Archive for the 'Writing' Category

The Moment of Truth: Do I Practice What I Preach?

Five years ago, I created a series of writing exercises to help people reimagine themselves as the heroes of their own life stories.  My inspiration was a series of observations made during my years as an English major and a student of biblical texts. Not only did I notice that people inevitably project their own life experiences on to what they read, but also that they seemingly had an easier time empathizing with characters’ struggles than their own. I was simply giving them permission and tools to step out of their own stories and check out the landscape.

My premise could be summarized as follows:
1) Our lives are unfolding stories;
2) We are potentially our own best and worst interpreters of what happens to us;
3) How we tell our story matters because it influences how we feel;
4) How we feel about our stories influences how they unfold;
5) As in stories, tension between the protagonist (us) and the antagonists (our obstacles) is fertile ground for character development; and
6) Writing in the third person voice can help us be more objective about our lives.

While it sounds simple enough, it wasn’t until my vibrant 72-year-old father developed aggressive cancer and died this past February, that I actually had to consider whether I walked my own talk.

My father’s unexpected death was the third cancer fatality in my small, immediate family in seven years.  My beloved 61-year-old mother died of ovarian cancer in 2005 after an 11-year battle. My father was her primary caregiver. Several months after my mother’s death, my father met Vicki, a 50-something physical trainer my father, brother and I grew to love. In the summer of 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a year later, also at 61.

Neither of my parents got a chance to see their two children married or dote on grandchildren. Only my father was able to witness the promise of his children’s budding careers after years of struggles. And when Vicki died, Marissa, her 21-year-old daughter and only child, was suddenly orphaned.

For many, the story of my family reads like a tragedy, and that’s without even mentioning my father’s amputated leg in 1986, or my mother’s loss of her right eye in a freak art school accident before I was born. “That’s tzurus (Yiddish for trouble) you don’t need,” my uncle remarked when he learned of my father’s second cancer diagnosis, the first of which cost him the leg.

Which is why my somewhat Polyannish-premise was tested when I found myself facing the death of the man I always dreamed would walk me down the isle or attend one of my book readings. Did I truly believe that I had the power to transform my tragedies into triumphs simply by choosing to put a positive spin on my own story?

My answer surprised me: “yes,” though it requires some reading between the lines. My relationship with my father was never an easy one. When we were younger, we butted heads. He could be bossy, judgmental, and self-righteous. “Benevolent despot,” was how one friend described him. Nothing I ever did was good enough, or so I thought. He was more interested in sharing his opinions than soliciting mine.  I challenged him, and made my mother my confidante. When I graduated college, I moved to San Francisco, putting several cities and mountain ranges between us.

My father and I grew closer after my mother passed. I had already moved back to New York, and we found ourselves spending more time together. We had dinner, went biking, saw shows…and talked. He had found love again and seemed genuinely happy with Vicki. I was older, had done my own personal growth work and had come to appreciate my father’s positive attributes while accepting his rougher edges without taking them personally.

But it wasn’t until my father suddenly became ill, that I would be forced to put my love to the test.  Seven years ago, I had spent three heart-wrenching months at my mother’s bedside in hospice care. http://www.aish.com/sp/so/48923857.html Vicki’s death had come quicker, though her cancer had been no less merciless.

When I fast forward and step outside my story, I see myself curled up on the couch in my father’s hospital room while the hospice admitting nurse explains that he will need 24-hour supervision to receive services at home. My brother is immersed in a rigorous Master’s program at Cornell University. I have been my father’s primary health advocate for the past three months, flying back and forth between my life in New York and Florida, where he relocated just a few months prior to his diagnosis. Hiring a full-time aide is unthinkable, even if it were affordable.

So I decide to take a leave of absence – from my private practice, my friends, my community, and my frenetic but full life in Manhattan – to care for my father. It’s been 18 years since we lived under the same roof as my provider, only now I am providing care to him.

It’s hard to describe the two months that follow. They are not easy. My father is no less demanding in pain and than he is in health. I have been thrust into the role of administering his meds, fixing his meals, cleaning his house, learning to manage his finances, and holding his hand, both figuratively and literally, through waves of fear and pain. I have never been a parent, but the irony of the turned tables is not lost on me.

Despite the stress, I feel my heart softening and expanding. My father and I share many moments of tears and laughter. We come to know and appreciate each other’s minds, emotions, and strengths more deeply.  Old friends and family show up to share good memories and lend support. I find myself reconnecting with long-lost relatives, and see how lucky I am to have such supportive friends and community. When my brother comes down to help, our icy relationship begins to thaw as we come to know each other as adults.  Marissa visits too, and I find myself inspired by her resilience and generosity.

