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

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9781608682324: Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life
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Every day we relate stories about our highs and lows, relationships and jobs, heartaches and joys. But do we ever consider the choices we make about how to tell our story? In this groundbreaking book, Kim Schneiderman shows us that by choosing a different version we can redirect our energy and narrative toward our desires and goals. She presents character development workouts and life-affirming, liberating exercises for retelling our stories to find redemptive silver linings and reshape our lives.

As both a therapist and a writer, Schneiderman knows the power of story. By employing the storytelling techniques she offers, you’ll learn to view your life as a work in progress and understand big-picture story lines in ways that allow you to easily steer your actions and relationships toward redefined and realistic happy endings.”

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About the Author:

Kim Schneiderman counsels in private practice, writes for a variety of readerships in print and online, and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer in venues including New York University. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

Five years ago, I created a series of writing exercises to help people reimagine themselves as the heroes of their own life stories. My exercises were based on years of helping people tell their stories in my capacity as a psychotherapist and a journalist, and my understanding of the power of narrative as an English major and dabbler in biblical texts and Jewish philosophy.

My exercises rested on seven basic assumptions:
1) We are the stars of our own unfolding stories
2) Everyone has a story waiting to be told
3) We are potentially our own best and worst interpreters of what happens to us
4) How we tell our story matters
5) Every story is about a relationship – to someone or something else and ourselves – and these relationships shape character
6) Character development is the heart of every story worth reading (and living)
7) Sometimes we need to step out of our stories to get a novel perspective on old, familiar storylines

This premise has been tested many times. But the greatest test by far was the death of my athletic 72-year-old father in February of 2012 of an aggressive and rare form of cancer that was too late to treat by the time it was diagnosed.

My father’s passing was the third cancer fatality in my small, immediate family in seven years. In 2005, my amazing 61-year-old mother lost her decade-long battle with ovarian cancer. Several months later, my father met Vicki, a Pilates instructor and fitness trainer whom my family grew to love. In the summer of 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a year later, also at 61.

Told one way, my family story reads like a Greek tragedy (and that’s without getting into my father’s leg amputation in 1986, or my mother’s loss of her right eye in a freak art school accident before I was born.) Neither of my parents got a chance to dance at either of their children’s weddings or dote on grandchildren. Only my father was able to witness the promise of his children’s budding careers. And when Vicki died, Marissa, her 21-year-old daughter and only child, was suddenly orphaned.

Which is why my somewhat Polyannish-premise was tested when I found myself facing the death of the man I hoped would walk me down the isle or attend one of my book readings. Did I truly believe that I had the power to transform my tragedies into triumphs simply by choosing to put a positive spin on my own story?

My answer surprised me: “yes,” though it requires some reading between the lines. My relationship with my father was never an easy one. When we were younger, we butted heads. He could be bossy, judgmental, and self-righteous. A benevolent despot of sorts, he was usually more interested in sharing his opinions than soliciting mine. I challenged him, and made my mother my confidante. When I graduated college, I moved to San Francisco, putting several cities and mountain ranges between us.

My father and I grew closer after my mother passed. I had already moved back to New York, and we found ourselves spending more time together. We had dinner, went biking, saw shows…and talked. He had found love again and seemed genuinely happy with Vicki. I was older, wiser, and, having undergone years of therapy myself, had come to appreciate my father’s positive attributes while accepting his rougher edges without taking them personally.

But it wasn’t until my father suddenly became ill, that I would be forced to put my love to the test. When I fast forward and step outside my story, I see myself curled up on the couch in my father’s hospital room while the hospice admitting nurse explains that he will need 24-hour supervision to receive services at home.

My brother is immersed in a rigorous Master’s program at Cornell University. I have been my father’s primary health advocate for the past three months, flying back and forth between my life in New York and Florida, where he relocated just a few months prior to his diagnosis. Hiring a full-time aide is unthinkable, even if it were affordable.

So I decide to take a leave of absence – from my private practice, my friends, my community, and my frenetic but full life in Manhattan – to care for my father. It’s been 18 years since we lived under the same roof as my provider, only now I am providing care to him.

It’s hard to describe the two months that follow. My father is no less demanding in pain and than he is in health. I have been thrust into the role of administering his meds, fixing his meals, cleaning his house, learning to manage his finances, and holding his hand, both figuratively and literally, through waves of fear and pain. I have never been a parent, but the irony of the turned tables is not lost on me.

Despite the stress, I feel my heart softening and expanding. My father and I share many moments of tears and laughter. We come to know and appreciate each other’s minds, emotions, and strengths more deeply. Old friends and family show up to share good memories and lend support. I find myself reconnecting with long-lost relatives, and see how lucky I am to have such supportive friends and community. When my brother comes down to help, our icy relationship begins to thaw as we come to know each other as adults. Marissa visits too, and I find myself inspired by her resilience and generosity.

