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“Hey! That’s my story (too)!”

When a stranger’s story expresses the secret, unspoken longings and cries of your heart…

I’m passionate about stories—reading stories, writing stories, telling my stories of my life, listening to the stories of others, and helping anyone tell a better story, more honest story.

Why? Because telling genuine stories has the potential to connect people on a deeper level. We tell better stories when we are more aware of our own stories—stories filled with confusion, failure, conflicts, and love. Our real stories are about our vulnerabilities—not just achievements. While arguing beliefs (particularly political or religious beliefs) tends to alienate people, stories can create empathy and a common bond.

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Furthermore, stories are not just for reflecting on the past. Stories can help you make better decisions from the core of who you are and what you’ve experienced. You connect to that core by paying attention to your story. Do you want to be a better friend, spouse, or parent and enhance your work life? Take a little time to read or listen to stories and you’ll tune into your own. You’ll find your memory gets activated. You become more aware of how you’ve been shaped.  Sometimes you find you’ve submerged some of your strengths to “fit in.” Letting stories into your heart can produce patience and humility, and therefore more personal connection—“story exchanges.”

For years, shame stood between me and my story. I was detached, embarrassed. But that has started to change. With the influence of a few story guides, I’m beginning to own, enjoy, and tell my story. I use the term “story guide” to describe someone who tells a story in a way that amplifies and transforms my story.  They name nuanced experiences I’ve had but could not previously admit or articulate.

I recently read a memoir by a man who’s lived in many places and felt a sense of “exile,” of not fitting in.  I felt like he was telling my story. But the difference was I had punished myself for not fitting in, whereas my story guide accepted his individuality, the gift of being himself.

   Such writers or speakers (through memoir, fiction, or poetry) move me to revisit or rediscover my own life narrative. Sometimes I even revise it. Story guides help me tell a more honest account and counter my tendency to be self-protective and judgmental by portraying characters who are a messy moral mixture.

My story guides range from authors of western novels like Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo) to Marylin Robinson and her Gilead series, and poets like Luci Shaw, Dana Gioia, and Richard Wilbur. In between are Wendell Berry’s Port William novels, John Steinbeck (East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, spiritually vulnerable writers like Henri Nouwen and Tish Harrison Warren (Prayer in the Night), and the storied and poetic theology of the bible—especially the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Gospel of John.

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These authors’ attention to the multi-layered fabric of life sensitizes me to my surroundings and helps me notice people’s often-unspoken depth. My story guides assist as I try to navigate the complex and tangled web of friends, conflicts, work, bodily sensations, and that non-linear stream of shifting feelings and images we call life.

Because they communicate indirectly rather than arguing a case, my story guides help me lower my defenses. I’m vulnerable, and, therefore, through the characters that I’ve identified with, I’m able to be addressed.  My imagination is activated, and memories come to the surface, both of joy and sorrow, and at times trauma that I’ve suppressed.

Novels and short stories often, ironically, tell a more authentic narrative than a biography. A fiction writer doesn’t tend to feel pressure to make a character look good or bad. She describes more than prescribes. She pays more attention to concrete and sensory details, avoiding the abstract ideals that ethics, philosophy, and theology often favor.

Even though poems are often dense and concentrated memorialization of crucial moments rather than extended narratives, poets, too, help me observe my life more closely and even recover things I’d tossed out or forgotten like junk from an attic.

those who tell
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All of us have story guides. We swim in a sea of conflicting stories. Politicians are story guides. They tell some version of what America has been and should be. Parents are story guides—the first to tell us our story. Preachers can fall prey to spinning a boastful tale of their church’s greatness rather than the story of what God is doing. Psychologists, artists, scientists, and economists are story guides, implying a path to a better future. It’s impossible not to be a story guide. We’re not, however, necessarily conscious of the stories we tell, or the story guides we’ve adopted. But we can listen closer and choose more carefully. Who are your story guides? Do you know why you’ve chosen them?

In the coming weeks and months, I will be posting profiles of some of my story guides. The first will be Dana Gioia, who has profoundly affected how I understand, feel, and tell my story, although he’s not exactly what most people would call a storyteller.  

My first encounter with Gioia was not through reading but through listening to him. Twice I heard him speak with palpable pleasure and passion about poetry and beauty. These two auditory experiences opened a door for me to a world and a language I did not know was hiding in plain sight.  I’ll tell you that story next week.

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