Transformation Narratives: Your Life As Story

kenya001One there was a…
And one day …
And because of this…
And she realized…
And she decided…
And ever since then…

 A few months ago at a professional conference (for Child Llife Specialists) one session was about therapeutic uses of transformation narratives. Pairing “journey” stories with children to help mirror the life-changing events related to medical conditions, hospitalization, and loss.IMG_0201_edited-1
While the potential for that population is powerful, the implications for each of us is what struck me deeply. The universality of the story prompt is amazing in it’s simplicity and complexity. It is the heart of stories across cultures and time. Encountering things and coming out the other side somehow changed and different. When I came home from the conference, I read the NY Times article This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It). For months, these ideas hung and percolated in my mind.

A few months later, I sat on a cross country flight, the words of StoryCorps and Moth podcasts drowning out the noisy plane. I was again moved by the power of story, the stories embedded in everyday life. I wondered, have I had amazing transformative events? What are my stories?

But then I questioned– Is the power in the event being so dramatic or in the realization and meaning we assign to it? Is it in how we craft the story around the events, in framing them as narrative, in allowing them to impact our future? Do our moments seem unimportant, un-story worthy because we simple fail to see them in a context and find some meaning, moral, or future guiding motivation in them?

How does thinking about life as an epic story, a composite of transformative events change us? When we place ourselves in the the role of heroines how much more meaning does it have? 

We love to identify with characters, we connect to them, we escape into their worlds. We emotionally companion them in struggle, love, loss, and grief. It’s why Amazon sells millions of books. Still every book-report-writing fourth grader knows the main conflict is the essence of story. In art, music, performance, and story it is the contrast that hooks us, the juxtapositions of still and troubled, of taut and loose, silence and noise. Still most of us like to live our lives in a band of equilibrium. We avoid disruption, the noisy, unsettling, and unexpected things. We don’t like to be crashed upon, swallowed up.

As life goes though, we often find ourselves lost in the woods – surrounded by the unfamiliar. Do we see where we are in the story? Do we see ourselves in the pivotal action sequences of our lives. The crucial part on which the story of our mortality and humanity hangs? Do we run out and try to forget or open our eyes, charge through, and come out with a story to tell?

One of the best things is that our journeys are never solitary. In fact one of my favorite elements of journey stories is that the heroine usually meets some wise or magical person along the way. Someone or thing that guides them on their way, that helps them gain perspective or prompts internal dialogue, (Think Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy) something that gives them extraordinary power or insight.

We live our stories out everyday.  The blank pages stretch ahead of us on which to elegantly tie the strings of our transformative events into an amazing epic. Our choice and power to become heroines of triumph and redemption.

Transformative events come in a variety of flavors: loss, pain, joy, opportunity, awakening. I think of my own transformative events,  things that have left their mark, but have yielded greater confidence, conscience, or sense of purpose.  Some have come from obvious sources others less so. My stories are many… but I will leave you with two.

At 23, I travelled the world on medical missions.  I saw Moroccan women burned in their husband’s rage against them. I saw scores of  emotionally hungry Siberian orphans. I rode jeepneys through impoverished  shanties. I visited a Kenyan morgue – the images of death still ready in my mind ten years later. Death of the young and the old. Death that could be prevented, disease that could be treated. This changed me, the disequilibrium of seeing dark and difficult things changed how I view the world, what I value, and how I exert my power and reminds me daily of my place in the world.

Now at 33, I am a stay at home mom. I do the things most mothers do. I sweep, I cook, I clean, I bathe, I read stories, and check homework. Although seemingly mundane by comparison to many of my opportunities and adventures of previous years, there is a power in my experience of mothering that is equally transformative. It’s transformative in the unseen power in care and connection. The experience leaves me better, more powerful. I choose to make it powerful. These most ordinary tasks have have empowered me, inspired my writing and my painting. My passion will echo through the generations of my children.

Tell me about some of your transformative events in your life? Share some of your journey narrative? What sages/enlightment have you encountered along the way? How do you find power and purpose and passion from the events of life? Talk to me about the power in narrative and story.

About Leslie

(Art Director) In her pre-diapering days, Leslie earned an MS in Marriage and Family Studies from BYU. This entitled her to mold the minds of impressionable college students in rambling six-hour lecture courses and travel the world as child life specialist. She now passes the seasons in a quaint Massachusetts town with her husband, Allen, and three young sons. She spends her days encouraging play, championing global causes, and whipping up a mean R2D2 cake. She savors her nights, stealing away to her studio to paint.

