Lots of interesting stories this week.
This article is a good follow-up to last week’s Friday Findings in its addition to the discussion of opposing narratives at work in this fall’s U. S. election campaigns:
Conservative America confronts a profound and difficult choice this year: a choice between supporting a political philosophy that they generally disagree with and supporting a faction that is trying to turn America into a kind of dictatorship of the rich and powerful. This faction, which now controls the Republican Party through its control of funding for campaigns, will try to mislead you about what their real intent is.
They do this by constructing a set of fairy tales that make them seem to support Conservative values, but that are based on nothing, or on misrepresentations or even lies, or by demonizing their opponents by attributing to them opinions that they do not espouse. These fairy tales conceal their real intent, which is to concentrate power in a system that protects large corporations and wealthy families at the expense of everyone else. And the Democrats have failed to confront the falsehoods behind this assault.
There’s nothing like an election to demonstrate how archetypes, individual narratives, and political narratives can combine to become the narratives that underlie a national mythos.
Before we get started, you should know this about me: I’ve written short stories, news articles, essays, reviews and a couple of nonfiction books. In pursuit of my ambitions, I’ve put in long hours of reading, writing and rewriting. But because life unfolds the way life does, I also have a day job as a think tank researcher, where I spend about half of my time writing or reading in genres and styles that are — how can I put this? — less juicy than the ones I practice and aspire to produce.
I’m a dancer who walks for a living.
The biggest adjustment I had to make in leaving academia was the switch from academic writing to writing for a general audience. Here Michael Erard explains why. What makes this kind of change so difficult is “’structural priming’ or ‘syntactic persistence.’ Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write ‘prime’ you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically.”
To help overcome structural priming, Erard advises looking at some texts that are different from what you usually write. But, ironically,
It’s not quite as easy, though, as simply doing “new” and “mesmerizing” things with the same old words. The challenge that structural priming poses to writers is that you can’t deviate from what’s expected by your readers so completely that you produce a sentence they can’t read.
In this short essay the author of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving explains how writing the novel helped him heal from a personal trauma:
This book represents nothing less than an emotional catharsis for its author. I wrote this book because I needed to. Because my sister went on a road trip 39 years ago and never came back. And my family has yet to heal from this terrible fact. This novel is about the imperative of getting in that van, because you have no choice but to push yourself and drive on, and keep driving in the face of life’s terrible surprises. It’s about the people and the things you gather along that rough road back to humanity. And in the end, for me, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” is the van in which I finally bring my sister home.
Kathleen Parker recently saw Gloria Steinem at a gathering that honored the documentary Makers: The Women Who Make America, a video production from PBS, AOL and Makers.com.
The documentary chronicles the history of the women’s movement and features women who have, indeed, made things happen so that subsequent generations could do what women were not allowed to do not so long ago — to become doctors, lawyers, legislators, secretaries of state and, perhaps, even president.
Among those assembled were seven of the Makers who appear in the film, including, in addition to Steinem, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Marlo “That Girl” Thomas, Rebecca Adamson (founder of First Peoples Worldwide), Karen Nussbaum (executive director of Working America and founder of 9to5), Malika Saada Saar (executive director, Human Rights Project for Girls) and Muriel Siebert (the first woman to earn a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and namesake of the investment firm Siebert & Co.).
The documentary will be released in February 2013, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique. Parker emphasizes that women in the U. S. must remember that their rights “didn’t just happen.” Those rights were earned by the hard work of generations of women who refused to be constrained by their sex. Forgetting this fact could be catastrophic:
Steinem, her fire somewhat tempered by time and grace, noted that loss of memory is the source of oppression. For centuries, women’s stories weren’t told. Women had no place at the campfire, as she put it.
Women must keep telling their stories. And stoking that campfire.
The Dulwich Centre of Australia, one of the global repositories of narrative resources and instruction, offers the first two chapter of Alice Morgan’s text What is narrative therapy? An easy-to-read introduction.
An individual may have a story about themselves as being successful and competent. Alternatively they may have a story about themselves as being ‘a failure at trying new things’ or ‘a coward’ or as ‘lacking determination’. Families may have stories about themselves as being ‘caring’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘risky’ or ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘close’. A community may have a story about itself as ‘isolated’ or ‘politically active’ or ‘financially strong’. All these stories could be occurring at the same time, and events, as they occur, will be interpreted according to the meaning (plot) that is dominant at that time. In this way, the act of living requires that we are engaged in the mediation between the dominant stories and the alternative stories of our lives. We are always negotiating and interpreting our experiences.
Narrative therapy uses conscious examination and understanding of our various stories, followed, if necessary, by “restorying” aspects of our lives that may be causing us problems.
Fairy tales are an integral part of any culture. They are stories used to demonstrate to children what life paths or options are open to them and what will happen to those who don’t conform to society’s expectations.
This blog entry uses television and film examples to illustrate “a recent growing trend – using known fairytale plots and characters in non traditional ways.” The use of traditional fairy tales in nontraditional ways suggests a society in transition. Most current examples of this usage demonstrate to girls that they have choices other than Cinderella and Snow White as models for how to live their lives.
