Friday Findings

Terence Blacker: Writing about your life can shut it down

Terence Blacker holds a viewpoint that goes against everything I’ve learned about life writing:

Writing autobiographically, like prostitution, involves impersonation. The person who emerges on the page is inevitably a variation on the real thing – more (or less) well-behaved, less (or more) chaotic and confused. To turn the muddle of a life into a story which can be understood by someone else requires editing, tidying-up, streamlining. The result will often leave the writer feeling reduced in some way. Real life is strange and subtle in a way non-fiction rarely reflects, however well-written. The memoirist, like the prostitute, is putting on a show in which tricks and fakery are involved.

When that show consists of memories and experiences, the effect of revelation can be upsetting. Looking back to present one’s story to the world, whether in an online blog or in a book for publication, is almost always unhealthy. Public regret or guilt about things that have gone wrong is pointless; public satisfaction over a job well done can seem smug. Neither impinge helpfully on the present, and until someone is truly in his or her dotage, it is surely in the present and the future that happiness resides. . . .

An autobiography, however good, echoes to the sound of a door being slammed shut forever. Before his great book Life appeared, there was something interestingly incomplete about Keith Richards. He was a wonderful, shambolic work in progress, and it was impossible to tell how that work would end up. Now we know. The book has been published, the tale told. In some strange way, it put a full stop to his life. The normal things that evolve and change – careers, relationships, personalities – are immobilised by the act of memoir. Richards is slightly less interesting now that he has told his story.

ALL writing involves impersonation. To condemn the memoirist for this failing and compare autobiographical writing to prostitution is absurd. Would Blacker dismiss everything ever written, fiction as well as nonfiction?

And where is the proof for his statement that looking back on one’s life “is almost always unhealthy”? All the scientific evidence–and there is a lot–contradicts him. Yes, I know that this is an opinion piece, and he’s entitled to his. But I always find informed opinion so much more persuasive than, well, non-informed statements such as this.

And an autobiography does not have to put a “full stop” to one’s life. In fact, in serious autobiographical writing one looks to one’s past for lessons and encouragement on how to live now and on into the future. Writing memoir or autobiography is a self-defining and self-affirming act.

As an antidote to Blacker’s misinformation, take a look at The Cultural and Political Power of the Personal Memoir, mentioned in last week’s Friday Findings.

From poverty to publicity, Jeannette Walls shares life story with Ball State freshmen

And here’s another refutation of Blacker’s assertions. Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle, tells of a live of neglect and poverty, yet the message she discussed at Ball State University was one of hope.

And this article contains an example of how one person’s memoir can be a blueprint to help others:

Senior creative drawing major Mo Smith said it was a story she was able to relate to. . . . “I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Smith said. “We were all so poor; I thought I was smart enough to go but I’d never really fit in socially. So I loved this story. If Walls made better of her circumstances, and hers are way worse than mine, I think I can probably do it too.”

Narrative Medicine and the Godfather

The godfather in question is Lee Gutkind, the so-called godfather of creative nonfiction. In this piece Gutkind talks about the growth of narrative medicine, a movement that aims to help medical professionals understand patients’ stories of illness as well as to encourage medical professionals to tell their own stories of how their work affects them. For more information, follow the link near the beginning of this article to a previous discussion of narrative medicine.

Local Writer Looking to Publish Her Life Story

Another story of someone who believes that learning to put her thoughts down on paper has helped her through many tough periods in her life. Thank goodness she didn’t come across Blacker (above) while she was learning.

Commentary: Sharing personal stories provide legacy for ending on high note

Bill Bollom explains how he got started with life writing:

When I was laid up for two years, I wrote life stories and other tidbits. It was a good thing for me to do. I think the kids, grandkids and maybe even beyond will appreciate my words, and it benefited me too. It kept my mind active on something other than my problems, and I enjoyed recalling stories of my past and writing my personal observations on a variety of topics and questions.

