away here, just in case there are some people who haven't yet seen the movie. If you haven't seen it, rent it and take a look. [It would be better to see it in one continuous presentation than to watch it chopped up for network broadcast in order to get the full impact.])

We see what we expect to see or what we want to see because of the way our brain organizes experience to make sense out of it. Without being aware of doing it, we impose a schema over our experience. A schema (plural: schemata) is a pattern or template that we use to interpret and understand new information that our senses perceive. When we perceive something, we automatically look for the appropriate schema into which to place it. We absorb new information into a pre-existing schema through a process known as assimilation.

But when none of our existing schemata seem able to assimilate the new information, we must change, or expand, a schema to allow it to incorporate the new information. This process is known as accommodation because we must change a schema to accommodate something new.

When we encounter something new, our brain will attempt to find a schema to assimilate it. If this attempt fails, we then have two choices: (1) we can throw out, or ignore, the new material, or (2) we can revise a schema to accommodate the new material. In most cases we will ignore the new material for as long as possible. Only when we are faced with a great amount of material we can't understand will we begin to change our schemata to accommodate it all.

This is what happened to me while watching The Sixth Sense. Perhaps if I hadn't been so intent on continuing to follow the movie, I might have figured things out sooner. But I had to keep watching, so I didn't have time to think consciously about why those little things seemed out of place.

You've probably had a similar experience at some time. Did you ever find out or figure out something, then think, "Oh, now A, B, and C all make sense"? This realization is the moment of accommodation, when your way of understanding has shifted slightly because of some new knowledge.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
In a list of significant things he learned from his therapy clients, Carl Rogers includes the following:

"I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person. . . . Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of his statement is to him. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual, to enter thoroughly and completely and empathically into his frame of reference. It is also a rare thing."

Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (p. 18)

In other words, a change of perspective can lead to understanding, and understanding can lead to personal growth. Yet understanding can be risky: If I come to understand people whose beliefs are different from mine, I might have to change the way I think about those people. And that knowledge might change the way I think about myself.

So I have to decide: Am I willing to take that risk?

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book Review: Truth and Beauty

Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
New York: HarperCollins, 2004
ISBN 0-06-057214-0


Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy both attended college at Sarah Lawrence at the same time, although they were not friends there. Ann tells us that at Sarah Lawrence everyone--students and faculty--knew Lucy as a tremendously talented poet. Everyone also knew Lucy's story: that childhood cancer had required the removal of much of her jaw, that she had endured years of radiation and chemotherapy, that those treatments were followed by several more years of largely unsuccessful reconstructive surgery.

After graduation, both Ann and Lucy were accepted into the prestigious Iowa writer's program. When Lucy heard that Ann was going to Iowa early to look for an apartment, she asked Ann to look for an apartment for her as well. She couldn't afford to make the trip herself, Lucy said. Neither woman could afford more than $200 a month. Ann could not find even one apartment within their price range, let alone two, so she rented a two-bedroom duplex for $375 a month for them to share.

At the end of the summer Ann arrived to find the floors of the duplex smelling of cleaning solution. Then Lucy, who had washed the floors three days earlier, entered and leaped into Ann's arms:

I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled. I was twenty-one years old and very strong. She had a habit of pitching herself into my arms like a softball without any notice. She liked to be carried. (p. 7)

That was the beginning of a friendship that would last for 17 years, until Lucy died of an accidental overdose of heroin in 2002 at the age of 39.

During those 17 years both women worked toward publication, literary awards, grants, and fellowships. Lucy's struggles seem especially desperate as Ann describes Lucy's frequent need for reassurance that she was a good writer and that she was loved. Ann thought that Lucy had finally found her voice as a writer with the publication of Lucy's memoir Autobiography of a Face in 1994. But as Lucy began to make promotional appearances for the book, it quickly became evident that her audiences were interested in her as a cancer survivor, not as a writer. Although she always tried to steer discussions toward her writing, audiences insisted on asking for details of her cancer story.

When I reviewed Autobiography of a Face (see previous post or click here) in 1998 (before Lucy's death), I found the book quite disturbing--not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say. As well written as the book is, it leaves out a lot about the experiences it deals with. I can understand why readers always asked Lucy for more details: They're looking for hope and for answers from someone who survived the disease. Yet those are the very areas that the book does not deal with. Ignoring such huge and salient chunks of one's personal experience is not what the phrase "a writer finding her voice" means to me.

