Your life, my life, story

I haven’t worked on this much recently, I’ve been writing a dissertation instead! If you’re looking for some great reading on life stories, a friend sent me this, which is all about how you arrange your life as a narrative.

My dissertation is about writing trauma. Right from when I worked at RNIB and had to carry out focus groups with people taking about sight loss, I have been inviting people to tell me their trauma. Examining this in detail makes me think about how I tell my own story. I think a lot of the time, I don’t. When I told my story as a child it was rejected too often, and in becoming an author I have the perfect excuse to listen rather than tell. I’ll be working on this… My life’s work is my story.

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Blogs, diaries, stories and a sense of self

dear world
This week I’ve started to read Dear World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) by Kylie Cardell.

She writes, “in this study I argue that diary is the genre Smilinked intimately to the representation and construction of self and that it crystallises a certain set of these ideas of self: confession/privacy, surveillance/public presence.”

I’m interested in how this relates to blogging, which Cardell goes on to address in relation in particular to two British bloggers, Belle Du Jour and Abby Lee. I’m not covering sex bloggers in this study, but I think Cardell raises some relevant points about diarying and blogging in general.

For me, blogging feels like an essential part of this study. This blog is a place where I can gather and categorise thoughts that may or may not later make it into the dissertation, thoughts on books that I have read and lists of books I need to read. It is a public blog: if you are considering taking part in the study, the blog makes it possible for you to get an insight into all aspects that I have written about, from a simple call out to more in depth academic pieces. It is somewhere that you can find out about me, prior to letting me find out more about you. And, as the project progresses, this blog will be somewhere to hold interviews with people who contribute their experiences, it will be a place to tell stories.

I’ve just added links to my other sites, so alongside this research project you can have a look at

Enough about me, although perhaps this brings up a useful further point. In this blog I feel I can write academicaly, but I can also write informally. This blog is a space between academia and real life, between academics and people who write their life experiences.

So, back to the project, blogging and diaries …

Cardell quotes Frank Furedi: “Contemporary society transmits the belief that problems of emotion ought not to be faced by people on their own.”  She also touches on writing a diary as a confession, something I want to touch on in a separate post. Do you feel that in current society there is a need for transparency, a requirement to confess? Does writing your story, blogging about your experience, fill this function in some way?

Cardell also addresses, “The shifting boundary between public and private life.” In sharing a story that is based on life experience we open up our inner selves to scrutiny. There is, in that act, a hope that by sharing we will become better, more authentic, healed perhaps. Blogging, promoting a book, sharing your thoughts and experiences via social media smashes all ideas of ‘private’ that might in previous decades and centuries have been a fundamental part of a diary. Cardell highlights the Big Brother diary room as an example of the new norm about privacy of the confessional. This leads us back to ideas of self: self as a reflection of others opinions and views. Blogging creates a new self, a self on the screen. In writing a blog one can choose which parts of life experience to expose, and in that choosing, once can create a new self.

Authenticity is an important word in business, in blogging, in the world of social media promotion. Be authentic, be yourself, business gurus exhort. But which self are you true to when you blog? I’d like to suggest that blogging, a true blank page, allows anyone to create a new true self, find new virtual friends, and therefore the question of authenticity is warped. Being an authentic blogger means being true to something, perhaps to one aspect of the whole self, to the self that appears when writing life onto a blog.autob trauma

In any writing, blog, diary or book, one gets the chance to become the hero of one’s own story. Philippe Lejeune writes, “Autobiography is a human right. Become the owner of your life!”

Bibliography:

Furedi, Frank Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age Routledge 2003

Gilmore, Leigh The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma, Testimony, Theory (Cornell paperbacks) Cornell University Press 2001

Lejeune, Phillippe On Autobiography (Theory & History of Literature) University of Minnesota 1989

Smith, Sidonie Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-representationBloomington: Indiana University Press 1987

Smith, Sidonie and Watson, Julia Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography University of Minnesota 1996

Why we need to tell our stories

whats your story 4Narrative theory is based on the assumption that “narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change”. (Project Narrative). Simply: we create stories out of life experiences as a way of making sense of what has happened to us.

Breaking this down a little further, Baumeister and Newman  suggest that micronarratives, people’s narrative accounts of single experiences or events, conform to the four needs for meaning;

  • purpose – goals and fulfilment;
  • value and justification;
  • efficacy – autonomy and control;
  • self-worth.

In re-telling an experience, in writing out our stories, we become our own heroes.

We need to tell stories of our own experiences. In The Life Story Interview, Robert Atkinson writes, “Storytelling is a fundamental form of human communication.” He continues, we, “bring meaning to our lives through story … When we tell a story from our own life we increase our working knowledge of ourselves because we discover deeper meaning in our lives through the process of reflecting and putting the events, experiences and feelings that we have lived into oral expression.” (Atkinson 1998) Telling one’s story seems to be a way of saying, ‘this is who I am now’. I’m new, I’m better, this is my reformed identity and everything I have been through has a purpose.

