Kristi Gott – Writing Life Stories Is A Trend Today

Is telling our life stories a way of becoming more comfortable with our memories? Could it be a way to organize the jumbled pile that sits in disarray at the back of the mind?

Telling life stories has been a part of human culture since people sat around the fireside in a cave and drew illustrations on the walls. Now we can sit around a table to share our life stories and pass around photos or even show life story videos.

Putting together the pieces of our lives into one mosaic is part of telling a life story. Starting with birth, a chronological narrative that moves from year to year takes the pieces and builds a picture.

Adventure, laughter, drama – they’re all part of your life story, whether you are a quiet homebody or a celebrity. The characteristics of a classic novel with a hero exist in the story of your everyday living. Your struggles against the world, other people, or yourself, create the plot. Your strengths and “fatal flaws” can make your character complex instead of one sided.

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This week my Cuesta College Adult Emeritus Life Story Writing class met for the fourth time this Fall. We sit at several rectangular tables pushed together at the ends to form one long table, and each of us reads at least two pages of our life stories.

The class is held at the Grover Beach Community Center, and it begins at 9:30 am and goes until 12:30 pm, with a breaktime in the middle. Anthropologist Myla Colllier, who has taught at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo and Cuesta Community College, is the instructor.

After each person’s weekly life story reading, Myla and the class discuss interesting aspects of the story excerpt. This often includes related historical events which may have been associated with events in the story. For instance, someone who moved to California from the dustbowl during the 1930’s would have experienced the Depression.

As we read the material we’ve written for this week there is laughter, and sometimes there are tears. There is humor, there is tragedy. The nonjudgmental aspect and the privacy of the class helps us to keep our writing real. Historical events, trends, and styles are woven into the life stories.

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Reflecting on the popularity of life history and personal narrative writing today led me to consider the following question.

What does it mean when people pursue opposites? Two trends today seem contradictory. We see more personal narratives told through life stories, journals, and personal blogs than ever. Books based on life stories have been topping The New York Times Bestseller Lists. At the same time, we spend more time around machines and technology. As life has become more technological, we have become more personal as if to find a balance. Being more modern might be causing us to do more old fashioned storytelling.

This week the top 16 books on the New York Times Bestseller List include 7 personal narratives, and 4 books that are biographical. It’s not necessary today to be a celebrity to write a bestseller, and everyday people writing about their struggles and dreams can appear on the list. “Louder Than Words, A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism,” by Jenny McCarthy, is listed as number four this week on the bestseller list.

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Sharing personal details of our life stories is common these days, although many of us still remember when our personal lives were kept private. A greater tolerance and a less judgmental attitude means we feel more comfortable about being open than we did before.

Telling a life story can sometimes be like opening the door to the storage closet. You have to dodge the tumbling heap that bursts out and then try to sort through it. Could it be that we are straightening our mental filing systems, and rearranging the facts in our minds? Perhaps it’s a little like giving the house a good spring cleaning, opening all the windows, rearranging the furniture, and redecorating. It can be very refreshing.

At the Hallmark Pressroom an article titled “Journal Writing Increases in Importance” predicts this will be “a banner year for diaries and journaling.” Hallmark offers 75 different journals, and an estimated 12 million journals are sold a year in the U.S.. Writing down thoughts, feelings, and details of our lives is described by Hallmark as part of a personal writing trend today. Some life stories are written with organized facts and others are streams of consciousness.

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Being able to look back at ourselves in a life story from the perspective of a later time helps us to see ourselves as others might see us. We can objectively learn from mistakes, and make plans for the future.

Events that were once painful may be seen from a distance of decades as softened by time. Humorous situations can gain additional comedy with retelling.

As the writers share funny moments with each other the laughter in my Life Story Writing class frequently continues as we end each session and stroll out to our cars.

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