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Book Review: Step Out of Your Story

Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman

Bookcover1-194x300Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review.  And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic.  (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)

So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you?  It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman.  (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)

Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can!  Here goes:

 What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?

As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.

Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.

Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?

Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.

While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements – protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. – serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.

What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?

How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.

This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.

However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.

Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.

Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?

We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.

Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen – what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens – what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.

Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.

Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?

A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.

It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.

Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?

No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.

Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?

One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.

How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?

Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.

That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?

While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.

The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.


Book Review: Wild Women, Wild Voices

WildWomen_CvrWild Women, Wild Voices: Writing From Your Authentic Wildness

by Judy Reeves

I was provided this book by the publisher, New World Library (whom I adore, because they always give me wonderful books to read) to review.  And then I promptly forgot about it.  Actually, the book got buried under a pile of papers on my desk and only was unearthed when I started cleaning up.  I wish I'd found it sooner, because its a wonderful book.

And here's my problem with writing about it: I start reading it and then stop to go do some of the exercises and follow the prompts.  And so I am slowly–very slowly–making my way through it.  And in this case, the slowness is a good thing.  There is a ton of material to absorb in this book, and for anyone wanting to explore the wild side of their writing (something to which, really, we all should aspire) it is well worth it.

You may be familiar with the author, Judy Reeves,who calls herself a "writing practice provocateur," through one of her other books.  The one that's been on my shelf for years is The Writer's Book of Days.  (It really has been years–I looked up the pub date, and it was 1999.) She, like me, encourages discipline as a path to letting the wild woman out–discipline as in writing every day.  Besides that, what I really like about the book is that her exercises encourage digging deep and cutting loose.  It is this kind of attitude toward writing that leads me back to the utter joy of it.

Wild Women, Wild Voices grew out of a workshop Reeves taught, about which she says, "And though I've been a lifelong daily journaler, it was the prompts, questions, and explorations initiated by our work that took me into the deep waters of memory and experience."   

Here's a look at what the book covers, which is based on the cycles of a woman's life:

–Claiming the Wild Woman–rediscovering the deep connections with ourselves and others

–Mother/Sister/Daughter and family connections

–Loves and Lovers

–Friendship–the wild woman in community

–Artist/Creator–the authentic work of wild woman

–Life Journeys–quests and pilgrimages 

–Death and Legacies–the unveiling of the wise woman

And, just for fun, here's a couple of examples of exercises (which she calls "explorations") from the book:

–Write the story of your name.  Where did it come from, what does it mean, how does it fit you?  Or how doesn't it?

–In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote, "Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."  

Write about your "right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."

–Have you ever met someone on a journey, and did the connection change your life, even though you may never have seen or heard from the person again?

 Have fun with these explorations and do check out the book.  

What kind of writing books do you like to read, if any?



Book Review: Travels in Elysium

Travels In Elysium

by William Azuski

I was asked to review this book and I readily accepted because, well, there's nothing I like better than receiving random books in the mail and diving into them.  Here's the blurb the publisher and blog tour folks asked me to include:

Literary fiction blends with Plato’s tale of Atlantis is
this metaphysical mystery that takes place on an archaeological dig on the
island of Santorini. Travels in Elysium is written in an allegory style. If you
would like to read an an online excerpt – we have one posted
. For more
information or to get your own copy, visit the author's Amazon page. (Not an affiliate link.)

That starts to give you an idea about the book.  Here's a bit more: When archaeology student and world traveler Nicholas Pedrosa is given the chance of a lifetime to work with renowned archaeologist Marcus Huxley he discovers much more than he bargained for.  Set on the Greek island of Santorini, the book spans genres, including mystery, history and fantasy.

An island that blew apart with the force of 100,000 atomic bombs… A civilisation prised out of the ash, its exquisite frescoes bearing a haunting resemblance to Plato’s lost island paradise, Atlantis… An archaeologist on a collision course with a brutal police state… A death that may have been murder… A string of inexplicable events entwining past and present with bewildering intensity… Can this ancient conundrum be understood before it engulfs them all?

That is the question that our hero faces, and in answering it, he uncovers some long-held historical secrets, including the solution to the mystery of Atlantis.  

Info about the author:

William Azuski was born in the United Kingdom, and is of British and Yugoslav descent. Travelling widely through the Mediterranean since childhood, his frequent sojourns in Greece included several months on Santorini in the 1970s, an experience that provided firsthand experience for this exceptional novel’s local setting. Writing as William Miles Johnson, Azuski is also author of the critically-acclaimed The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, an Observer Book of the Year (nonfiction), and Making a Killing, an end of the world satire, both titles recently republished by Iridescent.

Have you read any rousing adventure books lately?


An Aid To Kicking it in Your Writing

KITW_400_wideThis is a book review for which I did not receive compensation, but did receive a free copy of the book.

"I would go as far as and I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in."  Patti Smith

Such is the advice that playwright Sam Shepard gave to singer, writer and all-around awesome person Patti Smith and it is this same advice that inspired Barbara Abercrombie's book of writing exercises and prompts.

The book is called Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals.  At the top of each page, you'll find an inspirational quote on writing and then two or three writing prompts.  Abercrombie encourages writers to spend five minutes on each prompt.  At the end of the book, she includes examples of exercises completed by her students–which gives inspiration to see how far-ranging you can go in just five minutes.

Here's a sample of some of her prompts:

–Write what you know of your parents' courtsthip.  Is there one common story, or are their two versions?  Or more? Or no stories?

–Write about an apology that failed.

–Write what you are.  Start with "I am…"

–Write about a transformation you once had.  Or need to have now.

–Write an opening of a scene with someone asking a question about a pair of shoes.