As the rabbi who would later perform my father’s memorial service stated that my father was like an onion. “The more you boiled him, the sweeter he got.” Life boiled all of us quite a bit. One evening, my father shares that he can’t believe that even in his misery, he is learning and growing. “What are you learning?” I inquire. “That people have found a way to love me and that I have found a way to love them.” That’s all he ever wanted…that’s all anyone ever wants, isn’t it?

I realize there are many ways to spin my story. Mine is but one version. But as the narrator, the protagonist, and interpreter, I exercise my right to read it as a story of love and redemption…the prodigal daughter perhaps.

While I claim the authorships rights of my story, I recognize that some stories are more susceptible to positive revisions than others. I further recognize that the story of my father’s passing is not over. Grief is a process, and I am familiar enough with its territory to know that it will take vigilance and unconditional love to steer clear of the pits of darkness and self-pity that beckon in moments of heartbreak. I am not immune to bouts of fear and skepticism. Had I been given a choice, I would have perhaps chosen another storyline for my life’s lessons. But for now, I embrace the gifts of my bittersweet fortune.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

CHAPTER 1:
PREMISE: YOUR LIFE AS A WORK IN PROGRESS

Several years ago, while shopping in a Baltimore consignment store, I caught a saleswoman staring at me as I held a pair of earrings against my face in the mirror. “Well, aren’t you the star of your own story?” she said, with a knowing gaze. Initially, the comment unsettled me and made me self-conscious.

Today, what really strikes me was how perceptive the saleswoman had been. She was right. I did consider myself the star of my own story. But didn’t everyone, I mean, if they were really honest about it? After all, how many of us have daydreamed about writing the great American novel or experienced moments that seemed so scripted for us, we could almost swear someone was secretly filming our lives? Nobody wants to be thought of as self-centered. Yet we quietly marvel at the public figures, athletes, and individuals who achieve beyond the mean. What leads them to believe they can accomplish great feats if not the belief that their story matters?

Perhaps they recognize what we all know deep down, but often lack the courage or the permission to believe – that every life is as unfolding story; a dynamic, unique, unpredictable and potentially heroic story that is open to interpretation, especially our own. From the day we’re born, we become the star and spin-doctor of our own masterpiece in progress with all the trappings of what makes a story readable and worth sharing – turning points, bright spots, plot twists, cliffhangers, conflicts, and important life lessons.

Like stories, our lives are filled with suspense. The decisions we make, both big and small, affect our storyline – the relationships we choose, how we spend our day, and how we nourish ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Our masterpiece has supporting characters like the Scarecrow and Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who provide love and assistance, and adversaries like the Wicked Witch, who cause the star of the story to realize what they’re made of and what’s really important. Some chapters in our stories make us cry, some make us laugh, and some leave us wondering what our lives are all about.
Like a fingerprint, each story is entirely unique. No one has walked the planet on the same trajectory, leaving the same set of footprints. Not even Siamese twins.

We tell stories all the time – about how we spent our day, funny things that happened, and issues that are bothering us. We often frame our stories in terms of supporting characters - spouses, parents, children, friends, colleagues, to name a few – and adversarial ones – the disapproving mother-in-law, the psychotic, power-hungry boss, or the crazy ex-boyfriend. We think of our lives in terms of chapters, which we call “the good old days,” “hard times,” “getting married,” and “raising children.” We get frustrated by sudden plot twists, excited by climaxes like weddings and falling in love, and disheartened by tragedies.

According to the latest research, imagining oneself as a character in a novel or play is a fundamental way people discover who they are what their lives are about. In his book “The Stories We Live By,” psychologist Dr. Dan McAdams, director of the Foley Center for the Study of Human Lives, makes a strong case in favor of constructive personal myth-making. He notes that human beings are storytellers by nature, and that each of us “comes to know he or she is by creating a heroic story of the self.”

Viewed this way, thinking of ourselves as the star of our own stories is not an act of narcissistic indulgence or self-justification, as some might believe, but rather a healthy practice of exercising our birthright. The truth is, there is a world of difference between classic narcissism, which masks deep-seated insecurities, and the self-assuredness of healthy narcissism (also known also as chutzpah), which is often the force behind invention, creativity, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Sure, no one wants to be friends with star of the autobiography, “Me, I, and Only Mine.” But what the star of “Serving Humanity” or “Family Comes First?” Mohandas Ghandi wrote an autobiography called, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” and Nelson Mandela called his “A Walk to Freedom.” Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa starred in numerous biographies written about them. They were the stars of their stories, but their storylines were about living for causes larger than themselves.

If we accept that storytelling is an intrinsic part of knowing ourselves, how then do we choose the best version of our stories so that the telling leaves us feeling uplifted instead of disheartened, inspired instead of discouraged? And how do we embrace such heroic narratives without glossing over important life lessons or indulging in grandiosity and self-importance?

First, we have to understand the transformational power of storytelling. Next, we need to be willing to wrestle with the scripts running our lives so that we can reclaim the authorship rights to our life story. Finally, we need to step out of our stories so we can identify the places we get stuck and chart a new course.

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