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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Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig #reasonstostayalive


How do you write a traumatic life experience like depression? In the midst of it, picking up a pen and exploring your feelings is impossible.

Why do you write about depression? Because when you are deep within depression, it feels like no-one else in the history of time has ever felt like you … and once you have reached a place beyond depression, maybe you want to let others know about that elusive thing called hope.

When do you write about depression? When the drugs have started to work? When you feel like you’re living again? When there’s something new to say, or something only you can say, or the impulse to write it is too great and none of what you have written so far quite deals with the itch, the need, to stop other people hurting in the same way that you hurt?

I don’t think I’ve every written properly about being depressed. Much of it is a blur: the parts I remember will be hard to write and painful to share. Maybe, 13 years down the line, I haven’t yet reached that point.

Matt Haig experienced depression in his twenties, and now, around 15 years later, he had finally addressed it head on in Reasons to Stay Alive. It’s a beautiful book, pocket sized, white binding, orange inner covers, rainbows dancing across the paper outer. And inside, it’s beautiful too.

The writing takes the form of scattered pieces, part memoir, part lists, a few selected tweets, and the story builds between the short chapters and sections. I don’t always finish every book I start, for a range of reasons, but I finished this one. It’s honest. It’s compelling. And it doesn’t tell you not to be depressed.

Haig skilfully avoids the ‘them and us’ of most self help style books: he’s there, deep in the depression, he’s there again as his current self, offering help, proof of a future, and most importantly, hope. He does end with 40 bits of advice on ‘How to live’, but none of it is preachy, it’s all tempered by the fact that he admits he doesn’t always follow his own advice.

And to finish, here’s one bit from the book that I love …

Self-help

How to stop time: kiss.

How to travel in time: read.

How to escape time: music.

How to feel time: write.

How to release time: breathe.

 

Reasons to Stay Alive is an incredibly low priced £6.99 at time of writing. Well worth a read whether you have been depressed, or want to understand someone else a little bit better.

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