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]

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Quotations of the Day

"You have to start by changing the story you tell yourself about getting older... The minute you say to yourself, 'Time is everything, and I'm going to make sure that time is used the way I dream it should be used,' then you've got a whole
different story."

--Diane Sawyer

"I shall not grow conservative with age."

--Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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Friday, November 28, 2008

6 Reasons Why Writing Your Life Story Matters « Dan Curtis

6 Reasons Why Writing Your Life Story Matters « Dan Curtis ~ Professional Personal Historian:

Professional personal historian Dan Curtis has created a list of 6 compelling reasons why people should write their life stories. Which one are you hiding behind?

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here in the United States we're celebrating Thanksgiving today. We've taken a proprietary hold on this holiday, incorporating it into our national myth and folklore, by portraying it as a unique event involving Pilgrims and Indians that commemorates the founding of the country.

In reality, though, harvest celebrations are as old as agriculture itself. Throughout time cultures have offered thanks to their deities for the fruits of autumn. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, has become the ubiquitous symbol of these celebrations. Although now we most often see the cornucopia portrayed as a woven basket holding produce, the original cornucopia, as the word's Latin root tells us, included an animal's--probably a bull's or a ram's--horn.
One autumn an Asian man participated in a life story writing workshop I was presenting. He is now an American citizen, and his children were born here in the U. S., but he wanted to write about his childhood experiences so his children would know about their Asian heritage. When he read his narration of how the residents of the village presented offerings of rice to the gods and visited relatives on a day in autumn, the other workshop participants commented that this sounded a lot like our American Thanksgiving.

It would have been more accurate to say that our Thanksgiving sounds a lot like the ancient Asian tradition of giving thanks. We don't have a monopoly on autumnal thanksgiving, even if we do spell it with a capital letter and get a paid day off from work. Sharing life stories with people from another culture can broaden our perspective on our place in the world and in history.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Summary

Sleep makes room for memories

Sleep not only refreshes the body, it may also push the reset button on the brain, helping the brain stay flexible and ready to learn, new research shows.

Whether it is slow-wave sleep or rapid eye movement (REM), sleep changes the biochemistry of the brain, and the change is necessary to continue learning new things, suggests research presented November 18 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Memory loss: Special report

This page collects a series of articles from this fall in the Los Angeles Times about memory loss (e.g., Early Warning Signs of Alzhiemer's Disease, Tips for Preventing Memory Loss).

Art as Visual Research: 12 Examples of Kinetic Illusions in Op Art

Scientists did not invent the vast majority of visual illusions. Rather, they are the work of visual artists, who have used their insights into the workings of the visual system to create visual illusions in their pieces of art. We have previously pointed out in our essays that, long before visual science existed as a formal discipline, artists had devised techniques to “trick” the brain into thinking that a flat canvas was three-dimensional, or that a series of brushstrokes in a still life was in fact a bowl of luscious fruit. Thus the visual arts have sometimes preceded the visual sciences in the discovery of fundamental vision principles, through the application of methodical—although perhaps more intuitive—research techniques. In this sense, art, illusions and visual science have always been implicitly linked.

Related Posts:

Video: Natalie Goldberg on "Old Friend from Far Away"

Related Post:

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Book Review: Writing a Woman's Life

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life (1988)
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

Highly recommended

In the "Introduction," feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)
Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded "unwomanly":

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)
* * * * *

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

* * * * *

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

* * * * *

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:
Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women's lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)
These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls "reinventing marriage," for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other's strengths. "Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women's lives" (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman's Life is Heilbrun's explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: "I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself" (p. 113). "But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself" (p. 114).

My problem with any type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: "Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession" (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman's Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Friday, November 14, 2008

National Day of Listening

National Day of Listening:
This holiday season, StoryCorps is asking everyone across the nation to take an hour on Friday, November 28, 2008, the day after Thanksgiving, to record and preserve a Do-It-Yourself interview with a loved one. It can be a grandparent, sibling, friend, or a familiar face from the neighborhood.

