Storytelling and travel go hand in hand. That’s because all journeys are stories of one kind or another – and all stories contain a journey. But when you’re the main protagonist in that tale, travel doesn’t always feel like a great voyage of discovery. An epic trip can be spiritual and transformational, but at the same time, functional as well. It has to be. Whether we’re talking geographically or metaphorically, journeys take us from A to B. And that involves not only adventure and challenge, but some monotony too.
Anton and I have been on the road for half a year now. That’s a lot of time to reflect. Through writing about our trip, I’ve been trying to make sense of where we’ve been. Along the way, it’s really led me to consider anew the relationship between storytelling and travel. More than that, it’s led me to develop my own philosophy around using storytelling techniques to begin to shape our own lives as a reflection of our true dreams and desires. In the Story Lines section of TakeEachDay, I’ll be sharing these ideas.
The never-ending story
Journeys are often marked by uncertainty. False starts, baggy middles and unclear endings characterise the way many people travel through life. The past pulls us back like a tide, and the future looms ahead – unknown, uncertain. In the midst of this, events seem like an onslaught. Do I paint a gloomy picture? It’s not always that our lives are completely unsatisfying. More that we can feel buffeted by the winds of fate, for good or bad. In short, journeys can lack any sense of focus while we’re taking them. We’re not always sure where we’re headed, or why for that matter.
Travelling to escape structure
I love talking to travellers we meet and finding out what’s behind their trip. There’s always some deeper desire they want to fulfil, even if they don’t consciously recognise it. Ostensibly, many people travel to escape routine, to break free of the structures that seem to impede their lives. I know that was our motivation. After entering into the social bonds of marriage, we could have continued to build the fortress of modern day life. We could have joined the constant struggle for a better job, nicer home, and the right material conditions to foster happiness. Somehow, it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t what we truly dreamed of.
Through formlessness, we begin to appreciate form.
And so, the road called us. “Imagine,” said one of my colleagues before I left. “All of that time just doing nothing. Just waking up every day and deciding to do whatever you want.” I remember smiling at the thought as I lived out my last days in the ‘cage’ of real life. What an adventure it would be.
Escaping from any form of structure brings, at first, a deep sense of freedom. A sense of space, time, possibility. But, like any powerful drug issued suddenly and in great dosage, soon the effects begin to wane. Freedom, granted in the extreme, craves the imposition of structure, of meaning. After a few months of doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, I could feel myself itching for something more tangible. Through formlessness, we begin to appreciate form.
Storytelling and travel
For us, blogging about our experiences gave us that sense of routine, of creativity and work that we were somehow missing. Meanwhile, in writing about our adventures, I started to become aware of the process of storytelling itself. In looking back over events, I was automatically editing my experiences through the process of selecting and reordering memories. I began to give shape to an hour, a day or a month as I selected some moments, and rejected others, forming the anecdotes I would tell others, and myself in perpetuity. In short, I was naturally imparting structure onto my life, without even knowing it.
Stories and the human condition
A story is how we construct our experiences
Novelist Doris Lessing eloquently summed up how stories relate to the human condition on a micro and macro level:
“Humanity’s legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. All wisdom is in our stories and songs. A story is how we construct our experiences. At the very simplest, it can be: ‘He/she was born, lived, died.’ Probably that is the template of our stories – a beginning, middle, and end. This structure is in our minds.”
Once, I’d looked at the story structure as an artificial device for use in a fictional world. I saw it as a construct into which characters could be placed while I, the omniscient author, shuffled and shaped their fortunes like a capricious child meddling with a group of dolls. Or perhaps, more aptly, like a scientist trying to bend the results of an experiment to some overarching hypothesis of which she was already convinced.
Telling my story
Intriguingly, when I started to apply storytelling structure to the events of my own life, an interesting thing happened. I was forced to take what Lessing identifies as the primeval story – beginning, middle, end – and really think hard about where those points occurred. When did the experience really start? Where was that climactic moment? And what about where to end things? Altering these decisions could drastically affect the story I was telling.
Above all, the most fascinating part of applying this structure retrospectively to my own experiences was the sense of myriad possibilities it created. After all, with multiple possible starts and endings, I began to visualise the web of narratives that made up my existence. From the tapestry of my life, I could extrapolate the narrative of my marriage, of our year away, and of the many smaller stories that weaved through the whole tale.
Reframing my existence
We’re not limited to just one life story
For me, the big realisation was that although our longevity is like a pair of book ends around our life, it doesn’t have to be the only start and end. We’re not limited to just one life story. Rather, the fact that we can construct our lives from so many of these smaller stories gives us immense freedom. We can choose when to start and end a chapter. And, through a deeper exploration of the way stories are constructed, we can start to mould and shape our own lives.
Over the coming weeks in Story Lines, I’ll be reflecting in more detail on how applying storytelling techniques to life has helped me rescript my life, from the way I think of myself, to relationships with others and my long- and short-term goals and aspirations. For the next post, I’ll delve a little deeper into the classic story structure. I’ll also consider why it makes such a fitting and meaningful template for life.
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