When two of his sisters-in-law were dying of cancer, he gave each of them a spiral notebook, a pen, and a list of 53 questions to stimulate their memories and get them started writing about events from their lives. He asked them to write when they felt up to it and offered these suggestions:

  • » Don’t answer questions necessarily in the order I have written. You will be attracted to some of them immediately.
  • » When writing, keep the paragraphs short and inviting to read.
  • » Keep your writing simple, descriptive (put in details), with personal feeling.
  • » Write as you speak. It’s your voice we want to hear.
  • » Funny stories are good, even making fun of yourself.
  • » Reveal successes, but also failures and ill will. This is not an application to get into heaven.
  • » Have fun while writing.

Have a look at his memory-sparking questions and see if any make you feel the urge to write. And write so that your personal voice comes through.

The Exchange: Janine di Giovanni

From The New Yorker comes this interview with Janine di Giovanni, a war correspondent who recently turned to memoir. The writer talks about how writing her memoir, Ghosts by Daylight, compares with journalism.

We need to hear the stories of the unsung heroes

David Bly, editor of the Desert Valley Times, talks about the importance of hearing the life stories of ordinary older adults:

Stories are not empty entertainment. I once wrote about the funeral of a 102-year-old Blackfoot woman who was the keeper of her people’s stories. Those stories and the position were handed down to the woman’s 78-year-old niece, who told me the stories were the Blackfoot people’s science, history, religion, moral code and culture. Without a written language, they used stories to hand down essential knowledge and wisdom.

In this age of rampant technology, we may think we don’t need those stories, but the mere transfer of information is not teaching. Knowledge cannot become wisdom without experience. A computer can store a huge amount of data, but it cannot tell us what it means.

Friday Findings

The Cultural and Political Power of the Personal Memoir 

Writing for The Atlantic, Lindsay Miller says:

More than any other genre, I’m infatuated with memoir. There is nothing more satisfying than getting lost in the sloppy, messy details and extraordinary turns of someone else’s life. I particularly love memoirs by women, especially women from non-Western countries. My interest borders on evangelical; I think that reading memoir is one of the best ways, maybe one of the only ways, to develop empathy for those we see as the Other.

Mason’s 1980 article “The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers,” a seminal work in feminist theory of autobiography, identified the presence of some other as a defining characteristic of women’s self-representational writing. In many cases that other is the idealized concept of woman that our culture presents to us and expects us to adopt.

Memoir is an inherently transgressive form, and memoir by women especially so. The culture we live in is constantly telling us the stories of our lives as they should be. We’re told, by television and movies and celebrity interviews and “lifestyle trend” pieces and our grandmothers, that we are supposed to look a certain way, drive a certain car, marry by a certain age, have a certain number of children, pursue a certain career. . . .

The concepts of womanhood that our culture offers us shape the way we think about ourselves, since we are trained from birth to do what society expects us to do. Those who choose a different way of life face disapproval. When that happens, writing about one’s life, taking ownership of one’s own experience, can be both liberating and life-affirming.

Writing a memoir, writing honestly and deeply about life as we see it, is perhaps the most basic way to counter that toxic, restrictive force. By putting down on paper the words that describe how we move through the world, we act in opposition to the cultural forces that attempt to define our lives for us. We claim the role of expert on our own experience and overrule the chorus of voices coming at us from all sides, telling us who and what we should be. For women, for queers, for minorities of any kind, simply telling the truth about the way we live is powerfully subversive.

Writing a memoir doesn’t just help the writer. It also can empower other people by providing them an alternative blueprint by which to live their lives.

Note: Mason’s essay is reprinted in J. Olney (Ed.), Autobiography: Essays theoretical and critical (pp. 207-235). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Talking Cure at Work in Contemporary YA Fiction

We keep hearing that modern society has come to rely on drugs rather than psychotherapy for dealing with mental health issues. But, Kabi Hartman assures us:

Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.

Hartman likens the several novels she discusses here to the tradition of religious conversion narratives (think John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress). And she finds hope in the picture that these novels offer, that adolescents can achieve self-knowledge through therapy:

these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.

