On Stories

A few days ago a student was talking about the let down that comes from finishing a good story. If you’re a reader you know what he was talking about. The feeling that a friend just moved away forever or a section of your life just ended. Good books draw us in and some people are drawn in more easily than others.

I love stories. Stories of all kinds — books, moves, tv shows, plays. Anything that tells a story interests me. When I was younger I read constantly. I fell into the worlds of the literature I was reading. Now I have a similar habit with television and movies. Stories draw me in. They’re rich and raw and real.

Stories have always been accessible to me. I like to understand things and every good story has a point that it is making. The characters and events and plot are arranged to to say something about the world. Many of them even have narrators to help tie everything together. You can see from every perspective and enter multiple people’s minds. You can get a sense of what is happening and why. You get a sense of the story as a whole, the questions it asks and answers it gives.

Stories often times seem more real to me than real life does. I understand the characters of the great novels better than the people I meet on the street. I see the beauty in plot structures more easily than the beauty life events. Great discourses in books reveal more truth than the great conversations I have. Fake stories have a unique ability to be understandable and as a result, real.

I think this is because of construction. Stories are constructed to tell just one story and to tell it well. The reader can change locations, narrators, and jump around in time. The author picks his words to communicate perfectly the story as a whole. Nothing that tells a different story is allowed in. In fact one of the hardest things about any kind of writing is paring your writing down to a single voice. The good story is a relentlessly crafted story.

But life isn’t like that. Life is a million stories all taking place at the same time, weaving in and out of each other and having no definite start or end points. The questions are hazy and the answers are few. The beauty of the real stories are less accessible because of my inability to pick the stories apart. Reading life is considerably more difficult than reading a novel. A novel is a clean cut story. Life isn’t a clean cut story but a subjective smattering of every story.

I have a pretty deep need to be in control of things — a deep need to understand. My own story drives me crazy because I am so out of control and unable to understand it. In retrospect I can draw a few plot lines and note some literary devices, but for the most part the future is impossible to read. I can’t see the whole story. There’s no narrator to put it together for me. There is no one to pick out the important parts in arrange them in a way that makes the ending flow smoothly from the conflict. There’s just my life and this moment and all the lives that happen to be intersecting with mine at this moment.

I don’t see the story.

But I do have a story. Whether I recognize it or not, whether I like it or not, I’m living out a story. Some day I will get it. Some day I’ll look back and recognize the realness of it, the richness and joy of love and suffering. But stories aren’t obvious from the inside, and from the inside they don’t seem particularly rich or beautiful. They just seem like life.

Our task — my task, is to embrace this story, the beauty and difficulty and conflict and hidden meanings. To embrace myself and my story. Everything that I admire of the great stories is true of mine. Probably even more true. I just can’t see it yet.

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