I have an abiding memory of being eight or nine years old and being made to hand round canapés at my parents’ drinks parties. It felt like trying to pick my way through a dense forest. My head was probably not much higher than the midriffs of most of the adults. They towered and crowded around me.
I looked up as they took whatever it was from the plate I proffered, smiling down and mumbling indulgently in my general direction before resuming their conversation. It made me feel inconsequential. I longed, hopelessly, to be noticed, to be interesting to them, to be heard. And to this day, the one thing that can still induce a sense of childish impotence and rage is the feeling that I have not been heard. Usually now it’s when I come up against bureaucracy in one of its more obdurate forms.
But being heard is one of the most basic of human needs. Sarah and I ran our second The Stories We Tell workshop last weekend. If anything defined the weekend it was the need of all 11 participants, each in their different ways, to be heard; for their stories to be listened to.
Steven Grosz is a psychoanalyst who has written an acclaimed book of stories from his couch, called The Examined Life. We heard him speak in Edinburgh in August. He said, ‘If we can’t tell our stories we go mad.’ He’s right. Untold stories are the source of many ills, and illnesses. And it’s not only that we crave the human connection that comes from sharing them, but also that we can only start to understand them when we hear ourselves tell them. For that to happen, of course, we need a listener.
So over our weekend stories were told and listened to, attentively and respectfully. In the process, another thing became evident: just how complex and fluid they can be. Our life stories are never a single, perfectly formed, linear narrative. They’re messy and meandering and often even circular. They nest. They have holes in them. They trail loose threads. And they exist in multiple realities.
The idea that a single story can have many versions which are not mutually exclusive was a revelation to many people present. It means that as time passes we can revise the way we look at things, without the original impact of the experience losing any of its validity. We can have this version and that version, rather than this version or that version – a possibility that can be liberating for someone who may have felt trapped for a long time by a particular rendering of events.
To tell a story, of course, you need a voice. For most people, in fact, the two things are inseparable. The common refrain ‘I don’t feel I have a voice’ is very often just another way of saying ‘I don’t know how to tell my story’. Because once you start to tell your story you start to discover your voice. Story or voice, they’re nothing more – or less – than the authentic expression of who you are as a human being. The real reward of the weekend, for Sarah and me, was hearing individual voices gaining strength as aspects of the stories they told became more clear.
Increasingly I’m coming to see stories as maps of the human heart, the best ones there are of that most complex of all terrains. Everything we need to know about ourselves is there in the stories we tell.
Hi jamie, I love this piece, … and this is just to confirm … you have been heard
I’m just back from being guest reader at a fiction-writing course at Moniack Mhor, the Arvon Foundation’s centre near Inverness. I wish I’d had your piece to read out to the people on the course, as my theme was exactly this – that we are all made up of stories, and that stories are what define us as individuals and communities. After my reading, the discussion focused on what ‘narrative’ is (just another word for story and voice in combination, I suppose). And we talked about how narratives in real life are often determined by who has the power to speak loudest or longest or with greatest authority, and how other narratives emerge to challenge those dominant narratives. Familiar stories can appear very different when told from a new perspective, or by someone whose voice has never been heard before…
Thanks James. I heard Neil Gaiman at the book festival talking about exactly this, how we ‘co-construct’ stories – for example, parents and children sitting down after a day’s outing and agreeing a version of what happened which suits the ‘happy families’ narrative, although one child was actually miserable because it lost its ice cream. He said something like ‘adults control the memories of the past because children lack the strength (power?) to talk about the things they don’t think the adults want to hear.’ He went on to say, interestingly, that while couples do it, and parents and children do it, siblings don’t.
I wish I were a fly on the wall, listening with you to the stories of all these people, and witnessing them thus discover themselves. What a privilege. As was reading this wise and thoughtful piece. Thank you.
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