Friday, October 16, 2009

Stories We Tell Ourselves

We only deal in narrative, really. Oh, we think we are about emotions and feelings and such: love, hate, sadness, desire, curiosity, learning, meditating. But we can only think about these things, it seems, in the context of the stories we tell about ourselves and others, about places we moved through and things we've touched and seen and events we attended.

Today's picture is a shop window reflection at Uncommon Objects on South Congress. I've always been curious about the photos for sale in shops like this. Important enough to take and develop in that era before digital cameras and yet somehow leaving a family and its narrative and ending up in a bin for sale by an antique dealer. I've even bought a few in the past, thinking I'd just invent a narrative to go with it. Of course, inventing stories, fiction I think it's called, is something I've always had problems with because of the whole 'making it all up' part.

I've been taking a writing class ("Writing Your Life As A Woman" conducted by Dean Lofton) and what I notice in this class (which is focused on just getting the writing out and seeing where it goes, writing from prompts about real things in your life) is that no one just writes "I am happy" or "I was sad" or "I felt lost." Instead, they tell what they were doing constructing that emotion with details. Sometimes the listeners can't even tell that the scenes in the narrative create the emotion but suddenly there are tears from the reader.

I have my stock stories and the other day I was telling one of them and I started to wonder about some of the details. And then I realized that the detail didn't really matter as much as the reason why I hung on to that particular narrative. There was something I wanted to convey about my life in this world and the story was key to it. The story was neither fact nor fiction. It had an element of truth but the retelling made it important.

I frequently talk about the class I took before that was similar to the one Dean is conducting. I talk about how I enjoyed scribbling to writing prompts, reading and listening to others read and following up with writing 'sessions' with a friend. I tell about the hundreds of scraps of paper and dozens of notebooks of all sizes and shapes that I filled up with scribbles and notes and lists and have trouble tossing. (I'd done this for years before that class and have for years after.) I tell that because I want people to understand that I trust writing as therapy and a path to emotion. I sometimes mention that I didn't particularly care for that other instructor.

When I review those old writings, I sometimes say I'm sad or happy or excited. And that's the dullest thing in the world to read. But sometimes I read about the exact exercises I did, what I weighed, what I ate, what errands I did, where I went shopping and what I bought. I find a word I encountered written down, maybe with the definition, maybe not. I tell people I love words, but I tell them with stories. About trying to 'read' the dictionary. And about how when I was programming I'd be writing something and have to look up a word for some reason. (This was back before spell check, online dictionaries, etc.) And I would actually think: "That's the most fun I had all day long." It tells you something beyond "I love words."

Sometimes, though, we tell ourselves a story about a time in our lives that is not really false exactly but just wrong. If we wrote something down during that time, we might edit that story and make it a little more true to ourselves. Today I read some journal entries (actually a wad of yellow legal pad paper written on one side) from 1985. I remember at the time being sort of a lazy goof. Writing a journal when I should have been working. Stuff like that. But reading about the code I wrote and the thought I put into it and the things I was doing outside work and the thought that was going into my diet and exercise, I thought "Hmmm...maybe I had it together a little bit and had some good ideas. Maybe the fact that no product emerged to take the PC-DOS world by storm was not completely, entirely my fault." And yet, it's just a narrative either way. A way of putting the emotions of that time, and before, and since into a frame that I can relate to and that others can as well.

[Note: I'm determined to hit 'Publish' on this even though it doesn't seem to say much. The reason is that there are four unpublished drafts in Visible Woman before this one. The titles are: Free Ideas, People You Know, Ups and Downs and Exceedingly Random. They have semi-clever pictures attached. They languish. My three readers are disappointed. Just must publish something.]

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