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St. Thomas University

ABSTRACT: Essential to making meaning across the lifespan, I argue, is narrative
intelligence. After sketching the dynamics of such intelligence, I offer some speculations on how our experience and expression of it may change with advancing years.

In this article, I hope to add to our understanding of "biographical aging" (Birren et al.
1996) by introducing the concept of narrative intelligence. Without narrative intelligence,
it can be argued, countless processes integral to human 1 existence are impossible, perhaps
inconceivable. Our emotions (Nussbaum 1989; Ruth and Vilkko 1996; Mader 1996; Singer
1996), our actions (Carr 1986), our decisions (Tappan and Brown 1989; Maclntyre 1981),
our identity (McAdams 1988, 1996), our very "experience" itself (Crites 1971, 1986)mall
have storied roots. As attested by titles like "Life Stories and Storied Lives" (Ochberg
1995), "Living Stories, Telling Lives" (Frye 1986), "Stories Lives Tell" (Witherell and
Noddings 1991), "The Stories We Live By" (McAdams 1994), and "The Stories We Are"
(Randall 1995), story and life are entwined. This entwining, best expressed in the term
"lifestory" itself (Kenyon and Randall 1997), is captured by the oft-quoted observation of
literary scholar, Barbara Hardy (1968, p. 5), that "we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct,
gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative."
The article has four parts. The first, a preface, highlights the notion of the novelty of our
lives. The second attempts a definition of narrative intelligence and outlines its origins in
childhood. The third sketches its dynamics in terms of familiar story 2 conventions. The
Di r ect all correspondence to: William Lowell Randall, Programme in Gerontology, St. Thomas University,
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 5G3.
JOURNAL OF AGING STUDIES, Volume 13, Number 1, pages 11-28.
Copyright 1999 by JAI Press Inc.
AH rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
ISSN: 0890-4065.



Vol. 13/No. 1/1999

fourth speculates on ways our experience and expression of it might change with advancing age, affecting how we "story" our lives in later life. These speculations have implications for our understanding of many things: memory, emotionality, personality, and
spirituality; the methods and data of qualitative research (Mishler 1986; West 1997); the
storyteUing-storylistening interaction in everyday life; and practices like life review,
guided autobiography (Brown-Shaw, Westwood, and de Vries this issue), and reminiscence (Webster this issue). While such implications are too numerous to detail here, I shall
be pointing to a framework--and a vocabulary--by which they can be explored.


As gerontologists, we are frequently in the position of listening to elders' stories. Yet the
simple invitation to "tell me your story" commonly elicits a complex response (Mishler
1986; Kotre 1990). If we are too encumbered by a positivist paradigm, we may well feel
that what we hear contaminates the data on which we would base our generalizations about
aging per se. By contrast, if we are sensitive to the intricacy and uniqueness of these stories
and to the possibility that they are ultimately who we are, then we shall be balancing a
nomothetic approach to aging with an idiographic one (Runyan 1984), supplementing an
outside-in perspective on the aging process with an appreciation of its inside dimension.
However, this dimension cannot be appreciated apart from postmodern insights into the
deeply languaged, intensely textual nature of human life. Says one source, "it is only by
textualization that one can 'know' one's life" (Bruner and Weisser 1991, p. 136). To experience our life at all, it seems, we must transform it into text, a process for which Mary
Catharine Bateson (1989) provides the metaphor of composing a life. Our life, it implies,
is not some given we passively receive but a creation we actively construct, a tapestry we
weave (within the context of particular environments) from the threads of chance, the
strands of circumstance, and the fabric of relationships that comprise our day to day world.
At bottom, I submit, a life is a biographical as much as a biological phenomenon (Weintranb 1975). It is a narrative composition, a literary work (Charm6 1984).
A "lifestory", however, is difficult to define (Kotre 1990). Moreover, it is never just one
story but many, insofar as we can all produce numerous autobiographies, each "true" in
relation to "the facts". Besides, our minds are filled with specific stories of various types-short and long, public and private, solo and shared, past and future 3 (Kenyon and Randall
1997). As cognitive scientist Roger Schank puts it, human beings "are collections of stories" (1990, p. 135). But of what sort is the longer, larger narrative entity that the familiar
phrase "story of my life" suggests is implicit in the many? A soap opera, an epic adventure,
a tale told by an idiot, or an anthology of short stories with no intrinsic link?
Though a life could be likened to each of these forms, a full-length novel has a particular
fit (Randall 1995; Polster 1987), one sensed by Jean-Paul Sartre when he described his
autobiography as "a novel that I believe in", a "true novel" (Charm6 1984, p. 79). "Selfcreation," observes Jonathan Glover (1988, p. 152), "tends to make a life like a novel by a
single author". In the words of the French writer, Gustave Flaubert, "Everyone's life is
worth a novel". This notion of the storied nature or novelty of a life suggests a range of features that often escape social science eyes, such as its uniqueness, its peculiar sort of aesthetic coherence, its meaningfulness and "truth". Of course, by introducing this notion here

Narrative Intelligence


I may seem to have put the cart before the horse, yet I hope to have provided a context and
reference point for what follows. Besides, it is impossible to understand story--and thus
lifestory--in linear fashion, one insight at a time. Since any story is about several things at
once--love, money, power, faith--a somewhat discursive mode of discourse may suit the
topic at hand.


In Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner (1990) argues that intelligence is not a single or
strictly cognitive capacity. Rather, we must talk of multiple intelligences. The seven he
cites, of which "all individuals are capable by virtue of their membership in the human species", are linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. At the core of each "exists a computational capacity, or
information-processing device, which is unique to that particular intelligence, and upon
which are based the more complex realizations and embodiments of that intelligence" (p.
278). Gardner's theory opens the door to other intelligences as well, Goleman's (1995)
"emotional intelligence" being a prime example. Narrative intelligence is another.
Supporting such intelligence is the thesis of Bruner (1986, 1996) that there are two
"modes of thought" by which we make sense of our world: paradigmatic and narrative.
Where the former is espoused in science and philosophy and venerated in formal education, the latter is the principal mode in both literature and life. Where paradigmatic thought
"leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis", narrative thought "deals with the vicissitudes of human intention" and
"leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable historical accounts" (1986, p.
98). It is by narrative thought, by telling stories, that we make most sense of our world-and our lives. Related to narrative thought is "narrative knowing" (Polkinghorne 1988,
1996). Indeed, know and narrate share the same etymological root (Mancusco and Sarbin
1983). Narrating, says one source, "is intricately related to knowing and is our way of taking the flow of experience and making it intelligible" (Baur 1994, p. xx). Taking this line
further, some educators have advocated "narrative schooling" (Hopkins 1994). With narrative being connected to thought, knowing, and now schooling, surely it is a short leap to
speak of narrative intelligence as well.
On the active side, we may think of narrative intelligence as the capacity to formulate a
story, whether a fictional story--as in a movie, novel, or play---or a factual, indeed factional (Steele 1986), one--as in history, the news, or the anecdotes that sprinkle our
speech. On the passive side, it is the capacity to follow a story, inasmuch as "followability"
is a basic criterion of what a story is (Kerby 1991). In relation to biographical aging, therefore, I propose we view narrative intelligence as the capacity both to formulate (compose,
narrate) and to follow (understand, read) the story of our own life.
Such a "definition" is related to that of intelligence per se advanced by Schank (1990),
who argues that if we want to duplicate human intelligence artificially, we must teach computers not merely to process information but to tell stories, for this is how we reckon intelligence in everyday life. "We assess the intelligence of others," he says, "on the basis of the
stories that they tell and on the basis of their receptivity to our own stories" (p. ix). Thus
story is central to the three concepts round which Schank's argument revolves: knowledge,



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intelligence, and memory. "Knowledge," he writes, "is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and the creation and telling of stories. Memory is memory for stories, and the major processes of memory are the creation, storage, and retrieval
of stories" (p. 66).
I would further propose that narrative intelligence develops from childhood on, in tandem with at least three of Gardner's intelligences: inter-personal, intra-personal, and linguistic. In other words, the growth of our narrative intelligence is linked to our emergence
into the world of people (their actions and intentions, plus ours) and the world of language.
Illustrating the latter is the fact that our parents usher us into the world of words not normally by instructing us about dictionaries but rather by telling us stories. And not only do
they tell us tales of their lives but they encourage us to tell tales of our own, tales that structure our everyday experience in memory and imagination and enable us to maneouver
meaningfully through time.
Though "the central mystery of literary imagination is likely to remain unexplained"
(Gardner 1982, p. 63), we begin acquiring such an imagination, such "literary competence"
(Culler 1975), at an early age. "Children generally master narrative structure in stages",
Gardner says (p. 61). "Story structure," echoes James Mancusco, "develops epigenetically
out of...basic structures [such as causality, contextuality, and continuity] whose early manifestations are observable in the child aged about nine months" (1986, p. 101). From such
beginnings, our grasp of story structure gradually expands. Thus, while "the 21/2-year-old
can handle but a single episode .... the 3-year-old can connect a couple of episodes", and
"by the age of 4, the child can concatenate several episodes" (p. 61). Indeed, "by the age of
5 the child has acquired a 'first draft' knowledge of literary form", or of "the formulas and
conventions of storytelling" (Gold 1990, p. 153). Though this early mastery of story grammar seems modest by adult standards, it is in reality a phenomenal achievement that testifies to the complexity of the interpretive processes whereby we "manage [our] individual
worlds" (p. 153). As Gardner (1982, p. 53) explains, "in telling a story, the child must
select words that not only capture the intended meanings but are appropriate to each of the
characters, have the desired effects upon the other characters, and communicate effectively
with listeners. The child must be able to describe characters, narrate sequences of activities,
handle dialogue, anticipate what is going to happen, and recount what has already happened, keeping in mind what the audience has been told and what it has not yet been told.
These are hardly straightforward assignments for a pre-school youngster."
As we move past childhood, it is arguable that we acquire "more" of this story-making
capacity and so can follow and formulate stories of increasing complexity. Supporting this
is the fact that Shakespeare is not normally inflicted on four-year-olds, while stories about
Dick and Jane, Spot and Puff, seldom sustain serious debate among university professors.
As we age, we put away childish tales. That we tend to put away the childish tales we enterrain about our own lives, weaving ever more sophisticated ones instead, is the possibility
this article assumes. If true, as Bruner says, that "a life as lived is inseparable from a life as
told" (1987, p. 31), and that our stories live us as much as we live them (Parry and Doan
1994), then this tendency has profound implications for our understanding of the inside of
A corrollary possibility is that there is a spectrum of narrative intelligence, that how we
each story our worlds differs in intention and intensity. While none of us is uninterested in
what has occurred in the past or will happen in the future, nor in what sort of person so-and-

