On this episode of Unlocking Us
This week I’m talking to Dr. Angus Fletcher, professor and author of Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, about the science behind the great writings of authors across time–from Greek tragedies, to Maya Angelou, to Tina Fey. We look at how the technology of literature can nurture democracy, power personal growth, and improve our mental health and well-being. Weaving together library and laboratory research, we discuss how literature actually changes who we are, helps us understand who we are, and teaches us how to think.
Listen to the episode
Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher takes the blueprints for 25 literary inventions throughout history and explains how each can be viewed as both a narrative and scientific breakthrough. The result is a completely original deep dive through literary history—from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss—examining how each innovation provides us with distinct psychological benefits such as increasing creativity, alleviating trauma, boosting intelligence and elevating happiness.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: Wow, are we unlocking something on the episode today. You know how I do these podcasts with other emotion researchers and other people who study some of the stuff I study. Well, on this episode, I am talking to Dr. Angus Fletcher, who is basically a professor of storytelling. And he’s technically a Shakespeare expert, but he studies story. And he is the author of the wildest, most amazing, incredible new book that I just finished called Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. You know how we talk about technology and we talk about inventions, Angus makes the point that there are life-changing inventions in literature. And he has this major background in neurobiology, and he talks about how literature actually changes who we are, helps us understand who we are, and teaches us how to think. And it is just so much fun, this conversation. We talk about the literary inventions, we ask him a lot of questions about what it means to read and be changed by what we read, what we’re doing well in schools, what we’re not doing well in schools around reading, and how story works and how our mind works. I cannot wait for you to be a part of this conversation.
BB: So before we jump into the conversation with Angus, let me tell you a little bit about him. Dr. Angus Fletcher is an award-winning teacher, he’s a best-selling author, and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the science of storytelling. He is currently a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the globe’s top academic think tank for the study of stories. Y’all know that I want to go there, right? Y’all know I want to get a job there. Angus has dual degrees in Neuroscience and Literature. He received his PhD from Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and has published three books and dozens of peer-reviewed articles on the science of how the writings, the great writings of authors across time, from Greek tragedies to Maya Angelou to Tina Fey, how they can nurture democracy, empower personal growth, and improve our mental health and well-being.
BB: His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He believes that stories are universal in their impact and personal in their origins, so each of us has a unique story to give the world, and endless stories to discover in others. He does a lot of story consulting for projects for Sony, Disney, the BBC, Amazon, PBS, Universal, and we’re going to talk about his new book, Wonderworks. It’s just such an interesting book because it’s a book that’s been endorsed by psychologists and neuroscientists and literature scholars. It’s really about unlocking secrets to the hidden powers of our favorite poems, memoirs, novels, TV shows so that we can boost courage and love and empathy and creativity and hope, and alleviate some of the grief, loneliness, and anxiety that we’re all feeling. I can’t wait for y’all to jump in this with me.
BB: Let me just start by saying that I’m obsessed with this book. So, Laura Mayes is our Creative Director for Podcasting, and she does all the production and editing. And we read books together, and then we talk about them as prep for the podcast. And we just got off a Zoom call earlier today where we just looked each other before we said anything, we’re like, “Oh, my God!” And she’s like, “Oh, my God! This book is like a cookie. I’m going to read it very slow because I want a little bit of it every day for the rest of my life.” [chuckle]
Angus Fletcher: Oh, my God! Well, first of all, I wish I had that kind of cookie. I wish I had that kind of cookie that would last me through the rest of my life. Thank you, I just can’t even tell you, you are my ideal reader. I can’t tell you how inspirational and important your work has been to me. And the main point of the book is to just contribute a little to the enterprise that you have launched, which is the therapeutic effects of story, how story can heal us, and then how story can uplift us and grow us and give us joy and optimism, and all these amazing, miraculous, wonderful things. So I’m thrilled, I can’t even tell you how excited and honored I am to be here.
BB: This book is like being in an intellectual and emotional fun house or something. I want to get into the book, but I want to start with this question, which is so appropriate for both of us. Tell us your story. Walk us all the way back to born where, elementary school. Walk us through your life a little bit.
AF: Oh, my goodness, okay, well, first, to start out with, as you might have guessed from my name, Angus, I’m actually an immigrant. I was born overseas in a faraway mysterious island called England, and voyaged here sort of under cover of nights. And my poor mom was told by my dad that at any moment, we might return to England where her family was. And so for the first five or six years of my life, I was almost kept in a little bubble where my mom was like, “We’re going to go back any day, so just don’t get too American because America is a very strange land and people here do odd things.” And so yeah, I had this very curated childhood where I was only allowed to play with older girls, and I was actually not allowed to watch TV, or do any of these kinds of things. And the lovely thing about that upbringing was it made me very, very quirky. And I sort of think that quirkiness has propelled me through my life, and has given me the confidence to do things a little bit differently, and has also given me the big joy in my life, which is to meet other quirky people who think differently and do differently, and just to revel in that difference.
AF: So I grew up odd, my family being immigrants, education, very important, and particularly science, medicine, those were the kind of futures that beckoned me. And I liked science and I liked medicine, and those were things I were good at, and those are things that obviously allowed me to write this book, and that was my originary, training. But I was just always fascinated as a child by stories, and the magic of stories, and the wonder of stories, and the ability of stories. Even as a child, when you first open a book and you just suddenly don’t feel alone anymore. When you open a book and you just suddenly feel the power of your own imagination, your own creativity because a book is a shared creation and it calls upon you to use your own imagination. And I just kind of felt this just very basic joy in story.
AF: But my thought, “Well, I’m going to be practical. My family has sacrificed,” and so I went off and I started doing neuroscience, and I ended up working for four years in a neurophysiology lab where we worked on how brain cells talk to each other, and I can talk about that forever. It was very wonderful work. It made me the researcher that I am today, but it was also terrifying work. There were days where I would have like a pipette in one hand filled with radioactivity and then a pipette in the other hand filled with biotoxin from a scorpion. And everyone in the lab was like, “If you inject yourself with one of those, make sure it’s the radioactivity because it’s actually less dangerous.” And I’m like, “Oh, my goodness! What am I going to do?”
BB: Oh, God! [chuckle]
AF: But that’s where I learned to do research. To me, life is really just a mystery to explore just every day. In the people around us, in the world around us, there are just so many questions. And one of the questions for me, just from the beginning, was this brain we all have in our heads, which is just this wonderful, miraculous thing. And you just look around and just the extraordinary things that people have created and invented and people come up with all the time, and I just wanted to understand that, I wanted to understand it better. And I thought, “Well, you know, neuroscience will do that.” But as I was in that lab, I started to realize science nowadays thinks about everything in terms of logic and reason, and really, those aren’t what’s going on in the brain. The brain really isn’t that logical. If you’ve met a human being, you’ll know, humans aren’t really that logical or that rational. [chuckle]
BB: No, yeah.
AF: It’s emotion. Emotion is just the driver of almost everything we do. And then of course, what directs and shapes emotion is imagination. And at the bottom of imagination is story, and story is also at the bottom of emotion. And so I thought to myself I’m in this neuroscience lab where we’re studying all this really interesting stuff, but I really need to get out of here and study story. I need to understand how story works.
