Life Stories in Literature
we are what we remember
inside vs. outside stories
hidden identities & secrets
creating/controlling one’s own narrative
alternate life options
turning points/life decisions
when/how lives intersect
multiple points of view
change your story, change your life
“How habits of speech can shape our thoughts.”
Language is the most prominent social construct of all; humans develop language to communicate with each other about how they experience the world and their place in it. Claire Cameron explains “the primary way language influences our minds is through what it forces us to think about—not what it prevents us from thinking about.”
And one of the largest uses of language is the creation of literature. Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina argues that literature affords writers “the chance to change the way we speak collectively about a moment and become a powerful driver of social change.”
Through language, literature has the power not only to describe culture but also to shape it.
Ruth Franklin, author of the biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, argues that the lasting power of Jackson’s famous short story lies in its ambiguity, “its unsettling open-endedness”:
The story works as a mirror to reflect back to its readers their current preoccupations and concerns, which is why readers could see McCarthy in it 75 years ago and Trump in it today. That quality is also what makes reading “The Lottery” for the first time so distressing — reminding us of the vital service literature can perform when we allow it to disturb us.
Like Denise Mina’s point in the article linked above, literature has the power not only to describe society but also to influence it.
Translations introduce readers to literary works written in languages other than their own. Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, has published English translations of Homer’s two great Greek epics, Odyssey and Iliad, in 2017 and 2023, respectively. Both of these long poems were originally recited orally both to entertain and to instruct their listeners, who included members of all ages and of most social classes. “Wilson’s ambitious project of the past decade has been to re-democratize both the poetry and its audience,” writes Judith Thurman in this piece in The New Yorker.
“My goal was to evoke an experience like the original, using the language of the people who will read it,” Wilson told Thurman. Her translations aim to allow a modern audience to experience these works of literature as closely as possible to how ancient audiences experienced them (although by reading rather than by listening).
“The transformative power of seeing your life as a hero’s journey.”
Veteran journalist Adam Piore examines “a series of questions that have long preoccupied me”:
How do people find meaning in the face of unimaginable tragedy, trauma, or disappointment? Why do some self-destruct, lose touch with reality, or give up, while others survive, recover, and find ways to draw strength from the challenges they were forced to endure?
Piore sought out “people who, through the whims of fate, their own choices, or a combination of both, have found themselves in extreme situations that most of us can hardly imagine.” After examining the stories such people tell about themselves, Piore “saw up close how important the hero-journey narrative, or something close it, was to them, transforming and even helping to save their lives.”
In this article Piore delves into the psychological research on life stories (technically known as narrative identity theory) and illustrates it with some of the life stories told to him by people he interviewed.
© 2023 by Mary Daniels Brown