Ann audaciously takes on Jill Bolte Taylor’s bestseller
Jodie Foster is not planning to play me in the Sony Pictures movie of my life. Ron Howard will not direct the major motion picture version of my New York Times bestselling book.
I have never practiced neuroanatomy, especially after recovering from a massive stroke. Nor have I crafted an anatomically correct brain of stained glass.
The video of my TED talk is not the second most viewed of all time. I have not been named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world. Oprah has never called.
All of these things are true, however, of Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight.
So who am I to offer notes on Taylor’s book? Just a loving fan who finds Bolte’s story so compelling that I wish she’d presented it a little bit better. OK, a lot better.
So what can you learn from Bolte’s mistakes?
Lead with the lead.
The biggest problem with My Stroke of Insight — and with many of the business communications I review — is that it clogs up the top of the story with background.
The first chapter introduces Bolte before her stroke. And, while she sounds like an affable, interesting woman … who cares? (Let’s remember that Oprah didn’t call until after the stroke. The thing that makes Bolte interesting is the stroke.)
“I am a trained and published neuroanatomist. I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana.”
That’s not exactly opening with a bang.
But that’s a minor complaint compared to the next two chapters — a couple of dense, academic sections on brain science.
Don’t clog up the story with the blah-blah background.
Now, as your resident geek, I can get really interested in brain science. A great patient story and helpful analogies can make technical topics like, say, functional asymmetries of the human cerebral cortices more compelling and easier to understand.
Bolte has an amazing patient story: her own stroke! If she had woven the necessary brain science only throughout the narrative line, she could have shown and told, shown and told, shown and told — the textbook way to bring science to life.
I can think of half-a-dozen creative ways to do this. Among them:
- Weave the science in throughout the narrative line. “I couldn’t have explained this then, but as the blood poured in over my brain, my consciousness slowed …”
- Run a scholar’s margin next to the narrative to explain, side-by-side, what’s happening in the brain vs. what’s happening in her body and consciousness.
- Use graphics and captions to illustrate what’s going on in the brain.
Instead, Bolte offers a two-chapter background section (that’s blah-blah-blah background to you, Ms. Bolte) before the first dramatic moment.
Now, that’s making the kids take their medicine without a spoonful of sugar and before watching TV. Honestly, if this hadn’t been my new book club’s selection for the month, I wouldn’t have made it through this section.
What obstacles are you putting in the way of your stories?
Finally, in chapter four, we get to Bolte’s story:
The next nine chapters tell the wildly compelling tale of Bolte’s stroke, treatment and recovery. (The woman perceived herself as a liquid for eight years, yet ultimately recovered her career as a neuroanatomist, for gosh sakes.)
I just wish the editors at Penguin had done a better job of tidying and tightening up the story. Phrases like “I fathomed the gravity of my immediate situation” are stuffy rather than dramatic. And repeated exclamations like “I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!” just obscure this story’s striking narrative bones with cheap drugstore makeup.
If you’ve got a great story to tell, “Wows!” just get in the way.
Nearly half of this short book is really a separate book, the Oprah book, on what Bolte learned from her stroke. She learned some really, really interesting things. Among them:
- Insights on how to heal. “Recovery can be derailed by hopelessness. … A lot of stroke survivors complain that they are no longer recovering. … I often wonder if the real problem is that no one is paying attention to the little accomplishments. … We celebrated all my accomplishments. … The try is everything.”
- Insights on how to treat people who are healing. “See that I am a wounded animal, not a stupid animal.”
- Insights on how to live. “Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears. … [P]eace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind. … There has been nothing more empowering than the realization that I don’t have to think thoughts that bring me pain.”
Again, I’d argue for incorporating these insights into the narrative, which Bolte did very well. Then — maybe — you’d add a single chapter at the end of the book summarizing and distilling these insights.
Instead, Bolte ran 10 chapters, including two appendixes, further outlining, exploring and elucidating these insights. That extra space allowed her to gunk up the book with “insights” like “When I am simply grateful, life is simply great!” and “My favorite definition of fear is ‘False Expectations Appearing Real.’”
I’d cut these chapters altogether or make them a separate book.
Don’t jump to the wrong conclusion.
Finally, Bolte closes with a little jingle she wrote to generate donations to the Harvard Brain Bank. (“Want to go to Harvard?”) It’s cute, and it’s important, but it doesn’t conclude any of the three pieces already in the book — the narrative about Bolte’s stroke, the insights she gained or the brain science.
All it does is further jumble this beautiful mess.
How can you use structure and discipline to make the most of your