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May 21 2008

What’s Your Story?

Miss smiths incredible storybookSo what's your story?

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.

Pushcart WarOne 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.

Rhyme reason phantom tollboothAnother 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.

Blank bookSo 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.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    ssjessiechan

    Thank you, Greta, you’ve given me something constructive to think about for a while. I think your example of “Falling Apart in the Face of Adversity” sounds a little too close to home, even if I modify it to “Falling Apart in the Face of Ordinary Pressures that Normal People can Handle” to worsen the effect. But the one that I’ve really felt most closely, for several years, is “The Broken Doll that Wants to Become Human”. My current goal is to change that. But I can’t really figure out if it’s me or something else that’s standing in my way. :/
    Since you claim your motives are selfish, perhaps I’ll tell you my reasoning later in private. :P Depends if I can work out the courage.

  2. 2
    Frank DN

    My story is stroke survivor gets rewired brain, loses emotions and the ability to care about anything, and changes from gung ho true believer to card carrying member of the evil atheist conspiracy. So many severely radical changes I went so far as to change my name. I write about this a lot online since no one in the real world wants to hear about it anymore.

  3. 3
    Claire B

    Wow, wow, wow! I’ve only just recently discovered this blog, and I’ve been lurking for a few weeks now just open-mouthed in wonder at the wisdom and emotional intelligence on offer (Greata, you’re certainly not self-deluded looking at yourself that way. Though my nit-picking side does go, “But that’s more of a central character than an actual narrative, isn’t it?” But I shall hit my inner nit-picker with bricks until it shuts up and lets the rest of us get a word in, coz I reckon I know what you mean anyway.)
    Anyway, this is the first time I’ve been drawn in enough to actually post. I’ve always loved stories, loved narrative, fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter, so long as there’s a good narrative pull – hey, that’s my drug. I probably shouldn’t confess this in a public forum, but sometimes if I’m feeling down, just walking along the street saying, “Stories, stories, stories” to myself makes me feel a little better. A bit like a heroin addict licking the inside of the empty plastic bag his last hit came in, I suppose. (Hmm. Just accidentally typed “Heron addict” there. “Yes, give me herons! Damn you, I’ll pay, I’ll find the money,you know me, Mickey, when have I let you down? Just give me that damn heron, now!”)
    So anyway, no-one ever asked me yet what my own stories were. It’s made me think. My main one I think is The Hero’s Journey. You know, the one where the central character, who is in some way special and set apart from those around them, sallies forth into the world, discovers new places and new people (new life and new civilisations if you’re a Trek fan), makes friends, has adventures, reveals their true worth, finds fulfillment, and saves the day.
    I think that’s a pretty good one. It’s got a fair bit of flexibility, a few advantages that, as in Greta’s case, are too obvious to enumerate. The main problem, of course, is, again, the arrogance one. That story makes it far too easy to demote your friends, your family, all the people around you who you care about, into sidekicks. Coz if you’re the hero, then your adventure is the one that matters, right? No, big fat WRONG there.
    My other one is Wise Mentor Dispenses Helpful Advice. That one can cause real trouble. I once had a really good friend tell me she didn’t want to hurt or upset me, but she’d really appreciate it if I’d stop patronising her all the time. I hadn’t even realised that was what I was doing! I just got too caught up in my own Wise Mentor narrative. “Ah, my child… let me tell you where, in your
    ignorance, you have gone wrong…”
    Interestingly, I find I can be more of a helpful friend if I let go of that narrative and accept that I ain’t no wise mentor, just a struggling human being like everyone else. Sometimes I can give advice to people, sometimes they can give advice to me. Sometimes I’m the main character, with my drama taking centre stage, sometimes I’m the sidekick and someone else’s stuff is more important now. I don’t know what that narrative’s called. Real Life, I strongly suspect.
    (And with that, she disappered, as mysteriously as she had come…)