All you have to do is visit and download your free Do-It-Yourself Instruction Guide, complete with simple step-by-step instructions for recording and preserving interviews at home, watch our new DIY video, and find the person's story who you want to hear.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'American Widow Project': The Healing Power of Stories

'American Widow Project' Born From Grief : NPR:
Taryn Davis was just 21 years old when her husband was killed in Iraq. As a young widow, she felt bereft and very alone. She channeled her grief into the American Widow Project. It began as a documentary and transformed into a national support group for other widows.

This morning National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story about the American Widow Project, started by two young wives whose husbands were killed in Iraq. The project turned in to a documentary and now is a Web site that provides a place for military widows to tell their stories. As the Web page indicates, one person's story is often just what another grieved person needs to hear.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Summary

A Boy's Life
This long article in The Atlantic treats the difficult subject of transgender children: children, some as young as 3 or 4, who want to be the gender opposite from their physiology. Should parents treat their young children as members of the other gender, or should they seek treatment to help their children adjust to the gender that matches their biological sex? The existence of such transgender children raises the age-old questions of nature vs. nurture: Are transgender children born that way or made that way? Is gender a biological given or a social construction?

Writer Hanna Rosin has done extensive research into this complex topic and does a good job of presenting both sides of the issue. Her presentation of the stories of several children, and their parents, who have experienced transgenderism gives her article an air of poignant reality.

Think You're Multitasking? Think Again
Don't believe the multitasking hype, scientists say. New research shows that we humans aren't as good as we think we are at doing several things at once. But it also highlights a human skill that gave us an evolutionary edge.

Multitasking Teens May Be Muddling Their Brains
Doing several things at once can feel so productive. But scientists say switching rapidly between tasks can actually slow us down.

Even though modern technology allows people to perform more tasks at the same time, juggling tasks can make our brains lose connections to important information. Which means, in the end, it takes longer because we have to remind our brains what we were working on.

The Ties That Bind
In this New York Times blog Allison Arieff considers what kind of legacy our dependence on technology will leave for our children.

First Person Plural
In this article in The Atlantic Paul Bloom looks at the definition of happy:
Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Run - Writing Memoir, McCain Found a Narrative for Life

The Long Run - Writing Memoir, McCain Found a Narrative for Life - Series -

Let me say right up front that this post is not an endorsement of John McCain in next month's election.

Regardless of one's politics, this article in the New York Times features many of the most salient aspects of memoir, life writing, life narrative, and the power of stories. The article covers the writing and the effects of McCain's 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers, written with McCain's speechwriter Mark Salter:
Mr. Salter, taking a little literary license, assembled from Mr. McCain’s recollections a neat narrative that he had never before articulated. It became a best seller, a television movie and the first of five successful McCain-Salter volumes. And on the eve of Mr. McCain’s 2000 Republican primary run, its story line reshaped his political identity. In interviews and speeches, Mr. McCain has increasingly described his life in the book’s language and themes. . . .

We do not just create our life stories; in reality, those stories often, in turn, shape who we are or who we become:
Politics was imitating art, said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown who has studied Mr. McCain’s career and memoir. “It is almost as if McCain had described himself as a literary character,” Professor Wayne said, “and then he tried to be that person in real life.”

Some friends say it is only natural that Mr. McCain would begin to sound like his autobiography. “If I have some thoughts in my mind and I take the time to write them down,” said Orson Swindle, a close friend from prison camp, “I find that I will be inclined to say them exactly that way over and over, too.”

And this process can be interpreted either positively or negatively:
Robert Timberg, a marine wounded in Vietnam who became Mr. McCain’s biographer and admired his memoir, said the John McCain he knew 15 years ago would never have suggested that he was more patriotic than a rival the way the senator has in attacking his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama.

“Political campaigns have a way of distorting reality and turning political candidates into caricatures of themselves,” Mr. Timberg said, adding, “In some ways that has happened to him, and in some ways he may have contributed to that.”

The article also treats the relationship between literature and life:
The John McCain of “Faith of My Fathers,” for example, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the Hemingway hero Mr. McCain later celebrated in another book with Mr. Salter, “Worth the Fighting For,” which was named for a line of Jordan’s dying thoughts. He was “a man who would risk his life but never his honor,” Mr. McCain wrote with Mr. Salter, a model of “how a great man should style himself.”

