The Responsibility of Story: A Fifty Year Passage

We humans are social beings; we live on food, water and the power of story. We linger at the holiday dinner table (or, as children, hide beneath the tablecloth) to hear the stories of who we are and how we became a family.  We pour the small-town shanachie another Harp lager, and settle in to listen to the old, old story of our tribe and clan, even if it’s a story set in our lifetime. We answer every krik?  with a resounding krak! calling out for stories of our essential selves cast as tricksters and mermaids and foolish men. We honor the tellers of facts with riches and staying awake through their Powerpoint presentations  and lifetime academic posts. But we honor our storytellers with praise, publication and positive reviews, and sometimes a small measure of fortune.

As I move toward fifty, I have discovered new work that makes me the keeper and the teller of precious stories told anew. I am deeply immersed in understanding what makes a story compelling, and what makes a story precious and true. To do this work with honor, I must summon my decades of skill as a writer, a scholar and a lover of culture in order to transmit these stories with great care.

The care with which a narrative is passed on can shape what kinds of stories a people are allowed to tell ourselves ever afterward. Commercial advertising has told us stories amplified and specially designed to build temporary connections based on the gift or illusion of a briefly shared common language. Now, a five minute performance poem or a popular, if dubious, memoir offers equally fast, brutal stories that gather us together just long enough to feel something other than lost and alone. Casual artists and serious journalists stream three minute bites of digital video to tell us the story of who we are now, flashing instant connection and stories of difference, with or without context, across the globe. The speed of these stories draws us in with their immediacy; their one-off nature, and hearing them in private, prevents us from testing their truth across generations or noticing whether their wisdom still applies when shared with new people in new places.

This week I am grateful to be almost-fifty. Those decades of understanding story help me keep my balance as I wade the stream between stories that tell the truth about difference and stories with verisimilitude: the comforting appearance of being true or real. The bottom of that river is slippery and full of stones: the way popular movie The Help helps some of us to dwell in illusion and while providing others the occasion to tell a counter-narrative; my effort to help a client release their desire to appropriate a “truthy” story about indigenous culture and to grasp instead a story that is resonant because it is powerfully true.

As I learn about the responsibility involved in carrying an authentic story, I am learning to strip the geegaws of verisimilitude from the story I tell myself about who I am. I need fewer of the tools of drama to say who I am in this world with you: no costume, no special lighting, no symbolic colors, no props. I can choose to use some of them occasionally and lightly, but without depending on them because I know how to tell a story strongly rooted in veracity: my half-century practice of finding and telling the many, many stories that make up the truth.

The responsibility for telling my story, and the story of others, will require at least fifty years of wisdom. I will need to offer more than just engaging stories told with good intention. I will need all the wisdom of my fifty years of practice of humility, fifty years of strength from holding the creative tension of diverse points of view, and fifty years of learning what truly nourishes us. At fifty, I become an elder who is responsible for telling stories that are more than entertainment. I am becoming one who is responsible for bearing stories to help each of us stay connected and alive.

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Comments

  • Jude  On August 21, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I will of course read this again later, but this is one of the strongest examples of what you yourself exemplify for me. That it is a way of being, a way of experiencing the self that is so far beyond my grasp now that it is almost beyond my ken doesn’t make me wistful: it is comforting. Your drive toward realization, your fostering of your own gifts & their potential, and your unblinking acknowledgment of just how good you are, these things make me happy every time I come near them. I am neither pushed into a defense of the intricate currents that I have been able to use or failed to, nor into despair at what use I may fail to make of hat is left. I get to know how microscopic the threads of shaping are, how mysterious their true composition and how unpredictable the effect of every hand that has ever touched the loom…
    .A nyway. The OTHER thing I did was smile- at how momentous 50 sounds in the story of your story. I was still remarkably self-deluded at 50, and on my way to finding out the hard way how vast the chasm was between theory and practice, and what not knowing what love was going to do to any sense of self-respect or connection I had ever managed to scrape together.

    but that’s a digression-way beside the point and the smile. it’s as simple as 50 sounding big til you feel how just another year 60 is 😉 & that’s just me, I know. You feel prime to me, Mistinguette- hitting the year like we should all get to. I am glad to know you, and I’m glad someone with the skills to tell it takes her own story so seriously.

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