AF: So I left, I went to Yale, got my PhD in Shakespeare, and I was basically the weirdest student, I think, in the history of Yale’s English PhD program. [chuckle] Because I just kept asking all these questions that only a scientist would ask, really basic questions. And I think sometimes in life, you have to have the courage just to ask the basic questions, and then just keep asking them over and over and over again until you get an answer. Because so much of what happens in intellectual spaces is people don’t ask those questions, or they skip over those questions, or they have these complicated theories that they’re really invested in, and as the newcomer, you can just come in and be like, “I just don’t… But how does a story work? I know we’re talking about it, but how does it work and why?” And you ask these basic questions. So I was at Yale for five years, learned a lot, terrified some of my teachers who are very kind to me, did Shakespeare. And then I went off, took up my first job at Stanford.
AF: And then just to go quickly through the years, that was where I formed a relationship with Pixar because I was just fascinated with how they were telling these really innovative stories, and I just thought at the time, “Isn’t that kinda the secret to life? If you could figure out a way to tell new stories and connect those new stories with people, you could change the world. We’re all caught in the same old stories, but what if we could find new stories and how to communicate those?” So I started working with Pixar. I learned a secret recipe that they had for making new stories. I left because I thought I would go Hollywood and share this story, making in-system with Hollywood. I have since done a lot of consulting for Hollywood, but I’ve also learned that in Hollywood, they’re not necessarily as interested in taking risks and innovating as I thought. And so I worked at the University of Southern California, formed relationships with psychologists there, and then I ended up getting recruited to Project Narrative where I am now.
BB: Okay, so I have so many questions from baby Angus coming over during the cover of night through where you are now. What did you like reading when you were young, when you were in grade school?
AF: So I’ll be honest, first of all, my earliest memories of reading are my father reading to me. And my father is a lovely, dysfunctional man, and he was a great bedtime story reader because he didn’t want to get on with the rest of his life. He just wanted to sit on the edge of my bed for hours and hours and just read stories. [chuckle] And so I remember so much of my youth was thinking, “What a marvelous father I have,” while my mother was downstairs in the kitchen doing all the cleaning up and worrying about the next time my dad was going to lose his job and all this kind of stuff. And my dad would just sit on the edge of the bed and just read these stories. And the first stories I remember was actually Watership Down, which is this very wacky story about a bunch of rabbits.
AF: Yeah. [chuckle]
BB: I’ve read it!
AF: Yeah, I know it’s great. It’s one of my favorite stories of all time, and the power just to go and be a rabbit, and to care about rabbits, and to explore… And that was the first moment where I was like, “Oh, my goodness! This is so amazing!” And from that moment on, I just read every book I could get my hands on with some terrifying results. I read Jaws when I was about five-and-a-half.
AF: My parents were like, “What? Why are you reading this book?” Luckily for me, I didn’t understand half of it. That’s how it is when you’re a kid, you read these books, and you know? [chuckle]
AF: But literally, just everything I can get my hands on. So anyway, that was how it started, was with those classic children’s books, Winnie the Pooh, a lot of Winnie the Pooh, Tolkien, those kinds of books, and just everything I can get my hands on.
BB: God! So you visited a lot of disparate worlds. You went everywhere in your books.
AF: Yeah, yeah, and I think that is the pleasure of reading it at the time. I thought… What I saw in my father was that reading can be a kind of escape from life. It can kind of be that way, just to walk out of our own life and into another world. But also, I think, as a child, I started to intuit that actually, what you learn in those worlds, you can bring back to our world. And it just doesn’t need to be an escape. It can be this extraordinary diversification. It can be this way to live without actually having to go to those places. And I just remember the one thing I took most from that experience was just a sense of possibility. When I was a child, because my living situation was a little bit unstable, there’s a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. And when you’re anxious, it tends to cut down on your sense of possibility because you’re always thinking practically what’s the safe choice, what’s the quick choice.
BB: Yeah. Avoidance of risk.
AF: Exactly. And of course, you can see that in the fact that I ended up starting out in medicine and science because that was really drilled into me. Be safe, be safe, and that kind of fragility. But literature, you can take risks without taking a risk, and that’s part of the magic and the wonder of it, is it can encourage you to risk-take because it’s not really a risk in the same way. You can just jump into someone else’s life as they take a risk and you can practice risk-taking, and you can see the benefits of risk-taking. That just stayed with me as a child, that sense of there’s so much out there to discover, there’s so much to explore, it’s been my experience. And so many of my students get that from literature, whether it’s from books or films or TV, just that sense of possibility that there can be more, that we can be more, that we can do more. And that’s the most basic thing, and that empowered me, and that sustained me, and it still sustains me. Whenever I think to myself, “Oh, we can’t do something,” collectively, I just look at the books on my shelf and I’m like, “We can do anything. We can invent new worlds, we can invent anything.”
BB: So many things in my life made sense to me for the first time as I was reading Wonderworks, which in a minute, I want you to describe the book. I want you to tell us what the book is in a second because I think it defies description in a lot of ways, to be really honest with you. I just think it’s so beautiful. But one of the things it helped me understand about myself and the way I think, which is really quirky, too, and weird, and people are always like, “Man, when you talk about research with other researchers, it’s like you’re on drugs.” And I do just think that way, and I’ve always been a pattern finder since I was little; it was a survival mechanism for me. I need to understand how this emotion connects with this behavior and this thinking, sometimes, just stay safe. I just need to understand this triad here. But one of the things I really started to understand in a deeper way about myself is why just the genius of creativity can make me feel more hopeful about the human experience. I can be down, and I can watch Hamilton, or I can read an amazing book, or I can listen to an incredibly beautiful song, and it’s nothing specific to those things. It’s just I think to myself in some weird way. “We, as people, are capable of this, of making this.” And I feel better just knowing that. Does that make sense to you?
AF: Oh, my goodness! Absolutely! That is the most basic gift of art, is to say, “We can make this, and we can make anything,” and to feel that upliftment in other people’s courage and bravery. Because every work of art comes from a double action. First, it comes from the artist sitting down and being completely honest with ourself, and going deep, and finding that personal truth, that thing that is often scary and difficult and conflicted and weird. And a lot of times in art, you can confess things you don’t confess to the closest people in your life. And you can confess it through art because it inspires that courage to create it. And then once you’ve gone deep, you then make the second step, which is respect. Respect for your audience, saying, “How do I take this and give it to them in a way that empowers them the most? How do I share this with them in a way that meets them where they are when they can make most use of it? So I’m not just simply letting loose my own personal truth, but I’m considering my audience, and I’m inviting them in to participate and I’m respecting them.”
AF: And so I think what happens any time we have that experience of sharing in an artist’s work is we get that double experience. First of their courage, first of their potential, first of their creativity, of their genius, all those kinds of magical, wonderful things that humans are capable of. And then we also get that sense of our ability to participate in it, to share in it, to join in it. Because a great work of art isn’t just something that exists in front of us, it exists with us, we join in it. Any artist will tell you this: They’re terrified on opening night. When a book is first published, the author is just terrified. [chuckle] But it’s the readers and the audience that come in and pick up that work and do the work of making that work its best self. So I think in that sense, it is both inspiring in terms of the creativity, but also the community, the ability to participate in something bigger than ourselves. So absolutely, that is, to me, the kind of primary joy, experience, hope, wonder generated by literature.
BB: It’s beautiful. Okay, your new book is called Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. And just strap yourselves in. I want you to talk to me about what this book is. First, tell us what it is.
