I realized a thing about six months ago. While I was doing disaster and humanitarian response, I stopped telling stories. The reason was this: there were few people I worked with regularly. For anyone else, any story I might tell about life would seem like oneupmanship. “Oh, that reminds me of this car ride to rural Tanzania…” is not a way to further a conversation, it is a way to shut it down. Even with friends who did response work it could get into a genital-waving contest of who had been in the most dire situation, which is also not something I’m interested in.
So I just stopped telling stories. I offered synthesis of what I had learned, but rarely offered any specifics.
And the impact is many fold. I don’t remember much of that time of my life. Years just faded away for lack of revisiting and retelling. I’ve since learned how much folk benefit from specific examples (not just the summary) so they can make sense themselves. It also means that I’ve lost some of my ability to do sensemaking. I can describe my day, sure, but I wasn’t telling stories. I wasn’t connecting what had happened to me that day to what had happened the day before, or the week before, or to other people who were also involved.
I don’t feel like a lesser person because of this, but it does seem like something to remedy if possible to do so. How does one start telling stories again, if one has lost that skill?
Tangent that will totally come back to this (hey look, I’m doing sensemaking!): There’s this theater troop in San Francisco (original group in Chicago, second in NYC, third in SF) that I adore. They’re called the Neo Futurists and they do a show called the Infinite Wrench. The show is 30 plays in 60 minutes, whichever happens first; done in a style called “non illusory theater.” That means everyone is always themselves, where they are. No one pretends. You can be absurd, but you have to sort of acknowledge you’re being absurd. And they offer classes! You can see where this is going.
I somehow had the 7 Monday nights in a row free that the classes were. We learned a new technique each week, wrote a play as homework related to that technique, and then performed it for the class the following week. It culminated in a show attended by friends and family of our little troop.
I love that every play was 30-180 seconds long; that the order they go in is up to the audience (no time to get nervous or over-psyched for mine); that some are funny, some are sad, some are political; and that they all fit together in camaraderie without necessarily riffing off the others. I enjoyed being creative with others in a way that demanded we all be ourselves. The constraints were intense, and the output was joyous.
So now I’m thinking a bit more about how to tell stories about everyday life again. And it’s needed, especially right now. My anxiety has returned to hilarious highs, and while I also pursue talk therapy and chemical interventions, I also don’t want to have this time in my life fade away. To survive and thrive with mental health issues, especially with my identity what it is, in today’s political climate, is something worth celebrating, and I don’t want to lose it.
I think every one of those commas was necessary, don’t you?
I’m writing more each day, to try to track what’s been happening and my experience of it. Some of those I’d like to approach like non-illusory plays, to turn them into stories of a sort. And I’d like a friend or three to help me out by joining me in accountability for telling stories (in blogs or plays or by voice). Any takers?