When writers write, they think they're just telling a story. How my lover cheated on me. How much I love my grandmother. How boring work is. But what we don't realize is that the stories we tell about who we are may define who we become.
Life stories, by their very nature, are a retrospective reconstruction. We all have different versions of the same story. My friends and I attended a party once and the next day, when I asked them to tell me what happened, it turns out we all remembered things differently.
Or, I'd ask people to discuss a film and they'd say they like it or dislike it for different things. It was the same film but what was significant for one was trivial to another.
In a New York Times article titled "This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)" published in 2007, researchers discovered there was a strong correlation between the content of a person's life and the stories he/she tells.
Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.
By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.
The research argues that "narrative themes are, as any other trait, driving factors in people's behavior."
“We find that when it comes to the big choices people make — Should I marry this person? Should I take this job? Should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not,” Dr. McAdams said.
When I read personal blogs or stories, I tend to create an image in my mind of who the writer is. Oftentimes, it is how the writer perceived himself as an actor in the story.
The writer could be talking of a heartache; which is quite common in personal blogs. Does he portray himself as kawawa (the underdog)? Does he regret falling in love? Or did he use that experience to learn? It is how we choose to narrate the story that matters.
Storytelling can also be important in battling personal demons. Another study showed patients who sought treatment for depression, marital problems and who won told very similar tales about the experience.
They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.
While these people saw their problems (drinking, cheating) as a villain to be defeated, the others felt these were part of their own character.
Another trick I've learned is to learn to shift perspective from a first-person point of view to a third-person. Remembering events in the third-person point of view allows us to be a little distant from the story and to be more critical and objective.
In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University analyzed how people reacted to a painful memory when it was recalled in the third person.
“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.
What is interesting in all these studies is the implication that the power to change our lives may fundamentally be related to how we tell our stories. We write, apparently not just to express but also to create ourselves. So be careful how you write your stories, you may be revealing more than you want to.
Thank you to those who took the time to read, understand and share their thoughts about what I wrote. I fear I may have failed in making myself clear on certain things and because I strongly believe that this artice can be very helpful, I will labor to answer some of your comments.
It would help if you also read the original article as it appeared in the New York Times. I included a link above.
I noticed most of you focused on the implication of how other people would view you based on how you write. But that is not the point of this research. It is not how others perceive you, it is how you perceive yourself.
What others may conclude about you is irrelevant. It is not what kind of a writer you are, it is what kind of a person you think you are as revealed by how you tell or write your life stories.
The research also focuses only on life stories, the story of your life so it does not apply to fabricated tales, or fiction. We can surmise and discuss how we reveal ourselves in our fictional works but this is clearly beyond the limits of the research.
Again, it was a pleasure reading your comments and I look forward to hearing your ideas. Cheers =)
I would like to thank my friend Niel for sharing with me the article. He has been a wonderful friend, confidant and my de-facto shrink whenever I feel that life has dealt me another blow. But see Niel, look at where we are now? =)