A Life in Story
Bluffton University President Jane Wood shares ‘A Life in Story’
“How do the stories you choose to tell shape how others see you or even how you see yourself?” Dr. Jane Wood, president of Bluffton University posed this question during her Jan. 31 Colloquium presentation “A Life in Story: The Construction of Personal Narrative.”
During the presentation, Wood reflected on the role of narrative and how and what we choose to tell others, and ourselves, shapes our lives. Drawing from Michael Bamberg’s article, “Who Am I? Narration and its contribution to self and identity,” and Leigh Gilmore’s “Autobiographics,” Wood shared key experiences from her own life through the lens of the books that have mattered to her.
Though she is drawn to the written word, Wood started the presentation with a painting, Rene Magritte’s “The Human Condition,” which can be viewed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She described the landscape as having “frames within frames.”
“Life as we look at it can be seen through different frames or lenses,” explained Wood. “When we shift the frame or the lens, something else comes into focus. Our different lenses make a difference.”
From an early age, Wood was drawn to books. “From the time I can remember, I would carry books around and say ‘read to me.’ This became part of the family story,” explained Wood.
However, she explained the presentation could also be given through other lenses such as a chronological sharing of the dogs that have been a part of her life and her family’s lives.
“We are multi-dimensional people and the lens you share at any given time shifts the way you are perceived,” Wood said. She challenged the audience to think of the different lenses with which they could share their own stories: faith journey, friends, sports or music to name a few.
“A shift of the lens can provide new perspectives on people you already know well,” said Wood.
Wood shared the books that were formative to her life: the King James Bible, which remains her favorite version; “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” that caused her to question authority at 11; Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as a young mother; and Marilynne Robinson’s poetic novel, “Gilead,” which speaks to the healing power of forgiveness.
Drawing on the questions posed in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” including ‘why has there never been a female Shakespeare,’ Wood asked those in attendance to reflect on their own set of identity politics.
“What defines you?” asked Wood. “The impact of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geographical location and other self-identified markers matter in our stories.”
Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” about the suppressed talent of African American Women, Wood explained, made her question “Where did I come from?”
“I’m a writer, artist and creator. I hadn’t seen that in my family,” said Wood, who discovered her mother’s expressions of creativity among the practicality of life, such as the way she hung clothes to dry.
Walker’s essay also highlights the impact of perspective on personal narrative.
“Walker could have focused only on the fact that she came of age amidst poverty, but she also chose to say she up grew up amidst the beautiful flowers in her mother’s garden,” explained Wood.
Finally, she asked the audience, particularly students, to think about what they are learning in college and how that is shaping and defining their own lives—“what are the key intersections of learning and life for you?”
She left the audience, made up of students, faculty and community members, with a challenge: “Your job is to cultivate and share your story with others; your shared story cultivates a stronger community.”