The Stories We Tell

I believe we can’t survive without telling stories. Stories sustain us! Think about it: historically, homo sapiens have defined, known and perpetuated their families, clans, tribes and eventually nations through story telling. Let me repeat: people’s survival has traditionally depended on story telling. Stories not only feed our internal lives, but help give meaning to our external lives. And they connect us.

But no other time in human history have families and friends lived in more physically disconnected ways than we do today. We are scattered, and even when we live in the same town, Sue is over here in her little kitchen and her mom, sister or friend is over there, in her little (or huge) kitchen. We don’t meet over the fire anymore. The men don’t go hunting together anymore. They don’t even go to the market together. We pass each other in parking lots, send a tweet or a chat, Skype if we’re lucky. I’m on WhatsApp with my family and friends trying to tell them my story and the story of my sons’ lives…

The industrial and technological revolutions, prosperity and progress – all things we welcome and enjoy – are among the phenomena that have allowed us to build (sometimes grand but usually smaller) forts for ourselves, inside which we exist, generally, in isolation.

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories,” Laurie Anderson has said. I can’t tell you how much time I spend around my campfire, but it’s cold and grey with only a dim light, and it doesn’t smell smokey and awesome. I do, however, feel connected when I share my stories around that campfire, although it’s a sad replacement for peeling veggies next to my loved ones sharing stories, or learning to pluck chickens or knead dough next to someone who will share insights into lives lived and memorable incidents near and far, while feathers fly or flour rises above our heads in clouds.

We may wonder less why we have what has been called a “memoir craze,” and why we are raising a generation of what Hamilton calls “robotic insta-memoirists”? I for one certainly get it.

I recently overheard a man of a certain age complain about how even in cookbooks today, there are multi-paragraph personal stories attached to or intermingled with the recipe-lists and how-to descriptions. He waxed nostalgic over “the way cookbooks used to be in the old days. Straightforward.” That’s when I had to chime in and add my humble insight as to why I think we – as a culture – are basking in this seemingly self-absorbent genre of telling stories where we desperately seek to implicate ourselves into some meaning that extends beyond the walls of our fort. In isolation our existence looses its meaning.

The Zulu philosophy Ubuntu comes to mind here, and it teaches this concept: I am because of you.

There is a growing market for personal essays, which can be seen, in effect, as attempts at letting the other know about you. We find personal essays in literary magazines, newspapers, popular magazines, trade and professional journals, thematic anthologies with writings by selected authors and book-length collections by individual authors. Often, publishers of fiction will ask their authors to publish a personal story or essay in order to boost the sales of the novel. Imagine that. Because readers care about the story of the real person behind the imagined story. Who is this creator, this imaginative being? Tell me something about you.

“This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone,” notes Daniel Mendelsohn in “But Enough About Me” (The New Yorker, January 2010). I have a friend who survived Auschwitz and she is now in her 90s. You can’t get through to her on the phone, because she spends much of her day eagerly telling her story to family and friends who live near and far. I am sure she has repeated it many times to the same people, and they ask to hear about it again. She is passing on her family saga, in all its tragedy of destruction and glory of survival.

In his essay “The Problem With the Problem With the Memoir” (The Rumpus 2013), Stephen Elliot notes that critics of memoir and the personal essay claim that most people’s lives are not that interesting: “In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that,” Elliot says, “Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting.”

So the sharing mechanisms of the personal narrative are evolving in all their imaginable – and available to us – permutations. Phone, email, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, Tweet, and not to mention Facebook. Anything to share our story, even in tiny snippets and fragments.

Does a “status update” really tell a story? What does it mean when Annie is “feeling anxious” or John is “feeling happy.” Do I really care, and does it matter? Well, if it’s about your friend and you have an imagination, it very well might. To you. Since you are because of the other. Ubuntu.

Around the dinner table last week, in Maine, I sat across from an Indian woman who told me, “We used to sit around and tell stories. That’s what we did. I’d go to my grandma’s house and all they did was to tell stories.” I send my aunt links to my writings, and she sends me long-form emails about her going ons. We do our best. And occasionally we get together in Norway at her summer house around lots of candles and the midnight sun, and there, to the glow and warmth of what I like to imagine is our existential campfire, we sustain if only for a night, a deeper sense of what being a family and being alive means to us.

I Was on Fire

Have you ever been “on” for a job, project, or event, and while engaging with your audience (of one or many) realize you are on fire? I don’t mean the accidental, literal, “oh shit my shirt caught on fire! Help! I’m going to die!” kind of realization, but the sort that invites you to recognize, in delightful albeit brief, fleeting moments of pure presence, there is a sort of combustion going on, of magnificent, sparking energy between your mind (your knowledge), your body (the way you move and interact) and the other participants. And although you were perhaps a bit worried (in some other chemically unpleasant place different from the fabulous fire site) while waiting to go on/in/up, you now notice you are on some mind-blowing auto-pilot, where all your bullet points and plans simply vanish into the thin air, as the magic takes over and you hear yourself think: I got this. I love this. Shit, I’m on fire!

On Fire

The other night as I was speaking at an annual film festival at a local college, this happened to me, and it was almost, dear I say, an out of body experience. These are clearly other chemicals at work now (yay, yummy ones: endorphins!) than the pre-show worry ones, and the lingering feeling of euphoria for hours later is truly something to behold. It’s the same high that happens when I teach a really good class. I realize that the precious present (the now and the gift) of that dynamite moment is all about connecting with others, and what a marvelous experience it is when you know you’ve managed to connect. The associations of bright light, heat, and smoke that the state of being on fire necessarily brings are of course not actually real, but in their own right practically palpable. When your inner world successfully connects with the outer world around you, there’s all that. Schwing.

My elixir might be just this. All the reading, research, thinking and planning I do on topics that interest me is my alchemy, where I am the practitioner of a kind of transformation of matter – but theoretical matter, to convert it into a magical potion. And when I am able to share this offering, in all its fully present enthusiasm, life and work makes a lot of sense, because it feels right.

So, c’mon baby, just light my fire.

On Fire II