As the rabbi who would later perform my father’s memorial service stated, “Bernie was like an onion. The more you boil it, the sweeter it gets.” And life boiled all of us quite a bit. One evening, my father shares that he can’t believe that even in his misery, he is learning and growing. “What are you learning?” I inquire. “That people have found a way to love me and that I have found a way to love them.” That’s all he ever wanted…that’s all anyone ever wants, isn’t it?

I realize there are many ways to spin my story. Mine is but one version. But as the narrator, the protagonist, and interpreter, I exercise my right to read it as a story of love and redemption…the prodigal daughter perhaps.

While I claim the authorships rights of my story, I recognize that some stories are more susceptible to a positive spin than others. I think of Madonna Badger, the Connecticut woman who lost her parents and three children in a fire this past Christmas, and doubt I could find the silver lining in her position, though it may be possible. I see senseless tragedies in the news, and have similar questions.

I further recognize that the story of my father’s death is not over. I am only three months into grief, and I am familiar enough with its territory to know that it will take vigilance and unconditional self love, which I am still fertilizing, to steer clear of the pits of darkness and self-pity that beckon in moments of heartbreak. I am not immune to bouts of fear and skepticism. Had I been given a choice, I would have perhaps chosen another storyline for my life’s lessons. But for now, I embrace the gifts of my bittersweet fortune.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Reclaiming the Authorship Rights of Our Career Narratives

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, I was frequently pegged for being a New Yorker, and it wasn’t because of my barely detectable accent. Within seconds of meeting a new acquaintance, I would inevitably ask “What do you do?”

More often than not, I received responses I didn’t expect: “I paint,” “I windsurf,” “I’m training for a biathlon,” or “I help at-risk kids.”

I wanted to know what they did for a living – they told me how they lived.

Granted I was young and most of the people I met were 20-somethings who didn’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. But this broader paradigm has given me the flexibility to navigate career transitions that would have been difficult had I remained too firmly attached to the letters after my name (MSW, LCSW) or the size of my writing portfolio.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s hard-earned status and credentials. But glomming on to titles that complete sentences like “I am a ________________” (stockbroker, lawyer, etc.) can trigger an identity crisis when confronted with precarious life circumstances like, say, a recession.

One of the key factors in determining emotional resiliency is what social psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” A locus of control, which can be either external or internal, is a belief about our power to effect change in our lives. Those with a dominant external locus of control believe their destiny lies beyond their sphere of influence. Consequently, they often feel victimized. People with a strong internal locus of control, on the other hand, believe their decisions hold sway over their future. While they may be unable to avoid natural disasters, the death of loves ones, economic downturns, and similar such crises, they feel empowered because they can choose their response.

Personally speaking, an internal locus of control has helped me remain true to my calling during periods of professional upheaval. Several years ago, I took a detour from my social work career, accepting a position as a development writer at a large philanthropy because I needed a job that paid decently and gave me flexibility to care and eventually grieve for a terminally ill loved one. I had been an unfulfilled journalist before obtaining my MSW and earning my clinical license at an outpatient addiction and mental health counseling center in Maryland. But as a newcomer to New York City, I was in no position to start a private practice and all the social work jobs either paid a pittance or had client quotas that would have impeded my care-giving responsibilities.

Some wise person once said “if you don’t love what you do, love why you’re doing it.” The job worked for me because I was able to support myself and care for my family member. Yet, whenever I gave out my business card with my job title “Senior Development Writer,” I felt a sense of betrayal. I had to constantly remind myself of who I was, why I was there, and where I wanted to go.

Because I remained true to my inner compass, I gradually found my way back. When the cues presented themselves, I spoke with colleagues about my professional background and interests. Eventually, I was invited to serve on committees where my experience as a clinical social worker was recognized by peers and experienced clinicians, leading to connections and opportunities that helped me complete the transition. Today, not only do I have a growing private practice, but I have also taught therapeutic writing workshops (combining my love of writing and psychology) at such high-profile venues as the 92nd Street Y and the JCC in Manhattan. This September, I will try my hand at academia, teaching master’s level Psychopathology at Long Island University’s School of Social Work.

I offer this neither as an invitation for praise nor as encouragement for taking the road less traveled, but rather as an alternative paradigm for job-seekers who may need to temporarily suspend their attachment to their professional credentials so they can reinvent themselves in an “any job is better than no job” economy.

In my workshop, The You Behind Your Resume:  Writing from a Novel Perspective When You’re in Career Transition, my primary goal is to help recently unemployed individuals tap into their internal locus of control and remember that they are much more than their last salaried position.