Mr. McCain owes much to the book, said Mr. Weaver, who guided the senator’s 2000 campaign. “It made his persona much grander, much more cause-oriented,” Mr. Weaver recalled. “The book played a major role in creating the brand that has served McCain so well.”

We all are our stories. The stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others become who we are.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Summary

I'm working on a research proposal for school right now. As exhilarating as it is to be getting near working on my dissertation, this phase is very time-consuming. Consequently, I'm resorting to a list of a couple of tabs I've left open in my browser for far too long in hopes of being able to write a separate post about each one.

Pandemic Influenza Storybook
In a brilliant application of the power of stories, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put together a collection of stories from people who lived through the world-wide influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1957:
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide including an estimated 675,000 people in the United States, and it is one of the touchstones for today’s public health preparedness initiatives. To put it in perspective, that’s more people than all those who died (both military personnel and civilians) during World War I (1914–1918). T The 1957 Influenza Pandemic caused at least 70,000 U.S. deaths and 1–2 million deaths worldwide. Improvements in scientific technology made it possible to more quickly identify that pandemic when compared with the 1918 event. These first-person and family accounts contained herein provide an intimate, personal view of the 1918 and 1957 pandemics that goes beyond the staggering statistics associated with those events and, therefore, can help planners re-energize their efforts and fight preparedness fatigue and apathy.

Interview with Historian Howard Zinn

"Author of A People's History of the United States shares his thoughts on revisionist historians, the upcoming election and more"
Howard Zinn was an activist professor at my alma mater, Boston University, in the 1960s. His book A People's History presents a different perspective on American history than the one usually taught in school.
It is unlikely that 20 years ago, when Howard Zinn's magnum opus A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present was published, that anyone thought it would sell close to two million copies and spawn an entirely new historiography. Today, though not quite a household name, spry octogenarian Zinn is a much in-demand lecturer, criss-crossing the country, speaking to crowded halls and auditoriums and continuing his life-long commitment to social justice activism.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Former Football Player Writes Book about His Dissociative Identity Disorder

Walker on mission | Denton Record-Chronicle | News for Denton County, Texas | Local News

Herschel Walker, winner of the Heisman Trophy (an award for college football players) and former member of the Dallas Cowboys, has written a book about his experience with dissociative identity disorder (DID, commonly known as multiple personality disorder) and his efforts to overcome the disorder. He has been touring to promote the book, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder. This article reports on his appearance in Denton, TX, in association with University Behavioral Health (UBH) of Denton:

‘He [Walker] has a mission for himself of bringing a message out to people who have mental health issues, that it’s a strength to ask for help, not a weakness,’ said UBH of Denton Chief Executive Officer Susan Young. ‘He wants people to know he’s had issues and he sees that as something very positive. He doesn’t want anybody to be uncomfortable or ashamed.’

Walker's own condition surfaced about 10 years ago, when he suddenly developed anger problems. His search for the cause of his problem finally led to the diagnosis of DID. He wants to let people with mental health issues, including substance abuse, know that it's all right to seek help. He is critical of the National Football League's substance abuse policy, which, he says, suspends players for abuse without providing treatment.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Everyone Has a Story

Everyone Has a Story

In this blog entry Kelley Haynes of South Africa writes:
A few months ago, I attended a seminar on Narrative Therapy. Michael White and David Epston are the "creators" of Narrative Therapy. Michael White was the presenter of the seminar I attended. . . . During the conference he spoke of 'narratives' or the stories of our lives that we tell to ourselves and others. He says that everyone has a story, and that every story is exceptional.

She ends with the question: "What would it be like to walk through the world seeing people in the exceptionality of their stories?"

This is an amazingly perceptive question. Think about yourself. What assumptions might people who observe you casually on the street make about you? They'd probably draw certain conclusions on the basis of your clothes, your hairstyle, your body type and body language, the expression on your face, whether you were alone or with other people, whether you were clean or dirty and smelly, whether you were talking (to someone or to no one evident) or were silent. How accurate would those assumptions be? Might people alter those assumptions if they knew the exceptionality of your life story?

