The Stuff Stories are Made Of

Sometimes, I think reading too many stories can be detrimental to us.

Take the award-winning new drama, “This is Us”; what attracts people to the T.V. show is how the show handles real-life situations. Yes, we all may not necessarily have a famous Manny as our brothers, but we certainly know someone who has weight issues, unfulfilled dreams, marriage problems, a mid-life crisis, and we buy into the show because the show (hypothetically) presents real people with real people problems, and we want to see how those are resolved (unlike shows, like “Breaking Bad”–I don’t think any of us plan on having the same problems as Walter White and Jesse do). We originally liked the show, because Jack and Rebecca were a cute couple with a heart warming story line, and just as that story line could have become nauseating and far fetched, they start having martial problems, and we are, again, reminded of their real-ness, and we like them even more for this.

Or, we buy into the stories of Nicholas Sparks–because he writes about ‘real’ people–with real names, real physical features–living in real places, dealing with ‘real’ issues of love and identity, the tension between family and work, the insecurities of being a single parent. We love that he reveals the vulnerability of his characters to us–we see how awkward Luke is when he brings Sophia into his little barn apartment in “The Longest Ride”, we see how hopeless Ronnie is when her parents move her, mid high school, to a small town in “The Last Song”, and we can understand Noah’s disappointment when Allie, at first, doesn’t pick him –these are the same feelings we feel, and it is satisfying to know that his characters at least make it out alive (well, I guess sort of, since Jamie Sullivan does end up dying).

Don’t get me wrong–I’m a huge advocate for reading stories. Stories allow us to enter into unknown and foreign worlds (When I read “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver, I learned so much about raising goats). Stories allow us to learn things about ourselves that we otherwise may not know (I was so annoyed with Ryder in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled” and his inability to take personal responsibility for his haphazard life). Stories allow us to seek creative solutions to our own problems, and perhaps know that lying to our significant other will always be a bad idea.

But, sometimes I think indulging in too many stories gives us “The Disney Effect”–that everything will eventually be OK in the end, because, in order for a story to be successful, and for us to buy into the story, there must be an inciting action–the situation that takes the character out of the ordinary world; this must be followed by a trail of rising action, a climax, and at the end, a resolution to tie up all of the loose ends, that answers all of our questions in a nice and neat way–and we begin to read our own lives in the same way.

Our real lives don’t always work in the same ways that stories do. Sometimes, there is no such thing as an inciting action in real life–our child does not intentionally get scooped up by a scuba diver, the power hungry lion does not kill our father, a man does not just plop down on our front steps. Sometimes, there is no rising action, complete with foreshadowing and symbolism–that muddy foot print may not actually lead us to who backed into our car, that flashing red sign may not actually signal ‘danger’ to us, and that letter that just happened to float in our mailbox may not actually be from our Prince Charming. And most of the time, our lives do not end in neat and tidy resolutions; we won’t always understand why our boyfriend broke up with us, what the larger lesson in not getting that dog at the pound was, how come our dad lost his job and moved us to BF Nowhere. Although “This is Us” and those Nicholas Sparks stories we love have real elements to them, those stories are planned out–ours are not.

But, I happen to think that the stuff our stories are made of is much better, because our stories are raw; they are true, spontaneous, and when we look back on them, we can see how the threads weave in and out, and how we ended up just where we were meant to be.

The other day, a woman I know was reminiscing on her 20 year anniversary with her husband; she said, “You know, when you are growing up and thinking about how you want your future to pan out, you never think to yourself, ‘I think I’m going to get divorced and then end up marrying another guy who already had kids and a dog’. But that’s what happened to me. I met him, he proposed a few years later, and we had a deposit put down on a wedding venue. He decided he couldn’t wait any longer, so he booked us a vacation, enlisted my friend to buy me a wedding dress, and we got married. Now that I look back on it, even though we lost the deposit on the wedding venue, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As a control freak with Type A Personality, I often get so hung up in, “how I want this story to be told later” that I spend so much time ruminating on making everything PERFECT and controlling everything, that, by making it PERFECT and controlling EVERYTHING, I’m preventing the good stuff stories are made of from ever even occurring (and then all that I can tell about the story is, “Well, I wore a pink dress and pearls and ate calamari with some red sauce and then he took me home”). But, real life happens (that can not be scripted and re-shot, unlike ‘This is Us’). Sometimes, that European vacation we plan in hopes to acquire grand stories about having an intellectual break through in The Louvre gets cut short when we almost get kicked out from eating a granola bar so that we do not pass out of starvation. Sometimes, that perfect engagement story we hope to advertise all over social media gets tainted when our to-be-fiance trips on the uneven sidewalk and twists his ankle, and sometimes, we want to have the “L” word conversation, we are actually standing in front of a putrid dumpster, and we decide this is not how Nicholas Sparks’ promised us it would be.

But, I happen to think that the stuff that makes these stories is better always than any predicted, predestined plot line.

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