Wherein I begin the discussion of how to tell an interesting life story.
Take your life as it is right now. You haven’t done anything on your list of things to do before you die. You had a comfortable (read: boring) childhood--dad worked in a white collar job, mom stayed home, you had a dog and a sister, you went to college, you graduated, you got the job you’re in now, never been married, no kids, blah, blah, blah. Okay, so your life seems a little (a lot) boring. And maybe after you follow some of the advice from previous posts, your life won’t be so boring. Which is all to the good. It’s good to have an interesting life. But this section is not called ‘have an interesting life.’ It’s called ‘tell an interesting life story.’
I’m not (necessarily) suggesting you fictionalize your own life (read: lie). Although greater people than you have tried it before and succeeded. Take the story of Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. (For those of you who refuse to read fiction, they are great writers of the twentieth century.) The two of them were friends and would often while away hours together telling each other secrets from their lives. Carver’s life, however, was much more interesting than Wolff’s, so one night he decided to tell his friend that he had been a heroin addict. Completely untrue but Carver bought it. Over the next few weeks, for some reason, heroin kept coming up in conversations Wolff had with mutual friends and, finally, one night, Carver admitted to Wolff that he had revealed Wolff’s secret addiction to other people. Now Wolff had to decide whether he wanted to keep up the lie that he felt made him a more interesting character or reveal the truth. Wolff admitted to Carver that he’d made the whole thing up.
Making stuff up is quite tempting. Maybe less to you than it is to me, a thwarted short story writer. But the truth is you don’t have to make stuff up to make the telling of your life interesting. We all know the person who can tell about their weekend trip to the dump and make it interesting. And we all know the person who can tell the story of how they came to be junior chess champion and bore you to tears. What’s going on there?
Stories are made up of several components. One is the facts. This is the component of storytelling that most geeks cling to, often in excruciating detail, and it is the part of a story that is the least interesting and, surprisingly (to you anyway), the least informative. Yes, I said the least informative. That you were the chess champion tells me less about who you are as a person than how you felt about doing well at a game you had come to hate and that you haven’t played since eighth grade. Now that’s interesting.
In the next post I’ll write about feelings and interpretation--the two components of telling an interesting life story.