Inventing the Story of Me

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One of the principal reasons we read, and write, and converse, and watch plays (including on TV and film), is that these social exchanges are essential, for each of us, to the creation of the Story of Me. And the Story of Me is essential to how we make sense of the world, and how we formulate and make sense of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviours. This is what human brains do. The Story of Me is far more than what we perceive to have “happened” to us. It’s everything we conceive about those happenings, and everything we conceive about, well, everything else.

Through stories, we become witnesses to things that mostly didn’t directly “happen” to us (and, in the case of lies and fictional stories, may not have happened at all), but that ‘witnessing’ all becomes a part of the Story of Me — what happened to me and in ‘my’ world and what I think and feel about all that, and how that has made me who I supposedly am. The veracity of the witnessed story is largely irrelevant. Sometimes we are more ‘moved’ by fiction than fact, especially if that fiction is related through a good story.

We are all story-tellers. Most of our conversations are essentially stories in the first or third person. Most news is stories. We are concerned to some extent with the truthfulness (including freedom from important omissions and deliberate or unintended cognitive bias) of the purportedly-true stories we listen to, read and watch, because it is the ‘true’ stories, we hope, that affect our beliefs and behaviours more profoundly than invented ones. But we are more concerned about whether a purportedly-true story resonates with what we believe to be true, than we are with its actual truthfulness. We want reassurance that what we want to believe is true.

If the story doesn’t purport to be true, we’re mostly concerned with its entertainment value — especially, as TS Eliot explained, its capacity to evoke feelings in us and provide us with new insights. To transport us, provoke us, and even unsettle us. Even then, it can change us, change how and what we feel and think and believe and do, all of which are part of the Story of Me.

For example, the reader may learn something about human nature by reading another’s depiction of a character, either through that character’s actions or through the narrator’s peek into the character’s mind. And although that character, and its mind, are fictions, the reader may learn something about themselves by how they relate to the character. Would the reader, in the same place and situation as the character, feel, think, believe and behave the same way, or differently, and, why, and what does this tell us about ourselves, and hence alter our Story of Me?

We are constantly rewriting this Story. Every time we think “If that had been me…”, while we’re reading or talking with someone or watching something, we are changing the script of the Story of Me. And it doesn’t matter whether the story we’re reading or hearing or watching is true or not.

One of the controversies in the literary world these days concerns the blurring of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. There are even names for works that straddle the two — faction, or auto-fiction. At one point, a novel could be described as autobiographical or not, but now we have semi-autobiographical novels. And, as Melissa Febos recently explained, we also have works that blur the line between memoir and essay.

We are grappling with similar challenges about the veracity of stories of ‘fact’ in the news media and in our everyday conversations and reading (in person and online). Misinformation and disinformation have enormous consequences for the functioning of civil society. Societies that are based largely on blatantly false assertions and provably erroneous beliefs are called cults, and they usually — though not always — end in ruin.

We are living today in a world where many deny the very existence of ‘truth’, and assert that if enough people believe something it is effectively true, at least for them. In past, we used the word ‘myth’ to describe such beliefs (whether they were true or not). A myth is, of course, a type of story.

But it is very unsettling, and historically destabilizing, when a whole society fractures along the lines of what stories each fragment wants to believe to be true, especially when those stories are incompatible. Those fractures usually manifest in wars, genocides and civil wars. They are alarming, but not a new human phenomenon. Faced with incompatible truths, societies disintegrate and often collapse. Eventually new societies emerge within the wreckage that have enough shared beliefs in what is true to be able to function and provide enough value to their members to endure. Their members’ Stories of Me are, for the most part, cohesive, becoming, to some extent, a collective Story of Us.

Writers are probably far more concerned about whether their writing is honest or authentic, than are readers. The reader just wants a good story, and whether it’s true, or made up, or somewhere in between, really doesn’t matter.

I’ve written a lot about stories on this blog, including what makes a good story, and why stories are dangerous. (Bottom line: they’re dangerous when they perpetrate, deliberately or unconsciously, propaganda, naive over-simplification, a grievous distortion of history, or misinformation or disinformation.)

So what motivates a writer to write a truly fictional novel, or an unabashed memoir, or something in between? If readers are clear about what they want to read, and why, why do story-tellers often feel so troubled at giving that to them?

As a writer, I think it’s because we writers take our stories personally. While most others surely don’t care whether my Story of Me is true or not, I, its author, care. I want it to be true, honest, accurate. Everything I write contains at least a bit of the Story of Me — my beliefs, impressions, biases, ideas and passions. That bit, at least, has to be as true as possible, because otherwise my entire Story of Me becomes somewhat suspect, and that can have devastating consequences.

