In this excerpt from my classic Turning Memories Into Memoirs, I explore the role of stories in our lives.
Let’s start with a basic question.
Why do we tell so many stories? Stories fascinate us all our lives. As children, we loved to be told fairy tales and to hear, time after time, the tales our parents told us about what we did and said when we were babies, as well as the stories about their own childhoods. As soon as we were old enough, we told stories about ourselves for our parents and for our friends.
As adults, we speak in stories at work, at family get-togethers, at class reunions, at town meetings, at the post office when we meet our neighbors. In fact, stories are such an important medium for us that even the numerous stories we tell and hear daily are not enough to satisfy our enormous appetites–we consume additional stories by reading novels, seeing movies, and watching dramas on television.
What is the meaning behind telling (listening to—and writing) all of these stories?
1) Obviously, stories entertain us, but our need to be entertained doesn’t fully account for our great hunger for stories, for why we love stories so much.
2) A more satisfying explanation of the power stories hold for us is that stories provide rehearsals for life: they furnish us with the reassurance and the guidance we need to become adults who live full, happy lives. We read novels or watch movies for the same reason we tell stories: we want both reassurance that we can succeed in this journey called life and the guidance to do so. We want to see and hear how others have been successful in the struggles of their lives. We want to know the meaning of the decisions they took: did finishing school afford them a better job? Was putting off marriage a sensible thing to do? What were the consequences of following or deviating from the patterns their families had set for them?
3) We want stories to reassure us that the inner strength we can muster will be sufficient against self-doubt, loss, grief, and disappointment. (People may exaggerate in their stories not to aggrandize themselves or to boast, but to rehearse the strength and meaning that may be missing in their lives and, by doing so, to acquire the strength and meaning they need.) It’s not out of idle curiosity that your children and grandchildren want to know about you and your life. What is more natural than for them to turn to the stories of their own parents and family for reassurance and guidance? Your stories have this power and, if they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren—just as they can for you.
This is why we love stories
When you tell your personal and family stories, you are filling a need that exists not only in your family but in the larger human community to receive reassurance and guidance. Every year, as more and more once-tightly-knit groups in our society unravel and our access to our rightful inheritance of family stories is threatened, telling and writing your stories becomes increasingly important.
We need stories. That is why we love stories as much as we do.
Exercise: For the purpose of writing from deep motivation, we can temporarily set aside the component of entertainment. Other than the hard-core extroverts, most people certainly want to be entertaining when they tell a story but it is not their goal. Instead most people want to say something that is important to them. This can be called the theme of their writing. They want to impart something of a life lesson—using story and scene not preachment.
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