Whenever I read about psychology or the structure of the brain and mind, this theme keeps coming up. Human beings seem to have a deeply-rooted need for narrative: a need to structure our experiences as stories. It seems to be hard-wired into the way our brains and minds work. (I remember once overhearing a very pompous filmmaker explaining to his crew, "I don't want to give my audience the bourgeois comfort of a narrative structure." As if narrative structure were a stuffy, outmoded invention of the Victorian middle class. I fell into gales of laughter and immediately told an artist friend about it, who went into an aw-shucks routine about, "Heck, naw, the missus and me don't need no narrative structure. Nope, the avant-garde was good enough for my Pappy, and it's darn well good enough fer me.")
Anyway. I've been thinking a lot about what my stories are. Because our stories are important. Our stories shape how we experience our lives. Certain narrative themes seem to come up over and over again in our lives — different ones for different people, of course — and those themes affect how we feel about the things that happen to us. It's commonly understood that the same event can be experienced by different people in radically different ways. And I don't mean that in a Rashomon way. I mean that the exact same event can be experienced as positive or negative; exciting or frightening; supportive or critical; affirming or alienating… depending on the stories we tell ourselves about them. And of course, our stories affect how we behave, the choices we make and the ways we respond to our experiences.
Or, as Joan Didion so famously and succinctly put it, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
So I've been thinking about my stories… and I've been getting curious about everyone else's.
One of my main stories is, "Plucky in the face of adversity." And it's not a bad story, as stories go. It sure beats, "Falling apart in the face of adversity," or, "Totally negative and pessimistic in the face of adversity." Its plusses are so obvious that I won't bother to enumerate them.
But it has its downsides as well. For one thing, if a central narrative theme of your life is, "Plucky in the face of adversity," it doesn't give you a lot to work with when there's no adversity and your life is going smoothly and well. "Plucky in the face of adversity" has an unfortunate tendency to turn into "Restless and bored and looking for a fight in the face of calm good luck." It can make you feel aimless and vaguely dissatisfied during peaceful stretches of your life, and can even give you a tendency to create adversity where none exists. And I have had a problem with this in my life. I've definitely created drama where no drama was called for; and I've definitely been drawn to people who created a lot of drama in their lives, just so I could experience it vicariously. It's a tendency I've had to pay careful, conscious attention to.
In fact, even though my life for several years now has been largely happy and stable with really not that much adversity, I think I'm still very much governed by this narrative. I've just transformed my definition of "adversity," to mean "creative challenges" rather than "pointless interpersonal drama." Trying to get a book contract; battling with editors; trying to write something interesting in my blog four or five times a week… this is the adversity that I'm plucky in the face of now.
Another narrative of mine is "Wise, emotionally intelligent woman with a unique and worthwhile perspective on life." Again, not a bad story: a bit cocky and full of itself, perhaps, but it's given me the self-confidence I've needed to pursue my writing. Any artistic career needs a fair amount of arrogance — the arrogance of believing that anyone outside your immediate circle of family and friends would be even remotely interested in what you have to say. And again, as stories go, "Wise and emotionally intelligent" sure beats "Lost in her own little world" or "Never does anything right."
But again, this story has a downside. And not just the obvious one of occasional self-delusion, being prone to believing that you're being wise and perceptive when you're actually being an idiot. It's also a story that can easily turn into, "Person who gives a lot of unsolicited advice and likes to tell people how to run their life when they really just wanted a sympathetic ear." I have to watch this tendency very carefully, and I fall into it a whole lot more than I'd like.
And then, you have your standard, embarrassingly self-serving narratives, the source material for your most ridiculous fantasies, the stories that make you cringe when you catch yourself at them. "Nobody understands my unique genius." "I'm the only honest one — everyone feels the way I do, if only they'd admit it." "Who is that striking, strangely compelling woman over there in the corner?" "They'll all be sorry someday, but then it'll be too late." But I think you get my point.
So what's your story? What are the narrative themes that shape your life? How do they work for you; how do they screw you up; how have they changed as your life has changed? One of my other stories is, "Curious and interested in the lives of others and the workings of the human mind" — it makes a great cover story for "nosy" — and I want to know how this works for people other than me.