Monday, October 11, 2010

Hero or Victim?

By C.L. Phillips

Do you have a list of the most important lessons you've learned in your life? I do. I don't talk about them. Many of life's lessons come with more than a little pain. Maybe you rub that scar on your knee from when you learned the lesson about black diamond mogul ski runs. Or maybe you think wistfully about the love that slipped away before you learned how rare love can be.

But sometimes you can learn an important lesson simply by trying something new.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop led by Dr. Betty Sue Flowers. Perhaps her name is familiar. She worked with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers as they created the PBS series and subsequent book, The Power of Myth. Dr. Flowers is a poet, writer, professor, and former head of the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.

In this workshop, Dr. Flowers divided the class into pairs. She said, "I want you to tell your partner the story of your life. Tell it as though you are a conquering hero. Whatever difficulties you've encountered in life, tell the story as though you've triumphed every single one. Go. You have two minutes."

My partner and I quickly got to work. Noise filled the room as twelve pairs of people began talking, moving their hands, telling the story of their lives. "SWITCH", said Dr. Flowers. My partner stopped talking and I began. I made up the most outrageous story of my life I could imagine. The facts were all basically true, but I glossed over the tough spots, focusing more on the outcome, my success.

"STOP", said Dr. Flowers. "Now, I want you to tell the same story, but this time, you are a victim."

My partner and I stared at each other. The room became so quiet you would swear you were at a funeral. My partner tried to start, but tears filled his eyes. I grabbed his hand. "It's ok, it's only a story", I said. Somehow he found the words. Dr. Flowers said, "SWITCH". Now it was my turn. A five hundred pound weight slammed into my body as I took a breath and started. I managed to eek out a couple of sentences. Sniffles and blowing noses pierced the silence. Nobody made eye contact.

A morose vibration filled the same room that only moments before danced with laughter. Dr. Flowers eyes twinkled as she said, "STOP. Now which felt better?"

We could barely mutter the answer, our spirits were so low. "Hero."

She said, "The facts were the same in both stories. You decide whether you live as the hero or the victim."

Uh-oh. Life lesson.

So, the next time you get together for a critique group or a SinC meeting, try this game. You need at least twenty people to clearly notice the room dynamic. And if you really want to see some raw emotions, instead of telling the story of your life, tell the story of your writing career. Be sure to bring Kleenex.

Everybody wants to be the hero, and when you write your own story remember this - if you are not the triumphant hero, it just means the story isn't over yet.

Write on!
C.L. Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787


Joyce said...

Interesting idea. Being a chicken at heart, though, I'd be afraid to try it!

JB Lynn said...

Wow, what a powerful lesson. Thanks for sharing!

Hannah Dennison said...

I love this! What a fantastic exercise. A GREAT way to prompt poor-me friends into taking a fresh look at their life.
Thanks - it's got me thinking!