You know that movie you’ve watched over and over? Turns out, you can learn a lot about yourself and your own life story from your favorite film. And you can apply these lessons as you write memoirs and personal essays.

Who's your daddy?

My friend and colleague Ramona Gonzales gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles this morning on this very subject (so I’m stealing all these ideas from her): “Darth Vader is My Father: Using Elements of Modern Myth in Personal Narrative.”

The premise of her lecture (which loses something without the Darth Vader mask as a visual aid) was this:

Myth and folklore were storytelling methods used by tribal elders to impart life lessons to their tribes. In modern times pop culture has taken the place of tribal elders in continuing our biological imperative of narrative.

She had us examine our favorite films and deconstruct them to see in what ways they paralleled the stories we create of our own life events. Since I’ve probably watched Legally Blonde about three dozen times — more than any other movie, which I can only partially blame on Ted Turner’s cable stations which play it regularly — I had come to class ready with it deconstructed.

Although Elle Woods and I are leagues apart in many ways — she’s a tan, rich, spa-loving, mani-pedicured, tirelessly positive dog lover from the West Coast and I am a pale, modest-incomed, self-cleansing, unadorned and rigorously pragmatic cat person from the East Coast — her story still speaks to me.

Whoever said movies are not the new tribal elders was seriously deranged

All specifics aside, when you look at the story, you realize it’s the story of a girl who follows her heart and is better for it in the end, not because she gets the guy she wants, but because in her commitment to doing so, she learns and changes.

As in the mythic structure (departure, initiation, return), she leaves the West Coast, is initiated into her law school experience (her lesson about self) on the East Coast, and uses what she learns to help her tribe (other girlie-girl, spa creatures).

Ramona’s lecture got me thinking about how this applied to my own narrative of self: I’m definitely a girl who follows her heart and brings its lessons back to share with others in my writing.

The lecture drew on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers and Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Also, it referenced The New York Times essay “This is Your Life (and How you Tell It)” which includes fascinating research on how the life stories we tell ourselves shape our personalities and vice-versa.

So what about you? What are your favorite films? What do they reflect about the story you tell yourself about your own life?

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