Most participants are Baby-Boomers. The very same generations that challenged the Vietnam War, broke with social convention and achieved unprecedented levels of affluence now find themselves depicted as hapless victims of an economy that favors youth over experience. These world-weary job seekers tell me they are tired of having their stories told to them – “I’m sorry but you’re over-qualified” – or about them – “Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older”  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/us/13age.htm.

The first question I pose to the group is “Who would you be if you weren’t________________?”  I instruct them to fill in the blank and answer the question, writing continuously for four minutes. By inviting participants to see themselves as multi-dimensional characters whose sum total of life experiences – as mothers, husbands, sons, rebels, artists, epicureans, caregivers, environmentalists, athletes, survivors, lovers, etc. – subsumes their resumes, participants can reclaim the authorship rights of their lives as they become reacquainted with their larger storylines.

In another exercise, I ask participants to imagine their lives as novels. I instruct them to assign a title to the current chapter of their life story and write a brief summary in the third person narrative.

A 60-something woman from Park Slope shared the following:

Sprung Like Athena
After 35 years with the same company, the only transition she had to make was from one side of the door to the      other. Without ever acknowledging the albatross that was around her neck, suddenly, with two steps, it wasn’t.

Empowering participants to tell their stories from a perspective that is personally meaningful instills them with a sense of well-being that may not only impress a prospective interviewer, but remain with them regardless of whether they are offered a job.

Step Back from the Same Old Story….and Check Out the Landscape

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Imagine walking into a neighborhood bookstore and discovering a novel with a familiar picture on the cover. Flipping through the pages, you are struck by the eerie sense that you’ve read this before. As you begin to recognize characters and scenes, wincing at some and smiling at others, you realize this is the story of your life.

Would you feel love and compassion for the main character, or would you think “what a schmuck?’ According to the latest psychological research, you are likely to view your life more favorably at a distance than up close.

A 2005 study reported in the Journal of Psychological Science illustrated that people who described previous scenes in their lives in the third person narrative (“he” did this and “she” did that) spoke about their past with more confidence and optimism than those who recalled similar scenes in the first person (“I” did such and such).

The study was described in a May 2007 New York Times article entitled “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/health/psychology/22narr.html
An excerpt from this article illustrates that, not only are human beings natural storytellers, but also that how we tell a story influences how it unfolds:

“Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students re-imagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.’

‘Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth. And their behavior changed, too.”

In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to write about the current chapter in their lives in the third person voice the way an author would sketch a main character, freeing them to see beyond their usual point of view. The third-person gives them an elevated perspective on their personal narrative, as if the were watching their lives on a movie screen, reading their story in a book, or having an out-of-body experience.

While some participants give me strange looks when I ask them to describe a chapter of their life in the third person, the results are always affirming. Everyone is always surprised at how much easier it is to express themselves.

Why is this technique so effective? Our challenge often lies in getting past our ego – the big “I.”  While a good, healthy “I” gives us a sense of our place in the world, which is necessary to successfully navigate changes, the very letter itself oozes subjectivity and creates the illusion of permanence.

When we begin a sentence in the first person with “I am this” or “I think that,” we become automatically attached to the descriptors that follow. This can be potentially problematic. Statements like “I am a rich, successful stockbroker” or “I am a professional athlete” may evoke powerful emotional attachments that, if challenged by external circumstances like the market crashing or getting permanently injured, can trigger an identity crisis.

In psychological terms, writing in the third person essentially sneaks past our defenses by tricking the censoring ego into thinking that we are describing someone else’s life, even though we’re describing our own.

Being able to see our stories from an unfamiliar perspective can open our eyes to new insights that can transform ingrained behaviors. From the perch of the third-person narrative, we can step out of our stories, check out the landscape, and determine whether the roads we’re taking are navigable or need to be rerouted. And from there, who knows what we’ll discover?

Who’s Writing Your Script? You May Be Surprised.

Part One of a Two-Part Series

In the movie Stranger than Fiction, Harold Crick is a robotic IRS agent who begins to question his mundane existence when he hears a mysterious voice narrating his life and foreshadowing his untimely death. When he discovers that he is not the master of his own destiny, but rather a fictional character dreamed up by an eccentric female author, Crick tracks down his creator and convinces her to rewrite the ending of his story.

While both strange and fictional, Crick’s journey speaks to our capacity to question the scripts we’ve been given and reclaim our personal narratives.

Scripts are conditioned responses to recognizable situations. They are the subtle, often unconscious, cues we pick up from society about how we should be living our lives. If we were computers, scripts would be our software.