Narrative Intelligence


so is and why they did such-and-such, for some----detectives, lawyers, journalists, historians, psychoanalysts, biographers, novelists, dramatists--the cultivation of their narrative
intelligence is clearly central to what they do. To varying degrees, with differing motives,
and for different audiences, they are committed to telling the whole story, the real story-even, we might say, "the truth". But narrative intelligence is not thereby the province of the
talented few. Without it, none of us could function. We would be unable to make sense of
our ever-changing circumstances, to "organiz[e] large amounts of sensory information"
(Gold 1990, p. 152), to comprehend the actions of others, and to carry out our own actions
in a purposeful manner. For such reasons, narrative intelligence must be seen as native
intelligence. We are all narratively intelligent to at least a minimal degree. To make sense
- - o f an event, a situation, an emotion, a person--is to make up a (likely) story as to what
is going on. To make sense of ourselves is to do the same; indeed, the capacity to transform
the events of our life into the story of our life is essential to a sense of self (Kerby 1991),
and thus to "sanity" (Le Guin 1989; Polster 1987; Sacks 1985; Schafer 1992). But if storying is central to living, how does it operate?


"Story" is difficult to define. As historian Hayden White observes, it is "a familiar but conceptually elusive entity" (1980, pp. 13-14). Though this may bode badly for the concept of
lifestory, it is customary to think of a story as having certain fundamental elements, such as
plot, character, point of view, genre, and theme. In simple terms, plot is what happens in a
story: the events it recounts and the order they are sequenced. Indeed, it is what "makes
events into a story" (Ricoeur 1980, p. 167). Characters are the people to whom these events
happen or who cause them to happen, while point of view is the angle from which the story
is told. Genre is the basic mode of the story--e.g., romantic (adventure), tragic, comic, or
ironic (Frye 1966)--whereas a theme is a strand of meaning, a message or point, that the
story conveys. Given these central "entailments" (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) of the "narrative root metaphor" (Sarbin 1986), I propose that narrative intelligence is the capacity to
formulate and follow a story by means of such intertwining sub-capacities as the ability to
emplot, characterize, narrate, genre-ate, and thematize. Below are sketched some of the
core (again, intertwining) processes involved in each, processes so automatic to our "construal of reality" (Bruner 1996), however, that it may seem odd to spell them out, to step
outside the vast, interpretive enterprise in which--like fish in water--we are ceaselessly

To emplot is to edit. Editing is the essence of perception, through taste, touch, and hearing, and certainly through sight. By looking in one direction rather than another, the camera
of our eye focusses on what is in front of us and not behind, nor peripherally to right or left.
To see one thing is not to see another. Seeing is editing. Plus, memory later consigns to the
cutting floor the vast portion of what we have seen. Most of us forget far more than we
To emplot is to summarize what is happening in the present or has happened in the past.
When asked to give account of our doings since last week, we routinely shrink seven days



