by Harmony Button
“It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.” — Tara Parker-Pope
There have been a flurry of articles recently that quantitatively verify what writers (and educators) have long thought to be true: the act of writing does wiggly things to the insides of your brain, and makes you see the world in a different way. This recent piece published in the New York Times offers a brief overview of some of the ways in which writing (and re-writing) a personal narrative can lead to behavioral changes and greater overall satisfaction in life. It’s worth a look.
Here’s the theory: we live inside the stories that we tell ourselves, and so, to some degree, we either empower or limit ourselves, depending on the constraints of the story. Now, the scary side to this theory is the “bootstraps” argument, which suggests that your unhappiness is simply due to your lack of imagination or ability to spin your story: you should pull yourself up by your own fictional bootstraps. This is not at all what proponents of expressive writing are implying. Instead, they’re suggesting that the process of applying the technical structures of fiction to the stuff of our personal narratives allows the storyteller to treat their own worldview as material that is as malleable as any other (non-fictional) subject matter. Further research shows that sharing these re-written stories with others also increases their power to affect behavioral change, creating lasting shifts in perspective: writing a story to share is more meaningful to an author than writing a personal account in a private journal.
Unlike a self-assessment or self-reflection assignment, an expressive writing assignment asks the writer to write a narrative — tell a story. We use this technique in deaning procedures quite frequently when we ask a student to tell the story of “what happened” in a certain situation. Writing stories of personal experience allows an author to sort through the complexity of emotion, motivation, and personal perception surrounding an experience, but it also encourages the author to acknowledge the nuance and variation in possible perspectives on the thing: the more skillful the craft, the more open to variation of personal narrative the writer may become. In other words, developing the ability to write your own stories in multiple ways allows you to see your world in multiple ways, as well.
In practice, this might look like an assignment that asks a student to write a personal story several times, first from the first person perspective (the “I'”), then in third person (the “s/he”), and then perhaps from the first person perspective of another character involved in the story. Discussing one’s self as a character allows a student to articulate greater objective insight into the motivations or beliefs of that “character” (themselves!) than they might be able to fully acknowledge otherwise. A written story both distances and makes intimate the stuff of our experiences.
Of course, the ability to re-write a personal narrative relies on the technical competency to work within the medium of language: a visual artist is not in control of their own self portrait until they have the skill and craft necessary to do justice to the clay, paint, upcycled trash, or any other medium. Applying a technical understanding of the written construction distances us from our words (ie, our selves) and then reconnects us to our overall vision through innovative adaptation of this craft. This is also the kind of self expression is also at the heart of the arts curriculum in general, because we believe that all forms of artistic expression are, ultimately, a window to open-mindedness, mindfulness, and personal insight.
This desire for expression is also why we have a love/hate relationship with cliche, which reminds us that while some human experiences are universal, each individual experience happens upon the author as a unique and significant event. While cliches are, as the poet Craig Arnold said, “metaphors that won,” they are also too common to feel like they are accurate representations of our own individual experiences. They are tired language that we reach toward in moments when our experience craves something new — a new perspective, a new expression, a new way to articulate an old feeling.
Sometimes, it seems like everything good (and bad) for me needs to be measured: minutes of exercise, servings of vegetables, dollars saved by using my rewards card at the supermarket. All this tracking produces a lot of data, but what do we do with the data of our lives? Sometimes, the onslaught of numbers ends up making me even more ineffective, as if the act of measuring has replaced the satisfaction of doing. But if, as researcher and storyteller Brene Brown suggests, “stories are just data with soul,” then perhaps we are more than just the sum of our parts: we are the storytellers, and we get ultimate authority on how we tell our tales, if not what happens in them.