How to Write a New Chapter in the New Year
Two exercises to reframe and transform your life story
Posted Dec 27, 2018
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the small incremental ways that we improve from year to year. In a society focused on external accomplishments, we aren't necessarily conditioned to celebrate our important internal victories. After all, when was the last time you boasted to your Facebook friends about becoming more vulnerable in relationships or setting better boundaries with an overbearing parent?
Yet these often overlooked achievements - facing a fear, changing an attitude, breaking a habit - are the source of lasting and meaningful success in all areas of our lives.
That's why the new year can be an opportune time to take stock of your personal growth and envision who you'd like to be in the future. You can begin by seeing yourself as the hero or heroine of your own personal growth adventure in which your own character development matters.
After all, every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story that is open to interpretation, especially your own. From the day we’re born, we become the star and spin doctor of our own work in progress, with the power to tell our stories as triumphs, tragedies, or something in between.
In life as in literature, the protagonist of every story is always challenged by people or circumstances to stretch outside his or her comfort zone. As readers, we both expect and root for the main character's positive evolution as he or she overcomes obstacles.
Similarly, you are an ever-evolving protagonist on a journey of self-discovery with choices to make about how to respond to the stuff that happens in your life. As the hero of your story, not only do you possess the power to adapt to plot twists, but you can view these unexpected difficulties as opportunities for personal transformation.
It’s Just a Chapter, Not the Entire Plotline
Looking at life as a story helps keep our progress in perspective. When people become discouraged, it is usually because they mistake one or more difficult chapters in their lives for the entire plotline, and fail to embrace lessons that can help them move their story forward.
Take the 2006 Blockbuster, "The Pursuit of Happyness." The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like "Locked Out," "Being Stupid," and "Riding the Bus," are about the "Pursuit" part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled "Happiness."
If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his temporary difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called "Giving Up," and its message - that the seeds of happiness are often sown with toil - would have been lost.
Step Out of Your Story
Of course, its hard to be objective about our own lives. That's why, in my book Step Out of Your Story and writing workshops, I invite readers and participants to write about their lives in the third-person voice. The third-person voice uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they,” and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from a neutral or all-knowing perspective.
This is not just a clever gimmick. Psychological studies* suggest that reflecting on your life, both in the past and present, as a third-person observer can help you see yourself and the things you’ve overcome through more compassionate eyes.
Such emotional distance can help create an opening to be more curious about the direction of your own unfolding story. For example, instead of fearing the unknown, you might wonder what this protagonist will do next — will she accept the marriage proposal or join the Peace Corps and go to Africa? Consider what would happen if you rooted for yourself the same way you rooted for the hero of your favorite book or film.
As the new year approaches, here are two exercises that can help you get a novel perspective on the story of your life.
EXERCISE I: Reflecting on the Previous Chapter
Imagine yourself as the protagonist of your own personal narrative. Write a chapter summary, at least a paragraph long, in the third-person voice. It should be at least 8-10 sentences long. Consider the guiding questions below to flesh out the summary.
If my life were a novel, the previous chapter (2018) would be called:
and would be about:_______________________.
- Describe the protagonist as he or she began this chapter (January 2018).
- Who or what were the major plot tensions and challenges in this chapter?
- How did the protagonist interpret and respond respond to these challenges?
- How did he/she grow from this experience? What did he/she learn?
- What was the climax of this chapter? If more than one, describe the top two climatic events. What was meaningful about them?
- What were some of the major themes of this chapter? Examples: rebirth, letting go, accepting reality, self expression, self discovery, self reliance, laying the foundation, survival, overcoming, faith and doubt, growing up.
- If Chapter 2018 was set to a theme song, what would it be?
EXERCISE 2: Write a New Chapter
Fill in the blanks in the third person voice.
“If my life were a novel, Chapter 2019 would be called:
and would be about:____________________________________.
(Summarize in at least 10 sentences. Use the guiding questions if you get stuck).
As the new year begins, the protagonist is….
Chapter 2019 is about….
The new year finds the hero/heroin of our story…
- Who is the protagonist?
- What doe she/he/they want?
- What’s getting in the way?
- What are the stakes?
And here is the beauty of this process: once we have envisioned the chapter, locating it within a larger story arc, we can begin to weave the fragments of our lives into a meaningful narrative. Thus, difficult chapters like unemployment and divorce become opportunities for personal transformation. This new awareness can help us write new scripts for old stories while embracing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.
O. Ayduk, & E. Kross, “From a distance: Implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection,” Personality Processes and Individual Differences 98 (2010): 809-829.