The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I am still trying to write a thing. I don’t know how it’s going.


Here’s the thing: I like telling stories.

That doesn’t make me special. I’m a sometimes-writer and full-time English teacher. I have spent years fitting events into narrative structures: dynamic characters, dramatic tension, nuanced relationships wind through conflict and still end with a neat resolution. My world, most days, is spent somehow trying to craft something that fits into a narrative.

I thought this was just craft, something I did on paper. Then, someone noted a small, white lie in my work, saying, “You like making things fit your story.” It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

I have been telling myself stories for years.

Nearly every relationship I’ve had is subjected to hours in the tumble-dry cycle of day-dreams. I take the smallest tidbits, find the narrative and fill it with so much hot air it floats away with the rest of my imagination.

My narrative habit has been curling its way through my brain, around my heart, and into my actions since childhood. A gossamer string, my desire to adapt my perception of reality– then manipulate that reality to my perception– has been woven into my life since long before I could understand it.

It’s in adolescent journal entries describing, in excruciating detail, the real meaning behind my crush putting his hand briefly on the back of my chair as he talked to someone else. It’s being sure that, when his “ocean blue eyes, like a stormy sea” (a line, no doubt, purloined from some bad fanfic I had read on the internet) locked with mine, it was because he was seeing something deeper in me. It’s embedded into the fabric of time I’d spend skulking around corners at school, hoping to “accidentally” run into some guy.

When, somehow, I would convince that crush to actually date me– with obvious flirtation, with praises and pretty words– I was still creating storylines for them that would, eventually, end.

Storyline: A young Mormon missionary falls in love with a Catholic girl. He proposes. She says yes. He goes on his mission and when he returns, they find a way to work through their religious issues and have a happy life.

In reality, six months after he left, the heady high of my first kiss and first love had worn off. I was sixteen when he gave me a ring. I was seventeen when I sent my missionary a Dear-John-email (we weren’t allowed to call or see them in person, or I swear I would have). He begged me to accept his God into my heart. I ignored his messages. I returned his ring. 

He’s married now, I think. He blocked me on Facebook.

I did this a few more times in high school:

Storyline: The midwestern track star who tutored me in math dates the unathletic drama kid after they meet in orchestra. Very High School Musical, before that was a thing.

He broke up with me when he realized our time was up. I threw a fit and sobbed some dramatics, though deep down I agreed.

Storyline: The fellow thespian, who I badgered to go out with me my senior year. We went to the same church, sang in choir together. It made sense.

In reality, we were both biding our time, play-acting what we thought love looked like. we fought, we made peace and we parted ways. 

This, of course, is natural for many high schoolers. As a teacher now, I see myself in so many sixteen-year-olds skulking around corners, hoping to bump into someone. 

What is more difficult to realize is that I didn’t leave the practice behind in my school like I thought I did. I see now that I have been weaving webs of stories and heartaches long past my graduation.


 

It is a weird, almost-archeological act to look back on old writing.  Yes, many of us find and keep memorabilia from past lovers (photo booth strips, ticket stubs, a napkin they wiped their mouth with after a first kiss and other moony tangibles of the like).

Words are different. Journals, emails, and even now text messages create archives that speak not just to the existence of a relationship, but our mindset while we were in the relationship. Much like past love letters my parents have, first-person stories of just how besotted (or frustrated) we have been with someone exist for years to come.

Unlike the previous generation, however, artifacts of my relationships are not hidden in a Tupperware box in my closet. They are strains of my old-self buried in my email account. They are left-over rice grains in the drafts folder of old blogs—just when I think I’ve cleaned them all up, one sticks to the bottom of my foot months later. Try as I might to delete someone (and trust me, I try), bits and pieces of past relationships are consistently available at my fingertips.

I look over old emails and the words still feel strangely foreign. The person in them doesn’t sound like me at all. Who was this “us” we created? It appears so strongly here—casual banter and mutual knowledge, names appearing as always-conjoined or pronouns notating the “we” and “us”. Don’t worry about us! We’ll meet you there.

It is strangely dissociative, and I’m filled with a sudden urge to figure out the mystery of the woman I have been these past few months who feels so distant now.

After a stable three-year relationship, I had a moving-too-fast fling. Maybe I was desperately seeking to fill the space left by my break up. Maybe I was overly romantic and allowed myself to get swept into someone else’s fantasy. Maybe I just went temporarily insane.

Some texts remain. Like the emails, I feel so removed from the woman in those words. She is more like a character in a story I have written than any semblance of my actual self.

I read the texts in her voice:

Meet you @ home in 20 min. Who was this girl who gave allowed a near-stranger to call her apartment “home”?

That’s ok, I just wanted to make sure you got home ok 🙂 Who let hours-long absences go because of a breezy “I love you.”

Who was this woman, and how was she ultimately betrayed?

He once joked that at least he would be an interesting story for me to write, but he ultimately failed there too. Our relationship ended with so much banality: he cheated on me. A tale as old as time that any good writer could have seen coming from a mile away, but I was so willing to accept his stories that I completely lost myself in them.

I read the messages, and then I realize that I was also telling myself stories the entire time: that I was okay with this “relationship,” that I had been okay with the break up before it, that the two weren’t connected. Even the past emails were, in some ways, stories: I was a girl planning a to meet somewhere with a man who didn’t particularly like travel; we were breezily headed somewhere that, in fact, we were not.

These past words feel foreign because they are merely images of the character I was in that part of my story. They are no mystery at all; they are merely chapters in my life now closed. 

The question is not, though, how to move onto the next chapter. The question is how long I will be able to keep weaving stories for myself, or if I will ever pause, look around at myself and my reality, and see and accept things as they are.

Here’s the problem: I’ve been weaving stories for so long, I can’t help but wonder what that even means. Even now, as I look at what I’ve written, it’s difficult to figure out what is “truth” and what is “story-truth.” I read the words and wonder how many of the choices I’ve made in my life happened because it was what I wanted, or because that’s what I thought, as the writer, should happen next. How many plot-line roller coasters have I strapped myself into, thinking I saw denouement at the end?

Storyline: A woman sits in her apartment trying to write. She is trying to figure out how the story should end. She sits, looks at the screen, sees the blinking cursor. She knows there is no one to ask for help writing the end. She also knows that, as much as she wants to, she does not know how to end the story.

She looks at the screen. She sees the blinking cursor. She waits.

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