The Heart of Storytelling

My grandmother’s sister, an elderly spinster, died last year while I was overseas. The news sent minor waves through me; I was more upset by the fact that I wasn’t really upset at all and I should have been…

by Cherie Lee

She was an ever present member of the extended family: reliably documenting every Christmas with her oversized camera, standing quietly in the corner of the room. She would ask you questions, mainly about study, because academia was her life. She was a professor of linguistics for decades at a Sydney university and wrote textbooks on the relationship between linguistics and literature.

If you didn’t have a lot to say about your studies, or were not studying at all, there was little to talk about. My family had a collection of glacé fruit collecting dust in our cupboard; her annual Christmas present to us all. Perhaps I was too young to understand her, but all I knew was that she was different from our beloved grandmother. Later in my life I would use the word eccentric to describe her.

I was recently given a collection of my Great Aunt’s journals after I zealously announced my determination to tell her story, or at least understand who she was, perhaps out of guilt for not feeling sad when she died. I received a box: journal piled upon journal, each with a year printed on the front, some as early as 1930.

My excitement knew no end.

I romanticised about poring over these journals late into the night, listening to this woman’s heartbeat, finally feeling connected with her after so many years of misunderstanding.

I picked up one and started reading: June 18th, 1988: ‘Woke up at 6am. Did my stretches. Called Marg. Looked like rain.’

My heart sank. There’s no passion, or emotion. It’s a checklist of her daily activities and a weather report. I read more and more. Banal entries about appointments, visits, trips to the shops. Page after page, every day of her life it seems.

However, as I keep reading, a greater feeling sets in: immortality. Her life is recorded on these pages. Whether interesting or not, these are chapters of a life which is now terminated. They are written evidence of her existence, accumulating dust in a box.

Here’s the thing about story: we’re all living one-whether grandiose or (more often than not) mediocre. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. We were born, that is our beginning, and we are somewhere in the middle hurtling towards our imminent death, the final curtain.

What happens in the middle is the story. The choices we make, the things we feel, the people we meet are part of our story which is a one-off event, never to occur again.

To me, story is not just something I’m living.

I scan the papers every weekend, watch movies, read books, talk to strangers, all in pursuit of someone else’s story that will inspire, instruct and illuminate. We’re all locked up in our subjective heads, seeing and experiencing our own story with our two eyes. Stories connect us; they’re smoke signals in a dark forest that say you’re not alone.

Every story has a universal theme; love, loss and everything in between. But even these themes are deeply personal experiences to each individual. That’s why we can watch love story after love story after love story, because even though the act of falling in love is the same, the nuances and details of each relationship are vastly different. This love story happened in India, this one was between two criminals and this one was about a couple married for 50 plus years in Midwest America.

Things happen in stories. Hugh McKay, author of the book ‘What Makes Us Tick’ writes about the need for something to happen. Humans are an odd species; we crave routine and familiarity, but equally crave spontaneity and excitement. When nothing happens in our lives, we become depressed. When there’s no structure or order to our lives, we feel out of control.

In a film, the ‘something happening’ is the inciting incident. We meet the protagonist and get sucked into their world. All is well, and then BAM, the inciting incident: a person or event changes everything and the protagonist must fight to return balance to their world. We all have inciting incidents in our lives to varying degrees, some more often than others. Sometimes, I feel the urge to create drama in my life if nothing is happening in order to get a new story happening or have something to write about.

I want my life to be a good story; something that’s worth telling my grandchildren about.

I went to China for 10 months to teach English just so I had some good stories. I sometimes wonder as the rest of my life plays out if anything that happens to me will be worth writing about. But I know it will because stories are ultimately about connection. I feel connected to my Great Aunt by reading her journals, even if they are only about the weather.

As I read her journals, my imagination fills in the blanks. I will write her story based on the limited information I have, taking full creative license. This is my job, to find meaning in this woman’s life. I have the power to give dignity to who she was.

To tell the story of one who was overlooked and misunderstood and send out smoke signals to others who may feel the same: you are not alone.

-Cherie Lee

Photo Credits: seeveeaar, steve_steady64Steve-h and Ed Yourdon via Compfight

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