Full text of filmmaker J. Christian Jensen’s talk titled ‘The Power of Personal Narrative’ at TEDxBYU conference.
J. Christian Jensen – Filmmaker & Educator
While I was a film student at BYU, we received a visit from a filmmaker named Michael Rabiger. And he taught me one of the most influential concepts of my life and my career he said:
‘Your life has marked you in unique ways, and these marks whether you know it or not will determine how you live your life, what quests you will pursue, and what you are equipped to say with passion and authority.’
Now Rabiger’s intent was for us to look within ourselves to find the themes that would inform us and make us better filmmakers. And these marks that he talks about are actually unresolved personal tensions, and they’re the backbone of your personal narrative.
My reason for being here tonight is to help you understand that when you discover your personal narrative, it will not only guide you to find your life’s mission, but it will also serve as a lifelong source of strength and motivation to help you accomplish that mission.
Now as a documentary filmmaker, I’m in the business of unearthing and constructing narratives from the lives of real people. And so for the next 12 minutes, I’d like to share with you three building blocks that will help you find and construct your own personal narrative.
And the first of these building blocks is: FIND YOUR MARKS and OWN THEM.
Now the good news is you don’t need a psychiatrist to do this, but you’re going to have to dig deep. So if you have journals, read them, or do a self inventory. Look back over your life and think about all the times — write it down, think about all the times where you were moved to great emotion… emotions like fear or joy, anger, anticipation. These are going to be clues, and they’re going to help you find the marks in your life.
Was there ever a time as a child where you experienced trauma? Perhaps at some point you felt like you were caught between irreconcilable ideologies or maybe you’ve done something that was so terrible that it still haunts you. These are going to be clues and they’re going to help you find the underlying tensions of your life. Find your marks, and own them.
Now tensions are really really important and they’re very powerful, because we as human beings were hardwired to want to resolve tension. In fact, it’s tension that propels us forward in a movie; it’s this desire, this hope that the tension will be resolved and the desire to know how that tension will be resolved that causes us to keep watching.
So I’d like to share with you the first of three clips from my recent film White Earth. It takes place in the oil boom region of North Dakota.
[Video clip: ‘My dad works in oil company; my mom cooks for other people, cleans the bathrooms; she cleans other peoples RVs, but in California she just took care of us. My family, my husband, and my three kids — they are everything for me. [Indiscernible]’.
Just like a tension in a movie propels us forward with the desire to see what will happen next, a desire to resolve the tensions in our own lives will propel us to do really remarkable things.
The next building block is that we need to tell PERSONAL and FAMILY STORIES.
Now in the mid 90s, there was a researcher named Marshall Duke, and he was doing research into why it was that certain families stayed together in an environment where many other families that were coming more and more fractured.
And he came upon this really interesting discovery: he found that children who knew more stories about their family history, stories about their childhood, and about challenges that their families had faced were more likely to have a stronger sense of control over their lives; they had higher self-esteem. They felt that their families worked more successfully.
It turned out to be the best single predictor of emotional health and happiness and it was also the biggest factor in making them resilient to stress.
The stories that we tell about ourselves and our families will keep us centered and they’re going to help us mitigate the stresses of our lives and careers.
Now when I was four years old, I spent a summer with my grandparents, and my grandpa who was a teacher — his true passion was this garden that he had in his backyard. And so I would follow him around for hours just peppering him with one question after another: Grandpa, why does the birdie stick its head in the ground? Why does it want the worm? Why do birds like worms? Why don’t people eat worms? And on and on and on and on.
One day my grandpa was pulling up weeds, pulling them out of the ground and throwing them in this wheelbarrow. And I watched him for a really long time and then I turned him and I said, ‘Grandpa, how can a weed save itself?’
Now I’m pretty sure that my grandpa didn’t wake up that morning preparing himself to have an existential conversation with a four-year-old. And to be honest I have no idea what he said in response, but I do know that he wrote that experience down.
And that story was told to me over and over again as a child, and it was really really important, because every time that I heard that story I was reminded that I was a questioner, and that my life’s mission would be to ask questions. Sometimes in unusual places and even of unlikely people.
[Video clip 2]
The third building block: FIND YOUR MENTORS.
Now you are the hero of your personal narrative, and like any good hero you’ve been helped along your way, along this hero’s journey by mentors.
Now for some reason in the popular culture, mentors are always portrayed as like these weird bearded old white guys, right? So basically like older versions of myself. And I know some of you are thinking well wait a second what about Yoda, right?
Yoda is green; you are correct. So I suppose we could say that Yoda is a mentor of color. But in your personal narrative, your mentors can be any person, of any color, or object that is a source of reflection or perhaps has been a catalyst for insight, perhaps teachers, religious leaders, a poem.
When I was in elementary school there was a boy, we’ll call him Tim, and he faced really serious social challenges. He acted out in school, he said and did odd things, he was a misfit and people made fun of him.
One day my mother pulled me aside and she said, ‘Christian, the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life is to decide what you are going to do, because you can do anything.’
The hardest thing that Tim may have to do in his life is to wake up every single day, to go to a place where he feels inadequate, struggling to do things that you take for granted, while other people pile stones in his already heavy pack.
In her very special way, this mentor was teaching me about inequality. She was teaching me about a world where the deck is stacked so strongly in favor of a few that they hardly perceive it, while others have inherited a world where the deck is stacked strongly against them.
And despite this, so many of them persist and accomplish remarkable things.
[Video clip 3]