Even the most beautiful stories have shadows sides … places into which the light does not reach … or into which it dare not travel. In these depths dwell creatures such as boredom, complacency, guilt, shame, fear, sickness, loneliness, doubt, resentment, and pain. They lurk … ever-patient … awaiting their opportunity to hijack the narrative. They combine forces and speak in loud convincing voices as the narrative inches nearer. They overwhelm and confuse. They clear-cut trees, lay down asphalt, and block off alternate routes so the narrative’s course becomes more assured. However, even in the darkest and nastiest of places, the narrative can still be bent.
This is a reminder to me.
The past week has been filled with the scariest of demons. Even this week’s dominant news stories seem more awful than usual. Tragedy and sadness and uncertainty have danced around the edges of my life and the lives of those close to me since June began. In some cases … these forces have pierced people I love to the very core. I’m not sure what has been going on in the universe over the past few days, but it’s been a full-on assault on happiness and peace. The effects have ranged from minor scrapes and bruises to nearly fatal injuries.
My own narrative this week included physical challenges (pneumonia) on top of some other emotionally- and existentially-based stuff that would have normally had me on my knees if I wasn’t being poisoned by the medication that was supposed to be making me better. I was too tired and sick to do much more than focus on my physical needs (like breathing and eating required conscious effort). That meant that I had A LOT of time at home alone doing nothing (and we all know how much I love that). In a moment of sheer climb-the-walls-crazy-with-boredom … I decided to rifle through old books to see if there was anything that could possibly help me forget what was going on in my head, heart, body, and soul. I was thinking of a good Chuck Palahniuk novel or some trashy vampire fiction, but the book that kept drawing my eyes was one I haven’t looked at since I turned in my masters thesis. It’s a tiny little blue and gold book by Jerome Bruner called “Making Stories”. I flipped through the pages and landed in the middle of a chapter called “the narrative creation of the self” and my eyes hit this sentence … “self-making is narrative art … our self-making stories accumulate over time … they get out-of-date and need to be adjusted to fit new circumstances”. It was (it is) an empowering thought. The narrative is under my control and can be bent. Yes … it was hijacked this week by dark forces but I can wrestle it back and steer it towards brighter places.
I started to think about the story of it all. A story has plot, characters, setting, etc. So … the theory I came up with is that changing any or all of those elements could have an impact on the narrative. Here are the things I’ve begun to play around with.
setting – The latest chapter of my life (June 1 until today) has been set almost entirely within the walls of my sweet little kitsilano apartment. One of the easiest ways to change the course of the narrative is to change the setting. My setting changes over the past week haven’t been particularly dramatic. They’ve included time spent in sunbeams on my patio, a trip to Whole Foods, wandering in and out of shops on 4th Avenue, and day at my office. In the early part of the week, moving from my bed to the couch was a major accomplishment and a major narrative changer. Tonight’s setting change will involve going to a “gentle yoga” class. Yes … gentle yoga. Look at me branching out. I’ll probably still do a handstand. But … each change has helped. Each one helped me adjust my perspective and move the narrative in a slightly different direction.
characters – Your narrative goes nowhere without characters and my story over the past week has been largely autobiographical. That one gets boring fast. I needed fresh meat to give my story flavour. So … I started reaching out to people. They got me out of my own head. In hearing their stories and in telling my own … the narrative took on a new shape … different things drifted into prominence and others faded away. It helped me make meaning of the situation I was in and helped me isolate the dominant themes.
costume changes – Just get dressed already! Can I tell you how much difference it makes to just have a shower and get out of your sweats? The world becomes a much brighter place. You can bend the narrative with a simple sweep of a mascara brush and a clean t-shirt. Try it.
plot – Plot some plots. I have a tendency to future surf which takes me out of the present so I am cautious about recommending and employing this strategy. But … when the present sucks balls in a major way … that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This week I needed to know that I had something to look forward to … something I was moving towards. So a mapped out a couple of different plot options and started taking steps to make certain things happen. It gave me a sense of agency and hopefulness … two things that had been eluding me. So suddenly the narrative was unstuck and things started moving again. Moving in a direction of my choosing. It felt good.
We’ve probably wrung pretty much every drop of usefulness out of this metaphor, but I have one last thing to say about bending the narrative. When all else fails … abandon the chapter. You don’t need to see it through. Honestly you don’t. As a writer … that’s a hard thing to say. I want to see it through … get to the end. But sometimes it’s best to just stop where you are. Put the book back on the shelf, rip out those pages and set them alight, or hit the delete button on what you’ve written. Just start a clean page. Begin a new chapter. Do it.