I’ve been thinking through stories lately. Wondering why it is that we tell the stories we do. How do we choose our audience? And how do we shape our stories to suit that particular situation? What do we tell? And perhaps, what don’t we tell? Which parts do we choose to keep hidden, secret, buried deep within ourselves? And which parts do we share?
And then I think, too, of the afterlife of stories. Where do my stories go once I’ve told them? Do they haunt the recipient’s mind? Do they shape her memories? Do they hide in silence, confidences shared in secrecy? Or does she pass them on to someone else? And in her telling, what does she say? What bits does she find compelling? What parts does she choose to leave out?
Once my stories leave me, they become part of a much larger collection, narratives that are shaped and reshaped by each voice through which they are spoken. Will I recognize my story once it comes back to me? And what if I don’t? Does it matter?
I started pondering all of this in relation, of course, to the letters I’m reading. Each of these correspondents made a conscious decision to write to Tissot. Each of them shared intimate psychic and somatic experiences, with the full knowledge that their letters might be opened along the way and that, in some cases, Tissot himself might respond with aversion, disgust. It’s clear that some of the correspondents weren’t sure they would get a response. It’s clear from others, including one poor soul who wrote the same letter – almost word for word – four times, that some never did get a response.
And yet all of those stories, once told, were released, never to be recaptured, stowed away, hidden by those who shared them.
What is the afterlife of our stories? In a poignant essay in the New York Times, Dani Shapiro ponders the cost of self revelation. Looking back at a memoir she wrote many years previously, a memoir filled with risks, fraught with dangers, sadness and the whirlwind and sometimes poorly considered decisions of youth, she considers it through the eyes of her much older self, a self that is no longer just ‘writer’ but also, and significantly, ‘mother.’ What does it mean to be a mother who writes? How do these identities shape one another, challenge one another? And what might it mean when the writer butts up against the mother and encounters the child?
Ms. Shapiro’s closing paragraph sums up her conundrum perfectly:
“Later that day, I drove my son to his piano lesson and as I sat waiting in the driveway of his teacher’s house, I tuned in to “This American Life.” I leaned back in the driver’s seat and listened to my younger self quietly, forcefully reading her sad, painful story. In the distance, through an open window, the sound of my son playing the opening strains of “Für Elise.” It was a strange and powerful moment, one in which I felt my past and present fall one on top of the other to form something like a complete picture. I closed my eyes and choked back tears. And I thought what I always think in such a moment: I’ll have to write about this.”
Thank you, Ms. Shapiro, for articulating it so well.