Amplifying the Power of Your Personal Stories: Developing Your Sociological Imagination

Earlier this month, as the Covid-19 epidemic was in its very early stages in New York, I got to meet with members of the Long Island Writes Project as their invited guest. It was an honor and a pleasure to spend a Saturday morning with such a generous and thoughtful group of people.

I was there to speak about how a sociological imagination can boost the power of personal storytelling. I meant to share this then, but within days everything changed. Nassau Community College sent us home to organize the rest of the semester remotely. Communities started seeing illness rates skyrocket. Travel restrictions were put in place. Millions of people are now under stay-at-home orders.

As all of our stories have gotten so much more surreal, it’s more important than ever to share storie that help us develop empathy and connection. Below are the remarks I made before our Long Island Writers Project group dove into reading and writing together. I’ll share my own free-writing response in a separate post.

What is the sociological imagination?

The sociological imagination is an idea dreamed up by C. Wright Mills and it refers to the capacity to understand our own personal experiences in the context of our historical, cultural, and institutional contexts. He described it as the ability to see the connections between biography and history, and to understand how our personal troubles can be understood as components of public issues. I always tell my students that if the only thing they learn in my course is how to develop and use their sociological imaginations, I’d count that as a success. 

So what does this mean for me, my story, and storytelling in general?

For storytelling, what it means is that every story is a chance to connect the personal and the public. While our writing often serves personal needs it can also speak to a public agenda. Every story offers an opportunity to move people, to help them empathize with others, and to solve problems.

What did this mean for me, personally, and how did I come to write Bound the way I did?

Bound is the story of my mother’s last 8 months but with lots of flashing back to how we got there. It reveals the sexual awakening she had in her late 50s and enjoyed right up until her death at 67. It reveals the complexity of our relationship and the reasons for that stretching back to before my birth. And it aims some pretty sharp criticism at our health care system while often praising the individuals who work within it.

Personal need: Writing as healing. When my mother sick and I was helping to care for her, I knew I was going to need to write as a way of recovering from the experience. Writing also helped me move through my grief and process the emotional experience of loss. It helped me keep her alive.

Social issues: Our health care system needs to change and many levels. From the way consent is negotiated to the way that bureaucracies constrain our health care options, the experiences I had with my mother in her last year helped me understand in a deeply personal way some of the institutional problems with the way we deliver health care in the United States. I wanted to write a story that could be used to help others see those problems as real and concrete, and not as theoretical or abstract. I wanted to tell a story that would make people care about those problems and want to solve them. There is tremendous power in personal storytelling when it come to motivating social change. We need policy change to be informed by smart data analysis, but data don’t move people. Stories do.

The sociological imagination boosts the power of our personal stories. So, if you want to tell a story that is both deeply personal and also socially powerful, then there is no better tool than the sociological imagination. 

Seeing connections between biography and history. In my case, understanding my mother meant understanding what it meant to grow up as a girl in the late 40s and 50s – that era of post-war conforming, and then to go to college in the middle 60s, carrying the sexual repression of the 50s into her marriage right before the summer of love, and then to become a full-time housewife and mother in the 70s despite her potential as a journalist, just at a time when many other college-educated women were going to work full time. No wonder she drank! We could just see her as an alcoholic mom who couldn’t handle adulthood, but if we see the cultural influences, the story has more power.

Understanding social forces on our lives and how our actions shape the people and communities around us.  As educators we want to tell stories that help build empathy and also spotlight the social problems we need to fix. It’s easy to see our own frustration with health care as a personal issue, but one of the things my book does is demonstrate that many of our frustrations come from systematic problems. I tell stories about poor consent practices that could be understood to be the result of a particularly uncaring nurse, but actually reflect hospital policies and the pressures nurses are under to care for too many patients in too little time. I tell stories about how my mother was denied the care she needed that could be attributed to a cold-hearted bottom-line focused insurance claims manager but are better understood as the outcome of a system of intertwined nonprofit and for-profit companies all with polices that might make individual sense for the company but that collectively don’t work for the good of the patient.  

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