As you can see, this book is not a book that you read for information on writing, there's none of that in it.  Rather, this is a book you keep beside your computer and use when you get stuck.  So often we writers tend to stare off into space when we're blocked, when really the best thing to do is figure out a way to get writing again. 

Prompts and exercises can be very useful to get words on the page, and I recommend using them in a variety of ways, which is why I think this book can be very helpful for writers from beginner to professional.  (I have my own page of prompts, which you can access here.  Mine are of a bit different type, simple made-up sentences which encourage creative responses.)

Kicking in the Wall is due out May 13th.

Do you use writing prompts to jump-start your work?



Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine alone.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

by Jennifer Chiaverini

After seeing the movie Lincoln, now nominated for a gazillion Oscars, I've gotten curious about all things Lincoln.  (The movie is that compelling–if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.) So I jumped at the chance to review this book.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is historical fiction, based on the real historical character of Elizabeth Keckley, who was, as the novel relates, the dressmaker and confidant of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  Keckley was a slave who bought her own freedom and consequently started her own dressmaking business in Washington City (now Washington D.C., of course).

There was a lot that I liked about this novel.  I soaked up all the historical details and loved learning about Elizabeth Keckley, who, in her later years wrote what turned out to be a scandalous memoir.  (It was scandalous because she revealed many intimate details of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln.) To me, there's nothing like an historical novel to bring history to life.  I'll fall asleep reading a non-fiction history book, but hand me an historical novel and my bedside light stays on late.

While much of the book was well-written (and Chiaverini clearly is an adept writer, as she's had several New York Times bestsellers) and brought history to life for me, I did feel that an over-abundance of narrative summary slowed certain passages down.   During the years of the Civil War, for instance, there was much relating of the progress of various battles that were perhaps necessary to the book but not written in an engaging manner.

After we slogged through those years, the book picked up and I ended up liking it a lot.  So, I recommend it if you're interested in the Lincoln years.

Have you seen the movie Lincoln?  Are you interested in that era?  Leave me a comment!


Book Review: Daring Greatly

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine.

What is vulnerability?

If you are like most people, you probably answered weakness.

But shame researcher Brene Brown argues in her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, that vulnerability is actually not weakness.  Instead, she says, "It's being all in."  It's showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen. It's daring to share our authentic selves, instead of hiding in shame. This ability to show up and be who we are is daring greatly (the title is taken from a Theodore Roosevelt quote).

Sounds a lot like what we as creatives, do, doesn't it?  Which is exactly why I wanted to review this book.  And Brown does have a section on creativity, which I read avidly.  Brown argues that shame is the opposite of vulnerability and its shame that we feel when our inner critic (she calls it a gremlin) gets activated and says things like, "Dare not! You're not good enough."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  We talk about variations on these themes all the time on this blog.  But I like Brown's approach of talking about the shame tapes that get played in our heads as we try to work.  She also reminds us that this shame may not even be the result of what we're currently doing, or the project we're working on: "Sometimes shame is the result of us playing the old recordings that were programmed when we were children, or simply absorbed from the culture."

There's more, so much more to this book, including discussions of narcissism (which is really just the fear of being ordinary), bullying, shame in our culture and how to parent in a daring greatly way.

It's a great read, with lots of thought-provoking ideas.

How about you?  Do you get consumed with shame when you are writing?  (We all do, some of just cope with it better than others.) How do you deal with it?


Transparency, or a Book Review

Book Review:  Write Right Online

by Andy Hayes

Transparency is a big buzz word around the internet these days.Everyone is supposed to be transparent and tell their audience every single little thing about them.  I like this trend.  At least I like it in others.  But when it is time for me to be transparent, I don't like it so well.

Heavy sigh.  Oh, alright, I'll be transparent today.

I'm way overdue in reviewing a book I agreed to review.  I just went back and checked the original email I got from the author, and it was exactly a month ago.  When Andy Hayes first asked me to review his latest Ebook, I agreed, and gaily told him not to expect the review for a week or so.  Ha!  Here it is, a month later, and I've not done it.

Because I think that this trend toward transparency is linked to integrity, I will admit that my failure to review the book rankles.  It makes me feel bad every time I think about it, and that is an energy drain that I don't need. 

But here's the deal: the reason I haven't reviewed the book is that sometimes book reviewing is hard.  Here this nice, handsome, Scotsman asks me to review his book and what if it is bad and I have to be honest and say so?  Those thoughts alone contributed to a delay in reading the book.

So finally I read the book and another problem rears its wee head: the book is good, very good, but it is difficult to review because it is, well, simple.  And that is a compliment because it is meant to be simple.  Write Right Online is intended as a collection of tips and ideas that will help the small business owner write better and more easily online.

Basically, the book lays out how to "express yourself online," and this includes not only writing tips but some talk about various Internet platforms and some ways you can tweak what you've already written.  Most "chapters" are one to two pages long, easily digestible and full of good information.  The book is divided into four sections, and introduction, wrap-up, and then the two meaty sections in the middle: "Putting Your Virtual Pen to Work," and "Tech Nuts and Bolts." 

In the chapter called "The Perfect Piece of Content," Hayes lays out a simple formula that can be followed by anybody, anywhere, on the web: write a great headline, then pull together killer content, and end with a call to action.  Another chapter's headline is "Write for Somebody, not Everybody."  This is one of the things I tell students and clients over and over again, in a slightly different guise: the specific is universal.

I think this book has a lot to recommend it and if you're in the need for some beginner tips on writing for the internet, or you need a bit of a refresher, its for you.

In case you are interested in buying the book:

Click here to visit Travel Online Partners.

And, full disclosure, the above is an affiliate link.

Okay, phew, being transparent isn't that hard after all.