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of activity into as few as seven minutes of synopsis. By such means, social interaction is
possible. Were we to respond with exhaustive event-by-event descriptions, our listeners
would tune us out. What we do unto others, we do unto ourselves, such that most of our
memories from a year, week, or even hour ago, are but verbal-visual summaries, which
with the passage of time become summaries of summaries of summaries...
To emplot is to cope with conflict, or "trouble" (Bruner 1987, 1996). It is to notice, and
own, what contravenes the normal flow of life. It is to fit the peculiar into the familiar, to
relate the odd to the ordinary, the unusual to the mundane, the personally confusing to the
culturally expected. It is to recognize conflict in our lives on a broader scale too (inner,
outer, inter-, intra-personal), identify its possible sources, and attempt, in our minds, a measure of resolution.
To emplot is to prioritize, to select from the reality perceived by our senses a set of
details as more significant than others for our immediate purposes. It is to censor our world
so that certain things are included in our conscious attention while others are not; moreover, so that what is included is interpreted in this way but not that. It is to distinguish what
is "important" or "relevant" in a given situation from what is not. It is to distinguish
between main plot and subplot; and, between what contributes to some desired outcome
and is, in that sense, "good" or "right", and what detracts from it and so is "bad" or
To emplot is to perceive events as events. It is to perceive situations, relationships, individual days, stages of life, even entire lives, not as undifferentiated from whatever surrounds them but as more or less discrete temporal units with their respective beginnings,
middles, and ends (Polster 1987). It is also to perceive such events as "nested" (Neisser
1986) in larger units in t u r n - - f o r example, a day within a week within a month within a
To emplot is to connect events. It is to link (perceived) events in a consequential and not
merely sequential manner, thus embuing them with "meaning". It is to arrange otherwise
disparate occurrences not just chronologically but causally, into inter-related chains. It is to
explain what happens in a given context in terms of origins and outcomes, influences and
results. It is to see events as leading from somewhere to somewhere, as possessing a telos
or point. For example, I felt hungry so I made this pasta that I'll finish for tomorrow's
To emplot is to comprehend. It is to make sense of events and situations after the fact, to
construct them into a narrative context as they "unfold" (Cart 1986), and to envision other
events and situations before they occur. It is to correlate what is happening in the present
to remembered happenings in the past and anticipated ones in the future. It is to construe
our past in relation to our present and future and our future in relation to our present and
past. It is not to stay stuck in one time-sense alone. Someone who lived in the past, present,
or future exclusively would experience great difficulty in day-to-day life. It is also to intuit
the central story-lines in the explanations of others, keep them straight in our memory, and
connect recounted events into dynamic, coherent wholes we can thereby "understand".
To emplot is tofill in the blanks. It is to comprehend our past by completing it, rounding
it out by the same act of story-making we bring to a fictional text (Chatman 1978), constructing a virtual world from what is otherwise a hodge-podge of verbal-visual cues. It is
to keep the story-line of our own lives straight in our minds---or "a" story-line, as there are
easily many. It is to sustain in our memory and imagination a sense of our identity through

Narrative Intelligence


time as us, even if what we string together with that story-line is a collage of the fewest and
flimsiest of recollections.
To emplot is to generate alternatives, to construct a variety of versions to account for
specific events, and to see a situation from a number of sides--which means, as having
multiple meanings. Thus, a particular occurrence is viewed as disappointing or pleasing,
negative or positive, depending on the story-line in terms of which we see it fit. An interview that fails to land us a job may be storied according to various "titles" (Polster 1987):
It's their loss; It wasn't meant to be; It's the story o f my life. Each title implies a different
official version of the same event, construes that event in a particular way, and leads to a
unique emotional-behavioral reaction.

To characterize is to characterize ourselves. It is to form a working picture (a moving
picture, as in ever-revisable) of what we are like, based on a variety of cues, clues, and halfperceived features reflected back to us in the reactions and opinions of others. It is to envision ourselves as the "hero" in our own lifestory (Pearson 1989; Randall 1995); or to create, and live in terms of, a self-image or personal "myth" (Atkinson 1995; Feinstein et al.
1988; Keen 1993; McAdams 1994) that fits more or less with the repertoire our culture provides (Bruner 1987). It is also to generate (though rarely in a conscious manner) a cast of
inner characters that correspond to the different "sides" of our selves or dimensions of our
personalities--what have been called "sub-personalities" (Assagioli 1987) or "imagoes"
(McAdams 1988, 1994, 1996).
To characterize is to characterize others, to construct working pictures of what they are
like, based often on fewer and flimsier clues than in the case of ourselves. By means of
these pictures, we then imagine others' thoughts and feelings, and their possible actions
and reactions in particular situations, comparing our picture of one person with pictures we
have formed of others in the past, thereby constructing a theory as to what type of person
that person is. This ability enables us both to mimic other people and to feel compassion
for them; also, to appreciate their novelty and not pre-judge or "storyotype" them (Randall
1995) but be open to learning their "whole story" before settling on an official version of
what they are like (Kenyon 1996). As such, characterization can involve continual reformulation in light of new evidence so that, in the case of others, we do not to stay stuck with
first impressions, while of ourselves, we are open to experience fresh sides of our own personality.

To narrate is to communicate. It is to convey to others in words what is going on, has
gone on, or may go on, sensitive to what they will understand in terms of "logical" connections between events, between causes and consequences, etc. It is to communicate not only
what we do but who we are, in response to a sort of"autobiographical imperative" (Randall
1995), in relation to which some seem more driven and artful than others.
To narrate is to impose order on events, whether past events after the fact or future ones
before. In this respect, living and telling are distinct processes yet are tightly entwined,
insofar as "we are constantly striving.., to occupy the story-teller's position with respect to
our own actions" (Carr 1986, p. 60).



