What’s Your Story?

The truth of storytelling

Can stories bring our lives into focus?

“No.” “That’s not right.” “I’m shocked.” “How can a writer do that?”

These offended voices belonged to my senior IB English students, who are currently reading and discussing Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a fictionalized tale of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. The specific moment of outrage occurred during our discussion of the story “Ambush,” in which O’Brien reflects upon killing a Vietcong soldier in response to being asked by his daughter, Kathleen, whether he had ever killed a man in the war.

Even though the novel is one long postmodern discourse on the nature of truth and storytelling, there is something about Kathleen that provokes my students each and every year. A little later in the book, O’Brien writes that “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening truth,” introducing phrases that offer my students a way past their outrage. As they grapple with the content of this novel, the students become sympathetic to O’Brien’s claim that we continually invent ourselves through telling, and re-telling, stories.

The novel’s sections circle around major events in what we presume is the chronology of the real Tim O’Brien’s life, a repetition that at first annoys, then puzzles my students, accustomed as they are to neat narratives in fiction. But as the novel progresses, they come to realize that this process re-telling and re-shaping of stories, which includes fictionalizing of a daughter that offends them so much, is a true account of how we live our lives.

These seniors themselves are in the process of telling their story: some already decided months ago where they would go to college in the fall, and their narrative is set; others, having received a number of April acceptances and rejections, are in the process of revising their own story and choosing from the many options they have been rehearsing during their anxious college search.

And this constant revision, I recently read, is one key to a healthy life. In the book Emotional Agility, Susan David describes the sheer volume of inner monologue:

During the average day, most of us speak around sixteen thousand words. But our thoughts — our internal voices — produce thousands more. This voice of consciousness is a silent but tireless chatterbox, secretly barraging us with observations, comments, and analyses without pause.”

Most importantly, she notes that “our own internal narrator may be biased, confused, or even engaged in willful self-justification or deception.” For David, identifying and revising the story told by our unreliable narrator is the key to emotional health: facing our situation and then revising the tale we’ve long told, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not a writer,” to tell a different story, “I may have fears, but I will write for the next 60 minutes,” is how humans can shape their own life.

And so my seniors and I have come full circle in this two year course. Next week, their final writing prompt will be the same as the one I gave them on the first day, Joan Didion’s line “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I hope that they have learned that the power of writing, their own writing and other’s, is tell and to re-tell the stories of our lives.

I hope that these students, who plan to become biologists, engineers, political scientists, everything other than authors, remember the value of stories, of hearing them, but most importantly, telling them. I hope that even as they become proficient at writing for the jobs, they might, one day, pick up a pen or open a laptop just to write, to tell their story, to shape their story. That even if they have to invent a character to voice their moral conscience, they write a story that tells their the truth.