A Year of Stories

I am in love with stories, as is evident in my writing. Narrative is how I understand myself. By writing my story, I imprint myself on the universe. The late and wonderful Oliver Sacks wrote, ‘each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, this narrative is us.’ Similarly, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner states that, the ‘self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narrative by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.’ We are storytellers, and we are the narratives we write, the stories we read. Philosopher J. David Velleman says, ‘we invest ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ Another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says, ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’ This is why I love stories, fiction or nonfiction, literary or film. We story ourselves, and we are our stories. It enlivens a divine power of creation in us all, when we are aware that we can rewrite our stories, choose how the tale unfolds, and decide how to influenced by the stories of others. This is not only a literary concept, but also one used in psychotherapy to connect the notion that self-narration is necessary for autonomy and a fulfilled human existence. Of course, not everyone shares my passion for stories, and not everyone believes that we can story ourselves. True, the ability to write your life story may not be a universal human truth, it may not apply to some cultures, some political circles, some constructions of the psychologically ‘normal.’ Above all, narratives are subjective, and the stories we tell of ourselves may not even be accurate. Despite this, there is a Narrative which is an essential part of all human beings – I say Narrative with a capital, as the universal concept that all people are disposed to experience their own life and existence in a narrative way, as a type of story or anthology of stories, and to live in and through this conception. That is not to say that even our own recollections of our stories are true, as the deliverance of memory of humans is disordered and temporal, and life is in a constant state of flux and chaos. In addition, the one fictional character we story ourselves to be is in fact a collection of characters, and it is difficult to find some control of the self or hold emotion of authorship regarding our thoughts. Philosopher Marya Schechtman states that the narrative and constituting one’s identity through self-narration is ‘implicit and unconscious’, in fact removing any feeling of autonomy from us fallible humans searching for control and meaning. Schechtman says, ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ beyond the awareness as separate individuals, but maintains that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.

 

John Updike said, ‘I have the persistent sensation in my life… that I am just beginning,’ and this is a line which resonates with me. I am continually evolving, a constant self-in-process, always writing and rewriting my narrative. I am always being born and reborn, each day into a new world, with new eyes and new approaches to existence. Psychologist Erik Erikson writes, ‘various selves… make up our composite Self. There are constant and often shock-like transitions between these selves… It takes, indeed, a healthy personality for the ‘I’ to be able to speak out of all these conditions in such a way that at any moment it can testify to a reasonably coherent Self.’ This is how I feel about myself – I am one but also many, and while I gather identities and concepts of who I am, I do not attempt to organise or integrate them. They are all me, they are all characters in my story. Likewise, British author W. Somerset Maugham mused, ‘I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?’ Yet even by analysing the idea that we story ourselves is dissecting our own lives, our identities, and essentially rewriting them. Perhaps we cannot dissect something without killing it – is one fictional character in my story dying at this instant? Am I searching for clues about what my unconscious self is scribing, as that elusive second author? Do I allow what other people are writing to bleed through the pages of my own narrative? I remind myself never to look for answers in someone else’s story.  I will only find happiness in my own pages, written by my hand. If self-doubt approaches, I can write new words. I write what I want to feel and leave out the rest. This experience of writing my narrative demands presence, a constant engagement with myself and my activities. By way of being present only to the story I am writing, I find a way to live into it. I trust the next page, because I know it is one which I will write myself. I choose to author, and my story is written into my radiance, traced in the stars, and drawn from the magic of the universe. I do not read the past pages, as they are already written. I read only the words I write in the moment, freeing myself to know what to write next.

 

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Regardless of whether we are fully aware of the stories we write, I have learnt the importance of trusting my voice and my narrative. Natalie Goldberg said, ‘No one will know what has passed through me… I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life… I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.’ Whatever I feel should be written, and whatever I envisage could unfold on my parchment, I trust in the reason and meaning behind it. I construct an integrative narrative of my identity, selectively recalling past memories and anticipating a future to provide my life with purpose, certainty, and unity. I internalise this writing as my personal identity, an evolving life story which I continue to write until my final days. I do not know who I truly am until I understand my narrative identity – and yet I may never understand it entirely. It is the search for purpose and truth which makes life worthwhile. English philosopher Mary Midgley cites Doctor Jekyll in saying, ‘we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.’ By choosing the fictional character in our narrative to act in particular circumstances, we gain a better understanding of ourselves and the person we wish to become. Yet perhaps the unstoried life is the one uninhibited by memories of our past – the narrative we write only moment to moment, which is the only life which truly matters. If we write in an unpremeditated life-writing style, it affirms that self-knowledge is also knowledge of the fallibility of past memory and acceptance of self-ignorance. Memories can leave us in fragments, some ugly, trivial, confusing, or unable to be connected other than chronologically. This disconnection is found in life itself, as there is no unified existence, only fragments. Pieces of ourselves are always falling through our hands – but it is the pieces we hold on to which we can choose to write out story with. I find comfort in knowing that however confronting and disconnected the world may seem to be, when I put pen to imaginary paper and story myself, I am creating a pastiche of stories which will some day form the whole, the narrative of my life.