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To narrate is to sustain interest, by managing the fundamentals of grammar, the rudi-

ments of rhetoric, and the styles of storying that are intrinsic to the linguistic context in
which we are trying to communicate (Bruner 1987; Gubrium and Holstein 1998). Familiarity with these conventions permits us to recount events in ways that not only engage our listener but also inject some element of novelty, so that we do not merely parrot the selftelling style of others. Such skill includes varying our vocabulary and voice to accommodate the capacities of our audience and to match the phases (beginning, middle, and end) of
transforming a given event into a tellable tale. That is, it entails summarizing the central
action in a way that captures its core dynamic of development and denouement, and,
depending on our audience's tastes, includes neither too much detail nor too little.
To narrate is to be both narrator and character. It is to portray ourselves as an "I" or
"me" who is a protagonist or character amidst the activitives we narrate (McAdams 1996),
yet to know that this protagonist-character is distinct from the other "I" who is narrating. It
is to distinguish between self as subject or knower and object or known (Berman 1994, pp.
165ff)--and self as audience as well. It is to be "narratee" (Chatman 1978) to one's own
To narrate is to employ a particular narrative tone, "ranging from blissful optimism to
biting negativism" (McAdams 1996, p. 136). From childhood on, such tones can become
integral to our distinctive "storying style" (Randall 1995, 1996), determining how we summarize, etc., according to a particular editorial bias. Along "with the ways of conceptualizing that go with them," they "become so habitual that they finally become recipes for
structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the
life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future" (Bruner 1987, p. 31). "The
manner in which we tell ourselves what is going on," agrees Jungian psychoanalyst James
Hillman, "is the genre through which events become experiences" (1975, p. 146).

To genreate is to organize events into more or less predictable patterns or types, in both
telling and experiencing them. It is to perceive a particular chain of events as essentially
tragic, comic, ironic, etc. (Bruner 1996; Gergen and Gergen 1983, 1984), as evidenced in
news headlines, where generic constructions are routinely employed---e.g., Weekend
Adventure Turns to Tragedy. It is also to sense the difference between a good mood and a
bad mood, between optimism and pessimism. It is, so to speak, to recognize "narrative
tone" both in situations and in lives, whether others' or our own.
To genre-ate is to intuit or imagine, and possibly to articulate, the dramatic shape o f our
own life course, its "ups and downs", "successes and failures", whether it is fundamentally

a "happy" life or a "tragic" one, and so forth--for example, Booth's (1988) "life-plots", the
Gergens' (1983, 1984) "life-trajectories", and Ruth and Oberg's (1996) "ways of life". In
terms of originality, such shapes can range between the novel, or individually invented,
and the conventional, or culturally constructed.

To thematize is to be aware o f recurring patterns o f meaning in particular events, situations, or lives (our own and others'), and aware of how these are alluded to, developed, and

Narrative Intelligence


resolved (see Csikszentimihalyi and Beattie 1979; Birren and Deutchman 1991; Kaufman
To thematize is to identify symbols or motifs and entertain theories as to their application
or relevance. It is to read a series of comments or behaviors, gestures or events, as mediating a particular point. It is to recount the anecdotes by which we understand our lives so as
to communicate messages (overt or covert) about love, faith, purpose, morality, etc., and in
this manner transform life into "literature" and raw experience into "art" (see Hampl 1996).
Emplotment, characterization, narration, genre-ation, thematization--these processes, I
propose, are among the principal operations of narrative intelligence, integral to how we
make meaning vis g~ vis not only history, movies, and news but also our own lives. Of
course, as evidenced by the work of Bruner (1990), Polkinghorne (1988), Sarbin (1986),
Freeman (1993), Gubrium and Holstein (1998), and others, this sketch can be considerably
expanded. Moreover, in the case of each capacity, individuals will vary, with some more
intense or sophisticated, and others less. In addition, some may be sophisticated in their
experience of a certain aspect of narrative intelligence but less so in their expression, and
so on. Plus, different individuals may develop different sub-capacities, even sub-subcapacities. Thus, the same person can be empathetic toward others yet a poor judge of character, or unable to get past first impressions; another, good at explaining events after the
fact but bad at anticipating them before they occur. Furthermore, the experience and
expression of narrative intelligence will presumably vary by gender (Becker this issue;
Frye 1986), and by the family, culture, class, and creed that have shaped us; that is, with
the "narrative environment" (Brnner 1990) that each of these entails and the "forms of selftelling" (Brunet 1987) or storying styles each implicitly prescribes as possible, plausible,
and permissible to use. Put another way, the form and content of our narrative intelligence,
and thus of our self-storying, will be subtly but profoundly influenced by the several
"larger stories" (Kenyon and Randall 1997) in which we have lived across the years.
Such fine-tuning aside, the foregoing should show that narrative intelligence is basic
intelligence. While we can have little musical intelligence (i.e., be tone-deaf) yet manoeuvre successfully through our day-to-day world, without narrative intelligence, such
manoeuvering would be impossible. Memory and imagination could not be, while conversation as we know it (as an exchange of anecdotes) would be inconceivable (Linde 1993)
and relationships chaotic to the point of nonsensical. In agreement with Kerby (1991),
Crites (1971, 1986), and Carr (1986), then, I believe we must see narrative intelligence as
playing so fundamental a role in our construal of reality as to operate at a pre- or quasi-conscious level.
Before moving to the question of age-changes in narrative intelligence, let me pause to
posit that narrative intelligence be understood in terms of two broad types--basic and
advanced. Basic narrative intelligence we all possess, whatever our age. Though some of
us seem to possess more of it than others for example, we can tell more stories more
engagingly--we could not function humanly if we had none whatsoever. While basic narrative intelligence may change with age and indeed become impaired with such conditions
as Alzheimer's or chronic pain (Becker this issue; Holst et al. this issue; Crisp 1995), it is
debatable whether the change concerns primarily its form or merely the content to which it
is applied. Though distinguishing between content and form in relation to narrative intelligence may be skating on thin ice over deep waters, it is a distinction that at some point
deserves consideration.



