Can Life Stories Be Revised?

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This blog was originally posted on February 19th, 2015.

You may have seen an article in the New York Times called “Writing Your Way to Happiness.” This essay corroborated earlier research that has connected writing with improved health, though the author here focuses on if and how writing can lead to behavioral change and “improve happiness.” A number of studies indicate that writing can indeed lead to such changes. As the author puts it, “by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”

I found the article fascinating, and encouraging, although the behaviorist leanings of some of the studies reported on left me less than thrilled. But closer to home, I have seen the benefits of life writing/revising at work. Bronwyn LaMay’s (brilliant) dissertation reported on an ethnographic study she had done of students of color who attended a very tough high school. She followed one class for an entire year, during which they read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and wrote about love in their own lives. Bronwyn is working on a book that describes the study and her students, and I’ll be reviewing and recommending it to you as soon as it is available, because the results were truly remarkable. Bronwyn led her students in reading—word for word, line for line—Morrison’s book, and talking about the kinds of love represented there—and about the way that some characters attempted to intervene in the plot lines of their lives. Slowly the students began to apply this concept to their own lives: what stories or plot lines could they see their own lives taking—and how might they write their way toward interventions and changes in those stories? They tackled this question with energy and passion and commitment.

Recently, Bronwyn and I had a chance to introduce the same questions to a group of students participating in Stanford’s Project WRITE, which brings students from East Palo Alto high schools to campus on Saturday mornings during the winter for writing workshops of all kinds. The one Bronwyn and I led began with a simple question: what is love? We showed the group some things Toni Morrison has to say about love (“actually, I think all the time when I write, I’m writing about love or its absence”) and some quotations from Bronwyn’s former students, like this one:

As I was growing up all I heard around me was “I love you,” “te amo,” without showing it. My definition of love when I was growing up was somebody hurting you physically and emotionally, but that was just a way of them showing their loved ones love.

The students then wrote on their own in short spurts about their definitions of love, and during discussion we asked them what kind of a story these definitions told about their lives. Once we got there, the students were hooked: they talked to and often over one another, and then they wrote. And wrote some more. We left them with the assignment to carry on this piece of writing during the week and to return to the workshop the following Saturday. I was certain they would come prepared as never before.

As Bronwyn points out, students in their high school years are focused (inevitably and as they should be) on themselves, on who they are and who they might be. Writing that guides them in exploring these questions is the kind of writing I think of when I hear about “writing your way to happiness.” Writing alone can’t change the cold hard facts of many young people’s lives. But it can begin the work of interrogating those facts, of interpreting them and shaping them. And revising their lives in the process.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.