 

Anais Nin commented, ‘We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.’ I, too, see myself as multitudes of stories, mismatched pieces of paper, and a constellation of unique stars. And there is nothing wrong with that. Life is not a series of lamps arranged in symmetry to light a path with ease. It is a luminous halo, a conglomerate of galaxies engulfing us from the moment we gain consciousness until our final breath. I write to find meaning, but never to make sense. Nietzsche himself said, ‘How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times 70 skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.’’ I know I can never trap my true self on paper. It is dangerous and agonising to dissect myself in that way, to damage myself beyond healing by attempting to shape my essence into a beautiful arrangement of words in a story. It is the process of enquiry, of allowing my young soul to reflect on itself and ask what made it happy, and then formulate a plan for future chapters of this story to replicate such a state of bliss and purpose. This is the fundamental law of my true self. Self-knowledge may come to me in fragments and incoherent pieces, but the sequences of the narrative allows me to construct a life, wherein that narrative is me. My advice is to never stop writing. Start now, and write as if your life depended on it – because you truly are storying yourself with this writing. Alan Wilson Watts expressed a similar thought, ‘Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.’ I write myself on paper. I embrace my Narrative and my essence. And through these stories, we know we are not alone. Narratives connect humanity, and somewhere in the universe, your story lights a star which will shine brightly until the end of time.

 

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As Meghan Daum comments, ‘life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally – and sometimes maddeningly – who we are.’ Your older self may even stumble across your younger self on your travels, and you may exchange words of wisdom, acting as luminaries to each other. Dear future, you might say to your older self, you have seen me struggle, you have witnessed the pain I carry in my heart, and you have seen all sides of me. We meet here on this abandoned pathway of my soul, as I story my life on faded parchment, and you meet me with arms wide open, a gentle reflection encouraging me to say yes to life and live fearlessly, to take risks, and become the best very of myself. You are a poetic manifestation of the unloved parts of me, a eulogy to my old self, a love letter to my soul, a haiku to my unseen beauty, a manifesto to the unborn me. You remind me that, as Pema Chodron said, ‘the future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.’ Leave the door open from whence you came, younger self, because that is where I came from, but open the door to the unknown into the dark, because that is where I will go. That is what I would say. This is a fictional exchange between two sides of the same protagonist in your story, a glitch in the space-time continuum of personal identity, the moment when your younger self realises it is a work in progress, and your older self reminds you that you are never finished. Any dividing line between our past and present selves is shifting, a conglomerate of impressions and memories clustering to form our present identity, yet having no part in our future. This is the fluidity of our personhood, the reassembling of ourselves on a daily basis. Neil Gaiman has been labelled one of the greatest living postmodern authors, although much like ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’, postmodern is difficult to define. At the core of Gaiman’s writing and his worldviews, are his stories, and the most important part of his writing is essentially his storytelling. He is not concerned with the character construction and subject of his narrative, so much as the theme and the message which binds his word together. He writes, ‘if Sandman was about one thing, it was the act of storytelling, and the possible redemptive nature of stories.’ He recognises the importance of stories to society and individuals, where narrative is the core of all existence. We create ourselves and the world by the stories we tell. This is the beauty of Gaiman’s writing and that of the postmodernists – the historiographic metafiction; its pastiche, intertextuality, metanarratives, relativity, and self-reflexiveness. There are stories about stories within stories. To understand society, we must understand the stories it tells, both the fictional and the ‘real’. We engage with these stories about the past, the world, and ourselves to better understand the meaning of existence. Even if it is only existential sense which we make of our circumstances, it allows us to thrive in life, promoting self-creation in diverse elements such as the relational ontology of self, the psychological fundamentals of creation, and the morally significant connection between our past selves and the future we endeavour to write for ourselves.