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By "advanced", I mean narrative intelligence that has been intentionally refined, just as
we might train a basic musical intelligence in the appreciation and performance of classical
works. It is narrative intelligence that has been "educated" (Frye 1963), say by exposure to
great literature, which does not merely expand our vocabulary and appease our "narrative
lust" (Lewis 1966) but increases our overall literary competence, rendering us more appreciative of the wide range of narrative strategies. We become not just literate but literate literarily (Bogdan 1990). As urged by advocates of literary studies (Gold 1990; Coles 1989;
Bogdan and Straw 1990), such literacy, applied to the experience of our own lives, can
enrich our self-storying, increase our subtlety and depth as biographical beings, and lead us
to appreciate our own ordinary wisdom (see "Reading Our Lives" below).


Because narrative intelligence is an under-studied capacity, how our experience and
expression of it might change as we age is a largely uncharted issue. Yet as we have seen,
the forms it assumes in childhood can differ significantly from what it takes as we move
into adolescence, especially late adolescence. For McAdams (1988, 1994, 1996), Berman
(1994), Randall (1995), and others, it is generally only then that we awaken--if we do--to
our own lifestory and become "biographers of the self' (McAdams 1988). Though some
individuals are biographically more precocious than others, it seems seldom before then
that we discover our desire and our need to assume authority for our own lives. Thereafter,
though we squander this authority (Polster 1987) to other people and powers, we have a
measure of conscious control hitherto unavailable over the composition of our identity as
"us". (In other words, though our lives are bound by "facticity", we can cultivate our sense
of "possibility" and so restory our lives (Kenyon and Randall 1997).)
In terms of the dynamics of narrating, for example, McAdams (1996) divides the development of identity into three stages--premythic, mythic, and postmythic. In the postmythic, "the elderly person looks upon his or her life as something that has been and must
now be reviewed or evaluated as a near-finished product, a story that may be accepted
(integrity) or rejected (despair) but which can no longer be substantially changed" (p. 136).
I would concur with McAdams as regards not only narrating, however, but also the other
operations involved in storying our lives, and so propose that, with advancing years, significant changes do indeed occur in how we experience and exercise our intrinsic narrative
intelligence. Unfortunately, detailing such changes is beyond the scope of this article,
though I hope to have helped set the stage for doing so. Instead, let me simply throw out
some speculations on certain broad shifts that, from a story perspective, may be said to take
place in how we compose our lives.

From infancy through adulthood, our lives become more complicated. We grow up, raise
a family, pursue a succession of past-times, relationships, and careers. With each day,
month, and year, our lifestory includes, as it were, more sub-plots, characters, chapters, and
themes. Our life-plot thickens. Such thickening is an inevitable by-product of our immersion in time. "Our lived experience is like a snowball," says one philosopher, "roiling on
itself and constantly increasing in volume" (Charm6 1984, p. 63). Another thus refers to

Narrative Intelligence


memory as "a movement of progressive thickening" (Casey 1987, p. 264), and says that "to
remember at to become enmeshed in the thicket of the past" (p. 266).
As we approach our life's end and our "sense of an ending" (Kermode 1966) intensifies,
however, might our lifestory not "narrow" as well, given the gradual decrease in options
and opportunities--physical, social, economic--that are open to us? Such narrowing
would be analogous to the denouement of a novel, to its becoming "feeble" toward the end
insofar as "the plot requires to be wound up" (Forster 1962, pp. 93-94). But is narrowing
a necessary development? For some people, perhaps many, their frame of reference continually widens, their increasingly fertile inner substance matched by their capacity to articulate the insights it sprouts. "Biographically active" to the end (Ruth and Kenyon 1996a, b),
their inner story-world does not cease expansion nor do their interpretive talents diminish.
They appear to grow truly wiser with age. While our life draws to a close, then, might not
our lifestory, as a literary work, come into its own as a source of meaning and--narratively
speaking--truth (Spence 1982)?

With the thickening within us of layer on layer of the half-remembered remnants of the
"events" of our lives, it could be said that, over the years, our past becomes increasingly
"sedimented". Given the countless bits of memory that lie inside us as "the detritus of our
history" (Truitt 1987), then if living a life is "composing" a life might it not be described
as continually de-composing, or composting, one as well? While the depth dimension and
soulful substance conferred on us by such mulchifying of memory may not translate into
an altered experience and expression of the basic form of our narrative intelligence, how,
we can ask, might it alter the content on which that intelligence works?

