When I was working on a dissertation, a first novel, and short fiction—wondering if I would ever “ become a writer”—one my greatest teachers gave me some unusual advice: don’t tell stories.
It’s a phrase I first learned in grade school; back then it meant don’t lie.It’s not that this teacher thought I was lying about anything, however, and his suggestion wasn’t meant to address my doubts and frustration, alone. What he was cautioning me against was delusion on a much bigger scale.
Think of the part of yourself that, if unchecked, chatters endlessly—a narrator in the head. I filled a glass with water, thinking: I filled a glass with water. (Or worse: She filled a glass with water.) Maybe you think of your life as a yet unwritten text that is your faithful obligation to articulate and record. Or perhaps you’ve tragically internalized a real or imagined social media audience observing your every move. After years of studying literature, I started writing fiction to get to the bottom of this nauseating internal narrative stutter. I wanted to figure out where that narrator was coming from, why she was there, and—most of all—how to make her shut up.
What my teacher explained and I eventually came to appreciate is that repeating any narrative or system of beliefs was almost always an attempt to relieve an insidious kind of anxiety—that which was roused by the disquieting question who or what am I? The answers—my “ stories”—might range from the very personalized and highly specific to something like “ a human being on planet earth”—but I always had an answer, even when I was unaware of the question, which was most of the time. In recent experience, however, I’ve learned that a better way to navigate an answer is not to answer at all, but to recognize potential answers to the question as the stories they are, to subsequently drop them and accept not knowing the answer, while bearing witness to the world and participating in this life by responding appropriately to whatever is actually occurring. Consider the opposite, which I practiced unthinkingly as an adolescent and until my mid- twenties: defining myself based on ideas I had, mostly preferences and aversions, with little receptivity to the nuance of what was arising around me. It seemed important to have a firm opinion, to be consistent, to be highly individualized; all action and speech must correspond with the idea of what I was. So if I was an artist, then I’d better spend the day making art; I didn’t have a clear sense of what being creative meant—that stripped of its fantasies, each of our lives is fundamentally creative; that responding to a friend in need may be the ultimate creative act called for by the day, even if a poem or a sketch goes unfinished; that it is this life that we’re making, one action at a time.
I don’t imagine there is anything special about this distracting habit of mine. Which highly evolved folks among us, I wonder, hasn’t sometimes fixated on even a terrible time or event, or a quality we don’t like about ourselves, just to avoid facing the fact of our own existence and inevitable demise? (To say nothing of our wonderful times and highly loveable characteristics). With most endeavors, we humans begin by saying: Ok, let’s start with what we know. When it comes to the matter of living our lives, however, we seem to begin with: Ok, let’s ignore the only two things we know—that we are going to die, and that we don’t know how or when it is going to happen. Lucky for us, there are endless possibilities for conceiving of ourselves in ways that reinforce this ignorance—that define a self not primarily as a function, but as a noun to which adjectives adhere. There seems no limit to accessorizing with “ likes” and “ dislikes”—especially, I think, in this country. Isn’t that one of its most glittering promises? I can be whatever I wish; I can become a Democrat, a Republican, a vegan, a racist, an eco-warrior, a birder, an activist, rich. I might become a Christian, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist. To wearing suspenders, or taking up trail-running, or even engaging in certain kinds of behavior (such as the one I’m trying to describe, of identifying identifications to dispense with), I might say: “ that is so me.” I am an avid poet, a zealous environmentalist, a hard-core fill-in-the-blank. And so a person becomes a brittle mental idea—a mental idea, because that’s all any of this amounts to, and brittle, because it’s an idea that is artificial, unstable, and easily shattered.
Of course we can’t live without stories; we can’t function responsibly in a political world or in a family or in a relationship without telling ourselves some story of who we are, and what we identify with. But to do so without also regularly checking it against the breathtaking mystery of existence—that seems to me the behavior of the fearfully ignorant. Dropping what we think we know of ourselves does not mean we are all aiming to be the same, a homogenous “ we” or “ one.” What it does mean is that each of us is willing to sit in the place of not knowing what it really means to be human, and this is a place from which empathy and compassion arise quite naturally. Alternatively, it seems to me that powerful identifications, and searching them out in others, can obstruct the process of learning to love each other while we live. Every day at 7pm your partner walks through the door after work; what greater kindness, what greater act of love than to greet her with a mind open enough to ask yourself: and who is this? Instead, we risk reducing our beloved to a set of predictable expectations; we circumscribe and pen her in with generalities: oh that’s Lucy, my wife; she’s a recovering alcoholic; she’s soft-spoken and meek. It’s easy to see how damaging this can be, even when the descriptors are positive ones. Isn’t knowing and loving someone always an unfinished business?
On the recommendation of this teacher, “ not telling stories” meant dropping the adjectives and nouns in my daily life, and turning my attention instead to verbs. It became a practice of doing things, running a marathon, say, without also carrying around the idea of myself as a runner (what purpose would that serve?). It meant recognizing an adjective or a noun I might use to describe myself (nouns in particular are nice and solid, fixed in space and time unlike everything else in the universe), and letting it go. Young, proud, human, nervous, straight...none of that is my essential, “ authentic” self. Of course, that also means I’m not fundamentally, essentially right, or intelligent, or beautiful, or “ good.” I might, however, be washing the dishes. Or exercising white privilege. Or assuming that what is right for me is right for everyone. Or loving my neighbor. Or picking up dogshit. Life is not a noun I can describe with an adjective any more than I am.
...So even as I was writing a dissertation, a first novel, and a story a week, my teacher wasn’t interested in whether I would “ become a writer.” And really, neither was I. None of that has ever really been the goal.
I’ve had some writing teachers who did me a tremendous service in their unexpected emphasis on neither telling stories, nor teaching, nor becoming. The more I can identify the stories I’m telling myself, and others, the more easily I can dispense with them. “ You really do know less and less the deeper you go,” my teacher told me, smiling at a mystery I’m only beginning to catch glimpses of. “ Do you see?”