Narrative. I’ve been thinking about it lately, because I’m taking a narrative workshop that starts this week.In particular, I’ve been thinking about personal narratives.
I had the occasion to shop for a new laptop last month. I asked my recently-retired boss Vance to join me. He’s a Mac user, a math whiz and all-around good guy, so it seemed like a reasonable plan. I worked with Vance for almost 5 years and became familiar with the way he operates. He recognized limitations, challenges or hardships faced by the public schools with which we worked, but he always, invariably, saw the growth, possibilities and promise of the professionals who were working within those systems.
When we went to the Mac store, I could see Vance looking around, noticing the way business was being conducted. He was impressed by the young man who helped me through my decision process and the information he was able to provide. And then Vance did what he Vance does, he created a narrative of development, hope, progress, and potential that he took with him when he left the store. We joined other GEAR UP folks for dinner and he had that story to tell–the story of how amazing young people are, how technology is changing the world, enabling us to do many complex tasks effortlessly.
It got me thinking about narrative. I mean, a less positive or enlightened person could have told the story of being dragged to the Mac Store as a journey to hell with a woman half-crazed with fear because her PC was dying. Not that Vance knew anyone like that, I am simply making an example of a purely hypothetical, contrasting narrative.
Inspired by the subject, I consulted our friend Wikipedia and discovered another way of thinking about narrative: as a psychological process of creating a sense of personal or cultural identity. There is one school of thought that asserts that the breakdown of a coherent or positive narrative may play a role in the development of mental disorder. Fascinating!
The psychological definition made me think about my Dad. Although he, to my knowledge, was never diagnosed as having depression, I’d really surprised if he couldn’t have been. My Dad’s narrative was the black to Vance’s white. His went something like, “I’ll never get ahead, never have anything. All I do is work, work, work with nothing to show for it. You kids are all grown up and I don’t even know you.” Ouch.
I wonder what his life might have been like if he could have let go of his heavy-hearted narrative. I wonder if he could have re-written the story of his life, if not gaining a few years before his sudden death at 59, then perhaps in making those too-few years a celebration of something that brought him a feeling of hopefulness about this world. Would even a small bit of everyday hopefulness, like the anticipation of seeing the sun rise over his favorite maple tree or the thorough enjoyment of warm oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, have been enough to heal his heart?
It’s worth contemplating, both as a writer going into a character whose narrative may define a story and as a human trying to live authentically, consciously, productively and positively.
Do you have a personal narrative? What is it? Or what do you want it to be?