Ann Patchett admits that it wasn't always easy being a friend to the very emotionally needy Lucy Grealy, who frequently turned to alcohol, sex, and drugs to ease her pain. But there was always that huge and permanent love, which transcended all else. At the end of Truth and Beauty Ann says that Lucy still haunts her dreams. Ann's memoir is a tribute both to Lucy and to the meaning of friendship and love.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Review: Autobiography of a Face

Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face
Houghton Mifflin , 223 pages
ISBN 0-395-65780-6

Lucy Grealy was 10 years old when a ball hit her in the face during school recess. That playground accident probably saved her life because an x-ray of her swollen jaw revealed a malignant tumor. Autobiography of a Face is Grealy's memoir of the surgery that removed most of her lower right jaw, the following chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the pain of growing up disfigured, the butt of other children's teasing and cruel jokes.

What Grealy went through is so awful that it seems irrelevant and insensitive to criticize her writing. She paints a horrifying picture of the treatment she had to go through, particularly the chemotherapy that made her body want "to turn itself inside out." As if the treatment itself weren't bad enough, Lucy has to go through it with a mother whose only concept of moral support is to insist that the child be brave and to reprimand her when she cries.

Yet I can't help thinking that there's a lot more to the story than Lucy Grealy tells us. Her portrait of her parents, particularly her father, is nebulous. Early on she comments that when she was a child she didn't understand that her mother's anger was caused by depression, but she never follows through on this perception. And Lucy has four siblings: two older brothers, an older sister, and a twin sister. We catch only two glimpses of the older children: (1) one of her brothers cries when the call comes from the hospital announcing their father's death, and (2) when Lucy visits her older sister Susie in London after graduating from college, Susie pays for the train ticket Lucy needs to travel to Scotland to consult with a doctor about reconstructive surgery. And she refers to her twin sister in only the most offhand way, with statements along the lines of "that fall Sarah and I entered junior high." Since twins are often extremely close, this lack of any significant references to Sarah suggests volumes. Where were all these other children when Lucy was undergoing treatments and suffering the taunts of other children at school?

It's possible to argue that Grealy's book is about herself, not her parents and her siblings. But she would have had to interact with her family every day, and those interactions would have contributed to her total experience. Since Lucy's cancer was discovered when she was 10 years old in the late 1970's, she must have been at least in her late 20's at the time her memoir was published. Her reticence about her family suggests that there are issues at work here that this young woman has not yet worked through.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

New Perspectives on Children

Bad Behavior Does Not Doom Pupils, Studies Say - New York Times:
Educators and psychologists have long feared that children entering school with behavior problems were doomed to fall behind in the upper grades. But two new studies suggest that those fears are exaggerated.

This article in the New York Times reports on developmental studies of children being published in two respected scientific journals. One study found that children with antisocial or disruptive behavior in kindergarten were not necessarily behind other children academically by the end of elementary school. The other study found that the brains of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) developed in the same way but at a slower rate than the brains of children without the disorder.

The studies "could change the way scientists, teachers and parents understand and manage children who are disruptive or emotionally withdrawn in the early years of school."

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love
New York: Viking, 2006

ISBN 978-07394-7418-1

Highly recommended

Read this book!

That's it. There's nothing else to say.

Well, OK, you're right. I need to tell you a little more about this book.

After a very messy divorce, writer Elizabeth Gilbert found herself in a deep depression. With her publisher's advance for the book she would write in her bank account, she set off on a year's trip around the world in search of inner peace and balance. She began in Italy, where she went to learn to speak what she calls the most beautiful language in the world. The Italian language and pasta: she calls this four-month period her Pursuit of Pleasure. Next she went to India to practice meditation at the ashram of her guru, whom she had met when the guru came to speak in the United States. These four months were her Pursuit of Devotion. Finally, in the Pursuit of Balance, she went to Bali, Indonesia, to learn about love from an old medicine man she had met two years earlier.

Italy, India, and Indonesia: Gilbert says it's appropriate that her three destinations begin with I, since it's a journey of self-exploration and self-discovery she's on. Some people who commented on this book on Amazon complained that they would have liked more about the countries Gilbert was visiting and less of her thoughts. To those people I would say: You're looking for the travel section, not the memoir section of the bookstore. Gilbert is just as interested--probably more interested--in her internal journey as in the scenery and the local color. This is what memoir writers do: They think about the significance of their experiences and look for personal meaning in the world around them.

