Higher Living Reflections

My Life Story Arc

Imagine stepping out of yourself and becoming the all-seeing, omniscient observer of the person you are and have been. You have full knowledge, of course, and complete, as opposed to flawed, memory of every detail.

You’ve been assigned a task: To write a novel of that person, replete with every development, event, change, challenge, conflict, finest moments and the worst. In other words, write your autobiography not from some high-minded, noble perspective, but as a true-to-truth, honest novel. So, a work of “fiction.”

In his essay “Metaphor as Myth and as Religion,” Joseph Campbell references Alfred Schopenhauer’s “Transcendent Speculation upon an Apparent Intention on the Fate of the Individual” in which Schopenhauer muses on how one, who has had the benefit of long life full of curves and unexpected twists, looks back on it as if somehow it was an already planned excursion on this plane.

“In the later years of a lifetime,” Campbell writes, “looking back over the course of one’s days and noticing how encounters and events that appeared at the time to be accidental became the crucial structuring features of an unintended life story through which the potentialities of one’s character were fostered to fulfillment, one may find it difficult to resist the notion of the course of one’s biography as comparable to that of a cleverly constructed novel, wondering who the author of the surprising plot could have been.”

There are those who might look at where they are in later life and feel comforted by the fact that their life’s game plan worked, perhaps with a few alterations on the fly, but, nonetheless, has unfolded as they planned. Married at certain age, a career in_?_, a portfolio worth X amount of dollars for retirement, successful children, and a comfortable old-age-hood filled with traveling, golfing, and leading the leisurely life.

Like watching and listening to men in black discussing the flaws in their golf swings over chilled bourbon. I suspect no one reading this fits that mold, and mold is what it is, a cookie-cutter existence populated with fine silver dinnerware and perfectly manicured lawns and fingernails. I’m not sure about you, but my eyes glaze over and slowly I drift as the man drones on about how he did it His Way.

One of my life’s blessings is that I allow no one in it who fills that resume.

Indeed! Adventurous and risk-taking, or at least chance-taking, and curiosity as opposed to predictability, safety, and comfort. Those are what make stories gripping. Chance meetings and crazy coincidences that resulted in a definitive alteration of what seemed like one’s life destiny were perhaps neither chance or coincidental but synchronicity.

One literary theory, featured in an Atlantic magazine article, holds that stories can be reduced to six essential story arcs:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

A group of researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide focused on the emotional trajectory of a story and analyzed which emotional structure writers used most, and how that contrasted with the ones readers liked best. They based their actions on a theory suggested by Kurt Vonnegut.

I’ll let you read the article for yourself, but I wonder how you would categorize your life’s story. Of course, you’ll need to get busy writing it. Do so but write it not as a droning “I did…” but as a thriller, mystery, sci-fi, or in another genre you prefer. What story would you tell? Bet it could a New York Times best seller.

To read The Atlantic article:  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by and A.I.”








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  • Melanie Mulhall
    June 21, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Brilliantly put, Jerry. Thanks for the link to the article, too. It’s a fascinating take on what works and what readers want. As always, you provide food for thought.

  • Jean Palmer-Moloney
    June 21, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    Hmmmmm. Which genre? I enjoy murder mysteries. I love rubik’s cubes and jigsaw puzzles and ill-structured problems. I love looking for motive, means, and opportunity…and in so many ways the risks, the chances, the wild ride of my life are all tied to these. ) Motive–what gets me out of my comfort zone? What pushes or pulls me to act? Means–How do I find what I need? How do I repurpose and rethink what I already have? Opportunity–What do I think I need to have in place before acting? Is there ever the PERFECT time? (Though I find the hanging-on-the-edge-of-the-chair intrigue of murder mysteries make for engaged reading, my life hasn’t had the sad and disturbing parts of murder… unless the IED that killed one of my USMC friends when we were in Afghanistan counts for murder.

  • Bonnie McCune
    June 22, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    I wonder what our personal ARCs would be. Interesting idea. Mine probably a flat line.