17 thoughts on “Transformation Narratives: Your Life As Story

  1. I feel that I find power and purpose in my life when I write in my journal. Everything is laid bare. I write there for myself, not for posterity. Thinking over the events of my life by putting it into intelligable sentences gives me a chance to step outside myself and gain a new perspective. Since I’m the one writing it, it isn’t foolproof though.

    I blogged about this recently in relation to Elder Eyring’s talk, O Remember, Remember.

    A twisted notion of humility can get in the way of seeing the true narrative of my life.

  2. One of the great things about blogging is that you turn everyday, and some not so everyday, events into stories that you record. I think it really does help us get a perspective on life when we see things this way. I am in the middle of reading “The Blood of Flowers” and, as in many books, stories are used to help move through some of the difficult periods. It is a very interesting, and very effective, technique. Perhaps that is why there is a tradition of story-telling that runs deep in every culture.

  3. How does thinking about life as an epic story, a composite of transformative events change us?

    I really believe narratives are important, even though I’m not a big fan of the role of narratives in mediation, I do believe that they are a central part of life and of the life of groups.

    It is easy to forget that if we don’t embrace a narrative, then what we do is create a life without one.

  4. Leslie,
    I love this. And I believe in this “way of living” with all my heart. Be IN your life. Be IN it. You’re already there, now LIVE it and soak up every little thing about it. In a great story, as the heroine ponders her choices, the soft dawn filters in through the east facing windows, breaking and flickering as the leaves on the trees bend and distort its intended path… Take time to notice all the beauty and nuance that surrounds you. It helps transform the “mundane” and softens your heart; courage and enthusiasm and epiphanies come from unlikely sources.

  5. Transformative events – I like this post. Sometimes, it is easy to think of the transformative events as being big: the day I graduated from College, the day I went to the temple. However, I agree with what you’ve written- the transformative events are more than just the obvious. They often include much smaller “events.”

    From my life: The first time I ran over a mile – I ran five miles. The last mile was up a hill – it was excruciating, but I knew that soon, if I kept going, I’d be at the top, and there would be a beautiful view.

    And there was. My confidence soared, and I knew I would have the strength to overcome the other trials I faced in life.

    Okay…anyways. Thanks for the exercise. Great post!

  6. “I’m the one who writes my own story; I decide the person I’ll be. What goes in the plot, and what does not, is pretty much up to me.”

    Oh, I’m so sorry. I just started channeling my 10 year old self singing along to My Turn on Earth.

    I loved this post, despite it bringing up memories of early Mormon pop. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I try to create stories out of my life. I so often want there to be a clear beginning, middle, and end to trials, to experiences, and I don’t always allow the long narrative to take place. I’m in the middle of a transformative adventure now and I’m wanting the harder times to be over. I keep thinking, “OK, now that story can be finished” only to find that THIS particular thread will not be finished for a long long time. Our lives are long epic novels, I guess, not sitcom episodes with 1/2 hour lengths and happy endings. But there are definitely times that I get that clean ending, when an answer to prayer occurs and I see God’s hand distinctly, a beautifully polished short story to fit into the epic novel. I love those times. They feel good. And they’re easier to keep track of.

    Thanks for putting my thoughts about story so much more succinctly than I ever would have. Loved it.

  7. Blogging has definitely helped me to see the significance and/or beauty of certain events and moments of inspiration that I would have missed otherwise. I’ve always thought that was the true purpose of journaling, to see our lives from a different or more detailed perspective, but I’ve failed at every attempt to journal that I’ve tried…whereas blogging keeps me motivated to write it all down. Weird.

    I think I’ve always made use of narratives in some way, but didn’t know it. I’ve tried to see certain difficult experiences as if they were part of a film and asked myself what they might represent to my story as a whole. If they are important enough to be included, what do they teach me and how do they lead me to a resolution? But maybe a resolution is not attainable in this life and I need to remember that and allow some chapters to have disappointing endings.

