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This post is dedicated to the power of stories – a power that is demonstrated in Brexit, by way of many instances of how stories determine the course of our lives, for better or for worse.
The back story regarding the concept of an autobiography story can be accessed in previous posts in the category of Autobiography Stories.
We owe thanks to Graeme Decarie for introducing us to the concept of autobiographical stories, which has more resonance for me than the concepts of life stories and memoirs:
Mr. Decarie, who taught history at Malcolm Campbell High School (MCHS) in the early 1960s, and subsequently quit high school teaching to pursue a career teaching history at Concordia University, and who also had a career as a radio broadcaster, has recently suggested that MCHS grads get to work on their autobiography stories.
Power and influence
In previous posts, I’ve outlined a draft of parts of my own autobiography story. The draft for Part 1 of my autobiography story is concerned with episodic memory and attention, and with the nature of power and influence. These are topics of strong interest for me, as they are for many people. Part of the storyline, as it relates to power and influence, is related to frames and framing, which is also a topic of strong interest for me.
A related concept, as it related to power and influence, concerns judo as metaphor. As a child playing at recess in the snow, I learned one or two judo moves and practised them endlessly. At a conceptual level, I’m aware that every storyline has a pivot point; if you know how judo works, and if you don’t, as a writer you can use that pivot point to determine the direction of the story. That is to say, you can in a split-second flip the story around so that it proceeds in some other direction. That’s a feature of some stories – both fiction and non-fiction stories – that many of us much enjoy.
The novelist Graham Greene in his role as a screenwriter demonstrates a particular facility with this aspect of how stories are shaped – in fiction and in non-fiction, and in the borderland between fiction and non-fiction, which is the territory in which much of sense-making, in the course of everyday life, takes place.
The draft for Part 2 of my autobiography story is concerned with getting the words out, a feature of everyday life that it took me many years to learn, having lost, at age 6, the capacity to engage in such a feat. I like to say that I learned fluency as a second language, at the age of 41. Technically, it was really a matter of learning a sixth language.
My first language was Estonian; my second language was Swedish (soon forgotten after I arrived in Canada in 1951); my third language was English; my fourth language was French, which I learned in a rudimentary way in public school and university; my fifth language was Latin, which I learned (again in a rudimentary way) in high school.
Thus learning fluency as a second language was, if you want to be technically correct about the matter at hand, really about learning fluency as a sixth language. For the sake of a presentation, however, I like to speak of learning fluency as a second language; that is a way of talking about the matter at hand that works out fine.
When immersed in a story we let down our guard
I can add a few notes to the draft for Parts 1 and 2. At a presentation that I made at a school on June 23, 2016, a student asked me about the black and white TVs that were a mainstay of life in the 1950s. I explained that in the “olden days,” the long-ago of my youth, my father decided that there would be no TV in our house.
As it turned out, about ten years later, in the 1960s, he did decide to buy a small black and white TV so that he could watch hockey games, but when I was at primary-school age, there was no TV in our house, which was located in Cartierville in Montreal.
For that reason, or for some other reason, I never got into the TV-watching habit. I have the sense that people get into the habit of watching TV, or of watching a screen, because that’s what they grew up with. I didn’t grow up with the habit of watching TV.
I did watch some TV in the 1950s, because I would occasionally go to a friend’s house to watch TV on weekday evenings. I remember in particular a show called “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” about a dog who got into all manner of adventures, and a show called “Have Gun, Will Travel.” An IMBd.com page about the series describes it as “The adventures of a gentlemanly gunfighter for hire.”
As I look back on these shows, what stays in mind is what I learned with regard to suspension of disbelief and the structure of stories. When I consider the storylines, these many years later, a couple of studies come to mind, chief among them a study entitled: Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (2013).
Another study that comes to mind, with regard to the TV series I used to watch from time to time as a child, is entitled: Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010).
Suspension of disbelief
Even now, if I’m watching a DVD of a movie on my laptop – I particularly like to watch film noir movies from the 1940s – I tend to watch it in 10-minute segments. That works really well for me. When I think about this topic, I’m reminded of the expression that, “When immersed in a story we let down our guard,” I have since high school been fascinated with the the concept of a suspension of disbelief as an essential element of fiction storytelling.
When I watch a show in 10-minute segments, I can move back and forth, from being immersed in the story at one point, to being attuned to my environment at another point. I like to move back and forth. The same applies to what is called non-fiction. If I’m reading a news article, I’m immersed in a particular frame of reference or storyline for a short time, and then I move on.
Now, the idea of watching a movie straight through, such as an hour and ten minutes, is a somewhat strange idea for me. I’m aware that many people will sit happily for that length of time, in front of a screen, wherever the screen may be – that is, in a movie theatre, or in front of a TV screen, or in front of a laptop – but I do not make a habit of watching a movie straight through for such a length of time. I just don’t like sitting still for inordinate (inordinate, as I see it) length of time. I like to walk around, move around.
Part 3 of my autobiography story
I now proceed with the draft for Part 3.
A person’s engagement with the world has some influence on how closely they are listened to. My own engagement with the world is of a particular nature. Each person’s engagement with the world is of a particular nature.
My form of engagement has to do with the task of sense-making, or it can be called sense making. Maybe it can be spoken of as sensemaking.
