We Tell Ourselves Stories

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a great line, and the first line of the first essay in Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM, published in 1979. In 2006 she used that brilliant line as the title of another book of essays, which is a collection gleaned from her first seven nonfiction books.

No topic is off limits for Didion. She writes about politics and gangs, the Hoover Dam and Georgia O’Keefe, counterculture and permaculture. She wrote bravely about the death of her husband, which was followed by the death of her daughter. She wrote about that too. Didion confronts dichotomy and contradiction head on, and creates heartbreaking portraits of both people and place.

She’s unapologetic and unsentimental. Her observations are astute, her prose is spare, and she untangles life in a way that makes the reader feel she’s looking her in the eye, saying, “I get it.”

There’s this theory in storytelling that the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes. It’s curious, really, and it seems the opposite would be true, but when a storyteller trusts the reader, the reader trusts herself.

I like to craft stories on paper. I’ve been writing a lot this summer, and I love the process of telling a story then cutting it up. I love choosing what to reveal and what to keep hidden, where to be overt and where to be a little bit coy. The end becomes the beginning, there’s a narrative thread for the reader to hang on to, and there are a few twists and turns in the middle. It’s on paper, a permanent record of sorts.

Back in May I did something different. I got up on a stage in front of a few friends and a lot of strangers and I told a story. No notes, not even an index card. I thought about writing on my hand or arm, but figured that would be weird. I practiced a little beforehand, but every time I did I blew it. I went over the allotted ten minutes, I forgot a detail, I told too many details.

When the time came to tell the story I thought about blowing it off, faking sick, or just saying, “I can’t.” I took ballet and tap dance lessons as a kid, and all year I’d practice for the recital and order the costume then I’d back out in the final hour. I’d tell my mother, “I can’t get on that stage,” and she’d say, “You don’t have to.”

At thirty-eight years old it was time to stop making excuses. You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Ten minutes on a stage isn’t a lot. Telling a story about how I met my dog is easy; it’s a story I’ve told many times. But fear is a power deterrent. I started my “story” by talking about how what we’re most afraid of is rejection. I needed to hear my voice tell someone else’s story before I could tell my own. Wrap your head around that one. {My friend Heather wrote a great blog post on fear yesterday. It’s good stuff. Check it out here.}

For some public speaking is no big deal, but we all have our things. I know people who dig in their heels like a dog headed to the bathtub if they’re pulled onto a dance floor. I know people who are afraid of success, intimacy, and abandonment. You know them too. I know people who are afraid to do things with their bodies while others are afraid of doing things with their minds. Some are afraid of both, rendering themselves paralyzed. People are afraid to speak up, stand out, fall apart.

And then once in a while you have to say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and you just go for it. I washed and brushed my hair. I had a cocktail and ate a banana. I sat with my friends. I listened to others tell stories and I didn’t run out the back door. Then I got on the stage, said a few things I didn’t mean to and forgot a few things I meant to. And I survived. People laughed, but not at me.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’m okay with two steps forward one step back, but no steps forward? I’m all full up on that.

I was nervous about what I’d do with my hands while I told a story/freaked out on stage, and I had a dog biscuit in my pocket from Bernice’s bakery which I fingered like a worry stone while I spoke.

When I was done one of my friends let Lucky off his leash (we’d smuggled him in after intermission) and he found his way to the stage, but was terrified to go up the steps. Marc Moss, the mastermind behind the event (TELL US SOMETHING)  encouraged Luck up the steps, but it turns out the stage fright apple didn’t fall far from the tree. We can both ham it up just fine among friends, but on a stage…hell no!

Then I remembered the treat. I pulled it out of my pocket and Luck found the courage to make his stage debut. Here we are. When I first saw this picture I wondered what I was doing with my arm, then I saw my sweet boy reaching up for his prize.

Image

And finally, last but not least, here’s a link to the podcast for my story called “Picked By Luck.” 

You can explore several dozen Tell Us Something podcasts HERE and you can support future storytellers by showing up at the Top Hat on October 9th. The topic is “Forgiveness.” Um, what’s not to like? Ok then, see you there.

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison 

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61 thoughts on “We Tell Ourselves Stories

  1. This is so true of fiction writing as well as nonfiction writing. Every story we tell contains disguises of our own stories, true or not.
    Very well, written, ma’am. Well written.

    • Thanks, Derek! I like your thoughts as well and just signed up to follow your blog! Thanks to Freshly Pressed I’m being introduced to so many new people. I think it is SO interesting how every story we tell (or don’t tell), every thing we say, every thing we eat/do/wear says something about who we are. Thanks for paying attention.

      • That’s really cool. Thanks and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. One of my posts got the same awesome treatment a few weeks ago, and it definitely livens the discussions on your page!
        Best of luck!

