PhD Proposal Example

William Ratner Transart PhD Proposal

Project Title: 
Autobiographical Storytelling for Social Change and Personal Healing

In my study I will explore the potential of autobiographical writing and live autobiographical storytelling to function as agents of personal and social change. In that context I will closely examine my own practice and creative process as well focus upon individuals within specific populations: Seniors benefit greatly from the opportunity to tell their stories. “For very advanced-age clients, the chance to tell their stories improves cognition, lessens depression, and improves behavioral functioning.” (Brozda, 2016) Law enforcement personnel have come under tremendous public scrutiny for their use of excessive force; autobiographical storytelling could serve an aid in police training. Victims of police violence and their families are often voiceless with the exception of their appearance in media sound bites.

“Stories, however, have the power to engage areas of the brain beyond those that simply process information. Stories can facilitate empathy, and can serve as a non-threatening form of negotiation. Storytelling can even facilitate emotional and mental healing, creating coherence and meaning out of traumatic experience.” (Stroud, 2016)

For the purposes of this study I define autobiographical storytelling as written or spoken personal narratives rooted in biographical fact and personal memory utilizing the self as source material; personal healing as the amelioration of an individual’s adverse psychological and/or physiological symptomatology and an increased and prolonged sense of well-being and emotional integration; and social change as measurable social benefit for a specific population segment.

From the current proliferation of autobiographical storytelling in live stage shows and radio programs e.g. The Moth Radio Hour, Snap Judgment, and This American Life, to the increased popularity of the personal memoir literary genre, autobiographical storytelling appears to be fulfilling a need in both creators and audiences.

“There’s now a growing thirst for stories... Boise State professor (Dr. Robert McCarl) has a Ph.D. in Oral History, with work encompassing fables, legends and stories from cultures ancient and modern. ‘Stories originally, and still to a certain extent, were how people learned to live,’ McCarl said. ‘You can go back to the Iliad and the Odyssey and Beowulf. A lot of the classic works of humanity are captured ethics.’” (Crisp, 2011)

Reconciliation outreach efforts in regions as diverse as South Africa (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2106), the Gaza Strip, Uganda, and Los Angeles Unified School District, have achieved meaningful results through the exchange of autobiographical stories. “If we are to survive at this critical time, humanity must remember the fundamental skill of receptivity—of listening to one another.” (Provisor, 2016). The Corporation for Supportive Housing in Los Angeles is teaching homeless persons to tell their stories so they can advocate for themselves at local, state, and federal levels. (Corporation for Supportive Housing, 2016)

The so-called American storytelling revival (Sobol, 1999) consists primarily of folkloric storytelling in which the focus is on performance aesthetics. “What makes a storytelling occasion aesthetically pleasing is the complete attention and respect that the storyteller pays to the story...Storytellers have held audiences so enthralled that space and time, physical realities and inescapable existential dilemmas, have been all but forgotten.” (Birch and Heckler, 1996, p. 12) In a time of global transition, increased nomadism, and resultant personal suffering, I intend to explore autobiographical storytelling not simply as a means to escape our dilemmas but rather as a means to solve them.

Research questions—What is the basic focus of the proposed work?
In my practice as an autobiographical storyteller I was initially drawn to the cultural history and stylistic and performance aesthetics of storytelling. But as professionals in related fields e.g. cultural anthropology, social work, and psychology have begun utilizing autobiographical storytelling as tools of personal and social change my focus has expanded to encompass the following questions:

1) How can autobiographical storytelling be utilized as a tool for social change and personal healing not only for myself but also for other creative workers, seniors, law enforcement personnel, and victims of police violence and their families?

2) What constitutes effective autobiographical storytelling? (Areas of inquiry will include psychoanalytic theory, literary theory, and literary criticism)

1. In the Studio

The centerpiece of my creative practice is my written personal memoir in-progress, Announcing the Apocalypse — a pool of stories from which most of my published work and performance pieces have come –` detailing events from my life history written in an autobiographical manner, based on memories, corroboration from family sources, and extant letters and photographs (Ratner, 2016). The central narrative focuses on the deaths of my immediate family from natural causes during my childhood. I explore the addictive qualities of memory and how the early loss of family has shaped my choice of career and creative practice and my functionality as a parent and marriage partner.

Personal memoir and autobiographical storytelling present unique creative challenges. Narrative content is limited to biographical truth and accuracy. Thus my authorial choices involve stylistic inquiries into chronology, point of view, tone, expressive or emotional writing, questions of the utilization of the adult voice versus the child voice in the course of designing the narrative, plus methods of discovering evocative language to suit the intensity and mood of the story such as automatic writing, method writing (Grapes, 2001), conversion of prose into poetic forms — exercises and prompts designed to find new modes of expression in the writing and live performance.

