Not only what we tell, but how we tell them, the vantage point we choose, the voice - all of this reveals.
And what stories reveal, of course, matters. They can reflect truth about the complexity of being human on this planet; they can offer insights, another point of view on life. They can also hide truth from us, or distort truth.
In recent years, everywhere I go people talk about the importance of sharing stories. Each of us has a store of stories buried inside. Sharing them can be some of the most vulnerable moments we will ever have in our lives. It is important to examine motives when airing them in public, because not all motives are equal either. Some personal story-telling has become voyeuristic, exhibitionist, and narcissistic. That, too, is part of an unhealthy commercial culture where even people's personal troubles can become profit-making commodities.
When I consider the air and print space taken up by the Cruise-Holmes divorce, I could hang my head in despair for a culture that actually cares about such things.
I am writing what I like to call my 'more-than-memoir.' I call it that because I am using memoir, or the stories of my parents' difficult lives and beautiful dying, and then the immigrant, multi-generational foundations of their lives, to try to reveal something important, crucial even, about this moment in our culture when everything appears to be breaking down - no reason more important to these collapses than our holding to a story, or mythology, of "America" that no longer holds, if it ever did. My parents and their generation helped perpetuate that mythology even when it also caused them great harm. They passed it on to us, and we baby-boomers are still dealing with the legacy of that inheritance.
Stories matter. They matter because they are seldom, if ever, neutral. They can bring us closer to truth, or keep the truth from us. We have many false stories in this culture, none more dangerous than our mythology of American Exceptionalism. We have a grandiose sense of ourselves that hides from most of us a whole lot of truth about what made this country "great," like the way we settled the "frontier" with exceptional violence and disregard for humans and nature, like the slave labor that made possible our economic rise as British colonies and then a new nation conceived in "liberty," or, as in the past century, our support for military dictatorships and interventions throughout the Americas in defense of our economic interests.
Of course, those aren't the stories of the national mythology, only the historical realities upon which it is actually built.
Writing ought to be a subversive act. It ought to do what that tired old slogan says, "Subvert the dominant paradigm." I mean, it can also entertain, enlighten, and inspire, but even those joys can have a highly subversive aspect if they show us a little truth about ourselves.
I think of Faulkner or Danticat, or poets like Rich and Ostriker. There is truth-telling that makes us wince. We know it when we see it, or read it.
I'm away from my writing for a few days to help with and participate in a conference with women dedicated to work to heal the planet, and the human community living in it. I can soak in an abundance of inspiration here, but I admit that since the book is now not in my control, but is rather using me to get it written, it's hard to be away from it. My ancestors have truth that needs telling and, once I opened the floodgate, well, thence came the flood. I hope I can do it justice.
Right now, our stories from within this culture really matter. We can't live in this grandiose U.S. fantasy world any longer, this pretense of our unlimited exceptional America that is the pinnacle of all evolution up to this moment. We are actually moving into a period of collapse nurtured for a long time by that hubris. Coming to terms with ourselves is a critical and urgent task of this moment so that we can learn how to encounter that collapse honestly, and then figure out how we are going to live from here on out as the world moves into deeper and deeper crisis.
Tell stories that reveal truth. Tell stories that reveal us to ourselves. Don't hold back. We need some real truth-telling now.