Life as Narrative?

I recently read Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook—you know, the novel David O. Russell made into a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Interestingly, the novel’s Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie) is constantly comparing his life to a movie. He doesn’t go to actual movies anymore, he says, because he’s “now watching the movie of [his] life as [he] live[s] it.” And he’s waiting for his happy ending—because he’s gone through enough hard times that it’s bound to show up soon. Given his focus on silver linings, he’s perhaps a bit like the optimist, who when locked in a room full of horse manure, starts gleefully flinging it over his shoulders as he digs through the muck. When asked why he’s so happy, he responds, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”

I have been a lifelong reader, and I love narrative fiction in various forms—novels, stories, movies, plays, musicals, television shows—but I sometimes wonder if the imposition of narrative structure on real life can be as harmful as it is helpful. Certainly, Pat Solitano’s belief in the movie of his life is delusional—but is that because of his belief in a happy ending or just his belief in the particular happy ending of being reunited with his former wife Nikki after “apart time” is over? His story—at least as far as the novel takes us—does give him a happy ending, but it’s not the one he’d banked on through most of the book.

I can recall a period of my life when I thought—or maybe even said to someone else—that my life felt like a novel written by somebody else. At the heart of that statement was my desire to be the author of my own novel, to feel like I had some control of my life. In my first year of graduate school, I wrote a paper on what I called “narrative faith,” which to me didn’t mean exactly what it might mean to Pat Solitano (there will be a happy ending, because that’s what happens in the movies), but perhaps wasn’t all that far from it.

In some ways—this is what I argued in my paper and it still rings true to me—we have to have some kind of faith in at least the very smallest narrative events of our lives. It makes no sense, for example, to make a pot of soup unless I believe that I, or my family, or someone, will eat it later, or to buy a plane ticket and book a hotel unless I believe I will actually be taking a trip in the future. We make plans assuming they will come to pass. Without some faith in some kind of narrative continuity, we would never make an appointment, let alone keep it.

The problem comes in when, like Pat, we get stuck in a particular narrative, or rather stuck in the idea of a particular narrative, clinging like a fly to flypaper to a story that is never going to unfold as we want it to. Life isn’t like the movies—or like a novel. It isn’t all coherent, it doesn’t all make sense. Our steps wander over multiple paths, and sometimes life just feels like “one damn thing after another.” No matter what some beautifully crafted memoirs might make us believe, real life makes terrible fiction. Those beautiful memoirs are carefully crafted, the events described carefully selected to fit the narrative structure the memoirist assigns.

And yet don’t we all (at least sometimes) crave for our lives to have some kind of ultimate narrative meaning? I can remember reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany many years ago and weeping profusely at that climactic scene where it all finally comes together, when all the odd events of Owen’s life suddenly make sense. Because I want it all to make sense; I want, someday, in a blinding flash of sudden clarity to see how the disjointed wanderings that have made up the path of my life, the sometimes seemingly misguided decisions, the pains and losses and grief, were all necessary to get me exactly here.

But sometimes that desire seems crazy. In wishing, not necessarily for a silver lining, but for it all to someday come together in some kind of coherent narrative whole, I may be as delusional as Pat Solitano. Life may not, probably doesn’t, work that way. Frequently, it doesn’t make sense, but our job is to live it and be present to it anyway.

In After Virtue, Alistair MacIntyre writes that “lived narratives,” that is, lives understood as narratives, have two crucial characteristics: teleology and unpredictability. A “lived narrative” moves toward a certain telos, or end (ultimately, death), but the less ultimate ends within any given “lived narrative” are unpredictable. We work toward things that don’t happen. Things happen that we don’t plan on. And we have to be able to roll with the punches, come up with Plan B—or C or D.

So, we have to live as if there is a kind of narrative structure to our lives without getting tripped up by life’s unpredictability, to live as if we are moving toward a certain end, without being so attached to that specific outcome that we can’t keep going if it doesn’t happen. Because life goes on, even if a particular story ends. A silver lining may be the beginning of another story, and happy “endings” aren’t really endings, because no one’s story is really over until his or her death.

We live our lives as narratives, but our lives are made up of moments—like light is both wave and particle. And, like light, the way our lives present themselves to us depends on the method of measurement we use. If we look for narrative, we will see narrative—or, on those days when none of it seems to make sense, a lack of narrative. But if we focus on the moments, we live, really live, in the moment; we step out of the thought of the narrative continuity of our lives and into the rawness of life itself. And, ironically, it’s those really lived moments—when we are so present that the rest of the narrative disappears—that we can then string together like beads on a necklace to make for a truly rich “lived narrative.”

Relying on any kind of happy ending, while in some ways necessary, seems to miss the point and even lead us away from the possibility of real happiness, because happiness is found not in endings, but in lived moments.

What are your thoughts on the narrativity of life? Or life as particle/moment or wave/narrative? I’d love to hear your comments.

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6 Responses to Life as Narrative?

  1. Michaelangelo Allocca says:

    As I believe I said to the author in conversation many years ago, I don’t think life itself is inherently narrative; rather, I think our perception of life is inherently narrative. I now await reply from any who might deny that there’s a difference between the two.
    Meanwhile I think I’ll make some crabby snacks and home-mades.

  2. Jil says:

    What a thought-provoking blog post! We live in time, and in that sense narrative is our reality (now anyway–we can also imagine the possibility of eternity; we can feel it breaking into time). In some ways we control the narrative and in some ways we don’t. With a religious perspective, we can say that we collaborate with God. I’m fascinated by how things happen, and that’s one of the reasons I love fiction, memoir, biography, history. The value of living in the present seems to me to be tied to being alive to those moments of the eternal breaking in, but I also find great joy in memory and anticipation and daydreaming. So the present can be made rich and full through time and our capacity for narrative. That’s why I’m not satisfied with the slogan “be present.” But we also need to be wary of stories, especially “master narratives.” They can control what we want and expect and make us care too much about what seems to be our own control. They can keep us from being open to surprise.

    • sstamm625 says:

      And what a thought-provoking reply, Jil! Yes, I can see what you mean about dissatisfaction with the phrase “be present.” It doesn’t at all account for all the things one can (excuse me) be present to–some of which may insert one more fully into life and some of which may be an escape or avoidance–and thoughts, memories, etc., can be either at any given time. Perhaps it is more useful (I hesitate to use the word accurate) to talk about being “in” the present moment, which is about both the normal, everyday things that are right there in front of you (or the thoughts and feelings inside you), but also about being open to the in-breaking of that which is larger, however one wants to name it.

  3. Pingback: Reality Check | Reading, Writing, and Rambling

  4. Pingback: Reality Check | Stephanie Stamm

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