AF: Okay, well, basically, this book is simply an attempt to reconnect us with the most powerful technology that we humans have ever invented, which is literature. And when you say that, it sounds bonkers because, “Literature, technology, what? Invented, what?” All these kinds of things. But basically, as I go through in the book, as I show is technology is simply something that we make to help us with a problem. And the root problem that we all struggle with is a problem of being ourselves, of having a human brain, of having a brain that has these amazingly powerful emotions that can also misfire. It can cause us grief and anger, a brain that’s capable of asking these enormous, powerful questions that it can’t answer. So every morning, we can wake up in a state of doubt and confusion. And over time, what our ancestors have gifted us through their discoveries are these poems and memoirs and novels and plays and films that can help us both troubleshoot our head, and maximize our potential, can improve our mental health, but also our mental thriving so that we can become our best selves.
AF: And so basically, what the book does is it offers a tour of 25 of the most empowering inventions. And each of them, it starts out by basically saying, “Here’s what the invention can do. So if you want more courage in your life, there’s an invention for that.” And then I explain the blueprint for that invention, and I explain how it was invented, who invented it, and I give you a quick tour of some books that you can find it in so you can practice it for yourself. Or if you want more love, or if you want more empathy, if you want more curiosity, if you want less anxiety. There’s two separate types of PTSD, and the book shows that before psychiatrists realized this, literary authors realized this and developed therapies for both of them.
AF: So the book is basically an attempt to empower readers to access just the extraordinary opportunity that is sitting all around us, and in our scientific age. We think all the answers are in our phones or in social media, or computers or spaceships, but actually the most powerful technology is the technology that connects to the heart, and it connects to the mind, and it connects to the spirit and connects to the soul, and that is literature, or at least literature, when combined with story and art, is that technology.
BB: Okay, what I thought we could do, which is really fun, is we could take a couple of the literary inventions and you, maybe you could walk us through them and explain them. Would that be okay with you?
AF: Of course. Anything you want Brené, I’m here.
BB: Okay, I want to start with a couple of easier ones or ones that help me try to get my head around this, and I have to say that I’m so lucky because I’m a social worker, and I came up through this really interesting qualitative way of understanding the world which was… There’s a quote I say all the time, “Stories are data with a soul,” that there are many ways of knowing, but if you include any way of knowing that doesn’t include art and literature, then you don’t fully know anything. I just love whatever is going inside of your head when you’re writing this, because I see things… This is the best part of reading books to me, I see things in a way now, after reading Wonderworks that I never saw before. I see inventions in a lot of places.
AF: They’re everywhere, and part of the point of the book is really just to help you… Give you a different way of reading. It’s just a completely different way than we’re taught in school, but it is very intuitive to the way that our brains work, and it’s fast, quick, easy to learn. So I can start with a very simple example. One of the ways that we were taught to read in school, is we’re taught to think about words and we’re taught to focus on the words, but what I talk about in the book is, actually no, we want to focus beneath the words, on the actions, on the things that happen. And so a simple example of an action, of an invention is an apology. An apology is something that we think of as being a bunch of words, but its power isn’t in the words, it’s power is in the action that it has, and the power of that action is to release someone else from anger. When we apologize to someone, when we give them a genuine apology, it releases them from anger, and in fact, we know it activates these complex perspective-taking circuits in our brain, that generate empathy.
AF: And so, an apology really is a way of giving someone the gift of empathy. And the extraordinary thing about an apology is it doesn’t exist in nature, somewhere out in the past, a human had to invent the apology, it had to be created. It was a creation, it was an invention that had this psychological effect, and of course, once it was invented, people realized it’s power, the power to convert anger into empathy, and it got used over and over and over and over again. That’s a very simple invention, but what literature does is it takes that invention and makes it even more powerful. Well, how do you make an apology more powerful? Well, simply speaking, it starts with the fact that an apology doesn’t have to be believed. We might distrust an apology, that apology might not be true, and we’ve seen this in our own lives, someone apologizes to us and it’s not a real apology, maybe because they’re actively being false, but a lot of times also because they think they’re apologizing but they haven’t made the deep changes in their own mind that they need to carry through on that apology, so how do we know that an apology is true? How do we know that an apology is sincere? Well, in real life, we can never know because we can’t enter into someone else’s head, but in literature, you can.
AF: You can enter into someone’s head, you can see what’s going on inside their mind, and you can know with absolute certainty that they regret their behavior, and you can see absolutely their determination and their willingness to change, and so what happens with the apology is it starts out, in the Book of Job, we get our first apology as far as we know in the history of literature, in the book of Job, when Job apologizes to God, and this stimulates empathy in God, God, who up to this point has been angry with Job, forgives Job and justice gives way to mercy. So this is this enormously powerful moment in the book of Job, and then in Greek tragedy, we have characters like Oedipus who apologize, who stimulate automatic empathy in us, the audience, and then in most of our favorite works of literature since then in the novel, think of how many times you’ve been carried into a character’s mind when she has regretted doing something, when she has vowed not to do that again, and immediately when that happens, you feel empathy for that character, and what happens is the more you read works that use this invention, the more it develops your own natural capacity for empathy, to forgive more quickly, to let go of your anger more rapidly. And so in literature, we see this very simple basic thing, the apology that gets turned into a series of inventions that ultimately point us towards a less angry, more tolerant, more inclusive, more empathetic society.
BB: This is such a perfect example, because when you talk about these literary inventions, you’re not talking about writing mechanisms, you’re talking about inventions in literature that have real neuro-biological consequences for us in our everyday lives as humans. Is that right?
AF: Yeah, absolutely. I’m talking about the way that the literature acts on us. We don’t even have to understand what it’s doing. One of the things that happens is when we go to school, we learn to interpret literature, we establish a sense of distance from literature and we analyze literature, but really, literature is most powerful when we’re immersed in it, when we trust it, when we give ourselves over to it, and then it can start to do all this extraordinary work, and that work is ultimately story work, so most of the inventions in the book come from story or from… As we tactically call it in the field, narrative, and narrative includes plots, but it also includes character, it includes worlds, and perhaps most importantly, it includes the narrator, so the voice, the style, when you read your favorite author, you can hear her voice in your head. And if you just look at the words on the page, you say, “Why is that?” These are the same words that everybody uses, “Why can I hear her? Why can I hear her in my head?” But of course, you can when you pick up Jane Austen, you can hear her immediately in your head. When you pick up your favorite novels, you can hear her in your head, and so those are the sources, the invention, because those inventions are essentially… Firstly about a connection with a storyteller, connecting your mind to her mind, through the medium.
AF: And second of all, unlike words which need to be interpreted, inventions just act, they are just actions, again, like an apology… Or another simple example would be a plot twist. A plot twist doesn’t need to be verbal.
BB: Yeah, yeah. Tell us about that.
AF: A plot twist… This is one of these amazing things… You don’t necessarily think of a plot twist as being that special or spectacular thing, because we see them all around, but it turns out that a plot twist has an extraordinary psychological effect on us, it can stimulate… If it’s powerful enough, something that’s known as a self-transcendent experience or what William James actually calls a spiritual experience, it’s associated with an increase of meaning, a loss of self, so you actually feel yourself losing yourself, so when a plot twist hits and you’re not expecting it, it gives you such a sense of wonder, just a sense of wow that you forget who you are and you feel yourself connected to this bigger thing, which is the story. And in losing yourself for that minute, you find not only this belief in something bigger, than yourself, which is incredibly psychologically healthy and brings all these spiritual benefits in terms of the kind of spiritual centers of our brain, but also makes you more generous. And so that’s why when you read works of myth, of Scripture, spiritual texts, they are full of plot twists, of things you’re not expecting to happen, and suddenly the story shifts and you feel wonder.
