One of the reasons I have not been posting much recently is that I am between stories.
There is an old story, phrased in the past tense, which begins ‘I was a university lecturer, I used to teach Film Studies.’ This story continues to echo through me, for better and worse, but it’s no longer who I am. When I find the bones of this story poking through too much in my writing, that writing will be abandoned as unsuccessful.
And I trust that there is a new story, except that I don’t know what it is yet. There is a continual temptation, an internalised expectation, to craft myself a new story and tell it proudly. But it doesn’t feel right; new labels I try sticking to myself never look or sound right. What does feel right is just to keep going in small unsensational ways, until a time when something that I don’t currently have ways to describe is ready to emerge.
What’s brought me to this awareness of being ‘between stories’, is following Julia Cameron’s creative recovery course The Artist’s Way. One of the things the course invites participants to do, is to look carefully at the stories they tell about themselves and the beliefs they hold, with the end of shifting those stories and beliefs where they persistently set up blocks to creativity.
My experience so far with personal stories is that chasing the truth of stories is a scarlet herring, but that it matters deeply which stories you choose to believe, and what that belief then makes real. My self-stories are many and vary widely, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. How true they appear to me can be pretty arbitrary, given that memory will misremember to suit itself. But if one story gets me sat down writing, and another story has me passing a miserable day in assorted displacement activities because I don’t believe I’m good enough to be a writer, well for me that’s an important distinction.
Approaching the wider role of stories within a society, it’s likewise helpful to observe how far the familiar question ‘is it a true story?’ gets you, compared with ‘is the story believed, and what does that belief make real?’ Red fish spit out true stories because there are countless stories, they’re all true, and they all contradict each other.
This civilization’s official version, though, is that truth can be one thing only, best authorised in the form of measurable, empirical facts. Conveniently, this version permits truth to be hoarded as power by those who proclaim ownership of truth, and disfavours its radical egalitarian proliferation through all that is.
Which winds back to the Dark Mountain Project calling for new stories – a diversifying and multiplying of stories – to re-tell the place of humanity within the more-than-human world, as the old certainties of civilized humanity shift, break apart, and edge tentatively towards new shapes.
Nests of small warm stories in the cracks of the old edifice, which, for the time being, persists and persists.
Three things can happen when a story begins to die. First, it becomes newly, painfully visible as a story. For the official version, which holds that its stories are not stories at all, but hard, factual, measurable truth, such visibility is literally invisible – unthinkable – and can only be seen by its projection, vicious and symptomatic. Second, adepts with a facility for switching stories, and those already living under the radar by means of different stories, emerge to a newfound degree of credibility for their alternatives. Third, those invested so deeply in the old story that they believe they have no alternative but to believe in it, will cling to it harder than ever, for bloody murder and dear life.
The place between stories is not any of these. It’s a cussed, borderless, conceptless place, unsanctioned by a society devoted to Purpose and Focus and the reckoning of cost at all costs. Culture too abhors a vacuum, any person without a readily communicable meaning. What do you say to new people when they ask you what you do, what direction fills your time? There are no stories to tell of the place between stories, to the extent that our rules for stories are that one event must lead, meaningfully, to another. (Although in principle it’s possible to essay the place, to chronicle, to pillow book or stream its consciousness.)
Or, the place between stories might fill up, quite unexpectedly and to a pitch of delirium, with original stories, forgotten stories, lacerating stories, beatifying stories. Stories laid as mortar between the bricks of other stories. The stories you had stopped realising you were relying upon to hold you in the place between stories. Any one of which might be the sidetrack you need urgently to take next.
Pitch again, and the place between stories might drop you backwards through a concealed gateway, beyond which there are no stories at all. Where everything becomes worth the living, and only shadows can be told.