That is to say, I have an interest in how words are used to make sense of things. In turn, I have an interest in how language works. Some of us, as I’ve outlined in a page about mindfulness meditation, like to have a strong sense of certainty about what is real, what is not real, and about how one should view this or that aspect of reality. I am happy to live with a degree of uncertainty, with regard to how situations are best perceived, and have a respect for, and enjoyment of, ambiguity. A 2015 study comes to mind:
Among the writers who have had a particularly strong impact on my life-long project, dedicated to the task of making sense of things, is the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman. Some years ago, I had the sense that, for all of my interest in the work of Erving Goffman, there would be no point in writing about his work at my website – because, who would care less about a writer from the “olden days.”
But then I noticed that he was still being cited, in books that I was reading, and so I decided to post some items about his life. That turned out to be a good decision; posts such as the following ones have been read by many, many people visiting my website in recent years:
My family’s refuge story
Part 3 of my autobiography story is concerned with my family’s refuge story – which as it turns out, is a story about how I ended up in Canada and among other things helps to explain my interest in military history.
A couple of previous posts introduce the story; Part 3 will entail additions and elaborations of the theme:
One of the great disappointments of my mother’s life, as she made a point of asserting in her above-noted life story, which is beautifully written and highly evocative, was that as her son I did not turn out to be a true Estonian, as she defined the term. Indeed, I did not. From my own point of view, her disappointment underlines the limitations of nationalism.
The needs and interests of the individual can readily come into conflict with the needs and interests of nationalism.
I much enjoy being Estonian, as I define the term. Estonian was my first language; as Estonians in Estonia and Canada have remarked from time to time, in the course of many years, my spoken Estonian has an unusual quality, for a person who has grown up outside of Estonia, in my case in Canada. That is to say, I speak Estonian without an Estonian accent.
As well, one of the interesting features of my speech is that my way of speaking Estonian is reminiscent of the Estonian language that people spoke in the 1940s. That makes sense, as it was in the 1940s that I learned to speak the language. When I was growing up and for the rest of my life while my parents were still alive, I always spoke with my parents in Estonian.
I speak an unusual, retro form of Estonian, without a western accent.
Another previous post is entitled:
Sense making takes many forms
Among my favourite recent books, with regard to the sense making project as it relates to my family’s refuge experiences, are Wall Flower (2015) and The Age of Selfishness (2015).
Wall Flower (2015)
A blurb for the book at the Toronto Public Library website reads:
In August 1961, seventeen-year-old Rita Kuczynski was living with her grandmother and studying piano at a conservatory in West Berlin. Caught in East Berlin by the rise of the Berlin Wall while on a summer visit to her parents, she found herself trapped behind the Iron Curtain for the next twenty-eight years. Kuczynski’s fascinating memoir relates her experiences of life in East Germany as a student, a fledgling academic philosopher, an independent writer, and, above all, as a woman. Though she was never a true believer in Communism, Rita gained entry into the circles of the East German intellectual elite through her husband Thomas Kuczynski. There, in the privileged world that she calls “the gardens of the nomenklatura,” she saw first-hand the contradictions at the heart of life for the East German intelligentsia. Published in English for the very first time twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wall Flower offers a rare–and critical–look at life among the East German elite. Told with wry wit and considerable candor, Kuczynski’s story offers a fascinating perspective on the rise and fall of East Germany.
[End of text]
Comment: This is a beautifully written study of life within the higher reaches of East Germany society in the years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Age of Selfishness (2015)
A blurb for the book at the Toronto Public Library website notes:
Tracing the emergence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism in the 1940s to her present-day influence, Darryl Cunningham’s latest work of graphic-nonfiction investigation leads readers to the heart of the global financial crisis of 2008. Cunningham uses Rand’s biography to illuminate the policies that led to the economic crash in the U.S. and in Europe, and how her philosophy continues to affect today’s politics and policies, starting with her most noted disciple, economist Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the Federal Reserve). Cunningham also shows how right-wing conservatives, libertarians, and the Tea Party movement have co-opted Rand’s teachings (and inherent contradictions) to promote personal gain and profit at the expense of the middle class. Tackling the complexities of economics by distilling them down to a series of concepts accessible to all age groups, Cunningham ultimately delivers a devastating analysis of our current economic world.
[End of text]
Comment: As Darryl Cunningham notes, in the above-noted graphic non-fiction historical overview, the subject of the study grew up in Soviet Russia – and in her life’s work ended up retaining and demonstrating elements of a Soviet mindset.
She was convinced that she was rebelling in totality against the Soviet mindset, but what she was rebelling against was expressed within the totalitarian framework that was part of her early Soviet-childhood sense making processes.
Such events happen frequently, in my observation.
Totalitarianism in its many forms, the mindsets of true believers in their many forms, populist political worldviews, propaganda, and in some cases public relations in its many forms, share a common characteristic – namely, the perspective that evidence and facts can be conveniently ignored, as they get in the way of the story, of the frame, and of the framing process.
It is also a feature of history that, in the end, the evidence does at times, and in many cases after many generations of people have come and gone, make its presence known. To state the matter another way, from time to time, reality obtrudes.
Enough of the draft of my story. I am going for a walk and will do some gardening. Tomorrow I help with a clean-up of the Marie Curtis Park beaches: