We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.

Rebecca Solnit, from “Apricots,” The Faraway Nearby (Penguin Books, 2013)

I love how Solnit plays off Didion here, and this excerpt made me think about how powerful the collapse of a fiction can be. Shifting societies are entirely composed of stories that are falling apart. Maybe that’s why the first book that came to mind when I read this was The Sun Also Rises. When the book begins, war has torn apart so many narratives of the time–of conventional romance, of traditional masculinity–and yet the characters try to crawl back into the tatters. I pitied them as I read it. But I also wondered which stories I was clinging to, which narratives I relied on, and whether any of those were unraveling too.

In a world where stories can collapse, we can’t assume that the ones we’ve chosen to believe are authentic. What we can do is choose to tell and believe the stories that make the world better. Entire perspectives balance on the stories we choose to believe; idealism is just one example. I can’t ever accept the charge of naivete as an argument against idealism–who says so-called realism is any more impervious to collapse? But if idealism were somehow destructive, the value of its narrative would be punctured. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: every day we engage with different stories, different narratives. One of the greatest thing about a book is that it can distill that experience–we face a single narrative, head on. This forces us to grapple with the question of what we believe and why we believe it, and that’s the question I ask myself every time I write. 

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Remember to ask yourself–why these stories?

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