Have you ever wondered what you would write if you had to write a personal biography of your life?
It’s a great exercise as a way to figure out what you really think of yourself. It might not seem the deepest, most novel, or soul-searching exercise, but when I give it to my clients, the outcome never fails to fascinate me and incriminate them, each and every time. Are you ready to hear it?
As an aside (and, no doubt, a fact that will perfectly explain my penchant for the bio), I was a Russian Literature major many (3) decades ago in college. It’s no surprise that I’m the type who is tickled by tales of the twisted and epically tragic figure of the hero. My heroes were always the screwed.
And still are!
What interests me the most are the details we handpick to sum up our lives today. Out of the gazillion stories from which we could choose, there are a particular handful that we favor when telling the story of how it all went down. Sure, some reasons are obvious: the time you broke your leg, your parents got divorced, you got fired from your job, which siblings were the worst, etc. We can’t help but make sure that the reader knows that: 1) We suffered here, here, and here; and 2) We suffered at the hands of him, him and her.
We love to accentuate the negative (e.g., where we got dumped, cheated on, hit puberty early, our parents failed us, etc.)! Even when something great happens in our life that actually makes it into our bio, oftentimes we make it sound accidental and credit chance or coincidence for our success (i.e., I ended up in Harvard, I got this job, met this mate). We rarely brag about what it took to believe, to fight for something, and to actually cause something great to happen. Why is that?
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LOST IN TRANSLATION
Everything that happened happened. So why do our stories seem so out of our hands? Usually we assume it’s the translator’s fault.
But who is currently in charge of writing YOUR bio, anyway? (Spoiler alert: you). And how old are they? While we’re at it, who exactly is scoring it? Because truth be told, so many of the bios I read from my clients sound like they would go perfectly with a sad, weepy violin. Sure, they might think they are just culling the most important stories that honestly paint the full picture of who they are today, but they tell it (and live it!) like they have zero choice about the story’s current translation.
I remember a particular Czech Literature class on Milan Kundera. The professor (the amazing, late Michael Henry Heim) was telling us about Kundera’s response to seeing his novel, Unbearable Lightness of Being, on the big screen for the first time. Kundera responded that it was akin to seeing his daughter sullied. Only, as Professor Heim pointed out, in the Czech language, the word Kundera used for “sullied,” could be translated to mean either “soiled” OR “raped.”
A WORLD of difference, no?
At that moment, I remember being awed by the deceptively simple but potent power of words. It occurred to me even then, how important they are not just to the telling of the story, but the meaning of it too.
TELL IT LIKE IT IS
The reason we prefer sad stories to the great and powerful ones is way sneakier than than it is tragically sad. If we really had to write a bio that claimed we were amazing, we’d have to be responsible for being amazing again, again, and again.
We’d have to stop wishing the anecdotes were different, our parents were better, our breasts were bigger (or smaller!), the relationship worked out, etc. Yet, we carry those stories around like a security blanket, pretending we can’t put them down because we don’t want to put them down.
If we believe that we have nothing to do with what works or doesn’t work in our lives, we don’t have to do anything about it.
I should know! For many years, my favorite translator of my story was (shall we say for the sake of argument, cause it’s true), “Middle Marnie,” the 3rd child of four. Middle Marnie had craftily curated all of her childhood memories to garner proof that she was misunderstood, unappreciated and different (and unique!) Switching summer camps every year because I didn’t fit in, unfairly punished for innocently, oh, you know, pushing my older sister Beth down the stairs, or taunting her in front of my already edge-teetering mother.
Somehow, I managed skillfully to tell all the stories ONLY from the perspective of poor misunderstood Middle Marnie. A far cry from the current and possibly more accurate perspective of another translator, “Mofo Marnie!” If I had been telling my story from that perspective from the beginning, holy crap Batman, I’d be a CEO today. I’d be the one to not screw with, versus the screwed.
The power to write or rewrite or translate your life story, your bio, is always up to you. I had to fire my translator and thank her for trying to keep my fingerprints off of anything in my life that didn’t work out. I had to find a new translator (Mofo Marnie!) that focused on designing, telling and writing my bio in a much braver, bolder way.
And, with a good edit and a heavy dose of the truth, that story gained layers of nuance. The characters came to life in a whole new way. Now cast as the main protagonist, my actions and reactions determine what kind of story it is – a comedy, a tragedy, a powerful coming-of-age. Best of all, as the author, I’m writing the plot as I go, making it whatever I wish it to be.
Think about the bio YOU would write. Who is the protagonist of your story, a hero or victim? Who did you hire to be your translator? Who’s holding the pen, you sneak?
Okay, fine, nobody holds pens these days. So who’s tapping on the keyboard?
PS: Speaking of rewriting history … my sister Lauren and one of her clients (and BFFs!) Dr. Mark Hyman are tackling a big subject this month when it comes to family history and lineage: the subject of epigenetics. Join them for a Facebook Live on Tues May 15th on Mark’s channel.