In Response to Lulu Miller

This one’s from my archive at home. Mind the changes.

On 1 January 2014, Lulu Miller’s “Editing Your Life’s Stories Can Create Happier Endings” appeared on NPR.org. In the piece, Miller reports findings by Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia that suggest one of the ways in which people negotiate trauma and disappointment is to rewrite the narratives of such events, in essence refashioning the stories of their lives into forms easier to handle. Miller introduces by way of an anecdote of her nephew (to which she returns to conclude the piece), bridging from the story of his triumph over his having been startled by a statue of the Frankenstein monster into Wilson’s comments. She also notes Wilson’s assertion that having people physically write new narratives allows for the kind of effects normally seen only after years of therapy, if in smaller measure; an hour of writing time divided among four daily sessions can produce sufficient change of perspective on a specific event to greatly ease anxiety and enhance self-image.

The power of the pencil: Writing about a troubling event in the past can help recast it in a more positive way.
Another instance of my borrowing an image from the article I discuss to aid in commentary…

Given that Miller is reporting decades of academic study for a general audience, there is necessarily some simplification of the topic; it is doubtlessly more complex than she remarks in her online piece. This can be potentially problematic, as the oversimplification may well lead to the adoption by persons in need of significant therapeutic intervention by a dumbed-down version of the technique in the absence of any psychological or psychiatric oversight, creating a situation not unlike self-medication. While the rewriting exercise is not likely to be as dangerous to the unguided user as the unsupervised use of pharmaceuticals, it is possible that the exercises, if done without an outside reader available, will lead to the reinforcement of the same negative attitudes they are meant to deflect. Miller does not offer the caution, and she does not offer a statement from Wilson offering that caution, which is a point against the piece.

Even so, the piece is written well, overall, and it offers a point in support of the value of writing as an activity. Miller’s use of an introductory anecdote humanizes her already-human topic, lending it an immediacy that serves as a pathos appeal to its audience. Her return to it in the end of the piece serves to unify the piece as a cohesive unit, lending it a sense of completion that makes it more authoritative through; if it is completed, there is an implication that there is nothing more to be said, that Miller’s is the final word on the matter. Also, the use of a young child as the focal character in the anecdote implies that the phenomenon is more natural than trained, given the relatively little time the child would have had to learn the behavior. Situating the phenomenon as one “naturally” part of human experience helps to universalize it, making it—and the piece discussing it–more accessible to the audience.

The identification of the therapeutic value of focused writing activities also valorizes writing as an activity in itself. While Miller’s audience is not likely to devalue writing, many other people are, as those whose jobs involve the teaching of writing are well aware. Indeed, the article makes some motion toward the resistant in noting Wilson’s work with those who assert that they are “bad at school.” Teachers of writing and teachers whose classes require writing often must contend with assertions that writing has no value, that it is an outdated practice irrelevant to the world in which students live; there is a prevailing opinion that “real life” has no need for the written word. Miller’s piece, and Wilson’s research upon which it is based, assert that writing has value outside the classroom and for more people than those who style themselves writers of one sort or another. The clear implication is that everyone benefits from targeted writing activities, making writing instruction all the more important.

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