Everybody in my family is a talented storyteller. We can't play team sports, we have a tiny little problem with drinking and we're all pretty dysfunctional about money -- but man oh man, can we tell a good story.
I spent my childhood watching narratives get spun, twisted and renegotiated as family events were transformed from incidents into stories. There's a big difference, it turns out, between the two. An incident is an event that happens in real time, with real consequences, usually involving real (and raw) human emotion. A story is what you make out of it later. Incidents are wild and dangerous; stories are controlled and reassuring. In the process of building a story, you sand down the sharp edges of an incident, buffing away all the pain and immediacy and urgency, creating something you can carry around safely in your pocket. A story is a magnificent thing because it puts you back in control.
Growing up, my grandfather used to tell the tale of his cousin who had a habit, back in the 1950s, of getting drunk late at night and then going for nude swims in the Erie Canal, all alone. One night this poor fellow locked himself out of his truck—which contained his clothing. He was forced to walk home, several miles along the one main road of his hometown, wet and naked.
But it gets better! My grandfather's cousin had found a tiny washcloth in the bed of his pickup truck -- the only thing he could use to hide his nakedness. As he walked home, whenever he saw a car approaching from the front, he would use the washcloth to cover his private parts. Whenever he heard a car approaching from the back, he would cover his bottom. Inevitably, of course, two cars approached from both directions at exactly the same time. Should he cover his privates or his bottom?
"So I asked him," my grandfather said, "'What did you do?'"
And the cousin shook his head ruefully and replied, "All I can say is this: I've always hoped that I made the right decision."
God, how I loved that story!
Of course, as an adult, I can see that it might not have been so hilarious back when it was actually occurring -- back when it was an incident. But my grandfather's cousin had taken that unhappy incident and crafted it into a really good story, which he then gave as a gift to his family. He may have exaggerated some of the funnier details while editing out some of the sadder ones. My grandfather himself, over time, probably embellished the story even more. I may have just embellished it myself, retelling it here. Some may have a problem with this. They might say we are obscuring the truth. But I think it's fine. I even think it's humane. The truth is hard enough when it's happening.
Here's another example: From 2001 to 2003, I went through an awful divorce. This was an unhappy incident, indeed. I was miserable, depressed, shamed. At the time, a well-meaning friend said, "Hey, you're a writer! Someday you'll write about this!" I was offended, thinking it impossible that I could exploit my own pain for a story.
But I did transform my incident into a story. I had no choice, really -- it's my inheritance. Not that writing Eat, Pray, Love was easy. Figuring out how to make a good story out of an unpleasant incident never is. What should I leave in, what should I take out? The choices matter because your history is whatever you choose to tell about yourself. I thought, "Which private parts of myself should I cover up, and which private parts should I reveal?" It was intense. The emotional stakes were high. It felt like traffic was coming in both directions and the only thing I had to protect myself was a tiny little washcloth of words. All I can say is this: I've always hoped I made the right decision.
Elizabeth Gilbert's new book on the power of creativity, Big Magic, is out September 22.
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