AF: And what we’re able to see is that beneath the plot twist, there is an even deeper invention, which you can find in metaphors… Any time a story takes your expectation and stretches it, when you see a brave girl and suddenly she gets braver, and you see a blue lake and suddenly it gets bluer, those stretches have this profound psychological spiritual effect, and they’re really the most basic reason for literature. I think the most basic reason we go to literature is for awe, is for wonder, is for that sense of something bigger than ourselves, and so a plot twist, like an apology, that’s another very simple, easy to pick up invention that you’ll see everywhere in literature.
BB: When I was reading this I thought, “Man and all of the parables that have been really meaningful for me…” And meaningful, like I know something neuro-biologically is shifting in me, because when these parables, all of them had a plot twist that I was not expecting, and I was on this moving escalator of expectation and not really challenged very much around my ethics or my values, and then the parable goes into a plot twist, and then all of a sudden I’m catapulted into this blank space where I have to rethink everything I thought I believed. And normally, I’m pissed off personally, the plot twist can really piss me off because I’m on my moving escalator of comfort. When I was reading about the plot twist and how it creates a sense of wonder, and I’m doing this new research right now, and so I’m around emotional granularity, and I’m looking at awe versus wonder, where awe is… You’re taken aback by the grandeur and the largeness of things, but wonder does kind of the same thing, but it also drives a sense of curiosity, and that’s what happens when I get catapulted into this space in a plot twist. My sense of wonder is so triggered, but not just about the story, but about myself. That pisses me off sometimes. Does that piss you off sometimes?
AF: Well it does, I have to admit, because I… Like all middle-aged man, I’d like to believe that I have all the answers to life and that I know everything.
AF: Absolutely, that’s where we get the word, “to wonder,” from. To wonder. Wonder makes us wonder, it makes us wonder about things and wonder about ourselves, it exposes a potential in us, but also a limit in us at the same time, and we realize that we’re capable of stepping into that space that’s bigger than us, but we also realize we weren’t expecting it. And I can be honest and say that this book started in a plot twist in my life, because I was not expecting to write this book, I was not expecting to think these things about literature. Go back to when I was in LA, I’m a professor at the University of Southern California. I’m hanging out with people in Hollywood and talking to them about how to make more innovative movies, and I was invited to participate in this NEH study where military veterans were taken to performances of Greek tragedy, and I was invited in because I have a Classics background and I also had some experience in the Marine Corps, and so I said, “Well, okay, absolutely, I’ll come along and I’ll participate.” And I got there and I thought to myself, as soon as I saw these actors warming up on the stage and I saw the veterans, watched them, I was like, “You know what, this is nuts, this is just not going to work.”
AF: And I start talking to the veterans and I’m like, “So do you guys like Greek tragedy?” And they’re like, “We’ve never heard of a Greek tragedy, we don’t even know what that is.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, would you like theater?” And they’re like, “No, we don’t go to theater.” I was like, “Do you read books much?” They’re like, “No, no, we don’t really read books very much.” And I was like, “Okay, I can just see, this is going to be a disaster.” What is going to happen here?
AF: So anyway, I was like, Well, you know what, this isn’t my disaster, I’m not directly involved. So I’ll just sit in the back row and then I’ll just come out on stage and just say a couple of things when it’s over, and then we’ll just all forget this happened. So what happens is, they perform this Greek tragedy, and the veterans are transfixed and then they start weeping, and then after they start weeping, they have these deep cathartic experiences and they start talking about things they’ve never talked about in their lives before, and they start sharing these traumatic memories they had, but in this supportive space of healing and personal growth, and we start to see these qualitative studies, and we saw that these symptoms of PTSD are lessening, hyper-vigilance is going away, anxiety is going away. Watching these 2000-year-old plays, which honestly, most of the veterans didn’t understand half the words in the plays. That was the thing, it’s not like they were hanging on every word, but there was something deeper in the play that was causing this profound therapeutic effect. And I was just, amazed, and I thought to myself, I just have to understand this. I just have to understand if this is even possible. Are we just all losing our minds collectively? Did this really happen?
AF: And then I went and I participated in more of these events around other parts of Southern California, and every single time that the performance happened… And I should say it was launched by Peter Meineck, who’s a military veteran, his theater company, Aquila theater, they launched this, they got the NEH grant and I went around it. Every time I saw this happen, I was amazed again. And so the beginning of the book was basically me realizing, okay, literature has this power, this extraordinary power. Where does it come from? How does it possibly work? And I learned that this power had been identified over 2000 years ago by ancient writers, they pointed it out, and that modern scholars had never really understood how it was possible, and it had mostly been ignored for 2000 years, this discovery.
AF: And I thought to myself, you know what, the science is here now, the science is here now. We can actually start to do the science and see if this works. And so that’s what we started to do, and we identified, I identified a bunch of inventions specifically in Greek tragedy that are responsible for this effect, and one of the most simple ones, is simply that it empowers us to say to the person on stage who’s undergoing the tragedy, “You are not alone.” It puts us in the position of helping them, of reaching out a feeling as a survivor that I can help you, and that builds something known as our self-efficacy. When we feel like we can help someone else, we feel like we can help ourselves… This is just the most kind of basic… And the way the Greek tragedy does that is it telegraphs to you that this disaster is coming before the person on stage actually sees it themselves. So you actually survive and endure the tragedy before the person on stage, it makes you a survivor before the person on stage and it gives you that sense of empowerment and we can see again, this kind of lifting up in your pre-frontal cortex, this activation of these circuits, and that’s just one of the technologies that goes on in Greek tragedy, there are actually others.
AF: And so once we found that out, I was like, “My goodness, what else is there? What else is there?” And that’s when I discovered there was another type of PTSD, which operates in exactly the opposite way from classic PTSD.
BB: Say more.
AF: Basically, when we think of traditional PTSD, what we think of is the inability to control emotions, so we think of flashbacks, we think of uncontrollable panic attacks, and that’s because… To be straightforward about it, there’s a kind of ancient emotional center that’s right at the heart of our brain where most of our emotions come from, and at the front of our brain, there’s a break, an emotion break, which kind of taps tamps down on those emotions and regulates them. And in Type 1 PTSD, what happens is, is that emotion break fails, and so all of those visceral emotions, all the kind of fear and anxiety, all those things just run uncontrollably through the brain, and it turns out the Greek tragedy helps you reactivate that break and start to re-apply it. And that’s why it is powerful. But there’s another kind of PTSD which comes from the opposite direction and is often experienced by survivors of domestic abuse. And what happens in domestic abuse when you suffer a chronic abuse, your break doesn’t fail, it gets stronger, and you start to tamp down on your feelings, because you’ve got to go into this space every day where you’re scared, and in order to survive in that space, you have to crush your fear and you have to say to yourself, I’m not going to acknowledge my fear, I’m going to suppress my fear.
