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]

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With ‘Angel at the Fence,’ Another Memoir Is Found to Be False

With ‘Angel at the Fence,’ Another Memoir Is Found to Be False -

In media circles, there is a joke about facts that are too good to check. This week Oprah Winfrey and the New York publishing industry stumbled on yet another unverified account in the form of a Holocaust survivor who said his future wife had helped him stay alive while he was imprisoned as a child in a Nazi concentration camp by throwing apples over the fence to him.

And so another memoir is pulled from publication. This is getting to be such a common occurrence that it's almost not worth pointing out. Really, where does the blame lie for this kind of thing? You could lay it on the agent, who should have made sure of the manuscript's authenticity before she shopped it around for publication. Or you could lay it on the publisher, who should have checked out the manuscript's veracity before agreeing to put its imprint on it. But I place the blame squarely on the writer. It may be a good story, but if it's not true, it's fiction, not memoir.

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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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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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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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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Review: Old Friend from Far Away

Goldberg, Natalie. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

New York: Free Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-4165-3502-7

Highly Recommended

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg produced what has become a classic manual for writers eager to stir up their creativity. In Old Friend from Far Away she focuses her advice on memoir writing. The old friend of the title is, of course, you--all the yous, all the selves you’ve ever been or only dreamed of being. And the far away place is the past--50 or 80 years ago, or five minutes ago.

In the introduction Goldberg discusses why memoir has become so popular in America over the last 25 years: “Think of the word: memoir. . . . It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Essentially it is an examination of the zigzag nature of how our mind works” (p. xviii). We have turned to the memoir form with such gusto because “We have an intuition that it can save us. Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. . . . Often without realizing it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?” (p. xix).

Most other books for memoir writers aim to stir up memories in a fairly straightforward, traditional way, with prompts about things such as your early childhood memories, your favorite relatives, your best vacation. But Goldberg is much more unconventional. She warns that we cannot approach writing memoir head-on; we must approach it sideways: “because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are” (p. xxi).

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Goldberg means my approaching a topic sideways. It’s better to let her show you. Here’s a section from the entry “Place,” chosen at random from Old Friend from Far Away:
Write about a place you haven’t lived. Go, ten minutes.

Make a lost of thirty things pertaining to place; i.e., boulevard, street corner, gulley canyon, arroyo.
Write another ten minutes including ten words from your list but with this topic: the place I am most afraid to go.

Notice the different levels you can write about place. One is concrete: Colorado Springs, Colorado, Memphis, Tennessee. . . . The other is inner: I have not been in a peaceful place for a long time. I have been in a thoughtful place. I feel lost; I can’t find a place for myself. (p. 201)
Goldberg’s sideways approach to memoir writing forces us to probe beneath the surface of experience to find its kernel of meaning. “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. This means when we write we give up ourselves” (p. 147).

Most of Goldberg’s writing exercises instruct us to set a timer and write for ten minutes. Why ten minutes?
Ten minutes is a convenient starting point. It’s a sprint. Feel free to ease into longer runs. But don’t abandon that ten-minute hard-core pressurized feeling that you have to get it all down on two or three pages. There is something wildly exhilarating about that: gun to the head, writing for life and death in ten minutes. (p. 98)
She seems to be advocating here a kind of writing sometimes called free writing or automatic writing--a keep-the-pen-moving-across-the-page act of writing that does not stop to edit or judge but keeps going to see what will emerge onto the page. The idea behind this kind of writing is that whatever thoughts, feelings, or visions are just below the surface of consciousness will take advantage of this uncensored opportunity to jump out and present themselves. And these thoughts are usually the ones that most need our attention right now.

Finally, why write memoir? Goldberg says we write about our life
to remember all of it. The good and the bad. To trust your experience, to have a confidence that your moments and the moments of others on this earth mattered, not to be forgotten. . . . It is a great thing you are doing whatever it is you are remembering. You are saying that life--and its passing--have true value. (p. 265)
And for whom do we write? For “our better, worse, encumbered, forfeited, imprisoned, beloved selves” (p. 299).

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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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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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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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Quotation of the Day

“Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me--as a woman, but even more than that as a writer. Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms. She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children. It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life--cooking the trimming or a dress or hat, quiet talk--can be just as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter. Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir--the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet. . . . Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things--I think that’s why it felt ordinary even as she wrote it. She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature. Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.” (pp. 191-192)

--Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Another Fake Memoir

Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction - New York Times

Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones was published last week. In this memoir Margaret B. Jones claims to be a half-white, half-Native American who grew up as a foster child in the gangland of South-Central Los Angeles and ran drugs for the Bloods. In reality, "Margaret B. Jones" is Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.

Faking a memoir seems to be a growing trend:
The revelations of Ms. Seltzer’s mendacity came in the wake of the news last week that a Holocaust memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, was a fake, and perhaps more notoriously, two years ago James Frey, the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” admitted that he had made up or exaggerated details in his account of his drug addiction and recovery.
Seltzer's identity was revealed when her sister saw an article with accompanying photo in a New York Times article last week and notified the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, that the story was untrue. Seltzer had worked on the book for three years with Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath. Seltzer's sister wonders how a publisher could have worked so long on a project without doing any fact-checking.

The book also fooled several reviewers, including The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani, who praised the “humane and deeply affecting memoir,” while noting that some of the scenes “can feel self-consciously novelistic at times.”

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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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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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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, 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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Monday, October 8, 2007

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

book cover
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking
New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-4314-X

Highly Recommended

On the evening of December 30, 2003, Joan Didion's husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their apartment in New York City. Didion and Dunne had just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was in a drug-induced coma in a New York hospital. While Didion tossed the salad, Dunne suddenly stopped speaking to her from the next room. He had collapsed, and probably died instantly, from a massive heart attack.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's account of dealing with her grief and the loss of her companion. In addition to mourning her husband, she had to deal with the continued illness of her daughter. After Quintana was discharged from the hospital in New York, where pneumonia had developed into septic shock, she and her husband flew to California for rest, relaxation, and recuperation. On the tarmac at the Los Angeles airport Quintana collapsed and was taken to UCLA Medical Center, where she underwent a long operation for bleeding in the brain. She spent several months in the neuro intensive care unit and was later flown by air ambulance back to New York for extensive rehab.

While the near-death of her daughter forms a backdrop, most of Didion's book deals with her reaction to her husband's death. Both Didion and Dunne were writers all their lives, and each was always the other's first and best editor. Except for the first five months of their marriage, they had both always worked at home; they were, therefore, almost constant companions for 40 years.

The magical thinking of the title refers to the non-rational, illogical thinking that Didion often found herself falling into. When she begins to give Dunne's clothes away, she can't bring herself to get rid of all his shoes because he might come back, and he would need shoes. She keeps thinking back over recent events, wondering if there had been some warning of what was to come, some sign that she missed, something she could have done to prevent Dunne's death. And everywhere she goes, she sees something that sets her memory racing back into the past, back to their times together, and straight into what she calls the vortex: having to face "the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself" (p. 189).

She completes the book a year and a day after Dunne's death. Still, she says, she has found no clarity, no resolution.
In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic. (p. 226)

The time of magical thinking, of trying to find a way to rewind the movie of life and play it forward again with a different ending, is over. Yet life goes on. Perhaps writing about her grief has helped.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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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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