published Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Fortune: The story is everything


by Mary Fortune

I'm obsessed with narrative — with the construction of stories, the vagaries of multiple viewpoints, the power of well-told tales.

So when I recently read research that tells us the best way to build a resilient family is to develop a strong narrative, well, I was an easy sell.

The findings are in the book "The Secrets of Happy Families" by Bruce Feiler. The bottom line of his reporting is that the more children know about their family history and their place in that sprawling story, the better their sense of security and control over their lives.

The most effective family narratives have a central theme: Terrible times, wonderful times, lots of different kinds of times -- but we persevered. It's called an oscillating narrative. And boy, does my family have one of those.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you I didn't read the book. I've stopped buying this type of book because of what I think of as the "coming attractions" phenomenon. You know it -- that thing where you go see a movie and walk away saying, "All the best stuff was in the preview."

Well, all the best stuff in this type of great-ideas-for-a-good-life book is generally offered by a moderately deep article from a writer who knows how to condense and present information. I'm going to assume Feiler's article in The New York Times did that.

But even without reading the book, I feel the truth in it. No one has to convince me that the story is everything. I believe with near-religious zeal in the power of narrative.

We build our stories instinctively. We collect them as unconsciously as we breathe. From the moment we open our baby eyes and begin to divine who all these people are and how they fit into this perplexing existence we seem to have inherited, we are all constructing our stories.

For as long as they have been able to communicate, my boys have interrogated me, doggedly assembling the pieces.

"How old were you when you married Daddy?" "How did you know you wanted to marry Daddy?" "How long has Momo been married to Papa?" "When Momo had cancer, did you think she was going to die?" "Did you cry?" "When Daddy got hurt, did we run out of money?" "Were you scared?"

"Do you like your job?" "Did you like your old job?" "Which job do you like better?" "Why?" "Why did Grandpa Charlie die?" "Do you miss Grandma Freddie?" "When you were little, where was your school?" "Did you like your school?" "Why?" "Why do you run so much?" "Do you get tired?" "How far can you run?" "Could I run that far someday?"

They're not just asking out of idle curiosity. No child's curiosity about his life is idle. Every answer, every story, gets sorted and stacked in the massive mental Jenga game that is the narrative they're building about who they are and where they came from and who they'll be.

They're using the stories to draw a map for their lives. So I answer every question carefully, and I answer every question honestly. They need the story. It will be with them longer than I will.

"Why did you and Daddy want to have babies?" "Will I get to be a daddy someday?" "When I have kids, will you play with them like Momo plays with us?"

The story is so long, and it's so short. The story is long and long and long, but we're each just here for a few minutes, really. We barely get a moment on the page. Beginning, middle, end. Maybe a footnote, if we're very lucky. Then the next chapter.

The story is everything. And every word counts.

Contact Mary Fortune at thirtytensomething.blogspot.com.

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