A Narrative Problem
Not long ago, I found myself telling a new friend an old story.
It's a pretty good story, as stories go. In it, I'm the wise, intrepid heroine who navigates an especially tricky matter of the heart with resilience and aplomb. Despite tragedy, heartache, and loss, I emerge on the other side a little sadder, but a lot stronger, with help from mother wit, some swinging jazz standards, and the occasional pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.
At least that's how I thought it sounded when I began.
About halfway through, I realized that something was wrong with my story.
It wasn't that anything in the story was untrue. And I happen to believe that, along with good friends, mother wit, swinging jazz, and ice cream combine to provide an excellent cure for what ails you. I think, too, that my technique was pretty good. I shared the choicest details, pausing occasionally for effect, punctuating with the right amounts of wryly raised brow, ruefully shaken head, and "Girrrl, you won't even believe this."
No, the problem wasn't with the story itself. The problem was that I was still telling this particular story, long after the events in question had transpired.
As I spoke, I realized that telling this story was an important narrative act—and not in a good way. By pulling this old story into my new friendship, I was allowing it to define me. I was giving it more space than it deserved. Without saying so, I was conveying to my friend—and rehearsing for myself—some very significant, and very uncomfortable ideas:
This story is one of the most important things you should know about me.
This story is what I believe about myself.
In some ways, I'm still living this story.
As I listened to myself, I didn't sound wise and intrepid, but foolish and fearful. I didn't sound stronger-if-sadder; instead, I just sounded stuck. In this particular case, my story, and my willingness to share it, revealed an incompletely healed heart—an unresolved narrative.
I believe strongly in the power of narrative. I believe that stories affect our minds and hearts in unique ways, and must be handled carefully. I decided to become a writer and communicator because I honestly believe that good stories change the world. In fact, I think that some of the biggest problems in our lives and the world can be traced to incorrect or poorly told stories. Even in this postmodern age, I believe in the idea of metanarratives, or master stories, that shape our thoughts and beliefs.