These are the stories we like to tell about ourselves:
First and foremost, that our lives form a story, that they can be contained within the boundaries of what we recognize as a coherent narrative.
One problem with this assumption–one that is, I think, so deeply ingrained in us so as to be almost invisible–is that it sets up a very real trap: what do we do, then, what are we supposed to think, when our lives as we know them in any given moment fail to meet the requirements of a story? Of the story we think we’re writing, day by day? Of the story we’re certain we should be creating, we are, we must?
Recently, two of my friends have run headlong into this problem and found themselves struggling to find a way around it. These two friends, it’s worth noting, are at very different points in their lives, and hold very different places in mine: the first is an ex, with many years of co-authorship under his belt when it comes to our lives together; and the second a friend, a co-writer, whom I’ve never met in person but with whom I create texts.
Two people. One plot point in common. Same problem.
Both of these friends find themselves at a point where the stories they feel they should be writing day-to-day are not manifesting themselves in lived experience; both feel some guilt, I think, for not matching their lives to the rough drafts they’ve held in their minds for a long, long time.
It’s like Jim Corder says in his essay Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love:
“We tell our lives and live our tales, enjoying where we can, tolerating what we must, turning away to re-tell, or sinking into madness and disorder if we cannot make (or re-make) our tale into a narrative we can live in.” (16)
My friends, it seems, separated by an ocean and by more than a decade in age, are both facing such a remake, a revision of what is into a story in which they can live.
Corder takes this connection between story and self a step farther:
“Each of us,” he says, “is a narrative.”
A good part of the time we can live comfortably adjacent to or across the way from other narratives…But sometimes another narrative impinges upon ours, or thunders around and down into our narratives. We can’t build this other into our narratives without harm to the tales we have been telling.” (18)
For Corder, it is this fundamental entanglement of identity and storytelling that sets us up, time and again, for both internal and external conflict:
“The narratives we tell (ourselves) create and define the worlds in which we hold our beliefs. Our narratives are the evidence we have of ourselves and of our convictions. Argument, then, is not something we make outside ourselves; argument is what we are. Each of us is an argument” (18)
Now Corder is a rhetorician–hence his interest in argument–though, in this essay, he very much does not write like one. [As a rule, “love” is not a word or concept in which rhetoricians are ever invested.] But what interests me here, what reminded me of my friends’ dilemmas as I re-read Corder’s essay today, is the anxiety that our desire for narratives can create.
Consider conspiracy theory, as a concept: many such stories arise from a very real need, in the face of a terrible event, to slap coherency and reason and narrative logic upon a tale within which there is none. 9/11 is, I think, a classic example. In the face of such unexpected destruction–a story that “impinges upon ours”–it is logical, I think, as humans, to reach for the comfort of narrative, to fashion a story in which all of what one considers “facts” might fit into a recognizable pattern.
There’s a reason that the US government’s official 9/11 Commission Report is written in a narrative style; those chapters that deal with the events of that day, in particular, read more like a Tom Clancy novel than a governmental report.
As a country, the Commission reasoned, we needed a story.
However, we as individuals don’t have the luxury of farming out our rewrites. We ourselves alone must face the task of fashioning our lives into narratives in which we see ourselves living, in which we ourselves can live.
That is, if we accept the notion that our lives must achieve this kind of coherency.
For me, the question is, then, to whom must we be coherent? If each of us is a narrative, an argument, then who is it we wish to convince?
When we’re young, I think the answer is simple: our parents, our teachers, those adults who approval we crave.
When we’re older, it’s less clear. We have narrative choices to make where, before, we were often simply following the outline that someone else had laid out. But in making one choice, selecting one arc over the other, we negate those that might have been; but in not choosing, we make ourselves stuck.
Corder describes this quandry of invention this way:
“invention asks us to open ourselves to the richness of creation…but the moment we speak (or write), we are no longer open; we have chosen, whether deliberately or not, and so have closed ourselves off from some possibilities.” (29)
The stories that we tell about ourselves live in the context of, and in contact with, the narratives of others: those we love, those we hate, those we haven’t yet met. So for me, again I wonder, to whom do we owe narrative coherence? And how might this answer shift and flex over time?
Questions I can ask, perhaps. But ones I don’t know how to answer. Perhaps, I hope, you do.