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The stories we tell

 

I think about stories all the time. Or, more accurately, I “think story” all the time. I think about the story the experience I am having will make, often in real time and especially if the experience is less than wonderful. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) as an 18-wheeler spewed a tsunami of gritty road water in my face on the afternoon of the first day of a three-day bike trek. And, yes, I did write about it. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) when, one morning not long ago, I stepped out the back door into a cool, lovely Oregon morning and skidded halfway across the porch when my bare foot encountered the splayed (still warm) guts of a vole the cat had proudly caught and eviscerated. And see, I just wrote about it.

But I also think more deeply, more seriously about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. I don’t mean made-up stories. I mean the narratives we construct to help give shape to our lives and make sense of our experience. I mean the stories others tell about us – again, not fabricated but constructed from their perceptions and the memories they retained – that tell us not so much about ourselves but about the people telling the stories.

I think about the men I work with at Oregon State Penitentiary, Lifers all, convicted murderers all, and the way they are learning to create narratives that are about something other than the worst thing they ever did, the lowest, most shameful moment in their lives. I think about the power of telling that story to yourself. And I think about a parole hearing I sat in on recently and the competing narratives I heard: One was the story of transformation, the 30 hard years of making sense of the senseless, of learning how to take responsibility, of figuring out how to live with the guilt, the anguish you caused so many people, of struggling to remake yourself into person who could never do what that person you were 30 years ago did. And then there was the other story, the one steeped in pain as raw today as it was three decades ago, a story of violence vividly remembered, of families shattered and lives forever altered, a story so often told, so often relived and remembered as to be truly indelible.

Both stories are true. But the story of pain, of the past, proved more compelling to the parole board.

And so the man who told the transformation story, a man who’s been in my writers’ group for almost two years, is now faced with another story to tell, a narrative that helps make sense of the parole board experience, a story that can help him process, understand and move forward from that experience. He’s working on it. I’m there to help.

That’s my story.

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