BFFing yourself: People pick friends just like themselves

This article reports on new research published in the scientific social psychology journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. Chris Crandall, psychology professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of the study entitled “Social Ecology of Similarity: Big Schools, Small Schools and Social Relationships,” says that people tend to choose as friends those whose views are most similar to their own.

The study compared friendships between students at the University of Kansas, with an enrollment of about 25,000, and students at smaller rural Kansas colleges, with an average enrollment of 1,300. The study posited that students at the larger university, with a larger pool of potential friends, would choose friends similar to themselves, while students at the smaller schools, with a smaller pool to pick from, would have to settle for less similarity.

The study yielded two significant findings:

On larger campuses, people tended to be friends with those who held many of the same beliefs; in other words, they BFF’d themselves. And on small campuses, people had more diverse friends but rated those friendships as closer.

“It’s not surprising they’d be closer,” says Crandall. “A small campus is a more intimate experience. But the interesting thing is that they’re less similar — but more close. Our data tells us you should feel free to make friends who aren’t completely similar to you because people with some differences can still be very close friends.”

And there can be benefits from having friends with somewhat dissimilar views:

“When you meet different people, they provide you with education, with different viewpoints,” he says. “You learn that different viewpoints can be held by reasonable people. The message is really optimistic. It’s a more expanded notion of who you can tolerate or enjoy as friends. It’s probably more people than you think.”


Friday Findings

For The Dying, A Chance To Rewrite Life

For several decades, psychiatrists who work with the dying have been trying to come up with new psychotherapies that can help people cope with the reality of their death. One of these therapies asks the dying to tell the story of their life. This end-of-life treatment, called dignity therapy, was created by a man named Harvey Chochinov.

Although I had not heard the term dignity therapy, I was familiar with the concept: the desire to create something that will last beyond an individual’s life. This desire to pass something on to future generations is part of what Erik Erikson called generativity.

The something that Chochinov decided to create was a formal written narrative of the patient’s life — a document that could be passed on to whomever they chose. The patients would be asked a series of questions about their life history, and the parts they remember most or think are most important. Their answers would be transcribed and presented to them for editing until, after going back and forth with the therapist, a polished document resulted that could be passed on to the people that they loved.

This article describes one woman’s reaction to the narrative her mother created before dying.

Candice Millard on the writing life 

Candice Millard is the author of The River of Doubt, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, and Destiny of the Republic,” about the assassination of President James Garfield. She describes her job as a researcher and writer as follows:

If I have learned anything about nonfiction writing, it is that the challenge is not in finding a great story to tell. . . . The difficulty lies in understanding the people you are writing about — not their actions, or even their thoughts, but their deepest character. It is not the famous events, the dramatic moments of public triumph, that define them. It is when their lives are difficult, even desperate, that their true nature is revealed. In those private moments, even the greatest men become understandable because those painful emotions are a universal part of human life — something that all of us, sooner or later, must face.

In this piece Millard movingly tells the story of how her work as a writer helped her when her newborn daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer and underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy over two years.

If uncovering the truth is the greatest challenge of nonfiction writing, it is also the greatest reward. As I have encountered difficult moments in my own life, I have been privileged to learn from the great men I have come to know as a writer. In their moments of private agony and doubt, which we all share, we can see through to the depths of their character — to the bed of the sea — and begin to understand.

Searching for Happiness — a New Movement in America

This press release describes the movement known as positive psychology:

Positive Psychology is the study of human thriving, an examination of how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. This new scientific field attempts to understand those aspects of the human experience that make life worth living. The field’s recent findings suggest an individual’s actions can have a significant effect on happiness and satisfaction with one’s life.

The film HAPPY, which will be featured at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival (Sept. 22-Oct. 2), presents findings from the field of positive psychology along with stories of people from around the world whose lives illustrate these findings. A positive psychology panel discussion will also be held in Milwaukee on on September, 24, 2011.

