Defining a personal narrative is not as easy as it first seems. That’s probably because we are not as accustomed to describing our narratives as we are living them. Opportunities are rare; the only ones that come to mind are a college essay, lecturing your children, the capstones of a resume or perhaps an online dating profile. The other challenge is distilling so much about a life perspective into one statement, which reminds me of the story about the Egyptian Pharaoh who directed an advisor to sum up all economic policy and wisdom into a single sentence. The advisor’s response was “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which itself could be someone’s personal narrative.
My life’s narrative would have to be the virtue in efficiency, or something similar. This approach sounds a bit mechanical and impractical, because life — as we all know — is complex and messy. Then again, cutting a direct path is often the best way to traverse a thicket. I tend to approach most situations and challenges by first asking rhetorically, “What is the best, most effective way of proceeding?” This construct was the “dwelling place” for pursuing and protecting my sense of the good (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38).
At its foundation, this is an editor’s mindset, and there is no coincidence that I have been a writer and editor since high school. In journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill, we were taught to be frugal with language. To shoe-horn an article into the news hole, pare unnecessary words like you would cut gristle from a steak. No more than 35 words in the lead of a news story. Why use two words when one will do? It was not unusual to get an assignment back with remarks to the effective of: “Nice work. Now cut the word count in half.” In addition to much tighter copy, that mandate delivers surprising clarity of thought and intent. Your readers always appreciate the effort. I suppose that is why Twitter is my social media channel of choice.
There are analogies in life. I tend to follow a short list of maxims, some of which have been borrowed from the editing process. Examples include being direct whenever possible, because people appreciate candor. Or avoiding clichés, because they are a clear sign that you really don’t have anything to say, don’t know what to say or how to say it. And honoring deadlines, because that reflects being reliable and trustworthy.
On a more spiritual level, “The Golden Rule” (see previous blog post) is a simple yet universal precept for navigating many situations, whether broaching an emotional subject with a friend or co-worker or allowing someone to merge into rush hour traffic. Other constructs imply similar brevity in thought, action and/or outcomes. Tell the truth from the start, because it’s a lot easier to remember the details than if you lie or exaggerate (a frequent lesson for my children when they were young). Listen before opening your mouth, because someone else may say what you are thinking, or better yet, have a better idea. Set an agenda and stick to it.
These and other guidelines are basically editing techniques for living. They help form a narrative that enables me to focus my time and energy on what is important. Like a well-written lead in a news story, perhaps my life will turn out to be just as compelling.
Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: Sage Publications, Inc.