Every life is a work of fiction. That's what I tell my writing students. People come to me wanting to tell their life story, the narrative that sums them up, that captures the essence of who they are. They expect to find this story hiding inside them like a Michelangelo statue trapped in the marble, fully formed, waiting to be released.
Instead, what they confront is a tower of Babel, a chorus of conflicting voices, a cast of many different characters in search of a coherent author. There is no singular there there, they find. There is no figure inside the stone. It's more like "The Invisible Man," as they unwind their memories in search of a self, pulling layer upon layer of gauze -- just like the creature in the movie -- finding only person-less space, riddles, fantasies, dreams-in-progress, enigmas, puzzles and open questions.
Who am I? they ask themselves, unable to locate themselves on paper. Why can't they pin down their story? I tell them, trying not to sound too metaphysical, that it's because their story isn't real, not in the way they think it is. The facts may be real, the random dots, but how they choose to connect these dots -- the myth they create, the self they conjure -- exists mostly in their imagination. We invent ourselves at every moment. We make ourselves up as we go along and pretend that our make-believe selves are authentic. A lot of people spend their lives convinced of the fiction they compose through the years. But when we begin to question our story, as memoirist, seekers, or analysands, realize it is mostly a fiction and that who we are is a mystery.
This shocking aha, that we aren't our stories, that who we are is more than that, is a watershed moment in self-realization. We live as if our stories were truth, as if fiction were reality, until one day something comes along and cracks our myth wide open. When something life-changing cuts our story open, we realize how deluded we've been and the doors of perception -- the portals of "self" -- swing open. This is when life gets really interesting.
"I'm not the kind of person who (fill in the blank)," becomes, "How can I know until I try?" Loosening the constraints of our story, we're free to experiment, wander and fail, to be surprised, to have new ideas. Knowing how little we actually know, we're suddenly a lot more creative. Buddhists call this Beginner's Mind. When we meet each moment with open awareness instead of narrative-bound expectation, life becomes an evolution instead of self-fulfilling tale. "If your mind is empty," said Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind,, "it is always open for everything. In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. But in the expert's, there are few."
When we stop being brainwashed by our fiction, we stop behaving like jaded experts full of resignation (at who we are, full stop). We start behaving as if we're artists. Instead of pretending to know everything, we're intrigued by the unknown as it happens. We get that we're quantum, shape-shifting creatures with many compartments and multiple layers. We see that we are a chorus of selves, an anthology of conflicting stories. "Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman asked in "Song of Myself." "Very well, then I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes."
We fear our own complexity and stifle our paradoxes with clichￃﾩ. We shrink human beings down to human sound bytes, circumscribed by a single myth. But none of us is only one person. We're not the same in bed with a lover as we are on the job, or cramped in the subway, or sitting in church, or trudging through the supermarket. We're flexible, protean, adaptable. Mercurial, not monochromatic. We contain this complexity the best we can, within the margins of daily life, but the changeableness of our fluid nature, the tempest brewing inside our physical teapot, roils ours characters anyway. The most predictable person is a matrix of incertitude, a hodgepodge of probabilities, pretending to have only one face.
How can we be so malleable? So many people under so many masks playing so many games for different reasons? That is what memoirists and analysands investigate. We're fascinated by origins, identity, the enigma of self. We're interested in how we create ourselves by how we see, what we imagine, what we deny, and what we pretend to know. We're driven to uncover what is real and what is hooey. We want to learn how to tell the truth. But which truth? Whose truth? At the end of the day, that is the question.
Whose story, exactly, are we living? Who is this character we've invented? That's what my students want to know. That's what most of us want to know. This matters more, the older we get. We're determined in the time we have left to edit out the dishonest plots, tired characters, obsolete themes, and destructive story lines, the creaky set pieces that block us from feeling real. We want to know ourselves in the end and not be deceived by bad fiction. We know that we are more than that. We are artists in waiting.
This blog originally appeared in Purple Clover.