What genre is your life?

A man is always a teller of tales; he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others; he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

----Jean-Paul Sartre

Last week I suggested that good teachers were heroes, even though I know many people are reluctant to apply that label to themselves. In describing teachers in the Heritage Project as “heroes” I was suggesting that we are caught up in a particular kind of story--a particular genre, if you will. In this story, people make gifts of their sacrifices to others, so that the world gets better.

The relationship between character type and genre is tight enough Hamlet couldn’t really be Hamlet if his story ended in a comic crescendo. The genre we think we’re in strongly influences the character we think we are. It matters a great deal what genre we think we’re in. Carol Pearson says that most of us are “slaves of the stories we unconciously tell about our lives,” and suggests most of us make our life stories fit one of the six narrative forms we learn growing up (she calls them archetypes): the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician.

Researchers among elderly people in Scandanavia decided that most of their subjects could be classified according to what story they thought they were living: the Suffering One, the Loser, the Fighter, the Altruist, the Careerist, or the Happy One.

Most of us will draw on many genres to make stories of different episodes or stages in our lives. Such lists aren’t exhaustive of course. Our own cultural toolkits might include genres that help us see ourselves as tricksters, disciples, or knights.

Literary critic Norththrop Frye thought that the main modes of narrative were myth, romance, tragedy, comedy, and irony, and all of us have subplots or chapters in our life stories in which each of the modes comes to the fore. It’s often a matter of where we stop the story. When Falstaff is found dead on stage, the mood in the theater feels tragic. After people have spoken gravely of what a loss his death his, he gets up, ready for another swallow of wine. When we learn he had only been pretending to be dead, to save himself from the fierce battle, the tragic mode vanishes. All of us can tell stories of events that seemed horrible at the time but that now seem hilarious. Life went on, which is the essence of comedy.

Still, we know from experience that some patterns, or genres, seem dominant in some lives. Some people see the trouble in every event while others tend to see only disguised good news, which a little work will reveal. To make a plot out of all the episodes and events that happen, we need to discern or decide where things are going and we need to select which details are part of that story and which are not. In other words, we need to emplot our lives to understand them and to take intelligent action. And to do this we draw on our knowledge of what genres are available which we get from our cultural canon.

We can see the way differing narrative intelligence in different students affects everything about their lives. Some already think their life story is that of the victim of malicious plotting. Some already understand themselves as invalids. Some have a diffuse narrative intelligence, having trouble making causal connections between the events that happen to them and how these relate to their futures.

And yet, some have strongly integrated and coherent narrative intelligence--their lives make sense to them and they take actions based on what they anticipate in their future.

We know that all adolecents are new at thinking autobiographically--at seeing their lives as stories they are authoring. Can we help them author better life stories?

Here are a couple of questions:

1. Does the use of stories in the Heritage Project (those gathered from community members, those read in history or literature) help students develop their narrative intelligence? Do you think that hearing veterans, for example, tell stories of persevering and doing their duty and getting past tough times helps young people more intelligently emplot their own lives?

2. Does telling stories drawn from local and family history in public help students develop their narrative intelligence? What role do the expectations and standards we apply to these public tellings play? (By that I mean the expectation--built into the nature of heritage fairs and heritage evenings--that the stories will affirm civic values and that the telling will be coherent and well-crafted. We know that the stories we tell are powefully influenced by the audiences we have or expect to have).


Note: I came across the citation to the research in Scandanavia in Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth through Autobiographical Reflection, by Gary M. Kenyon and William L. Randall (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers) 1997, p.80. They cited: Ruth J.-E., and G. Kenyon ( 1996). “Biography in Adult Development and Aging.” In J. Birren, G. Kenyon, J.-E. Ruth, J. Schroots, and T. Svensson (eds.), Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development. New York: Springer. 1-20.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/24 at 06:14 AM
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