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The Three-Dimensional Self: Uncovering Personal Narratives


By Kim Triedman

I turned 55 today. I’m not fishing for belated birthday wishes.  Trust me — I’d rather let it slip by unnoticed. I only mention it because, for me, those birthdays divisible by 5 always force some manner of reckoning or re-appraisal.

So start here: I am a writer.

Or here: I have no business calling myself a writer.

Or even here: You’re never too old to get a nose ring.

Writers or not, we all live inside our own self-narratives. By this I mean our own stories about ourselves: who we are, what we are, how we intersect with the world around us. On a purely psychological basis they are essential: they allow us to edit and organize the universe’s barrage into manageable, psychologically-affirming constructions — the scaffolding on which we hang the shingles of our lives. We live within these constructions, and they, in turn, live within us, allowing us to venture out into the wilds knowing that at the end of the day the comfort of our sanctuary awaits us.

It is a symbiotic relationship to the core. Our personal narratives prop us up by allowing us to make sense of a senseless world. We, in turn, perpetuate these stories by elaborating them — cherry-picking and molding the constant influx of experience to fit our existing assumptions about ourselves.

What’s interesting to me as a writer is how these narratives change over time. Not just for ourselves as writers, but also for the characters we create on the page. Hopefully, the individuals that populate our stories are as mutable as we ourselves are – growing and evolving, constantly adapting to a world that rears and bucks around them. And hopefully, as these characters develop, they carry with them not just the chiseled stone of what they have become at any given moment in time but also all the selves that have led them to this point. Whatever we choose to say or not say about our characters’ earlier lives, the whole of those lives must be written into every word and gesture.

In her fabulous debut novel Life Drawing, Robin Black’s narrator Augusta (Gus) poses the question: how do any of us make sense of our own fractured narratives? In one scene, Gus looks across the table at her husband Owen over a noticeably strained Thanksgiving dinner:

“…as I watched him, I thought about all the many, many Owens there, carried in that single body of his. The boy. The man he had been before I taught him wariness. The measurer of distances and the plumber of pond depths. How was it that any of us could walk across a room without our own multitudes tripping us up?” … Continue Reading


Dress for Success, Write to Get Better

by Bethanne Patrick

BTM Woman and typewriterMy eldest daughter recently graduated from college, and she has even more recently joined the workforce. I hope I may be forgiven, as her mother, for secretly thinking how adorable she looks each morning when she stumbles downstairs for coffee, clad in office-appropriate togs: cute flats, cardigans, and great shift dresses. It reminds me of how I felt when I’d get her toddler self freshly bedecked in Hanna Andersson (of course, that feeling only lasted as long as it took for her to dribble cereal or jump in the mud).

Her appearance means she evidently listened to me when I told her things like “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” even if In today’s work culture, that sometimes means buying leather sandals instead of neoprene (believe me, in my jobs at places like Aol LLC and The National Geographic Society, I saw a lot of grownups outfitted like toddlers), but the essential truth of dressing for the job you want remains. It’s not about looking too far ahead too soon, but rather about reminding yourself that you are a work in progress, and progressing towards a goal.

I thought about the idea of this axiom when I saw a recent blog post by writer and one-time literary agent Nathan Bransford called “Advice for Young Writers.” He says “Don’t write for the writer you are now. Write for the writer you’re going to become.” Bransford goes on to note that “you have to write to get better, write for catharsis and practice and fun.”

All of us have work to do, whether we’re rank amateurs starting our first post-bachelor’s-degree internships or seasoned professionals receiving post-Pulitzer accolades. That’s because writing isn’t about finished essays or stories or books; it’s about the actual process of writing, and that can change from page to page. Hell, it can change from hour to hour! The “writer you are now” might, on any given day, be a person incapable of swapping sweatpants for slacks. (NB: And that is perfectly all right.) But you don’t necessarily want to write for that person. You want to write for the person who, during her last writing session, reached a new level somehow. You want to aim for your reach, not your grasp, in other words.

All of us, too, fall into the trap sometimes of believing that writing really is about finished essays, stories, and books. The only time this is helpful is when you actually have a deadline and need to finish an essay, story, or book. Those are the Casual Fridays or team outing days of the writing life, the times in which what you’re wearing and how you’re writing matters less than getting things done.

More often we want to and should be aware of not just how we’re writing–but how that writing is affecting us. That’s what Bransford means when he says we write “to get better…for catharsis and practice and fun.” In writing for the writer you want to be, you’re not meant to judge what you’re writing (e.g., “Will I like these paragraphs tomorrow?”); you’re meant to do as well as you can in the moment you have.

When my daughter goes on an interview, I remind her of things that I was taught: Shine (or at least clean) your shoes. Check the back view. Be punctual and mannerly. Keep your goal in mind, but remember where you are.

I consider a similar checklist when I sit down to write: Where am I in this particular draft? What have I forgotten to look at as I move forward? Am I spending enough time on whatever it is that’s concerning me, be it character development, plot, or dialogue? My goal is often, although not always, to finish something. That may be as simple as a daily word count, but staying in the moment so that I experience progress, catharsis, and yes, even fun, can be challenging.

Is this the moment when I say “But it’s all worth it, because if you do x and y and z you’ll meet that goal?” No. No, no, no. Dressing for success doesn’t guarantee a corner office, and writing to get better doesn’t guarantee a bestseller. However, there’s another axiom I like, which is a little less fancy but no less true: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Dressing the part, sitting down to write: These are things that keep us focused on our essential, innate worth.


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