Sunday, 15 January 2023

The Secret of the Happy Storyteller - by Rowena House

Writing’s a tough gig, January a tough month, and 2023 isn’t looking like it’s going to be a bed of roses, so I decided to write this month about a skill writers have that psychologists suggest can make us happier people.

It’s the idea that if we see ourselves as the flawed hero of our own stories, the sense of agency we get from narrating our lives becomes a source of well-being.

The prompt was an article in New Scientist called Be Your Own Hero by David Robson in the 7 January 2023 issue. In it he says, ‘The principles of a good story offer much more than entertainment. Recent research shows that the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives can powerfully shape our resilience to stress.’

And don’t we all need as much resilience as we can get? 

I heard loud echoes of this concept in Prince Harry’s interviews promoting his book Spare. He told ITV interviewer Tom Bradbury that at 38 he was sick of others telling his story. He wanted to tell it himself.

Later, it occurred to me that the narrated Self also related to the types of fictional protagonists which John Truby discussed in The Anatomy of Story and which I touched on last July. 

Truby’s analysis is based on different concepts of ‘Self’ – basically, the perception we have of ourselves – which overlaps with the idea of identity. Here’s the link:

According to Truby, in some stories, the fictional Self mirrors our multiple and often conflicting needs and desires, with the tale exploring how internal conflicts can be overcome.

Another type of Self in fiction is the protagonist forced to play a series of roles demanded by society, whether they like it or not.

Finally, the mythic Self – the familiar hero of much commercial fiction and Western cinema – is a single personality in search of their destiny, discovering and enacting their deepest capabilities.

A narrated Self can combine all three.

As we weave together memories of significant events in our lives, and what they meant in terms of our values, beliefs, goals, duties, achievements, and failures, these events either become stepping stones on a meaningful journey or acts of Fate tossing us about in time, depending on the gloss we put on them.

‘The primary function of [this type of] narrative is that it brings order to disorder,’ Michael Murry writes in his 2015 article on narrative psychology which I found via Wikipedia and Research Gate. 

Our autobiographical narratives begin in our teens and some of us are better at it than others. As always, our adult Self is strongly influenced by childhood experiences and the life stories we tell as a result fall under three broad headings: regressive, progressive, or stable.

Regressive tales are tragedies about Fate being in charge and us at their mercy. These are pessimistic  stories and can be markers of anxiety, even depression.

Progressive stories are the optimistic versions of ourselves, where, despite obstacles, we are mostly in charge of our own lives and things are heading in roughly the right direction. We rationalise what we learned from adversity, how it made us stronger, how we were redeemed.

Stable stories include those that contemplate the absurdities of life, so I guess these can be a bummer, too, but I didn’t get that far in my research as the dog needs her walk and I should be deep in paid editing. Anyhow...

According to narrative psychologists, thererfore, a sense of agency is central to a healthy, self-healing Self: the more you think you’ve got it, the happier you’ll be.

[Frankly, I couldn’t reconcile this agency aspect of narrative identity to a case study showing how a deeply religious woman found recovering from breast cancer a positive experience because in her version of events it proved God’s goodness, but I did read that bit of research on my phone, so maybe I missed the point.]

The opposite of agency in our lives is oppression, as pointed out by philosopher Paul Ricoeur among others, which brings my voyage of (self) discovery back to the work-in-progress.

My A-plot protagonist, a court clerk, is ‘assimilated into the oppressor’, in his case the early Stuart English legal system. During his story, he is forced to confront its evils and leave his place of safety within it. Ultimately, because I want to sell the book, he finds redemption.

The B-plot female protagonist, Beth, has a more complex journey. In her fight with the patriarchy, she goes too far. So, perhaps the life story she tells herself is a self-comforting lie and she is more deeply flawed than she (or I) will admit. 

Which seems plausible. 

In New Scientist, David Robson quotes Kate McLean of Western Washington University, USA, warning of the dangers of always putting a redemptive spin on negative life lessons. 

For starters, that can pressure people who’ve suffered trauma to find a silver lining in their hellish experiences or feel like a failure, which, as she notes, ‘can be really problematic’. For eternal optimists (aka self-deluded so-and-sos), being too keen to bounce back from life’s lessons can falsely boost self-esteem when really what they/we need to do is admit our faults and do something about them.

Beth, are you listening? Probably not. Happy storytelling!

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Anne Booth said...

That is really interesting and thought-provoking! Thank you!

Rowena House said...

Thank you so much, Anne.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Anne. I'm certainly finding it a very useful concept in life as well as a new way to think about character. All good stuff!