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]

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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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, 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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