 

Yet in writing your narrative, in forming a connection between yourself and the world, remember to question the difference between meaning and truth. What is truth, in the land of stories? It is ephemeral, and you cannot ever know the truth of all the interwoven narratives of the world, only the truth you write for yourself. Jean Rhys in the book, Good Morning, Midnight, writes, ‘You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.’ This resonates with me and my desire to shape my own narrative, beyond the myths of culture, politics and social anxieties. We remain on edge, in a constant state of evolution and innovation, if we question the truth we are presented with. It is in the distortions, in piecing together the fractures of the world and ourselves, that we can find our own truth. After all, what are we, if not aware of our own truth? And what are stories but a collection of words we tell ourselves? It is our responsibility to create the narrative we wish to read, and to continue creating until the end. Even then – is it truly an end? There is no real ending, just the place where at some point we must cease writing. The world is left with the stories we told, the enduring memory of the mythical self we created – and perhaps, if our words were spoken with enough conviction, the narrative which changed the way others see the world. Jess Walter writes in her novel, Beautiful Ruins, ‘All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character – what we believe – none of it is real; it’s all part of the story we tell.’ I suggest otherwise. Certainly, we are narratives and our life is the journey of writing these narratives, yet this should not be reduced to the realm of the unreal and imaginary. It may be our innate creativity, our desire to evolve into a significant version of ourselves, and our complex imaginations, which allow us to form these stories, yet they are not merely fiction – they are as real as we believe them to be. By manifesting our dreams and fantasies, by writing our own myths, we can transcend the elusive unreal and engage with the world at an intimate level. The self a pastiche of identities, and we are constantly uncovering them. Anthony Doerr states in The Memory Wall, ‘You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.’ We need not view our childhood with a nostalgic longing, glorifying it as a distant and better era. It need not be buried at all beneath the thousands of pages of our own narrative. The only truth I know is that there is no other truth than my own. And here is my truth – my past is not one which I have buried, it is one shard of my identity, one chapter in my own novel. The truth of the future brings meaning where I find it, and while I cannot go back in time, I can return to scenes in my memory, the places where I exist in another life. These are the immortal pages of my narrative. They are part of a tangible landscape in my mind’s eye, my shrouded memories, and I am constantly both becoming them and moving away from them. I know they exist, yet the difference between knowledge and truth is paramount. This is the foundation of the human condition, in recognising that thinking and knowing, truth and meaning, are dichotomous.

 

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As in life, narratives are an art, the process of illumination, transforming the darkness into light. Margaret Atwood states, ‘there’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story.’ Why is it that we feel the urge to omit pieces of ourselves from our stories? Why are fiction writers always asked if the story is real? Of course it is real – in some sense, it is a palimpsest of fiction, nonfiction, a monomyth, fantasy, the imaginary, memory, our collective pasts and individual futures. I will draw on poetry here to illustrate how I engage with my own narrative, and how we can use stories from the past, present and future – from all edges of the universe – to better understand ourselves and each other. A favourite poet of mine is T. S. Eliot, in particular The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland. My adoration of poetry has allowed me to embrace literature, and in turn realise that my own narrative has limitless potential. The infamous mistress Monica Lewinsky herself referred to ‘Prufrock’ as life-changing for her. In the 1999 biography written by Andrew Morton, Monica’s Story, he mentioned how in the midst of publicly humiliation, she had ‘begun to feel fixed and formulated by the eyes of the public, the prosecutors and the media.’ This reminds me of the despairing character Prufrock, who feels ‘like a patient etherised upon a table,’ with watching eyes leaving him ‘pinned and wriggling on the wall.’ This is the feared gaze of society, and the pressure to write our narratives in conformity with the norm. By emerging with our own stories, by choosing our own truth, we can ‘dare disturb the universe,’ although tragically Prufrock was not quite so brave. He ‘measured out his life in coffee spoons,’ never daring to become Prince Hamlet and shape the future. Poetry transcends reality, it transports us beyond the meaning of words on paper, and can become a mantra for our own life, if we choose the poem which resonates with us. Damian Lanigan has deemed ‘Prufrock’ to be ‘the battle cry for legions of bookish virgins, the supreme validation of the neurotic soul.’ I beg to differ – it is a battle cry for all those who crave creation, innovation, and to build something new from nothing. This is not triumphalist, it is agonisingly personal, an exploration into the crevasse of my mind, and by some strange accident, I have universalised my story. History is not separated from my life in the present, but it is distinguishable, much like the phantasmagoria in Eliot’s beautiful writing. We need not wait, like Prufrock, ‘till human voices wake us, and we drown,’ but instead we can engage with our truth, our narrative, and allow the universe to speak to us as we define the coming pages of our future. It is worth mentioning another favourite, The Hollow Men, and its final lines – ‘this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ Poetry is an object for meditation upon my own narrative. My drive to continue writing with a series of ‘bangs’, never succumbing to conformity and the whimpers of what might have been. Literature whispers in my ear, it guides me, it is comfort for a restless soul, echoing its passages in my memory, transgressing boundaries of time and culture, and existing in my imagination – as I am one who disturbs and dares. When you are writing your narrative, choose to disturb the universe. Write your name in the night sky and it will illuminate the heavens for eternity. Salman Rushdie said, ‘we crave permission openly to become our secret selves.’ Do not wait for permission. Write your own story, define your truth, and live your authentic life.

 

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