So if I mess up a memoir by putting in some things that didn’t happen, or might not have happened, it’s kind of lying — mostly to myself. And if I put a character in a story that (whether that is disclosed or not) is based on myself, and that character has qualities that I don’t have or experiences I have not had, then I am kind of telling untruths, leading both me and my readers to believe, perhaps falsely, that such a larger-than-life character is or could actually be real. I take crossing the line between relating the Story of Me, as I understand it to be absolutely true based on everything I know and have learned, and passing off untruths about myself, very seriously. Like most people, I think, the loss of the integrity of the Story of Me can be my undoing. We can lie to others, perhaps believing it’s for a good reason, but to lie to ourselves is unforgivable, unthinkable. I am the Story of Me, and if that Story is a lie, then I am a lie.

(To some extent this is also the case collectively — as I suspect white supremacists, and to a certain extent humanitarian liberals facing the reality of climate collapse, are now discovering to their dismay, If the Story of Us is a lie, then we are a lie.)

Many of my short stories and other creative writings draw on my own character, and on my thinking, feelings, experiences, ideas and beliefs, but my invented characters are generally much smarter, and funnier, and more equanimous and “always on” than I could ever be. The “Portrait” story that I published on Friday was almost true — it was almost a memoir. But I did embellish it a little. I felt bad about it, but not too bad — it made for a better story. I categorized it as a ‘Creative Work’ almost apologetically. But who actually cares if it’s not entirely true? I do. Why? Because it purports to be part of the Story of Me, but it contains untruths that cannot be in that Story.

And what this reveals, I think, is what is fundamentally and uniquely true about human selves. Without our Stories, we are nothing. And the problem is that our Stories of Me are all, entirely, fictions. My Story of Me is a fabrication that starts with this brain’s translation of electromagnetic waves and other phenomena reaching this body, into lights and colours and objects that are entirely internal conceptions of the brain. My Story of Me is entirely built on a scaffolding of representation and modelling of these perceptions as being ‘real’, upon which is layered a shitload of conceptions, all in the interest of making sense of the perceptions, about what these sensory perceptions ‘mean’.

The first layers of these conceptions are instinctual and reactive — loud noise, cover your ears; things associated as threatening (fists, or fangs), fight, flee, or freeze. All creatures share this level of conceptual capacity. But humans uniquely have additional levels of conceptualization including those around causality (beyond just association), meaning, purpose, judgement, and differentiation, most essentially the differentiation between self and other, between me and not-me. There is compelling evidence that other creatures neither have nor need these layers of additional conceptual capacity. That’s not to say they aren’t intelligent (read Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book if you believe you need the capacity to conceive of a ‘self’, and free will, to be intelligent), and that they don’t feel pain and joy, and react emotionally — perhaps more than our self-censoring species does.

They feel all these things and do very smart things (most wild creatures have been around millions of years longer than humans), but they do not have, and certainly do not need, a ‘self’, a ‘me’, a sense of inviolable separation from everything else. In other words, they do not have a Story of Me.

How can this be? How can something that is so essential to our existence as humans that we fall apart when we lose the thread of it, or seriously doubt its integrity, be, in fact, completely unnecessary to a full and thriving life?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much less enamoured with the Story of Me. It doesn’t serve me well, and never really has. It seems unnecessary and often vexatious. I am stuck with it, like I am stuck with my appendix, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

When I was young, I made lots of things up. I daydreamed. I invented things. I did this not because I was urgently trying to craft the Story of Me — many of the fanciful things I made up were clearly not what everyone called ‘real’. I did it because, like writing, it was fun.

So now I wonder: Why are my fantasies (places I’ve imagined, just for fun, being, and the people I’ve imagined being there with, doing things I imagine doing together) not as authentic a part of the Story of Me as my supposedly ‘actual’ experiences? They’re all just conceptualizations. All the people in my life are, to the extent I am seemingly in relation to them, an integral part of my Story of Me, though I can never hope to even begin to know who they really are. The people I imagine them to be are a part of the Story of Me, while the unknowable people they actually are, are not and can never be part of the Story of Me!

And why aren’t the fictional characters I invent in my creative writing — often extensions and amplifications and satirical variations of me and people I purport to know and be close to — as much a part of the Story of Me as this rather staid and unadventurous and slow-to-learn plodder whose body I presume to inhabit? Every element of the Story of Me is a complete fiction, something made up in my head and body to try to make sense of this life that makes no sense.

And if that’s so, why shouldn’t I, child-like, tell my Story of Me (especially when relating it quietly to myself) as one of impossible, fantastic, wondrous dreams, achievements and adventures? Is it because I’m afraid that if I were held to account for the Story’s veracity (though by whom?), it wouldn’t stand up? I would have to admit that it’s a lie — all of it. The parts that say I ever did anything. The parts that say I valiantly reined in my character’s less admirable qualities and accentuated the positive, with my supposed ‘free will’. The parts that say I have made something of my life, done my best. The parts that say things are getting better, that I have improved, learned stuff, moved forward.

That, perhaps, is a truth I could not bear.

But perhaps, with not that much of my incredibly-blessed life remaining, it just might be that continuing to march to the drum of the Story of Me — this ragged, shabby, cobbled-together myth of Who I Am — might yet one day turn out to be even more unbearable.

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