I have always been obsessed with the notion of ‘storifying’ life. The inevitable result of a childhood spent reading and a young adulthood on Netflix, I’m drawn to a tight narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. You can imagine my delight when I hit my early twenties and discovered memoir. I collected the works of Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler and assembled them on my bookshelves like a treasure map.
Too bad my own life didn’t make any kind of narrative sense. I felt like a mixed bag of interconnected feelings and anxieties and good and bad experiences that I couldn’t assemble into any kind of cohesive structure.
Podcasts made their way into my life. I started listening to Marc Maron’s WTF – required listening for any podcast enthusiast – and the stories his guests told were illuminating and brilliant and showed lives with that thing I so desperately wanted: a narrative arc. The discovery was bittersweet. It was like whatever the thing I sort of suspected might be wrong with me was, it was compounded by all these people who had managed to make sense out of their lives in a way I wasn’t able to.
Then I graduated university, and a combination of not knowing what I wanted to do and not really wanting to try at anything – hey, at least I’m honest – led me to spend the next two years in the call centre-retail-waitressing rat race. I got bored and restless in the first year, and even more bored and even more restless in the second. And at some point, the flood gates simply opened. I reached that point of absolute boredom where I had no choice but to delve into the thoughts I usually avoided. I was suddenly reflecting on my life so far, critically studying it and making those connections between past and present that had evaded me for so long.
What I eventually came to realise in fits and starts, in epiphany-like a-ha moments and in meandering thoughts while assembling pizza boxes – yes, really – is that actually, I do have a story. I can make connections out of my life and draw lines between point A and point B.
Like most things, finding my story didn’t turn out like I thought it would. In one way it’s liberating to acknowledge the wrongs done to you in the past, and the part they might play in the challenges you experience now. It feels good to identify a source of blame. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to realise that the past can so deeply affect your present, often in ways you haven’t even noticed. The initial liberation I had felt turned into a sense of impending doom, like I was only the sum of my worst experiences.
In dealing with this evolving identity crisis I found myself again turning to those a lot further down the path of telling their own stories than me. My answers came from the world of WTF again, though in book form, this time. In 2017 Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald released Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast. It’s a doorstop of a book, filled with the stories of many of Marc’s guests over the years. There is a lot to discover in Waiting for the Punch – Marc has never been afraid to go deep with people, and there has always been something about him that makes people feel like they can open up. The words that stuck out to me most though, came from RuPaul Charles. He and Marc were talking about childhood, and the narratives we learn from our parents that we carry into our adult lives, regardless of whether they are true or not. He said:
“I have this scene in my head that, with my father, where actually on weekends he was supposed to come pick me up, and I would sit on that porch and he would never show up. Well, let me tell you this. That scenario in my head is a benchmark. I had inevitably looked for situations to strengthen my identity as the little boy who was left behind, because on some level, that identity is what drove my buggy.
Once I’m able to let go of that identity and say, “That’s not me, and I don’t get off on that,” then the party can begin.”
We all have a narrative, whether we have found the tools to tell it to ourselves or not. That narrative might include abandoning or it might include something else awful altogether. It’s important to know the narrative, I think. It has a purpose for a while – after all, you can’t change a story until you recognise that you’re telling one.
But there comes a point when you have to let that narrative go.
Then the party can begin.