Gilbert is not only an incredibly gifted writer. She's also a profound thinker. Anyone interested in reading about more than scenery will appreciate the significance of her journey and will be grateful of the opportunity to share it with her.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Friday, November 9, 2007

New Perspective on Life Stories: StoryCorps

Powerful experiences unfold on the pages of 'Listening Is an Act of Love'

Read about StoryCorps, founded in 2003 to record family stories. The project has now recorded more than 10,000 interviews, 49 of the best of which have been published as the book Listening Is an Act of Love (Penguin Press, 270 pages, $24.95).

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
"Remember that it is natural and normal for people to have different memories about the same event. Brothers and sisters especially, because of age differences, recall the past in sometimes startingly different ways. That's all right. Each individual writes an autobiography from his or her own perspective, not from the perspective of anyone else. Let those who recall things differently write their own autobiographies! "

Mary Borg, Writing Your Life (p. 40)

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Book Review: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Clarke, Brock. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel
Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2007.
ISBN 978-1-56512-551-3

This quirky novel is about stories--the stories we tell about our lives and about ourselves, and the stories we tell to others and to ourselves.

The story's narrator is Sam Pulsifer, whose mother is a high school English teacher and whose father is an editor for a small press. Sam therefore grew up surrounded by books and the stories they contain. Sam's mother made him read literary classics. For a three-year period during Sam's childhood his father was gone, traveling around the country visiting interesting places, including the stadium of every major league baseball team. Sam knows about his father's adventures because he regularly received postcards from his father detailing his travels. It was during his father's absence that his mother began telling Sam intriguing stories about the Emily Dickinson house, located in their hometown.

One night when he was 18 Sam sneaked into the Emily Dickinson house for a smoke and accidentally burned the house down. There were two people, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, in the house at the time, and they died in the fire. Sam spent 10 years in prison. When he was released he went back to his parents' house for a few months, but things just didn't seem the same there; he could tell that his parents didn't really want him around. So Sam went off to college, where he majored in Packaging Science. He met and married Anne Marie and had two children. Sam told Anne Marie that his parents were dead--that they had died in a house fire. Then one day a man turns up at Sam's house and announces that he's Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who had died in the Emily Dickenson house fire. Thomas tells Anne Marie the truth about her husband's past, and she throws Sam out.

When Thomas Coleman confronts Sam, the thing that really infuriates him is the particular lie Sam had told Anne Marie. By telling her that his parents had died in a house fire, Sam had commandeered Thomas's story and tried to pass it off as his own. Because of this lie, the story of the perfect life Sam thinks he has found begins to unravel. Sam returns to his parents' house, where he finds things have changed dramatically since he was last there about 10 years earlier. In the meantime, someone starts setting fires to the houses of other writers in New England. Sam decides to find out who this arsonist is.

That this book is about the power of stories becomes evident early on. At his trial for burning down the Emily Dickinson house, Sam protests that it was an accident and that all the stories his mother had told him prompted him to break into the house. At sentencing, the judge told Sam to ponder the following question while serving his sentence:

“It’s an interesting question, is it not? Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the intended one, is it then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all? . . . For instance, Mr. Pulsifer, can a story actually be blamed for arson and murder?” (p. 71)

When Sam returns to his parents' house after Anne Marie kicks him out, he makes up a story to explain to himself the changes he finds there. When he sets out to discover who is now setting fire to writers' houses, he consciously patterns his behavior after that of famous detectives he's read about in novels. During his investigation he meets a professor of American literature who hates literature because she fears becoming a character in a story, particularly one of Willa Cather's female characters or Mark Twain's Aunt Polly. There are numerous allusions to literature and some mild satire. Harry Potter devotees, although not explicitly named, take a hit. And, at one point, Sam visits Book Warehouse, where he finds a book group discussing a book in the cafe: “They weren’t talking about the book, not exactly; that’s the first thing I found out. Instead they were talking about how they felt” (p. 83). The title of the book under discussion is Listen, and the dust jacket asks readers to ponder questions such as “How does this book make you feel about the Human Condition?” (p. 85). From the cafe Sam wanders into the store's memoir section:

After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn? Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves? I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs. I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book). There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself. There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs: A Memoirist’s Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like.” (p. 88)

Much of this novel's literary self-consciousness is humorous. But at the end the novel takes a serious turn when Sam, now wiser, undertakes the work of writing his life story. I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling the ending. But An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England illuminates how we all use story to make sense of our lives and, finally, of ourselves.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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