Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Life as Story

Chris Brogan has started a conversation on his blog prompted by a new book put out by Donald Miller entitled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life (whew, that was a lot of links in one sentence!). I have yet to read this latest of Miller's books, but it has been on my list since shortly after it came out. I do, however, know the premise of the book based on an interview with Miller that I happened to read a few weeks ago. This book is essentially about what it was like for him to write one of his earlier books, Blue Like Jazz (which I have read and enjoyed). About the strange tensions that arise when one is trying to put one's life into story form. And what happened in his life after that book sold over a million copies.

I feel compelled to participate in Brogan's conversation about what story means to me because the concept of story is one that I've thought about a great deal, and one that has played a crucial role in my life in several ways. It's also a concept that I've realized plays a large role in the way I think about the difficulties I encounter in life. Difficulty number one (at this time) being my thus-far inability to get pregnant.

I could edit my thoughts on this subject into a nice, coherent post with an introduction and satisfying conclusion. I'm pretty good at that after six years of writing literary analysis essays that require such things. But I've decided instead to use the fact that my subject matter is story as an excuse not to write this in a nice, linear, story form. Because the truth is that when I'm asked what the importance of story is in my life, my mind goes in several directions. And I want to explore those without having to tie them up with a nice storybook bow.

Not because I don't believe such a thing as a perfect story exists. I do, in fact, believe that we're all living in a Story far grander and more perfect and linear than we can imagine: the grand and beautiful story of each of our lives and also of the whole history of the universe. But that's just it: we can't imagine what the story is like, how it's going to end, and even how it's developing right now. It's too big. We get glimpses of different pieces and elements of it--in our lives, in literature, in art. But not the whole. So, for now, I'm trying to be content in that cloud of unknowing while appreciating the glimpses of the Story that I see all around me.

So a few ways that story is important in my life, and then, because this is an infertility blog, how it affects the way I experience infertility.

Story as Fiction
I was raised on story. And I don't mean TV shows, but actual stories. Fiction, primarily. As a family, we didn't own a TV that actually received any channels until we moved from the Philippines to Philadelphia when I was 11. Instead, we read. I know that sounds terribly cliche and cutesy, but it's true. I almost always had some book I was reading through with my dad. For many years, I would lay in his bed and read to him as he fell asleep for his afternoon siesta. Something that took quite a bit of patience on his part, I'm sure, since I was still learning to read at that point. Once we moved back to the States, our tradition became that he would read to me each evening as I washed the dishes (we didn't own a dishwasher). I was so in love with reading that my parents actually had to limit how much time I spent laying on the couch with a book--to force me to do something--anything--else.

I don't want to go into the philosophical meaning of the story, and how reading a good story (or any story, really) affects our lives as humans. Fiction is profoundly meaningful, uplifting, and beautiful, and a good story helps us to discover what it means to be human. I'll leave the rest to CS Lewis, a fellow English major who has probably written more articulately than almost anyone about the implications of story. But I truly believe that being raised on a steady diet of beautiful stories is, in the deepest sense, a huge part of what made me who I am today. And nothing else can really compare to the feeling I get after finishing a really great work of fiction. Great literature feeds my soul more than any other form of art.

Story as Life
Though I have yet to read Miller's book, I think I can relate to at least some of the issues he explores in it--the tensions that arise in editing one's own life. In the Christian world, we have this tradition of getting people to give their "testimonies." Giving one's testimony involves standing up in front of a group of people and essentially telling your life story--particularly focusing on the Christian elements of it (ie, how you became a Christian, how God has worked in your life, etc).

The opportunity to "share my testimony" is a (ahem) privilege I've been given multiple times. And it seems like it gets more complicated each time I do it. Because I feel the need to somehow find a theme--some common thread that has run through my life thus far. Something I used to struggle with and how God has helped me to change. But any theme or thread I choose ends up feeling reductive. That's not all there is to the story.

I also always feel like I'm missing something--like there's something to my story that I can't yet see, even after a major episode or chapter comes to completion. For example, a few years ago I went through a few months of major insomnia that then led to major depression. I can definitely understand what happened and why it happened better now than I did while I was in the midst of it. I can even list a few good things that came out of it, like the fact that I don't stress about insomnia now nearly as much as I did before because I've seen that I can survive and come out the other side. But really, I don't understand why the insomnia led to depression. Why I suddenly felt like there was no hope in the world, like my apartment was a prison, and my bedroom a torture chamber. Why I suddenly had major doubts about God. And I can't really list that many good things that came out of such an awful experience. It was too miserable. I know good came of it, but I'm unable to fully articulate what that good was. But if I were sharing my testimony, I would need to at least find a lens through which to tell that story that left my audience with a sense of hope and meaning. And all the while, I would know that the lens was faulty and imcomplete.

Infertility as Story
As I'm going through the struggles and ups and downs of trying to conceive, I often think about how I will tell this story as part of my testimony in the future, when I'm through it. Every time I ovulate, I spend two weeks thinking about how perfect the story would be if this were the one. How I had just finally reached a place of peace or surrender about the whole thing, and that's when God finally intervened. Or how the timing of this due date would clearly be the best timing, and we will thank God for making us wait.

