Category Archives: new york times

Story always seems to be the answer: the narrative structure and emotional health

I read mostly fiction.  I believe–and tell my students–that fiction can often be more true than fact in the ways that it can teach us about life.  What I’ve come to learn, though, is that it’s not necessarily fiction per se, but narrative.  Story.  We are doing a coming-of-age literature unit and my biggest hope is that my students, just beginning some of the uphill climbs of growing up, can find hope in the ways that the protagonists they are reading get through their struggles.  I want them to see that in studying the classic story mountain structure, that there are hills and valleys that are sometimes hard to make sense of or see their way out of, but that resolution comes.  Often, it is not what was originally sought after, but there is a knowledge and a wisdom that appears after making it through.

Everything seems to be aligning, though, because recently I’ve come across two nonfiction resources that have discussed this same phenomena: that understanding narrative can help people emotionally process through life better.

The first came from the New York Times a few months ago in an article called The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler.  In summary, he discusses the idea that the best thing that a parent can do for a child is to develop a strong family narrative.  He says when child feels that he or she is a part of something greater, the child will be more resilient in challenges, feel safer, and even happier.  The most interesting part, though, was that when they studied children who knew their family narrative, there was a delineation among them that produced a stronger child, still.  The three major narratives were “We worked hard to get all that we have, and we made it” “we had it all and lost it, and we made it” and the third created the most emotionally healthy children: “we’ve had some ups and some downs, and we made it.”

The second comes from Brene Brown, a writer and researcher whose work has been really influential for me since I first saw her Ted Talks in the fall and recently began reading The Gifts of Imperfection with a good friend of mine (one of my few non fiction books this year).  Obviously, she speaks about our state as imperfect humans, and the fact that despite we know that about ourselves, we often live in ways that demonstrate the opposite.  One of the core tenets of her research has been “when we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness–the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Own our story.  This is a life changing sentence, that brings me back to the idea that the greater understanding we have of the “mountain of action” structure of life–knowing their will be new starts, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution–the healthier we become.

On that note, I’m looking forward to making my summer reading list, which I’ll be posting about soon.

Winter Writing Inspiration.

I finally finished Cloud Atlas this week, but it’s one of those books where now I need to process and think and research because David Mitchell packed so much into it.  While I gather my ideas, I thought I’d share some thoughts on writing, especially in the winter.

A friend and I decided over drinks a few months ago that we desperately needed to start a writing group–some accountability to actually put the pen to paper and to bring the pieces living in our heads to life.  We start next week.  As I’ve been trying to prepare some work, I realized I’ve done quite a bit of writing in this space about winter.  And then, serendipitously, another friend of mine sent me this blog post from the New York Times that starts this way:

In early winter, when the heavy rains come to the Pacific Northwest and we settle under a blanket of sullen sky, something stirs in the creative soul. At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.

I do not live in the Northwest, but I live in a city where it seems I walk a half mile to get anywhere, bundled for winter as I have no car with an automatic starter or seat heaters.  I now choose warmth over fashion and can really only wear boots in the winter, always have a winter hat in my bag and find my shoulders most often pulled up to chin while bracing the cold.  Needless to say I prefer to hibernate and the lack of daylight only encourages this unsociable practice of mine.  I also love the nod to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the article.  (I finally bought a light therapy lamp this year.)

So, while you are waiting with me for warm days that seem so far away, read the article from the Times, join me and find your voice and your outlet: writing, painting, cooking, reading.  Winter is the most acceptable excuse to stay in with some kind of delicious beverage and get lost indoors.

a kindred article on reading from the NYT.

{Julia Kuo for the NYT, 7/30/11}

In my morning internet reading, I ran across a link to an opinion piece from last summer in the New York Times called Reading and its Rewards.  The author, Maile Meloy, writes about the summer she was ten and her dad decided that before she could have a ten speed bicycle she needed to read ten novels more serious than her diet of Trixie Belden and Archie comics and write about each one.  She did it, returned for a while to the stellar books written for kids like Narnia and The Westing Game and Madeleine L’Engle and then moved on, on her own accord, back to more challenging titles.

I completely related to the idea of reading toward a goal.  My childhood summers were spent picking out books at the library, carting home a big bag and then getting my summer reading map stamped by the librarian upon return, working towards the small prizes that the Centerville Public Library had cooked up for us right before school started.  As the type A person that I was, watching my card fill up with stamps was incredibly gratifying. Ha. My hometown library still sponsors this program, which I love.

Meloy’s piece also got me reminiscing about other reading traditions I had growing up: it was household rule for my brother and I to read for at least a half an hour before we went to bed.  This requirement soon became a part of our daily rhythms and we both still read every night to this day.  And, especially in line with my thoughts about the book A Short History of Women, I love that my best book recommendations come from family members: cousins, aunts, my mom, my brother.  Reading is one of the best ways to bring people together.  

And, of course I loved her descriptions of the bicycle that eventually accompanied her adventures.  Her article was not just about reading, but about growing up.  It is worth reading, if you, too grew up as a reader.  All that to say, I would love to hear about other people’s reading habits: do you have a summer reading list each year? What kinds of books did you read when you were younger? Did your library have a similar summer reading program? These are the kinds of rhythms I can only hope my students either keep or eventually rediscover.

the "added value" of literature: an amazing op-ed in response to the state ELA test

This was a crazy week.  I watched my students spend 9 class periods in silence over the course of 3 days while taking the state ELA test (and they have 9 more this week for math).  Then I listened to them talk non stop about “The Pineapple and the Hare” (that’s a link to the google search if you haven’t read about it yet), the most controversial reading passage we’ve seen yet on the state test.  My colleagues and I mulled over two of the six questions for our 45 minute weekly meeting, which happened to be later that day.  Our thoughts at the end were that literature and multiple choice just don’t go together.

The New York Times published this op-ed today by Clare Needell Hollander, a New York City middle school English teacher that encapsulates everything I’ve been thinking about this week, rooted in her experiences running literary book clubs with her students.  It brought my thoughts back to the book club meetings that took place in my classroom this week on Monday and Friday that had been clouded in my mind amidst the state test nonsense.  We finally got to talk about Night by Elie Wiesel, and the ways in which my students read this book were incredible, and trying to summarize the conversations I had would rob them of their beauty and depth.

All I know is that if you put solid books in the hands of teenagers, lives and brains and hearts can change and that you should read this article right now.

Your brain on fiction, courtesy of The New York Times.

{some of my overflow stacks}

Stories. They’re good for you!  Read this.  Some bits:


Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”