Monday, September 15, 2014

Counter-Narratives of Joy

It's easy to tell a sad story.

I know, because I have told one a long time. Many sad stories, in fact. I am not saying it is easy to live a sad story, but modern American culture seems to long for tragedies.

I know this is hedgey ground. I, myself, highly dislike overtly positive psychology, affirmations, attraction theories. I think, I believe, it is highly important to not only address our pain, but to tell that story, again and again and again. Until we feel heard, until it is clear, until we understand.

And yet.

At a short writing workshop in Toronto on Monday of last week, a student ended her last piece, the last one read, with a passage about "counter-narratives of joy." This struck everyone immediately - we all felt the power of it, though it took some discussion afterwards to figure out why, and what the different meanings were.

The main gist was this: we tell stories of woe, of suffering, of sadness, and they are essential.
And yet.
Sometimes they become the main narrative. The only story. The way we show how hard we have worked, how much we have been through. Suffering can seem a credential, being a victim a preferred position, always being wronged as being on the right side. So it's not just a need for stories of joy - stories that also express - also, not instead of - where we have reveled, appreciated and celebrated. Not just that need, but that following, developing, expressing that can actually seem antithetical, opposing, against the stream.

Here are words I often hear from students when I offer prompts relating to joy, happiness, pleasure:
I am not sure what makes me happy.
I can't say too much about this or it will seem like bragging.
I am not sure I remember the good times.

And it is this last one that is the deadly result of the first two or more. Not only do we not think we can write or share or express joy, we then, as a result, can't even remember that it happened - sometimes we can't even feel when it happens. For instance, a student of mine who has become aware recently of how much of her life she's been trauma bonding. Her patterns got so strong around suffering - real, genuine, not made up stuff - that her system can't allow for anything else.

Another student tells a story I really love. In writing a memoir, she has asked her mother over and over, again and again over the years about some very traumatic incidents that happened in her childhood. Her mother claims she doesn't remember them - a different kind of amnesiac response to life being out of balance and heavy in trauma - and has even gone so far as to disown her daughter for pursuing this line of thinking. The daughter, my student, didn't trust that her mom didn't remember the traumatic stories.

One day, her mother says to her:
"How come you never ask me about the positive stuff? The good memories? I have loads of those!"

Shocked, the student paused for a moment, unsure of what to say to that. Huh. She hadn't been asking for those stories, but its not because she remembered them. It's because she didn't, and because there weren't even traces of joy in her deep fossil beds of hurt. So she did ask. Her mother told her a complete counter-narrative. Her mother's joy narrative was a bit deceptively one-sided - but - and here's the key point - so was my student's suffering narrative.

Our main narrative has all kinds of counter-narratives. For all explorers, finding these, gently digging them up and dusting them off, asking our personal historians for examples not just of what reaffirms our narratives but what challenges them, is crucial. In a post coming out this Wednesday on Memoir Mind, you'll see a student of mine depicting one of the happiest landscapes of her childhood.

After she was done reading it in class, she noted that the whole 20 minutes she was writing, a voice told her, "You can't write just this. You have to tell the whole story." Meaning: you can't write the positive without the negative. Most of my students encounter this kind of challenge to narrative.

Some people do struggle with presenting just the narrative of struggle -
Others have suffered more.
It is selfish to ask for help.
And so on.

In either case, breaking the main spine of story, to find all the narratives, is essential for good writing - and good living.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I find it difficult to acknowledge the positive aspects of my marriage or even that I loved him. The years of violence seemed to erase all trace of joy. I feel a little crazy acknowledging what was good. Still there were all the trips into the wilderness, the meadows, the nights in a tent listening to thunder crash...