Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Beautiful in the Story of Our Lives

I was reading a book the other day by Annie Dillard, called The Writing Life. What a book!, I was thinking, but what about the rest of humanity? What about the 99 percenters like you and me who don’t actually write for a living?

Don’t get me wrong. I like the book very much. I think Annie Dillard is one of the dozen or so best writers exercising their talents in English (or American) today. But I was missing how the rest of us figure in.

Because, let’s face it. We all are writers. We all write stuff. We write stuff every day.
What do we write?, you might ask.

We write ourselves. We write our characters. We write many of the events of our lives, either by ourselves or in collaboration. Mostly in collaboration.

Of course, the Christians among us imagine they are writing their lives in collaboration with God, along with the rest of the usual suspects. Satan, maybe. Parents, certainly. Children, of course. Other friends and relatives and work colleagues. A random stranger now and then. One’s church. One’s city. One’s nation. Other nations. And so forth.

What is a story, anyway? Isn’t it a condensed way of exploring and maybe explaining and expressing the meaning of things? Using event and action and choice as the method? I think there is an excellent case to be made for this way of thinking about stories. This is the way most fiction writers think about their work. Why shouldn’t we think like this about our lives?

There’s a lot of power in thinking about one’s life this way. A lot of things begin to fall into place. I know this because I recently wrote down a bunch of stuff I remembered from various points in my life. Just wrote down all these events that seemed. Oh, I don’t know. Some of them seemed important, but a lot of them didn’t. A lot of them seemed like normal life. Nothing happening. Nothing worth mentioning.

Well, it turns out, when I wrote them down. When I kind of condensed what I remembered about them into words on a page, I started noticing things I hadn’t noticed before. I started remembering things I hadn’t known I’d remembered.

What happened as I wrote was that I discovered the story of my life. I discovered how my life hung together. I uncovered where God was and how I was guided by or chose not to be guided by Him. I found themes that recurred. I found stories that repeated themselves, with subtle variations. I found myself choosing things that I had no apparent awareness of at the time I made the choices. I discovered a kind of progress and a kind of progresslessness.

But I didn’t really connect pieces of my life together, and I didn’t understand what God’s collaborative role had really been until I actually began to put elements of it down on paper and looked at them there in relation to one another.

You know, we all consider it a commonplace that we should journal. We are advised—and believe me, I am really tired of hearing it—to journal so that we can look back and see what God’s been up to in our lives.

But I don’t know whether that isn’t missing the forest for the trees. Journaling is a daily look by daily look. I think that’s maybe too close a look. At least to get at the big ideas. The big gestures one’s life sometimes makes.

Step back. Tell your story to yourself as if you were telling it to your great great great grandchildren. What should they know about you?

What should you know about you?

What’s happened, and what’s happening now? How does all this feel? What sense does all this make? Simplify, but don’t oversimplify. Don’t make yourself out to be a cartoon character. Don’t make your life into a cartoon. It’s complex. You’re complex. Respect the opacity of things.

When you start to tell the story of your life, you discover that you only had the vaguest sort of an idea about how your life really does mean. What it may say. How it actually works.
Let me give you a little tip. Something I’ve learned trying to get my story straight. Writing bits of it over and over.

Telling the story of our lives is really making and discovering both, because telling is noticing. Because the telling of one’s life is by its very nature telling. It is by its very nature a sifting through the data of one’s life and the ordering and defining of the semantics that are lying about here like so many years and months and days.

And after you are done. After a draft of the thing is there on the desk and ready for somebody you care about to read. (Not long. Several pages, maybe. You decide when it’s long and deep enough to contain the essence of your life.) Then you may discover, as I did, that you begin to experience your life differently. I almost want to say that it seems to resonate, when it hadn’t before.

It’s almost as if the various events and episodes begin to run into one another, to resemble one another in surprising ways, to overlay themselves with one another. To occupy one another’s places in the sequence one had thought one had lived through one scene at a time. Scene after scene.

But now it feels. It’s very odd. It feels as though one is almost living in several and sometimes many scenes at once. Or perhaps all one’s life at once.

And then as one experiences one’s life this new way, there’s a greater sense of where one is right now, in the story one has partly made and partly found oneself inside of. Looking about.

Wondering about. A little like the protagonist appearing again, part-way through the book, who is well aware of his circumstances—hyper-aware of his circumstances, the many meanings he carries forward with him—and who wonders with some sincerity what will happen next and how all of this will turn out.

But I’m using the metaphor of writing only metaphorically. You can literally write about your life and find yourself in a place like this. Or you can tell the story of your life to someone.

Getting to a place like this doesn’t require writing so much as telling. Or noticing, as I said before. Telling is noticing and noticing is telling oneself what is important. What has meaning. What may have meaning that isn’t all that clear right away and therefore rattles around in our minds and hearts and intrudes on scenes backward and forward in time from the scene in which it first occurred.

And this telling can be done to someone in the room. Someone particular in the room on an evening or an afternoon or a morning. It can be done for a recording of some kind. A recording that we may like to have made for our children or our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren. A video or an audio recording. It can be done, as I say, for our friends and family, to say to them, “Here. Take this from me. This story that I’ve made by living. Take it for what it’s worth.”

Who knows? For someone else. Someone you may love or may not even know. This story of yours. This meaning you’ve made of things. May tilt the world ever so slightly toward the sun. Or toward some hope that no one yet has a word for that would cause unaccountable joy in someone somewhere. Now. Today. Or maybe years from now.

Consider it. Consider the possibility of telling the story of your life. Consider how possible it has made you. How possible it has made those you love. Your children for example. And consider how it may have greater powers for good than you, today, have any idea of.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Bill! Got to link to this somehow as a resource for small groups--where people often tell their stories to each other to powerful effects such as you site. I'm not sure anyone has ever written about this in this way--just how do you go about it, and what the point and all that. Keep it up, please. ken