It's all a matter of perspective. Knowing someone's life story gives us a different perspective on that person than we might get from quick observations. Traditional Native American wisdom puts it this way: Don't judge people without first walking a mile in their moccasins.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Your Next Chapter" Short Essay Contest

Borders: AARP

Borders and AARP are teaming up to offer a trip for two to Washington, D.C., and other prizes, for the best essays about what you're planning to do with the next chapter of your life.

If you're 50 or older, explain your plans for the next part of your life in 350 words or fewer. See this Web page for instructions on how to mail in or upload your submission.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book Review: The Friend Who Got Away

Offill, Jenny, and Elissa Schappell, eds.
The Friend Who Got Away
New York: Doubleday, 2005


We're stuck with our families, but we get to choose our friends. And although it's hard to pin down the formula for creating friendship, we all know the magic of friendship when we're lucky enough to find it.

But we also recognize the pain that results from losing a friend, no matter what the reason. The formula for how friendships dissolve is hard to pin down, too. Twenty professional writers try to describe the process of losing a friend in this book, whose subtitle is Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away.

Only one of the book's contributors discussed a friendship that ended with the death of the author's friend. That writer went on to describe a relationship that formed between herself and the mother of the girl who had died. Soon after the girl's death these two survivors united in their love for and remembrance of her. But eventually their bond, which had originally provided solace for each of them, turned into a painful reminder that prevented both of them from moving on. The lost friendship the author focuses on in her essay is this later one between herself and the mother, a friendship that gradually faded away.

Why so little discussion about friendships that ended with the death of a friend? Probably because the death of a friend doesn't have to end the friendship. Sure, death removes the friend from our physical presence, but not from our memory. In memory, the friend and the friendship live on. We may lose friends to death, but we don't therefore lose their friendship.

No, when we talk about losing friendships, we are talking about the relationships that die out for some reason other than death--reasons such as money or misunderstanding, changed circumstances or a failure to communicate, or perhaps a life-altering event that fundamentally changes one of the people in the friendship.

These are the kinds of losses the essays in The Friend Who Got Away tell us about. There's the story of a woman whose several miscarriages alienate her from two long-time friends who become pregnant and deliver healthy babies; an essay about the dissolution of a life-long friendship because of a disagreement about money; tales of betrayal by a friend who seduced the author's boyfriend and of a former friend who tried to usurp the author's identity by wearing the same clothes and assuming the same mannerisms. In an interesting pairing, two women, who were both close to their mothers, each gives her perspective on the breakup of their friendship when one's mother got cancer and then died.

Perhaps the most poignant story in the book is novelist Ann Hood's description of the painful ending of a 35-year friendship. When Hood's 5-year-old daughter died suddenly of an infectious disease in 2002, this long-time friend never contacted Hood in any way to offer condolences. At the time when Hood most needed her friends, this woman abandoned her.

What makes a person abandon a friend at a time of such grief? Perhaps it's a form of magical thinking known as "magical contagion"--the irrational belief that we can "catch" bad luck from someone who has it, as if misfortune were a contagious disease.

I think, though, that more often the reason is that we simply feel awkward and don't know what to say; afraid of saying the wrong thing, we stay away and say nothing at all. But nothing at all is exactly the worst thing to say at a painful time. Almost anything we might say is infinitely better than saying nothing. If this other person is our friend, surely we can talk to her. We can say, "I don't know what to do for you. Please tell me what you need from me right now." Or we can say, "I can't imagine what I could possibly say to you right now, so I'm just going to sit with you for a while and hold your hand." Even if our friend asks us to leave her alone, at least we have made an effort to communicate and have not abandoned her. And once we've made this effort, the avenue for reconnection later will be open, as it will not be if we have stayed away and said nothing.

The essays in The Friend Who Got Away demonstrate that, just as there is no one magic formula for creating friendships, there is also no generic formula for how friendships end. This volume shows how our truly lost friendships, those whose ending we either mourn or rejoice over but whose existence--no matter how fleeting--has touched us, leave us forever transformed.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reminiscence & Regret

Psychology - New Year's Resolutions - Regret - Mental Health - New York Times

This New York Times article by Benedict Carey is about the person you could have been (or could have become), what psychologists call lost possible selves.
Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.