Complexifying of Emotions
With sedimenting and thickening comes a complexification of our emotional life. We
know from medical science that our emotions have biochemical roots, but might they not
have narrative or biographical ones as well (Kenyon and Randall 1997; Mader 1996; Ruth
and ViUko 1996)? According to this view (put crudely), a particular emotion is tied not to
reality per se but to a tale we entertain concerning it, a story we tell ourselves, or internalize
from others, about what is going on. Fear is what we feel when we tell ourselves that something terrible may happen in the future. Hope is, literally, a different story. And so on. With
age, then, can we not say that our experience (if not our expression) of our emotionality
becomes more nuanced and complicated, becomes thicker, as our reactions to present and
future situations are filtered through the accumulated lifestory material formed around
other situations in the past? In effect, we become more "sedimentar', our feelings possessing a richness and range that would have been impossible in childhood and adolescence. 4
"As life goes on," observes May Sarton, "it becomes more intense because there are tremendous numbers of associations and so many memories" (1981, p. 231).

ShifUng Horizon of Self-Understanding

Polkinghorne (1988, p. 160) stresses that "we live immersed in narrative, recounting and
reassessing the meanings of our past actions, anticipating the outcomes of future projects,



Vol. 13/No. 1/1999

situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed". Our predicament, however, is that "we are in the middle of our stories". Thus, we "are constantly having to revise the plot as new events are added to our lives" (p. 150), yet "without knowing
how the story will end" (p. 69). We can envision this interpretive dilemma as we plot along
amid our ever-thickening life-novel in terms of a constantly shifting "horizon of selfunderstanding" (Berman 1994, p. 176ff). A "central feature of the human condition", this
shifting horizon is best witnessed when given explicit expression, as in a personal journal.
In his study of the effects of keeping a journal on self-awareness in later life, Berman
(1994) argues that journal entries "are events of interpretation in which the writer attempts
to give meaning to day-to-day incidents" (p. 178). Echoing Polkinghorne, he says "we
make sense of the present in terms of our working theory of the kind of story we are in the
middle of" (p. 180). This phenomenon is evident in the journals of May Sarton, in which
"we repeatedly witness her attempts to sum up the story of her life: to clarify where she is
in the narrative of her life based on an assessment of what lies behind and what lies ahead.
The events of her life again and again force a revision of the story" (p. 181). Is it not the
case for all of us, to some degree though, whether we be journal-keepers or not, that our
lifestory can seem a tragedy one day, winding down to a dismal end, while on another, a
marvelous adventure, progressing challenge by challenge to a happy conclusion? When
such "restoryings" of our self-concept are radical enough and last long enough, might they
not constitute a kind of "re-genre-ation" of our lives (Kenyon and Randall 1997)? If so, a
question could be whether or not there is an age-limit beyond which such shifts in our horizon of self-understanding (and their resulting impact on our emotional life) are no longer

Reading Our Lives

Another question is whether the quality of our aging, biographically speaking, can be
enriched by bringing an advanced narrative intelligence, a literary self-literacy, to the material of our own lives. By literary self-literacy I mean the capacity to "read" our own lifetexts, a capacity in which it seems we are seldom tutored, despite the education we receive
throughout life in how to make sense of the "texts" presented us in books, or in the workings of politics, culture, and nature. From childhood on, reading, like plotting and narrating, is a core component of our narrative intelligence. We are involved in "reading" all the
time, whether events, situations, the wider world, or other people. The supposedly simple
process of "getting to know" someone involves intuiting and interpreting their lifestory as
they allude to it in their speech, gestures, and silences. If we never "read between the lines"
of their actions or words, never speculated on their motives or thoughts, we would be naive
to a fault. But what is involved in reading ourselves?
In relation to the novelty of our lives, we may be said to have numerous points of view.
Just as a novel has an author, is mediated through a narrator, is about certain characters, and
is made real by a reader in the act of reading, so we are simultaneously the author of our
life-novel (though this is ultimately a socio-political, even theological question); the narrator, as in the one best positioned to talk about it; the central character, or the person it is, at
its core, about; and the principal reader, the person closest to it and (theoretically) best
placed to make sense of it. Such relationships to our own lifestory are all possibilities
inherent in our self-consciousness (Randall 1995). Moreover, we are constantly shifting

