I’ve noticed recently that when I introduce myself as a storyteller, I get one comment more than any other. People smile and nod, “Oh, that’s great. I guess you must really love to perform on stage?”
This question actually surprises me.
I tend to think of storytellers as a broad category of people who shape narratives for all kinds of media—of which live presentation is just one excellent option. But semantics and personal definitions aside, the question get at something deeper, perhaps even more profound. Something I never noticed until very, very recently.
Most of us think that stories are outside of ourselves.
To us, storytelling is a practice of communicating the experience of someone else. Even if we tell a story about ourselves, we tend to turn ourselves into some kind of other, even if we do use first-person pronouns.
Yet there’s a story going on inside each one of us, every day. For most it, we ourselves are the only audience.
Over the last few months, my life has undergone some radical changes. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, my style of working, and even my conception of who I am. (I wrote a bit about this in posts about Living the Questions, Fragility: the Reward for Faith and The Story Comes First, if you care to peek.)
Suffice to say: huge shifts in priorities brought with them new waves of work. Writing for pleasure, including blogging, has been “hit or miss” or “catch as catch can.” Many times I’ve feared that my “storyteller” identity was starting to wither inside.
Yet the truth is, through all of the changes I’ve undergone (some willingly and others most definitely not), I never really quit telling stories.
Instead of telling someone else’s story, I was busy telling my own.
Trust me, that’s a much bigger job some days than the biggest novel.
You see, there are lots of ways I could tell you the story of the past few months. (Sorry, details will have to wait until later.) But the point is, I could create and share a story with you, based on the one I’ve already created in my head. But you weren’t there these past few months. You couldn’t sit on my shoulder for every waking moment of the pain and the joy I’ve experienced. Or ride the roller coaster with me as it dipped and peak, and took my lunch with it a dozen times over.
All you have to go off of are the record of those experiences that comes from my head, to my tongue.
And that’s all I have to go off of, too.
That’s all I have.
This kind of storytelling is a whole different beast than the one I’m used to, or the ones that I’m frequently asked about, where I sit down, pre-plan characters, plots and settings, and weave them together into a fictional story—which might get delivered on a stage.
No, this kind of storytelling is the uncensored, real-time narrative that runs though my head every day. The one where I tell myself where I’ve come from, where I am now, and where I’m going.
The difference is, unlike my fictional stories, this story actually matters.
It’s life or death for me. It’s my story, and whether it’s a good one, or a bad one, is up to how I tell it. The way I spin it in my head will largely determine how happy I am with my life now, and whether I embrace the future, or choose to live in the past.
(For the record, I’ve already made that decision!)
So, I guess we could say that the traditional conception of storytelling—where you get onto a stage, or write a book, and essentially serve as the channel for a tale—is only just one kind of storytelling. I call it front of house storytelling. But what we often overlook in our busy lives is what I’m now calling the back of house storytelling.
It’s the story of our lives, the one we tell ourselves and then tell to the world about ourselves.
I suspect it’s ultimately the more important of the two.
Think about it: what if we truly did believe that our responsibility as the narrative-maker of our own lives was as important as that of a professional storyteller, tweaking their tale over and over again for a sold-out crowd? What if we thought it was as important as the novelist, who slaves over every revision with care?
What if we told ourselves the story of Chapter 1, and 2, and 3 in a way that contributes to our joy and happiness in Chapter 4?
As storytellers, we have the option to choose negative language, dwell on the saddest scenes, let ourselves as the hero get mired in “what if’s” and “woebegones.”
But that’s just one choice on the table, and there are many others.
As storytellers of our own lives, like our fictional counterparts, we do actually have a choice about how we construct the narrative of our lived experience.
We tend to let ourselves just think whatever we want to think about where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and where we are today. Very often that story is not complete. It’s not well-edited. And it’s certainly not kind to ourselves or full of faith for the future.
And that’s where we go all wrong, and lead ourselves to write more of a story we really don’t like, instead of the happier, more hopeful next chapter it’s very much in our power to create.
This is perhaps the real power of storytelling: the power of our own words and thoughts about the past, and the future, to directly impact our present.
There’s something magical about that. It’s a transmutation of elements.
It’s also a deadly serious game.
I’ve realized these last few months that the story I tell myself about my life over the last six months will make or break the life I actually live in the next six. I could choose to see it as a period of defeat and loss. Or, I could choose to view it as a time of rebirth and renewal—a moment of rising, like the phoenix from the ashes, spreading its fiery feathers into the glorious light of dawn.
Which story would you rather tell? Or should I say, rather, live?
I’ve noticed recently that the days and weeks when I choose to tell the tale of triumph, gratitude and beauty in spite of the pain are the days I make forward strides—and actually become the hero of my life. I put the past behind me and move forward confidently. I get things done. I shine.
This doesn’t mean I deny the pain, of course. But it doesn’t mean that it has to define me, either.
It’s one chapter, and that is all.
It’s not the entire tale.
So as I go about my days, get my bearings, and gather my courage to start writing some actual fiction again, I remind myself that I haven’t been inactive, or dormant at all at this thing called storytelling.
I’ve simply been back of house, practicing and perfecting the one narrative really, truly matters.
It’s harder to write, but so much more rewarding.