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Stories Connect Us To A Narrative Larger Than Self: What Author Shoshana Rubin Discovers Through Co-Writing A Book With Her Late Grandfather

  "Began making my self-portrait but I wasn't very much satisfied with the proportions," was the diary entry. Its one of those personal, private thoughts we never imagine anyone will see or know, a frank and honest self-assessment. Something most of us who journal and are willing to see the truth about ourselves come to at some point: that we are not much satisfied with the proportions. Also that there are powers shaping our emotions and our choices that must be recognized and reckoned with.
"The book basically focuses on love in the 1940s vs modern day dating, 
losing a loved one to dementia only to get to know him again
 through a diary he once wrote and learning to live life on one's own terms." 
Shoshana Rubin
   "12 days more remain," the diarist writes about his upcoming induction into World War II. "What a difference four years wrought. I can hardly recognize the world. Already my future has begun to shape for me. What will the next four years bring? I have everything to live for - a beautifully appreciate mate, a wonderful career either as a teacher or commercial artist or both. What more can a man ask for? But have I the right to ask? There are powers mightier than I at work over the destiny of my future and my hands are tied. Twelve days more."
   Writing is a way of knowing. Private thoughts become more vivid. One's view of the world and its impact on hopes and dreams are laid out. Fears and fantasies come into focus. Truths about what lies beneath the surface of conscious thoughts and emotions make it past the defensive sentinels at the doorways of awareness. For these reasons, the psychological, emotional and physical benefits of journaling and expressive writing are many and increasingly supported by scientific evidence. 
  Writer, painter and Emmy-award winning television producer Shoshana Rubin has found yet another way that a journal can expand self-knowledge and shape the narrative of her life, except in her case the journal was not her own, but that of her beloved grandfather, author of the diary entries quoted above. Reading his personal diary - which she found almost exactly a year after he died - was a kind of literary Back To The Future, a window into the man she had only known as a wise, older man and guiding presence. Her recently published book The Diary Of A Mensch weaves together his diary entries with Rubin's memories of him and stories from her own life. "Through reading his diary, I got to know him when he was still trying to figure out his life at age 22, before he was a grandpa, before he was a dad, before he was even a husband," she explains. "I realized that he was always very true to himself, even at that age - he was very self-aware and focused.  It helped me to make sense of things he had said to me in the past, because I got a better sense of what had shaped him. It also helped me to make sense of how it was I always felt he understood me, despite being so much older than me and from a different time." 
   Rubin's ingenious approach to integrating her life story with the actual thoughts and reflections of an important, older family member has produced a rich read that I highly recommend for entertainment value alone, but has the added value of demonstrating the impact of knowing the inner life of people from generations past. Through her engaging and detailed memories with and without her grandfather we come to know not just the writer - well, writers - of a memoir, but also a family's inner life. For example, in a chapter titled "The Unveiling" about going with the family to her grandfather's tombstone, she brings us into one of those moments we all face when the past merges with the present:

"And the Rabbi said things about how Phil was amazing and a great artist and he had so many ideas and his artwork was so varied with Hebrew and with naked woman and with modern abstract designs and it showed us his hunger for life and how he had clearly left an impact on so many of us. And how much he was loved and how much he loved to welcome people into his home and entertain them along with Shirley and how he always shared his projects with willing listeners and how he had so much passion for life it was contagious. 
   My grandma said she still felt like he was there. And that was true too. And I thought about saying how I felt he had made it so that I found his diary but I decided not to say anything because I wasn't ready.
   We put rocks on his tombstone.
   And I thought about how strange it was to see my grandma standing without him." 
     Discovering a family member's journal might be something rare and special, so if you are one of the people who has, dig into it. If not, dig into the profoundly valuable act of listening to others' stories and writing down your own.  Research out of Emory University found that psychological resilience grows through knowing the family narratives, even if they involve painful realities that are tough to talk about. Interviewed by the New York Times, the researchers report using the "Do You Know?" scale to explore children's knowledge of the story behind things like "do you know how  did your grandparents/parents met?" "do you know if was there a serious illness or trauma in the family before you were born?" The children were quizzed about their knowledge of social or cultural influences on the family, like wars, the depression, or events like the attacks on 9/11. "The more children knew about their family's history," the study found, "the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their family functioned." These effects have something to do with knowing we are "part of a unifying narrative," according to the researchers, the most powerful of which is a narrative that fully embraces the difficulties and down cycles the family has faced without sugarcoating or denying them, but includes the ways problems are solved or sacrifices made that "connects each family member to something bigger than themselves." 
by Jude TrederWolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
    Through writing The Diary Of A Mensch, Rubin learned things about that larger narrative in her own family, including how her personal story fits into it. "My grandfather was very smart and turned out to be very successful in life," she says. "So it was interesting to read his thoughts at 22 - to see how restless he was to get on with his life and to make something of himself - and to compare that to my own path towards trying to figure out what to do with my life.  He was interested in writing and art... much like me.  He used his time in the army to set up a studio and he became an artist for his battalion.  After the war he ended up running his own ad agency but he was still an artist on the side.  If it wasn't for him, I might not paint - he encouraged me to start when I was 12."
     There is scientific evidence to support the power in journaling for better mental healthWe learn about our inner life. We create a record of our process through struggles. But most importantly, through writing we can change the narrative itself. Shift perspectives. Explore a different take on the same set of facts. "New research is studying whether the power of writing - and rewriting - your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness," writes Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times. "The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves...Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health." 
   Reading her grandfather's diary offered Rubin new perspective on old memories, connecting her story to his in unexpected and important ways. "
I think in many ways we were actually very similar," she reflects. "I think he knew that - he could see it.  But I didn't really know that about him, because I hadn't known him when he was young and single and trying to figure out his life.  I think that's also what is nice about writing.  Sometimes when you write it helps to get to the truth. "  

Diary Of A Mensch is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. 

Jude Treder-Wolff is a writer/performer and trainer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show featuring true stories with a twist. The next performance is Sat. March 21, 2015 at 7 pm, at Performing Arts Studio of NY, 224 E. Main St. Port Jefferson, NY. Follow her on Twitter


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