A confession: I think I have an unhealthy addiction to narratives.
I have filled my life with other people’s stories. I’ve been an avid reader from a young age, and a movie fan for almost as long. When I learnt to play guitar I devoured countless tales told in three minute bursts of verse-chorus-verse.
These were amongst my most formative passions. They have patterned the way I think to the point where I now filter great slabs of my daily life through a library of templates and genres without even realising, for the most part, that I do it.
Of course, there’s nothing unusual in any of that. All humans tell tales. Narratives are at the heart of how we make sense of our world. We use stories to record our history, to educate, to entertain. Our moral codes are defined in stories; they are explored, pulled apart, challenged, and redefined all over again. We lay beginnings, middles and endings onto nearly every aspect of our individual and collective histories.
Narrative is so pervasive in our lives that it becomes invisible and we forget just how artificial it is. Life while we live it is built from a million jumbled fragments, events and occasions all overlapping and interconnected, stubbornly refusing to fit within neat, self-contained tales.
Just ask one of those poor souls who edit the raw Big Brother footage into neat little packages. They’ll tell you how much work is really involved to taking the raw minutiae of daily life and sculpting it into what an audience will recognize as a story. Time is compressed and stretched, chronology shuffled, characters carefully tweaked to fit archetypal molds. Each episode has a beginning, a middle and an end stretched out along the length of a narrative arc.
The point of all this is that I tend to forget real life is not so neat. As a certified narrative addict, I find it tremendously unsatisfying when events refuse to resolve for me in a structurally elegant way.
In real life, when the sun sets on our heroes walking hand-in-hand into the sunset, the credits do not roll to freeze-frame them in perpetual happiness. The happy ending which feels so natural as the conclusion of a narrative is, in our own lives, just another moment that will pass like any other.
There’s something about that which I find deeply unsettling. It’s not just that there are no happy endings, it’s that there are no endings at all (other than the obvious and terminal conclusion which I hope is still a very long way away).
So while we learn every step of the way to understand the world through a collection of narratives told and re-told, the hardest thing to learn might be that this is just a construction. To accept that these stories are simplifications of life experience, which is far more complex, astoundingly untidy and filled up with long stretches in which nothing much happens.