Narrative Intelligence


between them. There are days, for example, when we are busy "just getting on", noses to
the grindstone, no time to muse on the meaning of life; other days, when in the company of
the right listener all we do is talk. Granted, in our talk may be mixed a degree of self-reading, but the aspect of performance to our audience may limit it. Reading per se, however,
may be something we reserve for its own time--when alone, in intimate relationship, or in
McAdams' post-mythic phase of later life. In other words, with advancing years might we
not have a built-in tendency to shift from a predominantly protagonist mode vis-a-vis our
life to a narrative mode to a reader mode--a possibility that would support the widely critiqued Erikson-Butler view of the universality of life review (see Webster this issue)?
What we read, we could say, are the "texts" of our memories, dreams, decisions, relationships, and, of course, our words, whether written, in a journal or diary, or spoken, either
casually in conversation or formally in therapy. And what might we read these things for?
For the same things we read any literary work: the plot, characterizations, themes, and the
meanings (Kenyon and Randall 1997). However, it can be no small task to read for such
things, sensitively and searchingly, in the texts that time has laid inside us--in what Mader
(1996) calls our "biographically accrued capital." It is in many respects an acquired talent,
like the appreciation of great literature. Acquiring it requires the opportunity to tell our stories in the first place and have them heard--respectfully, non-judgementally--by others
(Kenyon and Randall 1997). (As the saying goes, "you can't tell who you are unless someone is listening" (Keen and Fox 1974).) Understanding what self-reading entails is perhaps
an even tougher task, however, because of the intricacy of reading itself. Despite attention
paid in recent years to the complex exchange between author, text, and reader (Birkerts
1994; Bogdan and Straw 1990), the act of reading itself how it happens, what it does to
the reader, and how what we call "meaning" is constructed during it--remains enshrouded
in the mysteries of language and memory, narrative and time. While this may seem an
unfortunate omen for understanding self-reading, my purpose in this article is more to
introduce topics than to give them exhaustive treatment. Nonetheless, such treatment will
be well worth our while, as we move from a view of the aging process rooted in the medical
and social sciences to one that draws equally on the humanities and arts.

In this article, I have introduced the notion of narrative intelligence, sketched its dynamics
in everyday life, and speculated on changes in our experience and expression of it that may
occur with advancing age. Such intelligence, I argue, is central to formulating and following the "story" of our life. For this reason, it is a core component of biographical aging.
An article like this is a tease, of course, for it raises more issues than it resolves. For one,
it resists defining what a "lifestory" is or means. It also sidesteps such intriguing questions
as how to "measure" narrative intelligence as a cognitive capacity--in particular, how it
might decline with advancing years--and how life-genres or storying styles might be
genetically based. On the other hand, it underlines the need to honor "the storied nature of
human conduct" (Sarbin 1986) in our analysis of the development (and impairment) of
autobiographical memory (Rubin 1986; Crisp 1995) and of the processes and effects of
various forms of autobiographical activity in which seniors may be encouraged to engage,
such as life review, reminiscence, and therapy. It also suggests a fresh direction for consid-



Vol. 13/No. 1/1999

ering the nature of emotionality and personality in later life, and of spirituality and wisdom.
Furthermore, with its proposal that we do not story our lives in a vacuum but in the context
of various narrative environments or larger stories (Kenyon and Randall 1997), it adds to
the discussion of"narrative practice" (Gubrium and Holstein 1998) between tellers and listeners in everyday social interaction and the consequent intertextuality--the co-authoring,
co-narrating, and co-reading over t i m e - - o f relationships and selves. Particularly rich, I
feel, is its implication that the royal road to our own ordinary wisdom (Randall and Kenyon
forthcoming) lies in learning to "read" the texts of our lives, and that such texts are in principle as meaning-filled as, if not infinitely more than, any literary work.
The article's central notion of the novelty of a life may be more difficult than even narrative intelligence, however, to account for by the social science framework in which much
gerontology theory has hitherto been cast. Yet, surely the time is ripe for gerontology to
draw more fully on the conceptual resources of a humanities framework as well, especially
perhaps one provided by literary theory (Wyatt-Brown 1996). In fact, with its openness to
aging as a lifelong process with multiple dimensions, gerontology allows a luxury denied
by other fields: to appreciate lives not ultimately as statistical entities, as sets of medical
symptoms, as collections of social roles, nor certainly as "faces without stories" (Gubrium
1993), but as self-authoring creations, as individual works of art (Bruner this issue), with
their unique brand of meaning and coherence, wisdom and truth. To appreciate them thus
requires that, sooner or later, we shift our horizon of understanding to accommodate not
merely the "psychologics" of lifespan development (Kegan 1982) but its aesthetics-indeed, poetics--as well (Randall forthcoming).

1. Narrative intelligence, it can also be argued, is essential to animal existence as well. "Animal
instinct" is, in part, a creature's capacity to "emplot" its world, i.e., to anticipate possible events in
the future (e.g., the actions and reactions of predators and prey) in relation to its memories of comparable events in the past (e.g., its previous successes and failures with similar predators and prey).
2. I shall follow the lead of Polkinghorne (1988) and others in "narrative psychology" (Sarbin
1986) by interchanging "story" and "narrative".
3. Insofar as we live by the stories we tell, our stories about what lies ahead (our fantasies, hopes,
and fears) can be seen to play as important a part in everyday life as do our accounts of what has
already occurred---our memories.
4. Note what Thomas Moore (1994) says of melancholy: "The past...often lies shrouded in a
cloud of melancholy, an emotion that is appropriate to memory as the musty odor of decay is to old
furniture and buildings .... [M]elancholy [is] an emotional mustiness that signals the presence of soul"
(p. 80.

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