The Limits of Writing Your Own Life Story

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The writer John Barth once said, “everyone is necessarily the hero of their own life story.” Modern research agrees. A number of peer-reviewed studies show a strong link between storytelling, resilience, and overall life satisfaction.

So I was a bit surprised (and skeptical) when I came across a paper from the philosopher Galen Strawson arguing against what he calls a “narrativist” orientation toward life, or one in which you consider your life as a story. However, it didn’t take me long to change my mind, at least somewhat.

The majority of studies that show a benefit to adopting a narrative orientation toward life are backward looking. They explore the usefulness of integrating past events into one’s life’s story. What they don’t do is look forward, and herein lies the narrative trap that Strawson’s highlights.

When you adopt a too-strong narrative orientation toward life, you unknowingly impose artificial limits and constraints on what you might do next. You essentially pigeonhole yourself into a certain trajectory. A good story seldom radically changes course. A good life often does.

People with strong narrativist orientations are at risk of setting out on certain trajectories and failing to change (because it would contradict the story they are telling themselves about themselves) or not even realizing change is possible to begin with (because their story becomes a selective filter through which they see the world).

It brings to mind the work of Herminia Ibarra, a professor at INSEAD. Her research shows one of the most common reasons people get stuck in jobs is because they can’t possibly imagine what a different one would look like. In a paper on role changes published in the Harvard Business Review, she emphasizes the importance of “allowing yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. [It is] better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution. One of the hardest tasks of reinvention is staying the course when it feels like you are coming undone.”

That last line is particularly striking. My guess is that the leading reason someone feels like they are “coming undone” is because they expect their lives to be wrapped in a tightly-knit narrative. But that expectation does not come from reality. It comes from a well-worn idea, that our lives should be a story, though it may not always serve us.

Perhaps the best way to think about a narrative orientation, then, is that it can be helpful as a way to make sense of and integrate otherwise disparate events when looking backward, but it can be a detriment when looking forward.

The irony is that this is precisely how many writers work, including myself. Yes, you have an idea of where a story or argument is going. But you’ve got to let the writing (and the ideas behind it) take you wherever it wants, even if that means revising what came before. Otherwise, you risk telling a not-as-good story, or perhaps the wrong one altogether. Good writing is a constant process of revising the past to meet the present while being open to multiple futures. My hunch is that this is true not only for actual writing but for how we think about our lives’ stories too.

Like so many powerful concepts, a narrative orientation works wonderfully until it becomes the very thing that gets in your way. The challenge is to use it when it is helpful and to be able to release from it when it is not.

Brad

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1 comment

  • Thank you for preparing and sharing this, Brad. I found your distinction between looking backward and looking forward helpful, when considering the narrativist orientation. Your discussion of the limits and constraints that such an orientation can impose on our future trajectories brought to mind a discussion of Chinese philosophy in a 2016 article titled “The college of Chinese wisdom” [1].

    [1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-college-of-chinese-wisdom-1459520703

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