Our stories, ourselves

Updated May 21, 2012

As part of his final exam assignment, a student reflected on something I had said in a creative writing class earlier this semester.

I had said, “We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

I hadn’t spent much time elaborating, but I said it during an introduction to fiction. I said it as a way to get the class to think about the characters they create for their short stories. Where do the characters think they’ve been, where do they think they are now, and where are they going? Like real life, the facts themselves are only part of the picture. How we think about the facts matters just as much — interpretation and contextualization are subjective, individual, internal acts performed by everyone, often with little conscious awareness of the process.

In his final exam essay, the student seemed to misunderstand the context for what I had said, which led me to realize I hadn’t elaborated enough. He seemed to be saying — with handwriting that wasn’t the easiest to read — that “we are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” was a kind of self-deception or maybe an intentional social strategy or some kind of looney self-help slogan. But I meant it as something more basic and fundamental to our human nature, as I described above.

He was a friendly student and a good conversationalist, so I wrote him an email to clarify what I meant. I also thanked him for helping me realize I hadn’t been clear or specific enough.

The following is loosely based on the email I sent to that student, with some additions and revisions.

First, I should immediately point out (as I forgot to tell my student) that the sentence is not original. I don’t remember where I heard it first. However, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

Whenever and wherever I first had heard that phrase, I had appropriated that clause in a personal, subjective sense.

I certainly don’t think my classroom comment means that we should attempt to deceive ourselves. I did not mean that we pretend to be someone we’re not. I did not mean that we construct artifices for others’ perceptions. I did not mean that we say, “I’m Superman — if I think it, I will become it.” No, no, not at all.

What I meant was this: each person has assumptions about who he is and where he’s going. When I was a college kid, I was a depressed, guilt-ridden cloud, but I also felt pretty righteous about myself, like there were certain things I would never, ever think about doing — I had assumptions about who I was. Also as a college kid, I had certain beliefs about what the future held for me — I had assumptions about where I was going. In many cases, I’ve been proven wrong.

However, accuracy is not the point here. Humans think of their lives as stories. Each real, living person has a past he comes from (remembered in particular and subjective ways, not necessarily remembered objectively), a place we hold now (with a subjective mental and emotional context attached to that place), and a combination of beliefs and intentions directed toward our futures (a subjectively constructed set of expectations that are somewhat unique to the individual).

These individual stories have varying degrees of accuracy, but the interesting thing is that we have them, and this has utility for fiction writing.

The above view dovetails with two important factors in characterization: characters have influences and desires, or pasts and futures.

But those influences and desires, for persons real and imagined, are subjectively constructed and appropriated in memory, imagination, and expectation. Rightly or wrongly, we interpret past events and we interpret our present — and many times, we apply those interpretations to the future.

Interpretation is usually a subjective act, at least on some level. Billions of people know the World Trade Center towers came down. I interpret that as horrible. In some parts of the world, people interpret that as a good thing and a long-time-coming.

So a well-rounded character indeed is the story he tells himself about himself — and every real person also is the story he tells himself about himself. These stories aren’t so much conscious movements along an intentional plot line. Instead, they are assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that may not even be consciously acknowledged.

In this sense, a person’s narrative view of his own life is not a self-help slogan and is not a social strategy but rather something more basic, more of a default mode, like sensory perception or simply memory.

Chances are, if I told you what your future was going to be like, and my narrative of your life greatly differed from your narrative of your life, you’d get angry or annoyed — or just think I’m crazy. You’d be well within your rights to feel any number of things, even insulted!

However, sometimes, a traumatic event, a book, a counselor, or a close friend will alter some of those subjective constructions, thus opening the individual’s life to a kind of mental-and-emotion rewrite of the story — seeing the past differently, reassessing future expectations — and perhaps opening new path.

In my current Strange Days column, I write about the large number of stories in the United States right now, and how they seem to be fragmenting social and cultural cohesion.

Here’s a relevant quotation I just found (several days after I posted this entry):

“Memoir must be written because each of us must have a created version of the past. Created: that is, real, tangbile, made of the stuff of a life in place and in history. And the down side of any created thing as well: we must live with a version that attaches us to our limitations, to the inevitable subjectivity, of our points of view. We must acquiesce to our experience and our gift to transform experience into meaning and value. You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.” — Patricia Hampl, in her essay “Memory and Imagination”

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