AF: And the more that that break gets stronger and stronger and stronger, the more you get this other type of PTSD, which actually causes numbness and dissociation, desensitization. And what happens in that is your life starts to feel unreal, you can no longer experience feelings in the same way, not just negative feeling but positive feelings. You don’t have joy in your life anymore, you just drift through almost like it somebody else’s life. There’s an unreality effect, and that’s because the break has become too strong and that’s Type 2 PTSD. And what I discovered in the research is the Greeks had figured this out, and they tried to develop a therapy for it, they tried to develop an invention, and it was never really understood until Alison Bechdel comes along, writes a graphic memoir called Fun Home, which is basically her experience of being a survivor of chronic abuse from a father who himself was damaged, and Alison Bechdel puts the technology into that book, which can help you, if you suffer from numbness, feel again. And on a very basic level, there’s a lot of different moving parts to it, but one of those basic things that it does is it gives you positive feelings, it re-activates the positive feelings in your brain, joy, gratitude, and when your brain starts to feel joy and gratitude, it starts to realize, hey, emotion isn’t bad.
AF: Your brain has been habituated by just the amount of fear that it’s been experiencing in those traumatic situations to think, I just have to shut it all down, feeling anything is bad, but then when your brain starts to feel, oh my goodness, I can feel happiness, I can feel wonder, I can feel gratefulness, and these are good and these are happy, then your break starts to loosen, and you start to get back all that feeling again, and you start to heal and the dissociation and the desensitization lifts, and you can start to re-incorporate and again, this is a technology, you can experience it, read Fun Home, you will feel it for yourself, and as I go through in the book… If you don’t feel it the first time you read Fun Home, I explain how it works and how to try it again and how to find it in other places. A lot of these therapeutic techniques are difficult, we know that there’s not a kind of magic pill that’s automatically going to alleviate these kinds of difficulties, but once you know what you’re doing, once you understand what the process is, once you can engage actively, and once you make it part of your daily life because… And that’s the thing about literature, it’s a daily practice thing, it’s not a kind of one-time magic solution, it’s something that you want to bake in to everything you do…
BB: Yeah, I’m going to read one book.
AF: Yeah, right, exactly. And now I’m done. And literature could be there, because there is no scarcity in literature. That’s another thing about literature is it’s always there for you. There are always enough books, and there is always enough in books. You can never exhaust a book’s ability to give its gifts to you. It’s love, it’s empathy, it’s healing, you can always go back to it, and it has that kind of infinite capacity, and so that’s kind of what I sort of explain in the book, is once you know where to go to find this healing from books… And you can always find it there. It will always be there for the rest of your life, whenever you need it. The book that I’ve written… You don’t have to read the whole thing through from cover to cover, it’s more like a library where you have options and opportunities to say, oh, this is what I want in my life now or this is what I need more of now, but whenever you need it, you know you can go to literature and get it at that time, when you need joy, you can get joy, when you need optimism, you can get optimism, when you need healing, you can get healing, when you need courage, you can get courage. There’s an inexhaustible supply. So anyway, that was the plot twist that led me to the book and definitely took me off my roots, and was a little weird at the time, but has transformed me and I’m so grateful for it.
BB: Yeah, we’re grateful. I’m grateful you got thrown into that plot twist for sure. You write in the book that when Aristotle went to the theater, he saw that Greek tragedy didn’t just make people feel good, it made them feel less bad. And to me, there’s a big difference between feeling good and feeling less bad. One is temporary and one is about… Restorative change. Feeling less bad is a heavier lift to me than feeling good, sometimes, and so tell me what you thought Aristotle saw.
AF: Yeah, absolutely feeling less bad is that hard work of healing ourselves, and it’s not that temporary gift or that alleviating of a kind of symptom or just a kind of a quick pick me up, but it’s doing that deep, heavy work of getting into the hard, difficult parts of our head where things are maybe not working as well as we would want, it’s getting into our anxieties, it’s getting into our fears, it’s getting into our traumas, it’s getting into all these parts of ourselves and literature can do that because the connection we make with it is so intimate. One of the things that I think happens, unfortunately, is a lot of times we’re compelled to read certain books in school or compelled to read certain novels or we’re compelled to read certain poems, or we live as part of a culture that’s like everyone should read Shakespeare or everyone should read this, and then we have this idea that literature is this thing which is imposed upon us when it’s not free and… But really the whole point of literature is it is chosen, you don’t have to read a book, a book doesn’t compel you to read it, it’s a choice, and that in itself is just empowering to be able to go and choose what it is you would like to read, that’s the first step in healing yourself is that feeling of your own power, your feeling of your own ability to change yourself…
BB: Your agency.
AF: Your agency. Exactly. And on the basic level, that is what literature does when you walk into a library is it just says, choose me if you want, or turn around and go somewhere else. You don’t have to use me. And so I think what Aristotle was impressed by is the fact that collectively, Greek democracy had chosen to make theater free. So Greek democracy, not a perfect democracy, really what we mean by Greek democracy is men who owned land were able to participate in democracies, so we are just going to get that out there at the beginning, it was not perfect, but if you were a part of that democracy, literature will consider it important enough that the state would actually pay for your theater ticket. The understanding being on some level that this was a way that the community could care for the individual lives within it, and that literature was the kind of most profound kind of healing gift that they could give, and this was of course before modern psychiatry, and it makes you realize that in a very real way, poets, authors are some of our very earliest psychologists and psychiatrists, kind of exploring the minds, making that deep dive, and it’s still true today that at the frontiers of psychiatry and psychology are the writers who have the courage to walk into their own darkness, the things that frighten them about their own minds.
AF: And to have the kind of courage to bring those things out and talk about them and share them and reduce some shame and silence around them. What happened in those moments was Aristotle was saying is, a theater is a collective space, where we’re all going to come together and acknowledge that war trauma is real. These things we don’t like to talk about in public. These things we’re afraid to talk about in public, the damage that happens, we’re going to all come together and you’re going to be empowered as a survivor, because you’re going to see that we all care enough about it to make this a public practice. And so that deep work is the work that helps us as individuals, but to me, one of the real lessons is that it’s a community thing, we can’t as a community thrive, unless everyone in the community is healed and unless we make that act of care and provide those resources, so… Absolutely, that’s… Aristotle’s, one of his great gifts to us is this saying, “This hard work is important, it’s important not just as individuals, but as a community, let’s come together and do it.”
BB: So there are several things I’m thinking as we’re talking about this. So one of them is, I really had some great professors, mostly as a Master’s student, because that’s kind of in social work, your terminal degree, and once I got into the PhD program, it was mostly just a lot of terrible statistics classes and some other good classes, but in terms of the social work training, I just had a couple of great professors who always led with literature, and I remember being worried about it at first, because I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re going to get out of here, and we’re going to be sitting across from clients and you’re having me read books?” And they’re not textbooks about what to do, but fiction, and some of them like… I remember in a grief class, we had to read… It was not a big book, but it was big in my life, it was called Cancer in Two Voices, and it was a story of two women, a couple, and one of them is dying of cancer, and it was the woman who was dying ‘s memoir and also her partner’s memoir. And I remember if you don’t understand grief and the nuances of grief after reading this, there’s nothing a textbook could have taught me about this. And I also teach a lot with literature and film as well. I’m thinking of kind of safe harbor research… Is there something about the distance that allows us to go and interrogate emotion in a different way than when we’re experiencing it ourselves?