  4. 4
    Kit Whitfield

    Also de-lurking to say hello, as this is a very interesting question. Big kudos for your excellent blog, by the way. :-)
    I’m on my third novel, and the theme that keeps coming back to me is, succinctly, ‘person who’s an oddity caught up in uncomfortable but compelling co-dependent relationship with a larger group, generally involving family or society.’ (Not quite as snappy as yours, I fear, but that one’s hard to precis!)
    The downsides of that one, I think, leap out immediately. Co-dependency is bad. So, too, is seeing yourself as an oddity too much; it’s a slippery slope to ‘nobody understands me’, and thence to ‘normal rules don’t apply to me’.
    There are upsides as well, though: having a story about social oddities can give me the confidence to believe that I’m not necessarily wrong just because I’m in the minority, and a story about co-dependence can remind me that just because I’m in the minority doesn’t mean I have no connections to, or responsibilities towards, or power over, everybody else. As considering yourself helpless against others can make you dangerously ruthless in supposed self-defence, it’s good to remember what links you to people as well as what separates you from them.
    Another one is, ‘Facing an impossible moral quandary and having to make some kind of decision, even though it may at best be the least of various evils.’ Advantage: encourages me not to dither when I should act, not to see things as black and white, and at to least try to stand up for what I think is right rather than lapsing into cynical inaction. Disadvantage: moral compromise is a slippery beast, and I may end up hurting people if I get it wrong…

  5. 5
    Louis Doench

    My story is “Somewhat witty goofball who has been lucky enough to get back up from his many stumbles and still laugh at himself. He’s also trying to have as much fun as he can with his nervous breakdown.”
    Sounds like a Woody Allen picture to me.

  6. 6
    Keely

    Well, I’ve got quite a few I could go into, but the main two (which are almost the same, but not quite):
    1. “The ex-good girl trying to grow the hell up and find out who she really is.”
    This one is interesting, but also kind of a pain in the ass. It was really important for me to get over my pleasing-everyone-else (mostly my parents) thing so that I could, say, have sex, but kind of implicit in this story is a kind of immature teenage rebellion that I don’t want to get stuck in. Just because I did something for the wrong reasons once isn’t a reason to stop doing it now… there may be real reasons worth considering. I occasionally find myself wanting to do things that really are kind of stupid, thinking “you can’t always be perfect. live a little.” Which is great… sometimes. The upside is that I push myself to think about what I really want rather than what I “should” do.
    2. “The girl trying to overcome/get past/escape: her messed up family, her genetics, and various other stupid demons that weren’t her fault.”
    This one, while fairly true, really sucks. The victim role is a bad one to play for many reasons, and the fact that I cast myself that way in my head is pretty lame. It’s a little overdramatic for me. But on the upside, realizing that getting out of some of this stuff isn’t easy, and that getting through it is something to take pride in, is good on some level. It allows me to forgive myself for not being the bright shining full-of-promise young adult that I wanted to be at 20 years old. Although the fact that I think I have something to be sorry for… that’s another story.
    I could go on, but I think I need to think about this and write it out at length later, which isn’t appropriate for a comment. But thanks for the food for thought! Kept me occupied all afternoon while I did my tedious lab work.

  7. 7
    ysabet

    De-lurking too.
    I have several stories.
    The main one is ‘Anything but average’. I have not had anything even roughly approximating an average life – it seems that most of the time, I’m a statistical outlier on any population trend you care to name. This has it’s advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, things are very rarely boring; on the other hand, things get mighty uncomfortable at times.
    Another story is “created broken and trying to heal”. That’s related to some very deep-seated issues which I’m in therapy for.
    The last story is “Strong and can do anything I put my mind to.” This is a useful story, sometimes.

  8. 8
    Karin W

    Interesting insight, Greta. There actually is a whole theory of psychotherapy called narrative therapy which is all about working with people’s stories and helping them to re-write them so they come out better. My story is something like “abuse survivor, overcomes all odds, comes out fine anyway”. Or on bad days, “wounded person who still suffers no matter how good things are in her life”.
    So another interesting thought to ponder is if you could re-write your story, what would it be?

  9. 9
    Kris

    I think one story I have is “able to make anything”. I learned early on that fixing things and making things is one part knowlege and one part confidence. Also I wanted to say how thrilled I was to see
    the Pushcart War in your visuals today. One of my very favorite, favorite books as a kid.