I want to jump ahead to the next chapter in my story. To skip through this one, because it's hard, and I'm not enjoying it. And while I'm sure I have more I could learn from it, I think I've learned a lot. I'm ready to start the learning that will come through pregnancy, childbirth, and being a parent.

Or I think about how my story would read as a novel. Some major editing would have to take place, I can tell you that. Because so far, I'm missing most of what makes a good novel. I've got the nuance and complexity and character development, but, let's be honest, a good novel does need a few themes, even if they're hard to perceive on the surface. And trying to make a biography read like a novel usually ends up sounding forced and reductive.

This is why I stick to reading fiction.


Leslie said...

GREAT post!!! I totally think about this all the time. Basically, what I often think about is how being an avid reader of fiction (from a young age) has totally messed up my sense of how things should go... like I'm walking around every day expecting there to be a "climax and conclusion" lurking around the next bend in the road.

Maybe the 'climax and conclusion' of this chapter of my life is the lesson that there IS no climax and conclusion. I hope not!

At least we can read some nihilistic Scandinavian post-modern tales for a while. And stay away from the 'happily ever after' stories... Thank goodness I haven't been weaving my life's story around the backbone of "chick flicks", for instance. At least I have some role models like Anna Karenina, who yes reproduced, but then threw herself under a train anyways... :)

Melissa G said...

You know those articles you start reading and breeze through because it's so interesting and brilliantly written? That's exactly what this post was.

Thank you for sharing this. Absolutley beautiful post.

Alex said...

What a gorgeous post - thank you for sharing this. You have definitely made me think today, and that is always the sign of a great story!

AnxiousMummyto3 said...

Hey Ceejay,
this is a very interesting post. I totally agree that in a biography it's difficult to have 'themes' as such. I loved this line ' I want to jump ahead to the next chapter in my story. To skip through this one, because it's hard, and I'm not enjoying it. And while I'm sure I have more I could learn from it, I think I've learned a lot.' That's exactly how I feel!

Julize said...

You write beautifully--do you do it professionally? If not, you should.

I often catch myself thinking about my life as a story--about what others would think or say if they were reading. And I agree. I'm tired of waiting to hear how it all turns out. I know there's a happy ending out there somewhere. I'm just not sure which road I take to get there.

Adele said...

I'm getting caught up on blogs tonight and just read this post - it sounds like you had a truly beautiful, reading childhood. I agree - it forms the way you look at life. So often in fiction there is symmetry - and that's the thing I'm missing in this nonfiction story of my life. Justice. Effort put in, rewards reaped as a result. Though I keep hoping that it WILL have a happy ending.

foxy said...

Hi Ceejay -Happy New Year! I'm reading thru CdlC and had to comment. This is such an important and relevant topic for us infertiles. After some very disappointing test results "last year' (yes, i can say that now, last year!) I just feel apart emotionally. "My story" was turning into a nightmare and I needed to somehow regain control of how "my" story was being framed. I knew deep in my soul that this experience would forever define who I am, and mostly it would be how I retold this "story" looking back. I had become a victim of my circumstances, and was overcome with so much sadness and anxiety. "My story" was quickly becoming one where I was scared and traumatized, but I knew in my heart that this was all part of the story of how my children would be conceived (in the broadest sense of the word). I wanted my children to be conceived with love, and warmth, and peace, and most of all love. An Awesome therapist helped me reframe "my story". She helped me regain control of 'my story'.

This idea of Our Story goes so much father beyond just "what happened", it is how we remember what happened, and the story that we tell plays such a huge role in how those memories form.

Wheh! you really hit home for me on this post. Thanks so much for sharing and for opening up this discussion!

and congratulations on your little miracle!

Waterbishop @ An Older Version said...

That is how I felt with infertility. like it was a chapter in my book, that was uncomfortable and tediously long.
I hope you reach the next chapter soon. Good luck and thank you for the great post.

(here from the creme)

Mr. Thompson and Me said...

Now following from Creme de la Creme (hope you'll follow back).

What a great post! You've inspired me to go write a new chapter.

gailcanoe said...

As a fellow reader of fiction, I really like your idea of making your life into a story. I just hope it has a happy ending.
I'm from the Creme.

Esperanza said...

What a wonderful post. I never thought about "editing" my life before, but then I guess I do it for my blog and I do it in the stories that I chose to tell and how I tell them. I even do it in my inner monologue (my story of TTC, loss and having my daughter is probably very different than my partner's). Thank you for writing about this idea, I will definitely think more about the ways I edit my own story as I live through it.

Creme de la Creme #125
Creme de la Creme 2010 Iron Clad Commenter Attempt

Tanya said...

From Creme - lovely post. I am an avid reader of memoir - the best for me often put the happenings of their lives into greater human themes. The thing I love about memoir is that not a lot has to happen but if the writing is good and the reflections sharp and intelligent - you feel like you are having a great conversation.