    As far as transformative events, I feel that I must be in one right now. Ever since our last move I have struggled to define why my life has not seemed “right” and why I feel in transition. I’m not through to the other side yet, but somehow I know that I will look back on this time in my life and see things differently. I seem to know that there is something I’m learning that WILL translate to my story as a whole, but I just don’t know how to define it. I like the idea of our lives as epics and not short stories. Great post!

  8. “I choose to make it powerful.” This line jumped out to me and I believe is the secret to what you wrote. Many things happen to all of us and we choose or do not choose to let it make a difference not only in our lives, but in others too.

    “Ordinary Day – What a Treasure!” When I am having a hard day I remember this – try. And it let’s me see that nothing is unseen, unvital, un-anything!

    I hide my life in my stories – but I also believe the crux is crystal clear. My husband and I took a memoir class this summer. We wrote, then we read it each week if we wished. The reading was so powerful – I hope I never forget that. That is the power in writing groups for me – and in my own writing.

    Lately I blog my every day occurances. It brings me light in them – and that is what narriative, story telling does.

  9. “Our lives are the sum total of our decisions, though these are not always freely made.”
    This quote is by Leslie Cannold, from this short article:
    http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/look-at-yourself-before-its-too-late-to-change/2008/01/10/1199554828680.html?page=2
    (Thanks, WJ for pointing it out.)

    I love recognizing that I am the heroine (or villain) of my own story. It releases in me the freedom to write my own story. I recognize the power in the mundane–that thoughts, decisions and actions are what make up the meat of how things turn out. That when you don’t like how your life is going, you have the power to make a change. I love realizing that the ordinary day is a gift.

  10. Leslie – –

    I really loved this post.

    One of amy favorite lines is:

    As life goes though, we often find ourselves lost in the woods – surrounded by the unfamiliar. Do we see where we are in the story? Do we see ourselves in the pivotal action sequences of our lives. The crucial part on which the story of our mortality and humanity hangs?

  11. Leslie, what a beautiful post and series of thoughts. (As an aside, I adore StoryCorps and Moth podcasts, too!) It is so freeing to think in terms of being the act-or in our own stories.

    I love that last bit about the transformative process of caring and connection…in essence, being secondary characters in other people’s stories. I think remembering both roles is so important–the main role and the supporting cast–and we’re always doing both. I love to think of the pivotal “bit players” in my story and hope they know (and I hope I have told them) how crucial they have been.

  12. This was fabulous. Thank you.

    I have felt transformed at critical junctures, major decision-making points, but also, as you mention, I feel that I am being transformed by the day-to-day stuff of my life. After nearly 11 years of that in my mothering, I can look back and see that WOW — motherhood has changed me in significant ways, although that growth was imperceptible (and sometimes felt unreachable) in the middle of it all. There were many days where I felt that my children would be better off with someone else — someone better. But I no longer feel that way. We have learned and grown together.

    It gives me hope for all I have yet to learn and experience to look back on the story I have already lived, to see that yes, indeed, I have learned line upon line. And that the Atonement really does work in changing our natures as we simply keep trying.

  13. Loved this. I struggle with how to pen my narrative, because it does seem daunting when faced with the task of telling some larger-than-life tale…when don’t we all want to hear more stories of real things happening to real people? Things we all can relate to. Thanks for the great post.

  14. I taught English in Russia when I was 20. There were plenty of raw, life changing experiences to be had. They changed me.

    Now as a SAHM, I feel something profound. The mundane things I do are raw and life changing–and life creating. Small miracles, little moments with my children, learning by experiences. I allow these things to transform me daily as I create my own epic.

  15. I’ve found the story and narrative of the process of my divorce has saved my sanity, and presented me with undeniable evidence of my own development and transformation in that time.

    I believe that it is through considering our own story, and the wandering threads that we trail behind us, that makes our progress and life clearer and more appreciated. What I haven’t written, I forget, and am less likely to remember. When I have recorded an event, a day, a prayer, I remember it, can re-read it, and can see (sometimes immediately, sometimes much later) what it meant, what it lead to, and how it became part of my self today. As the song says, from little things big things grow.

  16. I didn’t get a chance to read this until today, but I just wanted to tell you, Leslie, that I loved this post. I love thinking about my life in terms of stories—stories I can tell myself, stories I can tell my children and my posterity. I think that’s why I like to write personal essays; I love to shape the experiences in my life into stories, into art. Thanks for exploring this topic in this post.

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