We All Contain Multitudes

A couple of months ago, walking on the beach on one of those rainy Pacific coast days when the sun seems to have left for good, I saw this surprising new addition to a familiar landscape:

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Someone’s story was here in stone, in mortar and pestle and candle-holders. I couldn’t tell what the story was, of course. Its plot points eluded me. Some things need words or actions or both. Still, I wondered what emotions those objects contained. Was this a story of remembrance? Of power? Sadness? Loss? Or celebration? A tribute to the ocean whose tides ebb and flow endlessly, only yards away from this cryptic stone face.

The mind gets restless when you give it bits and pieces of a puzzle. My mind added someone hauling this heavy artifact to the beach, lighting candles. Was there music? Talk? Community? Or was this a solitary journey? My mind added myself, there in imagination, watching and listening.

That’s what we do with our lives. We reflect upon the messy business of living, and we create, to a greater or lesser degree, the narrative of ourselves. Julie Beck, in a 2015 article in The Atlantic, writes:

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning.

Or leaves them on a beach for others to ponder over.

In fiction writing, we’re big on agency. Whose is this story? Who has power? Who gives momentum? Whom should I care about? I often ask my students these questions. When I revise, I chastise myself for having failed to ask them soon enough in the life of a work.

But the act of telling is both recall and rehearsal. As Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology quoted in Beck’s article puts it: 

…rehearsal strengthens connections between some pieces of information in your mind and diminishes connections between others. So the things I tell you become more accessible to me and more memorable to me.

I know that I often write to learn, to make connections, to create meaning. Beck’s article suggests this is not only a human characteristic but a necessity. It’s not enough to experience life in its many streams. We need to tell those stories. In their telling, we create ourselves.

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