Through the processes of writing and performing new narrative work I intend to focus my inquiry on the efficacy of autobiographical storytelling not only as vital entertainment but also as:
1) A tool to effect measurable and qualitative personal healing in myself and others.
2) A call to social action for audiences and readers.

2. Writing
In addition to the creation of narrative artifacts I will document and catalogue the nature of my experimentation and compare drafts and progressive stages of the work in order to measure creative and editorial changes and results. I will document my own psychotherapy process by recording therapy sessions with an electronic audio recording device, maintain a written diary, and attempt to utilize emerging insights and themes in the creative writing.

I have formulated a series of discussion questions and will conduct discovery interviews and guided conversations with storytellers, general audiences, workshop participants, and members of my designated populations, focusing on the private lives of interviewees as case studies to explore the effects of participation in autobiographical storytelling.

I will document my work as a storytelling workshop leader while conducting lab experiments within the workshops, seeking to discover, build upon, and improve exercises in an effort to determine how the hosting and teaching of autobiographical storytelling can affect participants.

I will read and annotate the work of artists whose practices are thematically and stylistically related to mine. I will attempt to find parallels, differences, and inspiration in the work of memoirists Annie Dillard, Augusten Burroughs, Vivian Gornick, Sven Birkirts, et al, and autobiographical storytellers Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, and Anna Deavere Smith, and through the process of literary criticism I will compare and contrast what I determine to be superior creative work with work which I deem to be less effective.

Short Descriptive Summary
We can only speculate on the purposes of autobiographical storytelling in ancient times, from tribal hunters reporting on the day’s kill, to parents telling their children bedtime stories about ancestors in order to pass on bits of family wisdom. But today in a time of controversy over public policy regarding mental health, senior care, and law enforcement procedures, we are witnessing a notable growth in the utilization of autobiographical storytelling as a professional tool. As I search for expressive story content I have an increasing desire to produce work which frames personal and social behavior in psychological terms. If my inquiries can uncover and clarify salutary effects of autobiographical storytelling on both the teller and the listener, then it is incumbent upon me to pursue my research and practice in that regard.

Bibliography of Artists, Artworks, Texts:

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Berryman, J. (1973). Recovery. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Birch, C., and Heckler, M. (1996). Who Says? Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling. Little Rock: August House.

Birkerts, S. (2008). The Art of Time in Memoir. Saint Paul: Graywolf.

Bloom, H. (2016). The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Bogosian, E. (2014). 100 Monologues. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Bogosian, E. (2013). Eric Bogosian Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Sept. 2016].

Bogosian, E. (2015) Live Talks Los Angeles: Eric Bogosian in Conversation with Alex Dinelaris. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Sept. 2016].

Bonardi, J. (2016). Where I am From Story Slam. [online] Modern Theater, Suffolk University. Available at: %5BAccessed 3 Sept. 2016].

Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP.

Brozda, M. (2016). The Power of Telling Family Stories. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Sept. 2016].

Burroughs, A. (2002). Running with Scissors: A Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s.

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Crisp, A. (2011). The Rise of the Story: Why Live Storytelling Events are Proliferating in the Digital Age. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Sept. 2016].

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Dooley, N. (2016) The Rise of the Story Slam: How Storytelling Helps Us Construct Ourselves. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 September 2016].

Flynn, Nick. (2004). Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton.

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Gornick, V. (2001). The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Grapes, J. (2001). Method Writing: The First Four Concepts. Los Angeles: J. Grapes.

Grapes, J. (2001). The Craft of the Invisible Form: A Method Writing Workshop: Second Level: The Four Voices. Los Angeles: J. Grapes.

Gray, C., and Malins, J. (2004). Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design. Hants: Ashgate.

Gray, S., and Casey, N. (2011). The Journals of Spalding Gray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gray, S. (2005). Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue. New York: Crown.

Gray, S. (1996). Spalding Gray – Gray’s Anatomy., 2012. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Sept. 2016].

Gray, S. (1990). Spalding Gray Interviewed in 1990 by Doug Ordunio. [online], 2015. Available at: [Accessed 5 Sept. 2016].

Gray, S. (2014). Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure – The Drunken Odyssey. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Sept. 2016].

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Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. New York: Plume.

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Osborne, S. (2016). After Twenty Years on the Job, NYC Police Officer Tells His Intense Stories. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Sept. 2016]

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