AF: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s that empowerment effect of feeling like it’s happening before us, but not necessarily happening directly to us, and that a lot of what happens in those moments is that we feel like we’re being called upon to honor and support the person who is suffering and to feel our own power in being able to help them and lift them up, so we’re not reading the grief memoir to look down on them, or even to analyze them in a clinical sense, but we’re reading it to reach out with our compassion and our love, and our strength and to honor their strength and their courage in being able to write these works.
AF: And to feel about strength in ourselves, and to feel that strength in the other person as they share their story, which occurs across the distance, as you’re saying, and occurs because it’s not us. Absolutely, I think that that primordial emotional experience, and I also think that so much of your research has been an inspiration to me because you encourage people to write out their experience, and memoir is one of the most powerful therapeutic tools that we have, both… I think just in terms of sharing. When we write, a lot of times we learn things about ourselves, things come out of us that we weren’t aware were in there. And then we also from the outside learn things and we have that ability.
AF: Probably the book that has changed my life the most is Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and that’s a work that intentionally establishes distance. And so what she does in that work, which is so brilliant, is she tells it in two time periods. She tells it when it happened to her, and then she tells it from the perspective that she’s writing it, and so you go back and forth between being immersed in her immediate experience, and then the wisdom that she has gained afterwards and her ability to look back on herself and say, “You are okay, and these things that you thought were mistakes at the time, were not mistakes, and I can see from the perspective of your own future that you are doing good, and I want to affirm you and value you,” and that process of going in and out, it has taught me to do the same thing to myself. I think a lot of the struggles that I’ve always had in my life is acknowledging certain things that I’ve done or experienced and pretending like I didn’t do them or I didn’t experience them, and then being able to go back as my older self, and be like, you weren’t a bad person when you did that thing, you weren’t a perfect person, and maybe you shouldn’t do that thing again, but that didn’t come from a bad place, that came from a learning place.
AF: And to have learned that from my Maya Angelou’s book… That again is the gift of that book and the innovation of that book. Absolutely, and I think the most powerful way, oftentimes, you can create that engagement is simply through a memoir to activate people.
BB: Okay, so first of all, I think you’ve got a little grounded theory researcher in you, and I’m going to tell you why. As a grounded theory researcher, I want to claim you for our side here, because… I’ll get a grounded theory toaster oven for bringing you over to the grounded theory researcher side, but one of the big challenges in grounded theory is naming things in a way that are compelling and resonate with the people who read them, and the names of your inventions are so good. Let me just tell you… I’m not going to go through these all if you’re listening right now, because you’ll just need to read them, but like the invention of the Sorrow Resolver, the invention of the Mind-Eye Opener, the invention of the Butterfly Immerser, what? Okay, here’s what I want to ask you about. The invention of the Valentine Armor. Tell me about the Valentine Armor.
AF: That’s my favorite invention in the book, but first of all, I just want to say, Brené, if you ever want to do research together, I would love to do research with you, so I’ll just put that out there, anytime… Absolutely, and I absolutely am a grounded theorist, but yeah, the Valentine Armor is basically this technology that’s invented by Jane Austen, and it has a double effect. The first is to help you bounce back from heartbreak, and the second part of it is to empower you to have friends who are different from yourself.
AF: Basically, it gets started in this very old creaky, boringly named thing called free indirect discourse, which was actually invented by the Roman satirists, and it was a way of being inside and outside someone at the same time, so you could feel their hearts, but at the same time stand outside them and have this distance. And what happened with the invention of the novel when it was first invented, is you only went inside people, and so you have these incredibly powerful sentimental novels written by people like Samuel Richardson which later is picked up by the Brontës and just these very, very powerful that they’re sort of beginning of modern sentimental novels. If you ever read a Harlequin romance novel… Which of course I haven’t. I’ve never read a Harlequin romance novel, but hypothetically, if I had read one, that’s where that goes.
AF: And what Jane Austen says is… You don’t just have to be inside, you can be outside someone at the same time. In her writing, she creates this flutter effect where you both love characters, but also realize that you’re different from them, and that empowers you to love them, not because they’re like you, but because they’re different from you, and it allows you to say, the best parts of you are not necessarily me, they’re special to you, they’re distinct to you. The most classic example of this is her novel Emma and so basically Emma revolves around a young woman who knows all her friends, or at least she thinks she does, better than they know themselves, so she’s constantly interfering in their love lives. She’s like, “You know what, I think you should date this guy instead of that guy, and I think this should happen.” And it’s a disaster because of course, everyone has a different heart, we all love differently, that’s what’s beautiful about us. And over the course of the novel, Emma learns this, and through this technology that Austen has in the novel, our heart learns it too.
AF: Even if we’re not aware that we’re learning it, we learn it too. And one of the extraordinary things that happens at the end of novel is we begin the novel being like, Emma, what are you doing? This is ridiculous. And then by the end of the novel, we’ve learned to love Emma, even though she acts differently than we act. And the reason that protects us from heartbreak ultimately is because so much of heartbreak is having expectations about what other people should do for us…
BB: Oh God.
AF: So it’s like, I’m so hurt right now because you didn’t do this thing for me, and if you loved me, you would do this thing for me. The fact that you didn’t do it for me, means that you were somehow actually angry at me or don’t like me because you must have known that I wanted this thing. And it’s like, no, actually this person you’re in love with is different from you, and they’re not thinking exactly what you’re thinking. And what Jane Austen teaches us is that all those moments where we imagine this harm coming from other people, are in our own head, and they are about our own insecurities and our own fears and letting go of them and just loving other people, not for what we want them to give us, but for what they do give us.
AF: Don’t start out your relationship thinking, oh, I need to have these things, instead say, “What am I getting? What am I getting from this person?” And if that’s enough, that’s enough. And so that’s the power of that technology, and it has certainly improved… I will be honest and say, that reading Jane Austen, is I think the only reason that I have had any successful relationships in my life, because I’ve had to mature out of that state of total egoism, where I’m like, this relationship exists for me and you exist for me, into being like, oh my goodness, this is a gift and you’re different than the person I would have imagined, and that’s why I love you.
BB: I could just geek out with you, really, like the 72-hour podcast. Okay. Is that your favorite invention in the book?
AF: It might be… I’m technically not allowed to say that I have a favorite invention, but it might be. Jane Austen… Jane Austen and Maya Angelou are probably my favorite writers.
BB: The last one we’ll talk about, let’s just drill in. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I never thought about the temporal piece until I read this chapter. God, there’s so… So much of this book is about self-love, and I don’t think I understood that. Let me ask you this question, I don’t think I understood it when I was required to read it. Do you think involuntary reading allows you to understand, appreciate the inventions as much as voluntary reading? Because you talk about choice, you talk about agency. Do you think when you’re assigned a book for school, that the inventions speak to you as lovingly as when you choose a book?
AF: No. I think when a book is assigned, you can sometimes get something out of it, but I think that is less usual then when you choose it for yourself. And there’s two reasons for that… First of all, it’s like if you’re assigned a friend, if you’re assigned a friend, are you going to be friends with that person? That’s just not necessarily the way that… That feels compulsive. And again, the point of literature is to be empowering, not to impose, but to empower, and so I do think that choice is just tremendously important, and I cannot tell you the number of works of literature that I was assigned in school that I got nothing from, and then I went and read them later and discovered just extraordinary things. Also, as I’m honest about in the book, I do think that we are taught to read literature in a way that is often times very analytic, very logic-based, it’s based in something known as interpretation, which actually comes from symbolic logic, and what is so unique about literature is the experience of it, is the emotion of it, not these other things that we’re taught to do in school, and so even if we were open in school, we’re also taught a method that isn’t necessarily unlocking the thing that’s most special about literature.