Rhonda Reese: Telling Mandarin residents’ stories has changed her life for the better

A retiring community news reporter tells how sharing life stories has enriched her own life:

Just this week, I looked and listened to a group of women, most over age 60, showing off their childhood photos and telling a bit about their pictures. Every story made me smile and feel like I knew that person a little better.

As I watched the women laughing and loving each other over a light lunch in a friend’s Mandarin home, I knew. I knew that this is why sharing our hearts with each other is so important. When so much news we are subjected to every day is laced with murder, mayhem and money woes, it’s refreshing to stop and sit with a friend.

Scientists Hint at Why Laughter Feels So Good 

The answer, reports Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, is not the intellectual pleasure of cerebral humor, but the physical act of laughing. The simple muscular exertions involved in producing the familiar ha, ha, ha, he said, trigger an increase in endorphins, the brain chemicals known for their feel-good effect.

These recent findings support the hypothesis that laughter is a form of group bonding that may have helped humans evolve as highly social beings. Perhaps this is why laughter can be so contagious.

Friday Findings

Words Failed, Then Saved Me

Philip Schultz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and author of the forthcoming memoir My Dyslexia, describes his experiences as a child with dyslexia in the early 1950s, before anyone knew about learning disabilities. As a child repeating third grade:

I couldn’t tie my shoes, tell time or left from right, or recreate musical notes or words. I not only couldn’t read but often couldn’t hear or understand what was being said to me — by the time I’d processed the beginning of a sentence, the teacher was well on her way through a second or third. When I did have something to say I couldn’t find the words with which to say it, or if I could, forgot how to pronounce them.

The 11 year old whom educators couldn’t teach to read willed himself into learning to put letters together to form words:

I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined being able to sound out the words by putting the letters together into units of rhythmic sound and the words into sentences that made sense. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.

And suddenly I was reading. I didn’t know then that I was beginning a lifelong love affair with the first-person voice and that I would spend most of my life inventing characters to say all the things I wanted to say.

Acknowledging that researchers now know much more about dyslexia than when he was a child, Schultz concludes:

We knew so much less when I was a child. Then, all I wanted and needed, when I learned so painstakingly to read and then to write, was to find a way to be less alone. Which is, of course, what spoken and written language is really all about.

Study of the Day: Yes, People May Die From a Broken Heart

Researchers in the United Kingdom examined a random sample of death registrations. They compared the risk of mortality of parents whose child had survived beyond the first year of life with that of parents whose child had died before reaching a first birthday or was stillborn.

Results “showed a general heightened risk of mortality among bereaved parents, especially among mothers.” The researchers concluded that “Parents who lose their infants are at significantly higher risk of an early death for up to 25 years after their loss.”

Dear Diary: 5 Journal Apps for iPhone

Journal writing has been shown to be beneficial to our health, but carrying a journal around everywhere really isn’t feasible. But for those who always have their iPhones handy, here’s a look at 5 apps that let you journal on the go.

Tell us the story of your life: MEN launches new writing competition

The Manchester Evening News, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, is sponsoring a life-story writing competition. One of the judges is Professor Brenda Cooper, an expert in African literature who offers classes for aspiring writers. The winner of this contest will receive a place in one of her writing courses.

Here’s how Cooper describes the kinds of entries the competition is looking for:

“What we’re looking for is a piece of somebody’s life written in an amazing and wonderful and original way,” she says. “It’s a piece of writing that rings true and moves people to laugh or cry or want to know more.”

She also offers some additional advice that could be helpful to any life writers, even those who don’t live in the United Kingdom.

Writing The Story Of Your Life: Narrative Therapy And Healing

Australian psychotherapist Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar discusses how changing one’s life story can help to change one’s life:

And it [a symposium on narrative and healing] reminded me at times of Narrative Therapy, which is all about seeing the way you might have pulled together the particular threads of the story of your life so far; and asking whether there are perhaps also other ways of re-weaving them; of “re-authoring” your story and yourself. Of consciously seeing the narrative that you’ve co-created with others and the world. And consciously evaluating what else might also be important to include in that. What else wants to be told about you.

