The Stories People Tell


Stories are a major subject of all my novels and I am currently toying with the idea of writing a story devoted to a person who is stuck in a very unpleasant story told by a sinister author.

“Stories are an important part of our life,” someone once claimed, pleading for the importance of novels, but the truth of the statement goes way beyond that. Stories, often very short ones that we tell ourselves, are an essential ingredient of our understanding of ourself and the world.

So what do these micro stories do? They tie together the fragments of what is going on around us so the world makes sense. They inform our actions.

There are stories designed to prepare us for an uncertain future, the difficult interview, the prospect of a dressing-down, the physical challenge of a race or a combat, repeated unendingly in the hope that doing so will influence what happens.

There are stories that are for our own personal satisfaction or glory, like walking into a crowded concert hall, sitting down at the grand piano and playing the most brilliant piece of music, despite having never played piano before, only to get up and walk away, not even acknowledging the astounded audience. Or there are more sinister imaginings that creep up on us unbidden. The out-of-control car that mashes into us as we walk along the side of the road, or the dog gone wild that leaps up at us, its jaws wide, its teeth ready to maul.

Of course, if our story strays too far from reality and nothing sets us right, we could be in for trouble. I remember admiring a girl I saw every morning at the bus stop as I walked by. I was a pupil, working on a building site during my school holidays. I imagined chatting with her and even us going out together. When I finally got up the courage to say “Hallo”, she shied away and my story came clattering down around my ears.

The above example illustrates how interpretations get between us and other people when we falsely believe they are drawing us closer together. Here’s another example. A healer has an intuition about the person he’s talking to. His whole practice relies on trusting such intuitions. The person looks absent, as if her soul had taken leave of her. He knows she has recently had an accident, so he asks, “Did you black-out during your accident ?” Startled, she replies, “No.” His ‘story’ and the related interpretation get between him and his patient.

But the vast majority of such micro stories weave themselves into the fabric of life almost unseen, but not unheeded. It is they that make sense of the world for us, that link together the disparate to create coherence and meaning, that allow us to interpret, to anticipate, to act. But they are still stories, fiction, or at best embellished reality. They are based on our guesswork, our imaginings or our desires and fears. The might become reality, but they are not it yet.

Such micro stories are not always helpful. They can be a source of continual conflict between people, especially in couples. Here’s an example. The husband gives the headlines of news heard on the radio about the plans of a large tobacco company to end the production of cigarettes. Not waiting for further information, his wife attacks those who criticise people without good reason. Her behaviour is familiar to him. He is furious that she always defends the opposing side. On a deeper level he feels trapped by a vision of himself that he doesn’t like and which he doesn’t agree with. He is not the character in her story, but how does he escape? We are all both the heroes and victims of our own and other people’s stories.

2 Replies to “The Stories People Tell”

  1. You should hear the differences between my mother’s stories of my childhood… and my own recollections (or just about everyone else’s). Lovely, thought-provoking post, Alan!

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