marginalia

Marginalia: Stories We Tell About Ourselves

Earlier this month, on This American Life on NPR, Ira Glass, the host, featured an economist’s story of how he made it to Harvard with some pretty rough odds. Emir Kamenica’s story was in Acts 2 and 3 of the Sep 6 episode and was told with the help of author, journalist and storyteller extraordinaire, Michael Lewis. Somehow, I missed it when it aired and a friend brought it to my attention (thank you, Deb).

I encourage you to listen to the entire thing and, while I don’t want to spoil it for you, let’s touch on some highlights as a way of exploring the topic of this post.

Emir Kamenica had a pretty tough childhood in Bosnia. When he and some family members were able to get to the US on refugee status, he was initially sent to a school that he did not find encouraging. An English teacher (see footnote 1), Ms Ames, saw his potential and helped him transfer to a better school, which eventually, led him down the advanced education path and to the career he now has. When, as part of the show, they tracked Ms Ames down, after many years and with great difficulty, her recollection of the entire story was very different from that of Kamenica’s. Comparing notes from the past with her was unsettling for Kamenica. Because, on the basis of that one story about him and Ms Ames, which has been part of his personal narrative since it occurred, he had built the rest of his life and accomplishments.

As Michael Lewis summarized at the end of the show:

These stories we tell about ourselves — they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to. But once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows up around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least be conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. Even if your story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life, even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

We all tell various stories of our lives to family, friends, coworkers. We share them over dinners, jot them down in journals (see footnote 2), blog about them, write about them on social networks. Stories are how we explain ourselves to ourselves and to others. And, beyond curating which stories to share and repeat, how we choose to recount their specific details, sometimes with the natural skills of the best fiction writers, not only alters our own perceptions and memories but our very identities.

Also, as my friend who sent the above link wrote to me, there is something to be said for how the people around us collaborate in our storytelling. Of course, this collaborative storytelling – whether oral or written – is also the oldest practice for how cultural and religious traditions continue to be handed down through the ages. More on this in future posts.

This kind of storytelling is also one of the most important aspects of leadership. For example, during major elections, through the many stump speeches and primary debates, the candidate who can create the most powerful and inspiring narrative about both his/her own past and his/her vision for a collective future eventually prevails. A President, once elected, has to use his/her unique pulpit to become the Storyteller-in-Chief (as Junot Diaz described in this terrific New Yorker article) and continue creating larger narratives that others will accept and adopt. And, even when the storyteller is as charismatic as our current President Obama, if the politics are fluid, as with the recent Syria chemical weapons crisis, the best narratives can fall apart irreparably.

In the business world, particularly in the tech industry, there’s a never-ending fascination with stories that startup founders share about how they got started, most often with a visionary idea and all-consuming ambition. These stories not only become synonymous with the founder’s personality (the geek in the college dorm, the nerd in the garage, the lone hacker in the bedroom, etc.) but also form the basis of the team’s culture as the business grows.

So compulsive is our need for personal storytelling, that we even create narratives in our dreams. Jonathan Gottschall, in his book, The Storytelling Animal, wrote:

Every night of our sleeping lives, we wander through an alternative dimension of reality……. while the body lies dormant, the restless brain improvises original drama in the theaters of our mind.

Finally, there is also the issue, in today’s world of real-time and constant information coming from all directions, of the stories we choose to pay attention to. For example, when I open my RSS feed every morning and scan, I choose, without too much thinking, to read / share / file certain stories and skip others. In filtering the many stories coming at me based on my momentary moods and interests, I am also shaping and adding to my ongoing meta-narrative. In other words, the stories we choose to ignore or leave out say as much about us as those that we choose to absorb.

The above examples cover just a handful of the contexts in which we, as humans, are driven to tell stories about ourselves. But, why do we have such a need to create stories of our own lives? There are various schools of thought. I’ll touch briefly on just two of them here.

First, one of my long-held beliefs is that what drives us, as human beings, to create personal narratives throughout our lives is our primal desire for coherence and causality in our thoughts and experiences. This was certainly also the case for Kamenica above. I’ve often thought, when I come across a person who is unhappy, that it is likely because something in their lives is not quite adding up for them, not making sense for them or that they haven’t been able to piece together the life narratives that most satisfies them. I also find that we are drawn to those people in our lives who are the best collaborators in the stories we tell about ourselves. And, we draw away from those people who do not somehow accept or fit inside our stories.

The second is our attraction to drama. Derek Sivers shared how Kurt Vonnegut explained this using simple story grids. As much as I respect Vonnegut and Sivers, I think that neither addressed what’s underlying the need for drama. A popular and widely-accepted theory is that it is linked to our evolutionary neurology – we have to always be fighting or fleeing something in our lives even when survival is no longer such a dangerous endeavor as it was in pre-historic times. While our brain’s cerebral cortex helps us in story-creation through how it organizes/manages memory, perception, associations, thought, language, consciousness, etc., the underlying limbic system, which governs emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and the olfaction (sensory perceptions), is really in charge. Think of the cerebral cortex as the engine and the controls, and the limbic system as the fuel that powers the engine/controls. [Note: There is a lot more to the science of storytelling, whether personal narrative or fiction creation – we will explore further in future posts.]

All this has reminded me of one of my favorite passages from a landmark essay, called Modern Fiction, by Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader.

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit?

Though she was referring to the creation of fiction, this also applies to how we approach with the stories of our lives: shaping uniquely the myriad impressions that come at us in incessant showers of innumerable atoms.

Footnotes:

1. What is it about English teachers? I shared a personal story earlier this week about one of my English teachers also having a life-changing impact on me.

2. In the previous day’s post, I mentioned how journals are sometimes a way for people to retell their own stories in private. We will explore this further in more posts in the Journal series.

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