It’s a rich metaphor, this business of seeing our lives as stories.

We are all co-authors of our own life stories; we create our stories in interaction with the people around us. The process of constructing a life story often begins in childhood, when we work to understand, often unconsciously, our place in our family. For example, family stories that present one girl as “the smart daughter” and her sister as “the pretty one” shape the way that those two girls think about themselves. And these stories have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, so that, for example, the pretty daughter cultivates her appearance at the expense of her mind as a means of succeeding in life.

Understanding where our life stories come from can help us rewrite those stories and thereby change our lives.

Friday Findings

Saving myself with storytelling

Writing is for me what therapy or praying or nature is for other people. It settles my mind and lightens my heart. Without it, I think I might burst through the delicate seams of my seemingly sane life and find myself floating through the world without direction.

Rosalba Roberts writes about her discovery of journal writing as a help in dealing with fibromyalgia. But when she later found out that she had breast cancer, she was suddenly unable to write in her journal. Only after her niece encouraged her to participate in her high school’s cancer relay for life was Roberts able to break through and return to writing:

That night, I opened my journal. For the first time since my diagnosis, words asserted themselves, filling page after page. As I wrote, I realized that while I’d been busy keeping cancer at bay, fear had attached itself to me like a second skin. . . .  That night, cancer receded into the background of my life. Hope, glowing like a candle, took its rightful place.

Balance is a vital skill that fades with age but can be enhanced with exercises

A long time ago I wrote about how my personal trainer, Patti, insists we practice balancing on the overturned BOSU. As much as I hate to admit it, Patti knows what she’s talking about. In this article Carolyn Butler offers a couple of disturbing facts about our ability to stand on our own two feet: (1) in general, “balance peaks in your 20s and then starts to slowly go downhill in your 30s, with a sharp decline in the 60s and beyond”; and (2) “one in three adults 65 and older takes a spill every year, with 20 to 30 percent of those incidents resulting in moderate to severe injuries, including lacerations, hip fractures and head trauma.”

But there’s good news, too: It’s never too late to start working on balance with exercises such as yoga and Pilates–and yes, BOSUs and balance boards. I complain a lot about exercising, but I can definitely see an improvement in my own sense of balance after a few years of working at it.

Maslow 2.0: A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness

Anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 has seen Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

This article reports on a large study undertaken to see if Maslow’s theory accurately describes peoples’ needs:

the Gallup World Poll, a landmark survey on well-being with 60,865 participants from 123 countries that was conducted from 2005 to 2010. Respondents answered questions about six needs that closely resemble those in Maslow’s model: basic needs (food, shelter); safety; social needs (love, support); respect; mastery; and autonomy. They also rated their well-being across three discrete measures: life evaluation (a person’s view of his or her life as a whole), positive feelings (day-to-day instances of joy or pleasure), and negative feelings (everyday experiences of sorrow, anger, or stress).

Results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

As it turns out, the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. Our troubles, conversely, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. Only when we look back on the quality of our lives thus far do basic needs become significant indicators for well-being.

The new model for happiness that emerges from this study “aims to strike a balance between the pursuit of happiness as the end goal and the fulfillment of both personal and social goals to get there.”

Win $25,000 in Reader’s Digest Writing Contest

To celebrate the publication of Life…The Reader’s Digest Version: Great Advice, Simply Put, Reader’s Digest will host the “Your Life…” contest. The grand prize winner will receive $25,000, and ten runner-ups will win $2,500. The eleven honorees’ stories will also be published on In addition, Facebook fans will have the chance to vote for their favorite stories. The most popular Facebook entry will also receive $2,500. To enter, submit your life story in 150 words or less on Reader’s Digest‘s Facebook page.

Be advised, though, that you may be up against some stiff competition. Glee actress Jane Lynch submitted the first entry in the contest.

Entry deadline is November 1.