Why We Tell Stories (And The Day I Learned To Let Go)

Flickr / Peter Lindberg
Flickr / Peter Lindberg

I’ve never read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I can tell you what distinguishes people we admire from people we learn from-communication. Good, clear, concise and persuasive communication, verbal and otherwise. The way we converse tells a story about the experiences we’ve had and what has and hasn’t worked for us; about our ability to read the subconscious cues of the person in front of us; about our ability to listen-actually listen-and connect (genuinely or not). Good communication requires flow, but just the right amount – not saying too little, or sharing too much-the appropriate pace to match the person, subject matter, place and time. It may be one of the things we do most naturally on a biological level and most often on a social level, yet communication is infinitely harder than we’d almost always wish it to be, and by no means guaranteed to get better with each iteration.

Like communication, storytelling is about flow. It’s taking a character and moving their persona along; developing a plotline that a reader can follow, relate to and engage in; it’s about saying something unique, when the subject matter is often an ordinary thing that many have seen or experienced before. For this reason, in a very egotistic craving to win the world over in my own way, I have worn the lenses of a person who sees a tale in every obstacle; an opportunity in each adventure to share its remnants with others. I have lived and collected a series of stories, catalogued in as logical of a sequence as the rational side of my brain can manage, which I share at the right times, with the right people, in my bid to “win them over.”

Without being an asshole, it’s made me (at first impression) a rather likeable person, precisely because in the middle of a conversation, I’ll be able to share one of my stories that relate pretty closely to what the other person is saying. I’ll adjust accordingly, of course, and sometimes leave out details I don’t think quite “fit.” On the whole though, I’ve rarely run out of things to say, or been in a situation where I felt I had nothing of interest to share. Not all conversations peak my interest, but often the ability to make conversation becomes an easier way to pass the time.

In my varied collection, I have embraced many a person as a fond memory or “experience,” though in honesty have held on to very few of these memories and times beyond their charismatic cadence. There are few stories I hold very dear, often ones that still feel that little bit surreal, which I retell myself in my own head often enough that these stories can develop into the ether far beyond their initial intention. Stories can start as true and real ones, but in a effort to “keep things flowing,” I write them continuously in a dialogue that can exhaust me.

  • Did I really say that?
  • Did they really mean it?
  • Could I have done things differently?
  • Would any of it had made a difference?
  • What were they trying to say?
  • Will I ever experience that flux of emotion again?

Ok, that’s enough (for now).

Storytelling is about flow but it’s also about abstraction, in as far as you make choices about what to include (and what to exclude) in a story. In many regards, it is the anti-matter to traditional anxiety, and therefore its natural complement. Anxiety, in a very simplified and high-level form, is an experience whereby we create with our minds a story about a situation that isn’t entirely true, yet manages to override us with fear of the story’s progression. It is a falsity that often becomes indistinguishable from reality, and sometimes inescapable from day to day function. Storytelling is just the opposite — it’s taking reality, and making it into an idealized recount of a happening of events. In both scenarios, an inevitable conflation occurs, as you begin to wonder, is it really just in my head, and which part of these situations and emotions actually happened or are happening?

This week, I made the conscious decision (for the nth time) to let go. In this round of deliberations, it’s letting go of all of the things I actually cannot change at all. They include, but are not limited to, all of the stupid things I said and did over the past two weeks (there were, unfortunately, in these past weeks, a higher than average number of these), and also all of the parts of me that I just am. No, there’s nothing essential about me, and no, I’m no immovable rock, but I am human, and that is eternally flawed. That’s ok. I can work on it, but if sometimes I get the best of myself…that’s ok too. As long as it’s not all the time, and as long as I can still recognize that the part of my “story” that is happening right now, is not a desired plot twist.

The stories of my life are collections I often nostalgically refer back to as some kind of proof that they actually happened, because with time it becomes difficult to believe you were actually living life when you were. Many years ago I was in the opera house in Salzburg at 2am running through the costume rooms and setups with a friend I’d just met; I was catching a ride share in the middle of German winter to spend two days with someone I hardly knew; I was speaking at a book launch of a charity group I’d become part of without trying; I was doing all these things, and now I’m here.

Storytelling may be a way to relive your life, but it can equally be a means by which to hold on it, in a way that perverts reality and perception and past. It’s ok to entertain a story, but it’s better to entertain a story and let it go. You can hold on to the memory, but you can’t hold on to the moment: not the person that was in it, not the place that you were in, not how wonderful you felt just being alive at that point in time, experiencing something you instantly recognized you’d eventually lament the loss of.

Part of storytelling is being in the story, and letting go of the narrator’s voice. You know when people really understand you? When you let them. Without the pretense, and with full intention. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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