I’m a Project Wildcat counselor, and one my favorite things about the trip is an activity we call “Life Stories.” Over the course of each seven-day trip, our freshman campers narrate their entire lives around campfires and under the stars. It’s a way for them to strengthen their sense of self before entering the heady, alcoholic mess of freshman fall – a way to rally the troops, so to speak, before marching into uncharted territory.
I went hiking with P-Wild this Spring Break and we reprised the life story activity as counselors. This time, mine sounded different. I went on and on about details I hadn’t even mentioned as a freshman, but this time I skipped over sixth grade. I barely mentioned my best friend of eight years or the first time I drank, but I talked a lot about my friends at school and classes I really liked.
As I thought about it more, I realized these changes were important. I had a shitty Winter Quarter, which I’m sure a lot of you can relate to – a huge pile of muddy snow, sleeplessness and disappointment at my failure to accomplish all of my billion (totally unrealistic) New Year’s Resolutions. In retelling my story as a sophomore, I effectively revised my self-perception and became a real person again. The effects have lingered for almost a week, longer than any compliment or award I’ve ever received, and they’re a lot more useful – rather than bask and stagnate in where I’ve been, I have a handle on where I need to go.
Project Wildcat isn’t the first organization to realize the power of life stories. Numerous studies document the therapeutic power of journaling, and creative writing programs like PEN America provide prisoners and troubled adolescents with the opportunity to experience catharsis through narrative.
In her book Writing to Save Your Life, Medill assistant professor of journalism Michele Weldon calls journaling “scribotherapy,” claiming that telling your own narrative can be “a conduit to understanding and feeling relief from any life difficulty.” It’s a weighty term, but it is supported by a heap of anecdotal confirmation. Anne Frank wrote in diaries for over two years to escape the Secret Annex, a 500-square-foot hidden apartment in Holland where she and her family hid from Nazi troops; Victor Frankl kept a vivid written account of his time at Auschwitz, asserting that this narration gave him the purpose he needed to survive.
Of course, most of us aren’t prisoners or WWII-era European Jews. We are Northwestern students. Most of us lead privileged lives with futures we can shape for ourselves. But this great power comes with a lot of responsibilities – a whole set of decisions and difficulties that a good understanding of your life story can help.
All good stories focus on important details and skip the rest. What you say to a group of people about yourself – “And that’s when I started playing the piano,” “I’ve loved math since Kindergarten,” “My sister is my best friend,” – can help you discover what you consider essential and, equally helpful, realize what isn’t. If your life story excludes something you thought was HUGE, like a professional opportunity or maybe even a boyfriend (yeah, this actually happened to me), maybe it isn’t such a big part of you anymore, or it's at least not what’s driving you forward.
At the end of the day, journaling is great. But there’s something special about sharing your life story with a group of friends. The process demands you listen more than you speak, which is great practice for bad listeners like a lot self-absorbed college students (i.e. me). Plus, every life story has its fair share of pain, which is a great reminder for someone who constantly forgets she isn’t this unique sufferer in a sea of carefree folks.
Friends, the first week of Spring Quarter is truly a blessing. The weather is nice and the workload is light. There’s just so much room for activities! So take advantage of the time by chilling on the Lakefill with some buddies and swapping life stories. Escape Northwestern’s study-club-rage Bermuda triangle, and who knows; you might chart some undiscovered personal territory.