“This is the dramatic question that I am exploring in my next book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life, which I am currently writing,” says Jen Grisanti.
What made me want to examine this idea of changing our life by changing our story? I am a story/career consultant and I have analyzed stories for 20 years now — including 12 years as a studio executive. I have probably seen a protagonist change in over 5,000 stories at this point in my career. I see that in stories (in film, television, novels, etc.) we can create and manipulate the idea of change. We have the control to do it because we can write whatever outcome illustrates the idea of change.
So, if we can do it in the stories we write and the stories we tell, why can’t we also do it in our own life stories? . . . What if we could learn to be the heroes in our own stories and move through our obstacles knowing that, in time, the growth will move us into a greater awareness?
What Grisanti is talking about here is narrative therapy, and there’s a whole body of scientific material about it.
But don’t let the word therapy scare you. This kind of personal change doesn’t require an advanced degree or a special therapist. In addition to the body of scientific literature, there are also a lot of books about this process written for a general reader. Here are two that I have found particularly helpful:
- Michael White and David Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (Norton, 1990)
- Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories (Bog Walk Press, 2001)
In fact, the discovery of Taylor’s book was what sent me back to graduate school a few years ago for a doctorate in psychology with an emphasis on narrative identity theory and life stories.
So I look forward to the future publication of Grisanti’s book. Perhaps it will be a good addition to this list.
Also on the subject of life stories comes this from the New York Times Magazine:
The “Lives” essay has been running in our magazine nearly every week since 1996. For those who don’t know, it is a place for true personal stories, running about 800 words long, and in the print edition, it’s the last bit of editorial content, right inside the back cover. Though we do solicit professional writers, it is open to anyone with a good tale to tell, and we try as best we can to keep up with the steady torrent of submissions. At the risk of making our jobs utterly impossible, I want to encourage even more writers to take the plunge — because the more stories we get, the higher the quality of what ends up on the page. In doing this, it is not our intention to set people up for failure. The truth is, while getting published is a wonderful achievement, the process of writing a story is itself a rewarding experience. You won’t be sorry for having tried.
This blog entry offers several suggestions for writing one’s own life, even for someone who is not intending to submit a life story for publication. In addition to the writing advice, this piece links to an index of the “Lives” essays, which offer good examples of how to craft an effective life story.
Movies and television shows are full of scenes where a man tries unsuccessfully to interact with a pretty woman. In many cases, the potential suitor ends up acting foolishly despite his best attempts to impress. It seems like his brain isn’t working quite properly and according to new findings, it may not be.
Scientific American reports on a couple of new studies undertaken to explore further “the cognitive impairment that men experience before and after interacting with women” suggested by earlier investigations:
A 2009 study demonstrated that after a short interaction with an attractive woman, men experienced a decline in mental performance. A more recent study suggests that this cognitive impairment takes hold even when men simply anticipate interacting with a woman who they know very little about.
What delightful news!
A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.
Von Schönwerth spent decades collecting these stories by “asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth.”
These tales aren’t just for children: “Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage.” Fairytales and other stories (e.g., fables and legends) are often a method for obliquely passing on a given culture’s values, beliefs, and directives.
You can read one of these fairytales, The Turnip Princess, through a link at the top of this article.
I spent last weekend in the Berkshires with friends. We ate lots of good food and attended two concerts at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Friday night concert included Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok, and the Saturday night performance featured The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. After the Saturday performance one of my (female) friends said, “It was definitely not a good weekend for women.”
In the folk tales that inspired both of these exquisite musical compositions, women appear as nothing more than objects or pawns in the world of men.In the tale of Bluebeard, Judith, who originally hopes to bring light into the darkness and to dry the damp walls of the castle, ends up shut away in the castle with all the other women the duke has brutalized. And in the tale of Faust, when Mephistopheles wants to steal the man’s soul, he uses a beautiful woman, Marguerite, to tempt him. Granted, at the end of the story Marguerite is transported to heaven, but to get there she must be, after all, dead.
It’s time for a new perspective on the role of women in our folk tales and cultural mythology.
My friend and I were not, of course, the first to recognize this need. Rosemary Lake has written some feminist fairy tales and provides lots of information about other sources of similar material, along with suggestions about how this material can be used in the classroom. Nancy Keane provides a list of feminist fairy tales. And look here for an interesting article on the subversive value of feminist fairy tales. There are also a number of books available, such as Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara G. Walker and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England by Jack David Zipes.
In a related note, I have always found it interesting that mythology and folklore provide us with the archetype of the wicked stepmother, who secretly persecutes and schemes against her husband’s children by another woman, but not the archetype of the wicked stepfather. But of course there can be no wicked stepfather in a patriarchal society, since all women, both a wife and her children, become a man’s property, to treat as he will, at the time of marriage. In such a society a man may treat his own daughters, his wife, and his stepdaughters however badly he wishes without being thought of as wicked.