I’ve been thinking a lot about internal narratives lately.
They’re a tool that we humans often use make sense of the world. We take individual occurrences from the past and string them together into connected events, then project that line into the future. On a very deep level, narratives are how I know, or think I know, what to expect next. They’re how I end up fearing what I fear.
Milan Kundera extends this point in The Unbeararable Lightness of Being, discussing Anna Karenina:
Early in the novel, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition — the same motif appears at the beginning and the end — may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty.
In other words, there is a tendency not only to perceive one’s life in narrative terms, but to guide it that way too. I know that I’m prone to this to an almost ridiculous degree. And when I get myself into an emotional hole, it’s often useful to ask myself what story I’m telling myself, whether it’s a true story, and if there’s another narrative that I can create from the situation. If I change the plot, can I open up more alternatives?
I’m thinking of the movie Galaxy Quest here, where one character has himself pegged as the disposable extra. Changing the narrative changes the choices he makes.
Guy Fleegman: I’m just a glorified extra, Fred. I’m a dead man anyway. If I’m gonna die, I’d rather go out a hero than a coward.
Fred Kwan: Guy, Guy… maybe you’re the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?
We’ve talked about Tapes here, which are basically the negative narratives we’ve had imposed on us. We’ve talked about the roles we get cast into (the Difficult Kid, the Good Kid, etc.) and how those create and control expectations. Both of these are examples of narrative control, but there’s a third one that I, at least, wrestle with a lot: story arc.
Am I the tragic character who falls into the same trap over and over again because of her Sophoclean flaw? Am I the princess in the tower waiting to be rescued? Or am I the protagonist who gradually improves her circumstances and rescues herself from peril?
Mind you, I have to choose the new story arc carefully. A narrative of helplessness may paralyze me, but an overly-heroic one leaves me open to sudden collapses of confidence. I need one that works within my own symbolic set, and the things I have done and been before. It has to be tellable in my voice. In other words, I need to stick to my own personal canon. Mary Sue plots don’t work for me.
Is this just me? (It might be, in which case, just carry on the existing conversation!) If not, what are your stories and how would you like to change them?
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):