    • That makes my day! I hope you’re happy with your decision, and if not, that at least you’re better for making it! Better to know than not to know, right?

  2. Congratulations on conquering your fear. You’ve inspired me to step a little further forward today. I especially liked your comment about how the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal it becomes. True enough!
    This was a great read, and I’m so glad you were FP’d for it!
    Cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  3. Congratulations on overcoming your fear. According to one top 10 list, people fear public speaking more than rats, spiders and death. Now that you’ve gone through it, wasn’t that much better than being killed by a swarm of spiders and rats?

    • Thanks, Matt! It’s hard to believe (now) that people are so afraid of public speaking, and I love how when we look back it’s hard to remember what we were so afraid of in the first place. And yes, much better than being killed by a swarm of spiders and rats! Thanks for reading and listening, Jaime

  4. Beautifully said. Sometimes when I get up on stage I don’t feel nervous at all. Other times I do. Most people think it’s funny to finally find out what it is I am saying to myself when I pause at the beginning:

    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death…”

    Thanks Mr. Herbert sir.

    This is a really great post. I am so glad it was freshly pressed or I probably never would have read it. Thank you. Cheers.

    • Thank You! I’ve had more readers today with my “freshly pressed” status and hope you continue to follow my blog! Jaime

      • Keep writing like that and I will (no pressure). The competition, however, is pretty fierce… (I can’t even keep a strait face even though it’s true). Cheers.

  5. “There’s this theory in storytelling that the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes.” So true. That is what gave me the courage and motivation to start sharing my stories through my writing and speaking.
    Thanks for a lovely post 🙂

    • Thanks, Sangeeta. I’m glad you’ve found the courage to share your stories. The more we do the more other people will.

  6. I could really identify with what you said about having to tell someone else’s story before getting into your own – our own stuff is so real and gets even more real when we speak it out loud to a crowd – I enjoyed your blog post and will look for more.

    • That sure is the truth, Francis. It helped so much to tell that anecdote in the beginning, and it sure is an interesting lesson is what we “hide” behind. Thank you! Jaime

  7. This was well written!
    Congrats for braving the stage!
    10 minutes can in some moments feel like an hour!
    Great job!

    • Thank you! I love “time.” It’s so true….Ten minutes can feel like forever, and it can also go in the blink of an eye when you don’t want something to end. Thanks for reading and listening, Jaime

  8. Hi Jamie,
    Firstly congratz on the Freshly Pressed. With a post like that it was certainly well deserved. Enjoyed reading it and watching the podcast. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. Wishing you all the best for the future. I’d say good Luck, but you already have the best Luck you could with your four legged supporter 🙂 Take care of each other
    Nadine xoxo

    • Oh, Nadine, that’s sweet and true. He’s sitting an arm’s length away while I write this afternoon. Thanks for reading and listening; this day has been *such* a treat! Jaime

  9. Congrats on getting up there! I could sit and talk and joke with friends all day or all night, but if I had to stand up on stage in front of those same friends and just read a newspaper article, or something equally simple, to them, it would be an ordeal for me, for all of us. Of course, drunken karaoke is a whole different thing.

  10. Great Story & Podcast! It takes time to learn how to be in the center of group and performing whether telling a story, singing a song, or some other performance art. I cut my teeth so to speak musically before delving into the art of storytelling but in both you have to draw the audience in and keep their attention, hopefully in the end you’ve entertained and maybe even informed them. You do a great job with that! Thanks!

    • Thank you, Martin! You’re too kind, I think, but I’ll take it! I look forward to checking out your blog. Keep in touch, jaime

    • Thanks! Lucky’s mother was a Lab, and his father a Rottweiler/wolf! I can see what you mean, though; he looks all sleek, shiny, and pointer-esque in that photo!

  11. what a great story — and story-telling. I speak a lot in public — used to hate it because I was so scared I’d ‘look stupid’. Once I got over my fear of looking stupid, all was good!

    Thanks to Talk to Diana for leading me here.

    And I love the idea of this event.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks, Louise. It’s a very funny event, similar to the Moth in NYC. Start up a storytelling event in your town!

  12. Funny, but I was *just* writing about this question of how much to bare my soul to my readers. And, in fact, I was leaning somewhat in the direction of privacy, but I was very struck by your paragraph about how personal stories are universal. Hmmm. Perhaps I need to rethink my position.

    • rethink it! i mean, if you’re comfortable doing it. I think you can take that theory/quote however you’d like, but i think that when we’re specific in our experiences we are more able to strike a chord in our readers. what are you writing?

  13. Pingback: Statistics and Naked Ladies « sorry i'm NOT WHO YOU THOUGHT i was

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