When I think of the word "stories", I immediately think of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a 2006 collection of essays written by Joan Didion from 1968-2003. The title of the book is taken from the opening line of another essay collection The White Album (first published in 1979 with essays from 1968-1978):
"We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices…Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling."
One of my favorite experiences was being allowed to raid the Knopf book room after a visit with one of the editors there. That's when I grabbed a few heavy tomes by Didion and Karen Armstrong. At the time, their words served as guides.
Storytelling is how we make sense of life. It's how we entertain each other and impart important knowledge. Stories move us, and make the world go round. My father loves quoting something he attributes to my late grandfather: There are 3 kinds of people -- the people who learn from other people's mistakes, the people who learn from their own mistakes, and the people who never learn. I think of the last category of people as being so attached to their stories that they're not willing to listen to new ones, like when I've just finished binge-watching a TV series where I've become so attached to the protagonist(s) that I feel it would be a betrayal to start a new show and get involved with a new set of characters living totally different lives.
One brilliant writer who manages to guide the reader straight into the heads of hearts of her complicated characters is Elena Ferrante. Over the years, I have heard many friends rave about Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet (2012-2015) which begins with My Brilliant Friend (the TV adaptation can be viewed on HBO), but I never felt like investing the time to dive into her world. That is, until this weekend when I came across an excerpt from her upcoming novel The Lying Life of Adults (Netflix has already signed on to adapt it for TV) in the print version of The New York Times. The excerpt begins:
"Two years before leaving home, my father said to my mother that I was very ugly."
This one utterance sparks a tale of individual suffering built on top of familial suffering. The protagonist Giovanna attempts to untangle the roots only to end up adding more layers of obfuscation in the process. Which got me wondering, what lies have we heard and constructed our vulnerable lives upon? How have these lies helped or hindered us? Sometimes, we need the comfort of our delusions just to get us through to the next day or perhaps even a protracted period of magical thinking, to reference another Didion book title.
Speaking of which, Ogilvy ad man Rory Sutherland lifts the curtain on #magic in his book Alchemy: The Dark Art, and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life or savour his talk.