The Wounded Storyteller  looks at illness as a ‘call for stories’. (Frank 1995) Arthur Frank writes that, beyond the everyday need to tell your story to friends, family, your doctor,  “Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she may be going. Stories are a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations.” Frank breaks illness stories into three types of narrative: the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative and the quest narrative. These three types can be enmeshed in a single person’s story, or one can dominate for a moment of retelling.

  • The restitution narrative. This, Frank says, dominates, particularly in those who are recently ill. It’s about wanting to be healthy again. It furthers mortality by rendering the illness transitory. Medicine triumphs.
  • The chaos narrative. In this, which imagines life never getting better, the suffering is to great for a self to emerge from the story. There is a loss of structure and this may not even be recognised as a story. “The voice of the teller has been lost as a result of the chaos, and this loss then perpetuates that chaos.”
  • The quest narrative. This type of story accepts illness, which then becomes a quest: something is gained through experience. Most published illness stories are quest stories, according to Frank.

There is more to this and I’ll be coming back to this topic. For now, we know that there is something in telling a story, writing it, blogging it, sharing it with a journalist, with the nation, online or in print, that is about the need to be seen, acknowledged. Who am I through your eyes, through the eyes of the world, who am I since I have had this experience, who am I now?

Refs:

  1. Baumeister Roy F. and Wilson, Brenda Life Stories and the Four Needs for Meaning Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 4 (1996), pp. 322-32
  2. Atkinson, Robert The Life Story Interview, (1998, 1st edn)  London: SAGE
  3. Frank, Arthur The Wounded Storyteller, 1995, Chicago Press

Where we tell our stories – newspapers and magazines

I’m trying to focus this study, but that means examining the broad range of outlets in which we tell our stories. Blogs, books, and print media seem to be the three main places. There is an enormous appetite, it seems for real life stories in newspapers and magazines. I always read the ‘experience’ page in the Guardian magazine on Saturdays. For a taster, if you’re not familiar with the slot, have a look at this:

Experience: I chose to amputate my leg

And scroll through all the stories here.

At some point, I want to analyse the stories in more depth, perhaps look at the topics and what people choose to share. Beyond that, though, I want to understand what drives people to tell stories that are often traumatic. What do we gain when telling a story, and getting closer to the focus of this study, what do we feel, how do we change, when the story appears in print one Saturday?

PS: if you interview people for this slot, could you get in touch? I’d be interested in your views on why people volunteer and how they feel about telling their stories. Similarly, if you have appeared in something like this, please leave a comment!

Tell me your story

whats your story 4I’m currently looking for people to interview over the course of the project.

Have you had a life changing experience? Have you written about it? You might have written:

  • a blog
  • a book
  • social media updates
  • emails …
  • … or something else!

You might not have written the experience yourself, but talked to a journalist and featured in a newspaper or magazine.

OR You might still be thinking about how to write your experience down.

If this sounds like you, do get in touch and tell me more.

Exploring the transition from experience to story

whats your story 4I struggled to walk during my third pregnancy because my pelvis separated too far, too soon. At the age of 39, I became reliant on a mobility scooter. Pregnancy hormones helped me cope, the nine months during and after the pregnancy where I could only walk a few feet with crutches are a blur. Despite that, I finished a book and won an award for it in the 6 months after K’s birth. And while promoting the book, I told my story. I spoke it, I wrote it, I turned it into a press release, articles, blog posts. And what happened to me ceased to be simply my experience, it became a story, a thing itself, seen on paper, online. I no longer needed to be there for it to exist. In print, replicated, communicated, my story became something else.

This research project examines the transition, the leap, the moment where experience becomes something separate from the person, a story.

Exploring the transition from experience to story is important because we live in an age where our lives are not private in the way that they used to be. There is a compulsion to share, to have our fifteen minutes of fame, or simply to update our status on Facebook. Whether it is writing a blog, or appearing in a tabloid, or self-publishing a book, publication is now accessible in a way it has never been.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????People who have life changing experiences feel compelled to share, but rarely understand fully what will happen once they have shared. In sharing, you become vulnerable as you expose key parts of what makes up your life, your story, your self. Once your story is out there, you have limited control over the results.

This study will help increase our understanding of the act of sharing a story in the 21st century. In particular, it will focus on the moment when the person’s life experience separates from them, of the feeling it has become something else, a fiction, a story.

Through this study I will interview people to explore the transition from experience to story. Beyond that, the approach will be cross-disciplinary, bringing in my experience in creative writing, journalism and healthcare. I will use autoethnography, writing my own ‘experience to story’, and as I interview people I will write an online journal of response to the experiences / stories. I intend to publish all the material on a blog, provoking the feeling of an experience, a verbal description, a retelling, becoming something else.

Every day, hundreds of journalists interview case studies. Thousands of people write and share their own stories on blogs and in memoirs. This study will help the journalists, case studies, bloggers and writers understand more about what they are doing. On a secondary level it may help health and social care professionals advise those who want to share their story.