Yet it is partly from studies of lost possible selves that psychologists have come to a more complete understanding of how regret molds personality. These studies, in people recently divorced and those caring for a sick child, among others, suggest that it is possible to entertain idealized versions of oneself without being mocked or shamed. And they suggest that doing so may serve an important psychological purpose.
Researchers have found that, in general, people react to past mistakes or missed opportunities in one of three ways:

  1. Some fixate on the problems and are at increased risk for mood disorders.
  2. Some ignore, and thereby avoid thinking about, the problems.
  3. Some, in a position between the first two, move carefully among their problem memories and try to deal with the most salient ones.

People's age at time of reflection may influence how they view their regrets. Carey reports on a 2003 study that revealed a contrast between young adults' and older adults' reactions to decisions they regret. Among persons who scored high in psychological well-being, young adults "tended to think of regretted decisions as all their own — perhaps because they still had time to change course"; older adults, in contrast, "tended to share blame for their regretted decisions. 'I tried to reach out to him, but the effort wasn’t returned.'”

A change of perspective may also influence the way people react emotionally to unpleasant incidents from the past:
Even the perspective from which people remember slights or mistakes can affect the memories’ emotional impact, new research suggests. A recent Columbia study found that reimagining painful scenes from a third-person point of view, as if seeing oneself in a movie, blunted their emotional sting.
But reflection on lost possible selves is not necessarily all bad. In a recent article (see reference below) psychologists Laura King and Joshua Hicks argue that "the capacity to acknowledge what is regrettable in life emerges from maturity and contributes to maturation itself."

The key to King and Hicks's approach is a view of goal change as a developmental opportunity in adulthood. While setting goals and trying to achieve them is a process that gives us purpose in life, it is also important to be able to realize when it's more appropriate to disengage from a particular goal than to continue to pursue it. The process of evaluating goals and considering whether it's time to let them go is, as King and Hicks say, one of life's "teachable moments." Acknowledging the necessity to change one's life goals necessarily involves creating new goals that take into account one's current situation.

Two additional concepts important in King and Hicks's argument are happiness (a subjective sense of well-being) and complexity (the level of complexity with which one experiences oneself and the world), which they describe as two aspects of maturity. It is the people unable to disengage from currently impossible "possible selves" who are most negatively affected by the bitterness of regret. But while happiness "requires that individuals truly divest themselves of previously sought after goals," the development of complexity "may require an examination of these very goals."

A mature person is one who acknowledges the loss of a possible self but is not consumed by that loss and who maintains a commitment to currently important goals. Regrets "become less regrettable as they are incorporated into the ever-changing life story."


King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2007). Whatever happened to "what might have been"? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist, 62(7), 625-636.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: Inventing the Truth

Zinsser, William (ed.). Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1987)
Houghton Mifflin Company, 166 pages, $16.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-395-44526-4

This book originated as a series of talks sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., and presented at The New York Public Library in the winter of 1986. The book contains a memoir and introduction by William Zinsser, along with sections by Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Thomas.

In his introductory section, "Writing and Remembering," Zinsser says that for this series of talks
"Memoir" was defined as some portion of a life. Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn't possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into a life. (p. 21)
Other scholars writing about memoir would not agree with Zinsser about the distinction between autobiography and memoir; most use the two terms synonymously. Most, though, would probably agree with some of Zinsser's other generalizations:
  • "…a good memoir is also a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society" (p. 22).
  • "Ego is at the heart of all the reasons why anybody writes a memoir, whether it's a book or a pamphlet or a letter to our children. Memoir is how we validate our lives" (p. 24).
  • "One central point emerged: the writer of a memoir must become the editor of his own life. He must cut and prune an unwieldy story and give it a narrative shape. His duty is to the reader, not himself" (p. 24).
This last point, about narrative shape, emerges most clearly in Russell Baker's section entitled "Life with Mother." Baker says that he finally decided to write the story of his childhood when his mother experienced what he calls a living death: her "mind went out one day as though every circuit in the city had been blown" (p. 40). Being a good journalist, he interviewed all his elderly family members and wrote a long manuscript in which everything was dutifully recorded, annotated and referenced. It was a good piece of journalism but an awful story. When Baker finally realized that the significance hinged on the story of a boy and his mother, he rewrote the entire manuscript. The new version became Growing Up, which is among the best known and most loved of American memoirs.

