“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”–Joan Didion
If I asked you how your day was, you would probably narrate it to me. Tell a story. Maybe about how it all went downhill after breakfast or how you were feeling great until you got that email. It would, most likely, have something like a beginning, a middle and an end.
Now imagine we have just met. We are getting to know each other. What do we do? We tell our stories. They usually have a beginning, a middle and an end, too. A story of rising action, a climax.
We make of our days and our lives stories. It seems natural. It seems obvious.
But here’s the thing: our days and our lives are not de facto stories. We could answer the above questions with “cereal sadness wind ha ha” or “sleeping, mainly, and once I went a whole day without going to the bathroom.” A dog’s life, maybe. We do not live narratives: we create them.
Man, as Alasdair MacIntyre says, is “essentially a story-making animal.” We narrate to make sense, and meaning, out of our mid-morning lulls, our troubled adolescents, and, to get to the point, the places in which we live, and in which we make up life.
Now here’s the thing: we get to choose the stories we tell. Let’s go back to today. Use different events around which to structure the tale. Start with how you went to basement and noticed an old dress and thought about the last time you wore it instead of the work you accomplished. Or when you next meet a stranger begin not with your parent’s divorce but with the night you watched the 3rd episode of the 4th season of The Wire.
Would it matter? More, I would hazard, than anything else. Back to MacInttyre:
“Man is .. essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
Now transpose this discussion to what Lionel Trilling said of politics in The Liberal Imagination:
“Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like”
Stories, stories we fashion, merging imagination and mind, tales we tell to stitch randomness into meaning–are political. Are, indeed, politics.
So take a city. Take a city like Cleveland. It has a story. I’m sure you could tell it. But it’s just a story. One story. What if you changed it? What if you chose different details, different antagonists, different denouements? Would it make a difference?
We experience reality through narrative. Change the narrative and you change reality. Not, no, the sickness or the bank payment or the potholes, of course, no, not those. Not directly, not immediately, do our stories matter in this base way. But “literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty,” as Trilling said. If we cannot conceptualize who or where we are without stories, then we damn well better have complex, difficult ones if we are to understand ourselves–or better a city.