  10. 10
    Ebonmuse

    This is a great post! There’s no better way to get to know someone than by asking about the stories they tell themselves.
    I’ve always had a narrative that I thought described the arc of my life, although I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly put it into words before. For a long time – ever since my childhood, really – I’ve thought of myself and my life as the fortunate one.
    The more I look back on my life so far, the more I feel this to be true. I was fortunate to be born in a stable, happy family; to be the son of two people who loved me and gave me what I needed to thrive. I was fortunate to be admitted to a good college and, after that, to find a job I enjoy and that pays me well. I’ve been fortunate to find an audience for my writing and, through it, to have met many other wonderful, fascinating people on the internet who feel the same way as I do. And, most of all, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have the love of an amazing woman whom I’m deliriously happy with.
    From the stories of the people I’ve met, or even some of the other stories in this thread, I realize how many people can’t say the same. It humbles me, because I don’t feel as if I’ve done anything in particular to merit all the good turns I’ve been the beneficiary of. I’ve never understood why I should have been the lucky one, rather than someone else. The downside of this view is that sometimes I forget that other people haven’t had the same good fortune as me, and that can make me overly optimistic about other people’s lives and the possibility of their succeeding and being happy. But I admit, I do get overproud at times, and remembering how some favorable pure coincidences have shaped the course of my life is a good corrective to that.

  11. 11
    Rebecca

    “Strong soul tries to heal trauma-survivors without drowning in their troubles.”
    I was thinking of this recently as the 15-year-old I mentor has been going through yet another suicidal episode. The fact that I picked this particular child to mentor when he was 13 really pushed home the fact that I choose this narrative time and again.
    And, as my wife once pointed out so accurately, I do tend to encourage people to depend on me — and then complain that they are too dependent. I take on so much I get overwhelmed, then bemoan my fate as if it was unfairly thrust upon me. Worse, when something or someone inevitably slips through the cracks, I blame it on too much being asked of me.
    Whew, this sure is cheap therapy! Look what you’ve started, Greta.
    I’l do a fun one now:
    The Girl Who Refuses To Make Up Her Mind
    In just about every spectrum or matrix used to describe human beings, I fall somewhere in the middle.
    Sexuality: bi.
    BDSM: switch.
    Holland Personality Test: equally “investigative,” “realistic,” “social,” “artistic,” and “enterprising.”
    Meyers-Briggs: in the middle on three of the four spectrums — “sensing/intuition,” “thinking/feeling,” and “judging/perceiving.”
    And don’t even LET me look at a menu!

  12. 12
    j

    Since I was a little child I believed that I was secretly special and that someday this would matter in a way that would affect everybody (like Harry Potter!). I guess this is one of your “standard, embarrassingly self-serving narratives” but it was my only one and I really believed it. Around 15 I began to grow skeptical as this continually failed to manifest, and I gradually began to shift to thinking of myself in the narrative of the person who journeys far from home, both physically and mentally, gives up everything, and returns with wisdom. Well, eventually I began to suspect that the meaning of life was not something I could go find hidden in a treasure chest on a desert island or what have you.
    I would say these are fairly problematic narratives. They both gave me comfort in moments of failure or rejection (as such things always happen to the hero before everything changes). I think they also both allowed me to retain a certain independence of mind, even during my teenage years. By the same token, they also both allowed me to give myself a free license to be unnecessarily weird, as a symbol of my secret, as yet undiscovered value.
    But I think the worst failing is that these narratives encouraged me to be passive, in action and in thought (well the first one more than the second). When I was certain that some day a man in a funny hat would approach and tell me why I was especially needed to save the world, or that all of truth and wisdom was a little nugget I could discover hidden somewhere, I didn’t have any motivation to figure out what I wanted and work hard for it. Life was something that would happen to me, not the other way around. Adventure was sure to steal me from my monotonous life at any moment.
    Lately I’ve been making an effort to become less passive and I find myself in the narrative of the person who changes themselves completely and returns to awe those who had always overlooked her. And I have a foggy idea that eventually I’ll enter the narrative of the Ordinary Person whose life revolves around family and work, who enjoys learning and new experiences, and shares a gradually growing store of ordinary wisdom. But I don’t think about it to clearly, cause it’s not that exciting and I’m still too strongly tied to my old narratives. I still do have that sense of biding my time until the interesting things start happening.

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