According to behavioral psychology, we begin to assimilate scripts as young children, when we are most susceptible to messages from parents, siblings, peers, teachers, the media, and other powerful influences in our communities. Although adolescence is a time when children typically begin to question the powers that be, many of us still continue to be influenced throughout our lifetimes by incompatible scripts without questioning whether they make sense, who’s really writing them, and whether or not we’re right for the roles.

When we neglect to examine our scripts carefully, we run the risk of living perfunctory or  fictitious existences that leave us feeling like strangers to our authentic selves. This can manifest in the following two ways:

Playing an Ill-fitting Role (or “Why There are So Many Unhappy Lawyers ”)
Familial expectations and societal values may lead us to choose a career, lifestyle, or partner that is out of sync with our authentic talents and interests.

Poorly Written Scripts (or “When Screenwriters Lack Vision”)
Internalized negative messages – “You’ll never succeed at anything” or “I must do everything perfectly or not at all” – may prevent us from stepping into and mastering roles that highlight our natural abilities.

What do we do if we begin to suspect the authenticity of our scripts? The first step is to observe them. Psychotherapy, writing, meditation, art, and prayer are all paths that help quiet our noisy inner narrators so that we can hear the whisper of  “the still quiet voice” that tells us our truths. Once we  tune into this voice, we can begin to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the scripts that potentially undermine our well-being.

In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I help students identify self-defeating scripts by writing imaginary dialogues with their antagonists, whether it be a troubling person or situation, a negative script, or an obstacle to success.

Using the literary technique of personification – endowing an inanimate object or abstract notion with human qualities – I ask them to imagine what their antagonist might say in a heart-to-heart conversation about a problematic situation. For example, someone who identified fear as an obstacle to personal progress might initiate a dialogue as follows:

Student: Fear, I know you well. Whenever I’m on the brink of making serious changes in my life, you show up to try to convince me of all the things that could go wrong.

Fear: I’m just trying to protect you. I don’t want you to make a mistake and get hurt.

Student:
I appreciate your concern for my well-being, but I need you to cut me some slack so that I can take the steps I need to move. I may make mistakes, but I will learn from them.

Such inner-personal dialogues can be extremely revealing, especially when we give ourselves permission to follow the classic Freudian directive and “say whatever comes to mind.”

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we tune into the voices influencing our lives, we can begin, like the fictional Harold Crick, to engage in a meaningful dialogue with self-defeating scripts and transform them into life-affirming mantras. By reclaiming the power to author our own life stories, we discover  that the most important conversation we’ll ever have is with ourselves.

Part Two:  Step Out of Your Story and Check out the Landscape

Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.

Feeling Stuck? It’s Just a Chapter, Not Your Life Story

Every life is an unfolding story with plot twists and bright spots. When people become depressed, it is usually because they mistake one or more difficult chapters in their lives for the entire plotline, and fail to embrace lessons that can help them move their story forward.

Take the 2006 Blockbuster, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like “Locked Out,” “Being Stupid,” and “Riding the Bus,” are about the “Pursuit” part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled “Happiness.”

If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his temporary difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called “Giving Up,” and its message – that the seeds of happiness are often sown with toil – would have been lost.

Of course, it’s so much easier to accept the meaning of difficult chapters and heart-wrenching scenes when it’s happening to someone else, and we’re virtually assured of a positive outcome.

In my workshop series, Writing from a Novel Perspective http://www.novel-perspective.com/Workshops.html, I invite participants to imagine themselves as protagonists of their own life stories with the power to interpret, transform, and reclaim their personal narratives.

One of the first exercises I give the class is to assign a title to the current chapter of their lives and write a brief description. The exercise is helpful in several respects: 1)  it allows participants to reflect on and begin to identify current trends and themes in the lives; 2) it helps them consider these trends within a framework with a defined beginning and ending; and 3) it empowers them to interpret the meaning of their own experiences.

This exercise also speaks to the power of naming and interpretation. There are many ways to tell a story. But how we interpret our stories affects how we feel about our stories, and how we feel about our stories often determines how they unfold.

Perhaps that’s why one of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to help clients name their problems; the idea being that once something is named, it can be examined, claimed, and interpreted. The power of naming is further emphasized in the first acts of the biblical account of Creation, when God divides light and darkness, and names them “day” and “night.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the Hebrew noun for “word,” dvar, shares a root with the verb “to cut.” Thus words sculpt and shape our reality.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we have identified the chapters and deciphered their meaning, we can begin to weave the fragments of our lives into a meaningful narrative that values the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character – facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. Thus, difficult chapters like unemployment and divorce become opportunities for personal transformation. This new awareness can help us write new scripts for old stories while embracing life’s inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won’t last forever.


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