AF: And yeah, as far as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was assigned that to read that at a point in my life, I didn’t take it very seriously, and then I went back and rediscovered it later and was transformed and the technology in there is the technology for what’s called tactically self-affirmation, and this is a kind of complicated psychological term, but basically it means, when you affirm your own core values, and so you focus not on your behaviors, but on the things behind those behaviors, and so you say one of my core values is love, or family, or trust, or courage, and the technology of the book is to encourage you to discover those values that you have yourself, that are not Maya Angelou’s necessarily, that’s the genius of the book.
AF: She’s not about saying, “Hey, these are the values that I think you should have.” Because that would again, be compulsive. She’s about saying, “What values do you have?” And it’s done subconsciously. So the book never asks that question, but the way the book is written elicits you to affirm your own values. And the extraordinary thing about affirming your own values is when do it, you not only become happier and more confident in yourself, you also become more flexible. Because instead of feeling like you have to cling to your behaviors, you feel like I’m in power because I know the core of me is what I like, and so I can be flexible. I can change. I can grow. I can develop. If this other thing isn’t helping me love in the way that I want to love, I can change that thing about myself.
AF: To me, one of the other things that’s kind of extraordinary about that book is by allowing you to do this kind of self-work, it’s not only just a gift to you, it’s a gift to everyone in your life. One of the things that’s important to me is when we’re in a moment, when we need help, of course, we have to be able to reach out to the people in our lives, and we have to have that courage to reach out and ask for help. But if we’re always reaching out for help all the time we start to exhaust the people in our lives. And there are certain people in our lives who get asked for help more than others. Typically women tend to be more caregivers, not always, but there are certain populations that tend to get more exhausted with people coming and saying, “I have these problems and I need help. And what a gift it is to other people, if we can do some of that work ourselves. Help ourselves.
AF: And so Maya Angelou does that. She empowers us to help ourselves, to give that gift of self-care, not just to ourselves, but to other people in our lives. So that if they need our help, we can give it to them instead of doing the reverse and asking for their help. So of course, I should say if there’s ever a moment when you’re on the threshold, you don’t know if you need help or you don’t need help, you should ask for help, but by getting stronger in yourself you know more and more that you can help yourself and give that help to others. And that to me is just the gift that keeps on giving, and that’s why I love Maya Angelou, so much.
BB: Can I read this quote to you from your book, before we go into the rapid fire?
BB: This quote is just incredible. “For whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s owns special power has always lain in fiction, that wonder we construct. It is the invention that un-breaks the heart, and brings us into hope and peace and love.” I love it.
AF: Thank you, Brené. I have to be honest, that line, which is one of the final lines in the book is really the heart of the whole book. Is just that sense that literature is there to do these wonderful things and not to judge. Not to judge. Not to say that this is right or this is true, but to be a space where we can go in and be healed by it.
BB: I believe in it. I’m a believer. Sign me up in the Wonderworks believer… I’m just a believer. I want to ask you this personal question. Personal pet peeve question. Is trope the right term? I know inventions are different than tropes and mechanisms, right?
BB: Tropes and mechanisms are tools. Inventions have deep neurobiological meaning for us. Is that a fair distinction?
AF: Yeah, absolutely.
BB: Can a literary invention be bad for us neurobiologically? And I’ll tell you what I’m trying to get at, because maybe what you’ll say is this is not an invention, that’s a trope or that’s a mechanism or something, but I think about my research on foreboding joy where… It’s something that is set up either in literature or in film, where we’re building to this cascading moment… And maybe it’s under a plot twist, I don’t know, but we’re building toward this cascading moment and things seem almost too good to be true so it creates tension and it creates in the reader like, “Oh my God, is something bad going to happen, because this is so good.” And then something devastating comes and pulls the rug out from underneath you. Do you know what I’m talking about? In films and books?
AF: I do. I do. Yes. And absolutely inventions can be less healthy for us. And I don’t talk a lot about that in the book because my own view of life is it’s always better to really double down on the positive, than go at the negative. And so most of the book is kind of like doubling down on positive things. But yes, absolutely. There are inventions that can create, for example, false hope in us… Certain types of fairytales, for example. They can create magical thinking. And so there’s a difference between optimism and magical thinking.
BB: Oh, God, yes.
AF: So magical thinking is the thinking, “Oh, everything’s going to be fine. It’s going to be right. I don’t have to do anything, it’s all going to work out.” No, no, no, no, optimism is something that can sustain challenge and difficulty and exists in the real world. And so there are certain kinds of fairytales, absolutely, which can cause us to act in ways that ultimately are not helpful for us. It can cause us to become over romantic, over sentimental, over whatever, increase our likelihood of grief and so on and so forth. So yes, absolutely, there are technologies that can create fear in us and can make us nervous of things. But I will say that in general, the capacity for literature to do positive things does outweigh its capacity to do negative things.
AF: And it’s important to remember that because literature is not just about the story teller, but also the audience, because it’s a shared creation, over time audiences have provided a lot of feedback. And that feedback… It’s in our hearts, it’s in our nature as humans to want to grow. I mean that’s what we want deeply in ourselves. And so over time, audiences have shaped literature so that for the most part it is positive. Now, occasionally you get into situations where audiences aren’t empowered and literature can have these other effects. And again, the point of the book is to help you have even more confidence because you can then start to identify, “Okay, yeah, this is the really good stuff. This is what I need.”
BB: That makes tons of sense to me. I think our inventions can go both ways, just like… They can go both ways in science too. And one invention sometimes I think can be neutral because I think learning about foreboding joy ultimately taught me a lot about practicing gratitude in those moments. And so I think sometimes it’s the application. One of the interesting things I was thinking about when I was reading this is how many times in order to be connected with… I’ve got a 21-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, and one of the things that I’ve done in an attempt to be connected with them is read their assigned readings at the same time they’re reading them. And what happens, unfortunately, is their homework about that reading is so completely different than what I want to talk to them about when we’re reading these things.
BB: So their homework is… What did you call it? It’s definitely interpretation and hard core analysis and sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know that that’s true.” But of course you can’t say that because you want to foster that relationship and respect for their teachers. But sometimes I wish my kids would be assigned these great books and just be asked, how did this feel for you? What did this shift for you? How do you see the world differently after reading it? I wish those were the questions.
AF: Yeah. Well, Brené, now that I’m going to do some research with you, can you come and do some teaching with me? Because that’s exactly right. We need teachers who can do that. I mean, first of all, not to create this box that restricts your response to the literature. Instead just say, “How did you feel? How did you feel when you read that? How did you feel?” Empower the reader to say how she felt. Empower that. Absolutely. And I think also one of the things that I try and do with my students is to say, “What did that make you want to write?” Don’t write what I tell you to write. Don’t write some five-paragraph essay that I’ve assigned for you.
