Inventing My Narrative



Rather than following the drift of our lives, writing gives us an opportunity to hoist the sails and charter our direction.

There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.

Marilynne Robinson, from The World Split Open


I have been journaling off and on for my whole life, and since getting sick a couple of years ago, I journal religiously. For many years, I couldn’t read back any of my journals without feeling nauseous. There was always that little devil on my shoulder, berating me with judgement about boring details and trite thoughts and unimaginative narrative. This all came to a head when I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Until then, I thought a good writer only wrote in mellifluous waves of creativity and intelligence. Little did I know. Ms. Goldberg said that most of what you write will become compost. (Check.) But if you write every day, once in a while something lovely will bloom. And this changed everything.


I came to understand that my process in journaling moves through 3 phases. First, create the compost. Spew out the flotsam and jetsam of thoughts that muddy my mind. Don’t judge. Just barf. This has proven a surprisingly healthy practice. Kind of like purging a closet or cleaning out the garage. Now I can move to phase 2, consideration of what I actually care about. What do I want to complete, work on, or get started? Once this is done, the writing digs deeper and enters phase 3, contemplation. What am I creating in my life? And this is where narrative comes in.


Stories make sense of our lives. They have structure and patterns and direction. Without stories, life would be a series of meandering events, circumstances, and chores. One thing happening after another with no sense of purpose or meaning. Stories give us the possibility of finding value in even the “bad” things, by virtue of creating context. How many stories have we heard about the cancer survivor who is grateful for her brush with death? The person who got downsized and found a job he enjoys more? Who got divorced and then married her soulmate? In fact, these are the best stories, because a good story is about characters overcoming problems. 


And that, I suppose, is my raison d’écrire. To overcome the problems I now have, as well as the challenges I will face in bringing my story to fruition. Because stories also have the power to shape the future. Whether our own or others’, stories influence our perception. Even slightly. And that perception shifts our thinking, which tweaks our communication, which nudges our actions, which then mold our future. For weal or woe. Besides, stories create palatability. I heard a great story the other day that illustrates the point perfectly...


An old woman had been traveling all day when she came upon a town. Seeking food and shelter, she knocked on the door of a house and asked if she could come in. They said no, we have no space. At the next house, they said they had no time. At each door, she was refused entry. Then she saw a young man newly arrived in the town. A fellow traveler. She said, you’ll get no welcome here. He knocked on a door and she watched as he was happily let in. After a while, he came back out and had her follow him. Together they were let inside. You see, she was Truth and he was Story. And we’re more likely to welcome truth when it’s accompanied by a good story.


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