Telling Your Own Story

storiesEvery four to six weeks, I sit down with a therapist-friend.  We’ve been doing this for quite a long time, so I know her first question will be a variant of, What’s going on since we last talked?  Sometimes, I’ve thought about my answer in advance … sometimes I just wing it.  I’ll tell her the triumphs (usually little), the failures (also usually little), the highlight and lowlights, and how I’ve dealt with each.  I’ll talk about how I’ve dealt with the cast of characters in my life and about my moods.  By the time fifty minutes have passed, I’ll have told the story of the days since I saw her last.  She may offer a few comments … You seem a little depressed or You seem at peace this week … but what benefits me most is seeing the daily events of my life in the context of the whole story.  I get to see patterns.   I get to see what’s working and what’s not.  As a person who can sometimes define his life by the down times, it’s helpful to see what my mood has been like over time.  Most days, if you ask me, How are you? I’d answer based on the emotion of the moment.  Leaving my friend’s office, I know How I am.   I may not tell you, choosing to offer instead the automatic Fine, but I’ll know.

We are natural born storytellers, whether we think of ourselves that way or not.  In these days of people speaking too-loudly on mobile devices, all you have to do is listen to know this is true.  Our storytelling begins at a very early age, about 24-30 months old.  Mere toddlers begin to sequence events into crude stories, and discover cause and effect in the seemingly random events around them.  An excellent article on Zero to Three, The Emergence of Story Telling During the First Three Years by Susan Engel, describes the development of storytelling in children and how it helps them center themselves in time, family and society.  One of the things they do, she says,  is to narrate an inner life, and an identity, and share that inner life and identity with others.  That is why telling stories to children and helping them learn to tell stories themselves is so important in their development.  As I tell my fifty-minute story to my therapist-friend, I’m  simply doing what I learned to do 66 years ago on my mother’s lap.

According to Engel, Story telling is perhaps the most powerful way that human beings organize experience. Some have argued that narrative thinking is the optimum form of thinking for learning and expressing what we know about our selves and about other people.  Writing provides the opportunity to tell stories to myself, perhaps to travel to places within that I’m not ready to share with others.  When I spill my random morning thoughtswriting pen onto the page in my Morning Pages, I am telling the story of what’s going on in my head.  Bits and pieces find connections they’d never make in the swirling chaos of my mind and a plan for the day begins to emerge.  Random bits of emotion attach themselves to an event that may have passed by unnoticed.  Over the years, I’ve found that I often appreciate experience in hindsight, not a trait I’d recommend.  When I tell of a date with Muri or a weekend with the grandkids here on Older Eyes, I see the experience with the wide eyes of a storyteller.  Perhaps next time, I’ll be more appreciative in real time.  When I tell a story … like Where the Heart Was … about my childhood, I see the wonder that only a story can illuminate.  Yes, sometimes when I’m telling my own story, I uncover unpleasant experiences, too, but they are less disturbing in the warm light of day than they are hiding in the frigid dungeons of my mind.

When I work with people on the 12-Steps, I usually try to get them to write.   I’m not a good writer, they often say.  Perhaps they are intimidated by the volume of what I produce, or think because I am a writer, I will judge what they write.  I keep on encouraging them because I know, we are all born storytellers.   And occasionally, someone tries it.  I’ve been writing about the friends that have passed through my life, they may tell me.  I never knew how much they meant to me.   The light has come on in their eyes.

How do you tell your own story?

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4 Comments on “Telling Your Own Story”

  1. cherperz Says:

    I think that it is very beneficial to have a friend/therapist that you can talk honestly about your feelings. Just the action of sharing is in some way cathartic.

    A few years ago I had a friend that is also a therapist by trade and she was a great sounding board. Ours wasn’t actually a sit down as you describe but more girl talk about our lives. Hers and mine. The glory of having a friend in the therapy biz they can be both sympathetic and objective. (Distance and circumstances keep us from talking on a regular basis now)

    I think I have mentioned to you I had a rather bizarre childhood which mostly just my family is aware of the events. According to some therapists it seems that if you had “big” trauma at some point in your life, you might relive it in dementia. I am hoping senility misses me.

    As far as story telling goes…I tried to write some of my story once. I even talked to some of the people involved but what I discovered is when your story is a sad one, it’s hard for people to hear. It makes for a great story on Dateline but doesn’t make for a fun story time.

  2. edboxall Says:

    You’ve said some difficult thoughts on story making beautifully and simply here, thank you!

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