AF: When you’ve just read this, what comes into your mind? Do you want to write your own story? Do you want to write something different? Do you want to write a thank you note to the person who wrote… Like, what do you want to write? Anything you want to write, write that. Write that. That’s your gift back to the author. And so absolutely. I think that that is what we need to do more of as teachers, is just to empower those primary responses in students. Not just because it’s fun and joyful for them, because I think that’s actually where the learning happens.
BB: I recently read a book with my son, and it was a mystery book, and it has a terrible plot twist in the end. I think it’s an Agatha Christie book. It has a terrible plot twist in the end, where the narrator ends up being the killer or something. And Charlie, and I just had this great conversation about it. And he’s like, “The betrayal, mom. The betrayal. That this was our narrator. This was our narrator. This was the person we trusted. This was our side kick in this adventure.” And I was like, “Oh my God.”
AF: That’s why it’s so great to read with your kids though. Going back to what I said earlier about reading with my own father, having those moments of connections with the people you love, reading a book alongside someone you care about, watching a film along with… Listening to a song… Songs are literature. Listening to a song with them, and just realizing that it doesn’t have to take place in school to be a learning experience. And in fact, that’s what literature is so good at. It’s only recently that literature was taught in school at all. For thousands of years literature was just all the really wonderful learning you did outside of school. So I say keep that going. Keep that going with the ones you love.
BB: Amen. Alright, are you ready?
BB: For the rapid-fire questions?
AF: I hope so. I don’t know. I’ll do my best.
BB: Oh my God, I think you’re so ready. Okay. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is?
AF: Having the courage to write your own history honestly.
BB: Okay, you Angus, are called to be very brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
AF: I think of the bravest person I know, who happens to be my son, who is much, much braver than me.
BB: I love that. You think of your son. Okay. What is something that people often get wrong about you?
AF: I think people think that I know a lot more than I do. And really, I just feel like my purpose in life is to keep chasing questions.
BB: Last TV show that you binged and loved.
AF: I have to be honest, I do this with so many shows, but I re-did it with Buffy recently.
BB: Oh, you did. Got it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
AF: Yeah, absolutely… Some of my favorite actors of all times… Some of my favorite performances of all time in that show and other than that, I think just going back to my youth, Gilmore Girls, my other favorite show. Two shows, I can just watch endlessly. They speak to just different parts of my heart.
BB: Yeah, I love it. Okay, do you have an all-time favorite movie?
AF: Yeah, I do. It’s a really weird one. It’s, The Thin Red Line, by Terrence Malick. And it comes back to my own background and experience working with veterans. It’s just a very powerful, very strange, very poetic movie.
BB: I’ve not seen it, but I will add it to my list. A concert that you will never forget.
AF: Is it okay if I say Bruce Springsteen or is that just like the most cliched answer ever?
BB: We’ve never got it.
AF: Oh, good. Alright, Bruce Springsteen. Yeah, going to Bruce Springsteen with my wife.
BB: Favorite meal of all time.
AF: Is it okay if it’s my wife’s chocolate cake? Is it okay if it’s a desert? Can I just eat the chocolate cake?
BB: Oh yes.
AF: Oh, okay. That’s it. Literally, that’s all I want to eat, is chocolate cake all the time.
BB: I knew I liked you. Okay, what’s on your night stand?
AF: Honestly, a copy of Nancy Drew, which is what I’m reading to my daughter right now before bed.
BB: Nancy Drew is the best.
BB: Ah… I read all of them. I just read every single one of them. It’s so good. Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you true joy.
AF: Pushing my kids on the swing set out back.
BB: What’s one thing that you’re very grateful for right now?
BB: Me too. Okay, we asked you for five songs you couldn’t live without, and we made a mini mixtape on Spotify of your songs. They are, The Greatest by Sia, Rudie Can’t Fail by The Clash, Hey Stranger by Mandolin Orange, Umbrella by Rihanna, Not Dark Yet by Allison Moorer. In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about Angus Fletcher?
AF: That I have a lot of different friends that I need to call on in lots of different occasions.
BB: That’s good. That’s really good. Alright. Thank you so much for talking to us on the podcast and such deep gratitude for Wonderworks. What an invention in itself.
AF: Thank you so much, Brené. And literally just any time and every time. Let’s keep this story going.
BB: I love it. Thank you.
AF: Take care.
BB: So I’m wondering if this should be my final sign-off after this conversation, because I’ll be leaving to go get me my own job and be a professor of story science, that’s where I’m going. Not really… I’m not leaving the podcast, but what a cool guy. What an amazing approach to the world and what a awe-inspiring book. You can find his book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, wherever you like to buy books. We love our Indie bookstores. We’ll link to it on the episode page on brenebrown.com. The website for his program is www.english.osu.edu. On Instagram… He does an Instagram with his wife and it’s flowersandbreadco on Instagram.
BB: And again, you can get all these links on brenebrown.com. One of the things I thought about during this conversation is it’s one thing to take in a conversation, or take in a book, or take in art, or take in a film, and it’s another thing to take it in and then talk about it. I hope you’re having conversations about the conversations with someone, because I think that’s part of the unlocking. Some fun big news for everybody, we are going to take off two weeks for spring break, but we’ll be back on Wednesday, March 31st with Hanif Abdurraqib who is the author of, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance.
BB: What a beautiful book. What a beautiful man. I just can’t wait for ya’ll to be a part of this conversation. We talk about dance marathons and their brutal history, rooted in depression. We talk about Soul Train. We talk about Whitney Houston. We talk about… We just talk about music and joy and love, and how Black performance… There is no history of performance in this country without Black performance as the bedrock. It’s just an incredible conversation. Coming up after Hanif, another great conversation, I talked to Samin Nosrat, author, cook, teacher, podcaster, and the force of nature behind the revolutionary cookbook, my favorite, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and the Netflix documentary by the same name. We don’t talk a lot about food, to be honest with you. What we talk about is hunger, I guess.
BB: And not physical hunger, but spiritual, emotional, and social hunger. And we talk about connection. And we talk about grief. And we talk about loneliness. And we talk about making beautiful things out of hard struggles. I knew by her work that she was… And is an extraordinary person. I didn’t know how extraordinary until this conversation. In the meantime, while we are off for spring break taking a couple of weeks to inhale and refuel, we’re going to share two Dare to Lead episodes with you right here on Unlocking Us. So as many of you know, Dare to Lead is my other podcast right here on Spotify, where I talk about leadership, and I talk about courage with culture shifters and change makers, and really people who are leading in every capacity that you can imagine.
BB: It runs every Monday, here… Again on Spotify, it’s free. I thought I’d share a couple of really, I think, important episodes with you that could be helpful for the time we’re in right now, as we are trying to move out of this pandemic, as we’re trying to reach deeper and work harder around racial reckoning. And while we’re trying to get to the door for a new tomorrow, I think these would be helpful. We hope you enjoyed the Dare to Lead episodes. We’re planning for what’s next. Just grateful. Thank you.
BB: We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary of Unlocking Us and someone on my team recently asked me, “What’s been your favorite episode, or what are you most grateful for when you look back over the year?” And the answer without question, is you. You, the person listening right now, that’s what I’m most grateful for. To build a community where we all belong, and we’re all learning together, and we’re all taking a couple of steps forward and sliding back a little bit then grabbing each other and trudging on. We will see you back here with a new Unlocking Us on March 31st. Awkward, brave, and kind, folks.
Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits. And music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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