This I believe—that I am a story. I know that borders on the sin of sounding like some saccharine platitude, but I believe it with all my heart.
I hope that I am one of those O’Henry stories where the plot, rife with failure and bad decisions, turns on a dime and ends in wealth and happiness. I actually hope that this has already happened, that the sudden contentment and good fortune in my recent days is the beginning of a long and comfortable dénouement. But you never know. O’Henry stories were prized for their slipknot finish so while I’d like to be in the Gift of the Magi, I just might find out I’ve been living one of those pomo slanders from the New Yorker that doesn’t even have an ending, just a run on sentence you can’t take anymore so you stop even though the print continues.
Because I am running into a situation that has fascinated philosophers and writers since someone invented ink. I am increasingly of the opinion that I have a reason for existing and I am struggling, a little, with accepting that. I believe I am being haunted by purpose.
I’ve always been fascinated by language and always look for the best examples of it, which do not always depend from the stacks in the Library but more often shout out from street corners or drift up from the back of the bus to become parts of our every day speech. I believed William S. Burroughs when he said language is a virus—which was his unique beat way of saying that language is alive. I think the truest language is never found in a dictionary but lives in the overlapping chorus of everyday speech, the words people use without thinking about them, the off the cuff argot of the busy. Fulcanelli called it the cant of birds.
But language is words and their laws and it isn’t really words I love. Words are interesting, but words are not language. Words are bricks. Words are cells, mere ideas, and by themselves remain specimens. Even language, conceptually, is not alive and I would reword Burrough’s and Fulcanelli’s assertions. Only stories can live.
I know this is a flimsy analogy but it works: I am not the cells and tissues, of my body any more than I am the knowledge and skills I employ to keep myself unhungry and out of jail. No, all of that is lexicon. Vocabulary.
My life is built out of the stories I tell myself. Some of these tales are titanic prevarications, some are simple truths. In my conscious mind there is a narrator who never shuts up, constantly weaving a tale from what I see, what I feel, what I remember, and what I imagine. That jangled collection of vignettes and flashbacks is what makes up who I am. More importantly, it’s the sum total of my conscious resources so it makes up, I’m serious about this, it makes up who I can be. Or so I believe. God knows, I could be totally wrong. My narrator could be lying.
But I do believe it. I believe that some people go around without ever feeding that narrator new material. Not that they don’t read, which helps, or go to movies, which helps too—but that they don’t often hear other people’s story—and even less, tell their own.
My own story is enriched by the tales of my father, my mother, my friends. Hearing someone tell a story—about catching a fish, giving up booze, getting a new job—these stories are the fertilizer that feeds my tale so that it blooms with bright, vivid, florid images. But telling these stories is even better. Between the two, I am mostly able to battle cynicism, to fight the encroaching boringness so many people fall into, to pass along the tiny wisdoms hidden in each story told to me, to my children, to my friends, to whoever will listen.
I believe there is no great truth. Not really. There is no explosive a’ha that will stellate suddenly some day in your life bringing everything into crystalline clarity. I believe, instead, that there are many, many small truths, more along the lines of things you learn from listening when someone starts a sentence with There was this one time . . .
There’s a wisdom there. It might only be little, but one day you’ll hear another story with a teeny wisdom and the two seemingly unrelated microscopic ideas will bond, will cause some kind of chain reaction, and you’ll find yourself standing in the cereal aisle laughing, and maybe a little wiser because your story, by a little, just got better.
But the culture of storytelling is waning—too much competition—and I am terrified that it will fade out. That would be a disaster because the moment we stop telling stories we will, quickly, forget who we are and, in fact, when our stories fade away, so do we. We won’t remember who we are because we won’t be anybody. We’ll be robots, automatons, drones of dust and debris that will blow away in the slightest breeze and leave the world an empty, desolate, unstoried wasteland.
And it’s not fading because there aren’t enough stories, no matter the relentless cultural strip-mining efforts of Hollywood, they will never tell all the stories, not in a million years and neither will all the authors in the world typing day in and day out finally write the end. That’s not what I mean when I say the culture of storytelling is drifting away. I mean people are beginning to live their life without telling a story. Ever! They have it within them but no one ever asks, no one ever says anymore, tell me a story.
My belief has become so overpowering that it leads me away from typical vocations and continuously pushes me to the unconventional avocation of being a storyteller. I still say it with a sheepish expression, that I’m a storyteller, like I’m telling people I’m a chimney-sweep or a sock-puppeteer. The idea of it is just too unique to grasp and I’m right now, today, standing at the brink of just doing it, of throwing myself into it as a career, fully knowing I’ll barely make a living and fully knowing it won’t look as cool on a business card as Patent Lawyer or Brain Surgeon. Yet I am standing here, a grown man, willing to make a living telling stories. Not because it’s cool but because it’s who I am. But maybe I said it wrong, I am not a story, no, I am a collection of stories. We all are.
In standing in front of a handful of grade-schoolers and telling them about my misadventures at their age, by reweaving simple everyday kid stuff into wild stories, I imply that their life is a wondrous adventure, that their life is a story worthy of the telling. If I’m good enough, if I try hard, they will believe me—and know it always.
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