Annie Dillard also emphasizes the notion of memoir as an account crafted to express an idea, part of a genre she calls literary nonfiction: "…nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea" (p. 73).

© 1998 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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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Forgiveness as Story

Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good
San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002
ISBN 0-06-251721-X

Extensive research has shown that forgiveness is good for us, both physically and emotionally. We can understand this intellectually. But, as most of us also know, it's much harder to find forgiveness in our hearts.

I had struggled with this problem of forgiveness until I discovered Luskin's book. His approach of forgiveness as story finally allowed me to begin to open my heart to the possibility of forgiveness.

Luskin defines forgiveness as “the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment” (p. xii). Forgiveness is aimed at a grievance, which Luskin defines as a long-standing hurt or anger. A grievance results when something happens in our lives that we did not want to happen and when we then deal with the problem by thinking too much about it. Luskin says that we create a grievance out of three components:

  1. The exaggerated taking of personal offense;
  2. The blaming of the offender for how we feel;
  3. The creation of a grievance story.

The grievance story is the main focus of Luskin’s forgiveness program. He says that the mere articulation of a hurt someone has inflicted upon us is not a grievance story. The tale of this hurt only becomes a grievance story when we fixate upon it and tell it over and over again. A grievance story locks us in the past, when the original hurt occurred, and condemns us to reexperience the pain, anger, and resentment of the transgression every time we narrate the story.

To begin moving from grievance to forgiveness, Luskin asks us to consider who the main character in our grievance story is. In most cases, the main character is the person who hurt us; in this story we are passive, a victim controlled by the main character. Arriving at forgiveness involves recasting our grievance story so that we are the main character, the source of the action. In the retelling of the story, we become someone who triumphs over adversity, who survives in spite of the hurt done to us. This retelling involves a shift in perspective, from the point of view of someone immersed in the hurtful event to the point of view of an observer. Such a shift does not excuse or condone the hurt done to us, but it does allow us to view the hurt in a different way, to get some distance on it.

Luskin explains that a grievance story traps us in the past and imprisons us as victims. For me, this became the strongest motivation for changing my story from one of passive victimization into one of active triumph—that is, from a grievance story to a forgiveness story. Luskin’s explanation of a grievance story made me realize that, as long as I continue to dwell on the story of how I was hurt, those who hurt me still maintain control over me. The only way I can truly free myself is to write another story. In my revised story, I am strong, resilient, a survivor. This story represents a change from a dysfunctional grievance story to a healthier forgiveness story. Daniel Taylor (Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, St. Paul: Bog Walk Press, 2001) says that healthy life stories share four qualities: They are truthful, freeing, gracious, and hopeful.

Forgiveness is an exceedingly complex issue. It can take a long, long time to come to terms with being hurt and mistreated. But the point of view from which we narrate our life stories can influence the way those stories in turn shape our lives. Sometimes a shift in perspective can help change a dysfunctional story, such as my grievance story, into a healthy story, such as my forgiveness story.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Quotation of the Day

"We travel through life guided by an inner life plot--part the creation of family, part the internalization of broader social norms, part the function of our imaginations and our own capacity for insight into ourselves, part from our groping to understand the universe in which the planet we inhabit is a speck. When we speak about our memories, we do so through literary forms that seem to capture universals in human experience--the quest, the romance, the odyssey, the tragic or the comic mode. Yet we are all unique, and so are our stories. We should pay close attention to our stories. Polish their imagery. Find their positive rather than their negative form. Search for the ways we experience life differently from the inherited version and edit the plot accordingly, keeping our eyes on the philosophical implications of the changes we make."

Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks (pp. 176-177).

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
"Writing about yourself and those in your life can help you view a situation--and yourself--in a new, clearer way. Turning the people in your life into characters, writing from their point of view, viewing yourself in the third person--all these devices are ways of allowing you to ‘see’ again."

Lynn Lauber, Listen to Me: Writing Life into Meaning (p. 52)

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Quotation of the Day

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative--whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative,' and that this narrative is us, our identities.

“If we wish to know about a man we ask 'what is his story--his real, inmost story?'--for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us--through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives, we are each of us unique.”

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,
and Other Clinical Tales
(p. 105)

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