It’s a foggy Friday morning in Fort Bragg, and we’re already in the second half of October. Next to my Chromebook, I’ve got a fresh cup of Ethiopian Sidamo Peaberry in a classic white diner mug. The cafe is bustling with an older crowd, and everyone seems to know everyone.
I sat down determined to finish a blog post before heading south out of town. I still need to stop for groceries and a couple items at the sporting goods store. Frantically trying to write about all that’s happened in the last month, this latest and most magical phase of my journey yet, I found myself feeling much too rushed. The same old lesson, once again: be patient, give the task the time it requires.
Thankfully, I got distracted. Scrolling back through some of my earliest writings from the trip. I found this little essay, which I abandoned back in April. Finding it today, I rather like it. So I’m happy: I’ve found a way to put up a post today, while still giving myself time to really work on the more current one. Enjoy!
After months of talk, I’m actually doing it. I’m eleven days into my open-ended bicycle trip. I’m alive and happy and feeling strong. The weather has been great. The folks I’ve met have all been generous. I’ve had a couch or a bed to sleep on every night. People keep feeding me delicious homemade meals, even taking the trouble to comply with my restrictive diet. So far, the most remarkable thing about my journey is how easy it’s been.
My journey. I write about it and speak about it like it’s a grand adventure. Really it’s just a series of moments. Bags all packed and secured, right leg swung over the rig, and Dad watches me coast away down the alley. Riding the length of Vashon, stopping to eat pistachios in the shade. Catching the sunset in Tacoma with Jon. Playing jazz standards on bass and guitar in his backyard. Taking the passenger ferry from Port Orchard to Bremerton, the only rider aboard. Dismantling an old chicken fence on a farm in Poulsbo. Finding a tree frog in the grass. Swinging in the hammock and talking to Erin on the phone as the silhouetted treetops melt with the darkening sky. Eating kebabs with new friends in a light blue bungalow in Southworth. Beer and horseshoes on Sunday with Steve.
Is there really a story that weaves these moments together? Why do I feel compelled to try to tell it? In her essay “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Can the stakes really be so high? She continues: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
Didion is distinguishing here between raw reality and the meaning we make of it. I love this passage because it reveals the desperation that underlies our storymaking. Life happens and happens without a moment’s rest, one baffling experience after another, one big “shifting phantasmagoria.” Among our pitifully limited set of tools, narrative is the one we’ve found we can use to push back against reality’s oppressive insistence.
I am rather familiar with this tool. In the more formal sense, I studied it in college, as an English major who focused on writing fiction. More generally, I’ve known myself for a long time to be someone who is constantly seeking the significance of what happens. Since I was very young I’ve imagined an audience watching the movie of my life. This tendency can make me relentlessly, annoyingly optimistic, painting silver lines on every cloud that drifts my way.
Underneath my optimism is the bitter truth, the one I fear most: it’s all chaos. Random, meaningless. No triumph, no redemption. If life is a story, it’s not a very good one, and besides there’s no audience. You know: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”—my inner Macbeth sees my foolishness.
So I’m a fraud. My grand adventure is artificial. My spiritual quest shows its seams. And yet, even knowing this, I persist. I refer to my journey, my adventure, my quest. I talk about what it all means. This is the part of my life story, I tell myself and others, where I wander for a while, see the world, have experiences, learn from them. This is the part I fondly look back on as a satisfied and self-actualized old man.
Am I utterly deluding myself? Is the story simply a distraction from the real? Didion, for one, does not hide her doubts: narrative is an “imposition,” something that can “freeze” what is “actual.” Wouldn’t it be better to allow the actual to remain fluid and dynamic? And yet, clearly she doesn’t believe that narrative is useless. She has made her career as a writer after all. And not just of essays, but of fiction too. Surely she believes that stories have something to teach us.
Of course they do. Storytelling is central to the human experience: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think what Didion is saying here is not “don’t make stories,” but “be careful.” We can so easily over-rely on stories. The essay is about a time in Didion’s life when she “began to doubt the premises of all the stories” she’d been telling herself. She, like the rest of us, had been looking to narrative—a sense of what life is supposed to be, what things are supposed to mean—to tell her what to do. Suddenly that narrative became unreliable. “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”
In this, we see both the usefulness and the dangerousness of stories. They guide us, but they are inevitably biased. They provide a comforting illusion. “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.”
If nothing else, there is the simple matter of what one chooses to leave in, and what to leave out. That’s not to mention any agenda we may have, or the self-image preservation which so reliably guides our meaning-making.
There are no true stories. Yet Didion still writes. And so do I. Because some stories are better than others. Some writing comes closer to truth. Didion must believe as I do that there is such a thing as great writing, and that it serves us well.
What makes great writing great? It allows life’s uncertainty, for one thing. Like life, it is full of exceptions to seeming rules, moments of absurdity that carry no lesson, emotions that cannot be labeled with a single word. It fights back against bad writing, which is too neat, too moralistic, too certain of its choices. It rebuffs agenda, refuses to be didactic.
If great writing is that which is closer to reality, why not just list the moments? Beads of rain on my glasses as I cross the bridge onto Harstine Island. Wouldn’t that be more faithful to the truth? The great blue heron prowling the shallows where the creek empties into the Sound. Why all this extra stuff? Coming around the bend in the valley road and seeing the huge high hill before me. Why fluff it up with narrative? The lichenous old rope swing suspended from the mossy branch.
I do more than list moments because I want those moments to sing. On their own, they are lovely objects to pick up and examine, sure. But when they are part of a story, when that story is well told, those same moments sing. They mean something, they move us. A well-told story, biased and warped though it may inescapably be, really can teach us about that which is real.