the whole story from the beginning until now

When you are in the middle of a story, it's isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you're telling it to yourself or to someone else.
--Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

With this quotation, Stories We Tell begins, Michael Polley reading it even before his "narration" begins.

think of the story we are telling
a twisted, amalgamated beast
that eventually becomes history
a history written by the winners
the privileged
hooks' "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" perhaps

most of us knowing only a small piece of the whole
many of us lack the capacity

or power

to substantially alter our place in the larger story

some of us
but for the grace of god or gods
or corporate boards and politicians
have little to no power at all

tossed along like unhelmed ships
on a ceaseless ocean
neath an endless storm
wondering if the sun will ever rise again

working by artificial light
for alms too thin
to cover unwanted children
as they sleep, cowering and dreamless

A story, a poem, a flight of fancy with a truth to tell. An interruption drifting away from the film, but so what? I was thinking about stories, about the story--who we all are. The collective concept of humanity, or the national identities that we hold onto even thought they force us against each from time to time.

(And, even my prose distracts from the film. But isn't that the point?)

I put together this month of films to watch to explore the idea of identity and of self--two concepts that will be big parts of my upcoming master's thesis--and I'm finding that I want to turn it into bigger things. I think it's very much the way I conceptualize these two things... twisted (there's that word, again, suggesting a force outside control) in with the other people around me. I am not myself without the people and the things with which I interact every day. I might describe myself as a father (a role defined in relation to other people), a teacher (a role defined in relation to other people), a student (a role defined in relation to other people)... Even here, where I am a blogger... that role is also defined in relation to other people. There is no blog without an audience. Big or small, I write here with the assumption in mind that someone else will read it. Late in the film--see, I can reference it directly--Michael Polley writes to Sarah in an email:

My dear Sarah, when you make a documentary about your own discovery of a new father, are you doing so to avoid your own deeper concerns of its real impact on you? Is that why you describe it as a search for the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory, rather than a search for a father?

Sarah replies:

Hey, Dad, I've been thinking a lot about your last email. Maybe you're right. Maybe there is something underneath my need to make this film that I've been denying. Every time I feel I have my footing, I lose it. I can't figure out why I'm exposing us all in this way. It's really embarrassing, to be honest...

It goes on with specific bits about her mother, but the important part for me, here and now, is there already. In the prospectus for my master's thesis, I argued that this blog, writing it every day now for 664 days, serves a very specific purpose for me. The current version of my research question is this: How does the act of blogging through a life crisis contribute to personal sensemaking and the re-creation of one's place in the world? I've written before about where I was when I started this blog. Where my life was. Pending divorce, living alone, waiting for... something. Grad school hadn't started yet. It was summer break, and I was spending the majority of my time by myself. At first, it seemed, to echo above, a flight of fancy. A whim. A crazy little thing to do to occupy my time. It quite readily became something bigger. And, I would offer personal details here and there.

(Soon, I will be reading through all of these entries again, finding those details, coding the entries for content.)

The blog became wrapped up in my life, but still, there are things I do not say here. As Polley wonders why she is exposing her family with this film, sometimes I write very personal things in this blog and wonder why as well. I wonder why I need this outlet to get by. I wonder if I need this outlet to get by. But, then I think back to who I was back then, when my marriage had only recently ended, or even in the strained last couple years we were together. Who I am now is... I'm trying to think of a good metaphor as to how me now is very much not me then, but is also fundamentally and totally him as well. The transformation is beyond my poetry for the moment.

And, I think of a bit in one of my favorite films--Adaptation. Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter and his fictional counterpart in the film) anguishes over where to start his screenplay, where the story really begins... and in the midst of a good ramble, one of his options is, "Okay we open at the beginning of time." That is where the story begins. His story. My story. Diane Polley's story. This blog's story. The world's story.

a story of inequality
a story in which
i am not he
as you are not he
as you are not me
and we are not all together
because we're too jealous
over our little tracts of land
our electricity
our computers
our smartphones
our position on top of the world

unless we're not on top
and the story twists away and away
regardless of our pain
and our sadness
and our joy
and our love
and our hate
and all that makes us one among many
alone and impotent
muted and blind

This is how it goes. My story. This story. The story. Mark Sisson, in his blog, Mark's Daily Apple, writes, "brush away all the public posturing and cocktail party introductions we all end up doing to some degree at least in certain situations. What is the real narrative you live each day when it's just you and you?" In other words. who are you when there is no one else around? Who are you when there is nothing else? Could you be better? Could you do more? Does the story need something more from you to make it better?

Or, is this all that there is? Are you all that you can be?

(And, I clearly do not intend to echo that old U.S. Army slogan, but it's as good a concept as, say Nike's line, if you just separate it out from the source, take it for what it is. If there is something more you can do, just do it.)


  1. This subject is so huge that I think there is a danger of getting lost in it!

    I couldn't disagree more with the quotation from Margaret Atwood at the head of this blog post. I think that we are aware of our stories while we are living them. At least, we are aware of SOME story. What the story is might change as our view of it changes, but I don't think there's a single human being who isn't the protagonist in a very specific narrative, in their own mind.

    And, obviously, we have collective stories too. You mentioned the Whig view of history recently. That is a story. There was a kind of over-reaction to Marxist teleology amongst some conservatives, after the Cold War, whereby it was argued that societies should have no overriding purposes, and should simply be a version of Kant's 'kingdom of ends', whereby each person (or each family) is an end unto itself. But I don't think the larger narratives have to subsume the smaller narratives, or even be 'larger' in the sense of more important. I think nations and other large collectives can have stories over and above the stories of which they are constituted.

    Which movies, if I may ask, do you think are particularly strong on the theme of identity? I'm always looking for them. For me, "Regarding Henry" is a good one, as is "The Vow". "Munich", too-- Jewish identity being the specific identity in question there. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." "Total Recall". I'm sure there are others but they don't spring to mind.

    1. oh, sure, we're aware of some story as we live it. and we certainly love to think we understand it. some of us are far TOO SURE, i think, sometmes, of what the story is and where it's going. but, realy, like history, meaning comes more in retrospect than in the present

      and, i don't mean to imply that the larger story is ever any more important than the smaller, more personal stories. i DO, however, think the smaller stoires often distract us from thinking about larger stories--just the other night in a discussion with some other grad students, i questioned the existence of a hierarchy of offenses, a hierarchy of suffering--some people's pain is more important and more immediately in need of listening to, that sort of thing. my favorite stories--in reality--are the ones in which the personal twists right into the larger story. as a hisorian i am a sucker for stories of revolutiionaries

      as for films about identity, regarding henry certainly fits the bill--i almost included it this month but it had been so long since i had seen it that i could not actually remember if it was particularly good (and i didn't feel like dealing with a movie i would spend a week arguing AGAINST). maybe it's awesome, but i've only ever seen it once all the way through and that was when it was brand new. memento also almost made the cut, but i thought that would work better in a month of psychological thrillers or something like that. like eternal sunshine of the spotles mind fits the bill, i think pretty much everything charlie kaufman has written fits--human nature, being john malkovich, adaptation.

      i try to strcture my week with a movie sometimes--sometimes it happens inadvertently--and i think this BIG story bit was the peak for stories we tell. now, it's time to come back down

    2. You might even say that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk....

      Regarding Herny is about three out of five, I'd say. It's formulaic and there are no surprises but that's not always such a bad thing. I haven't seen any of those other Charlie Kaufman films other than Eternal Sunshine....and only a bit of Memento. Still, very interested to see where you take this whole theme.


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