Life is messy. Sometimes it’s really fucking messy. Life isn’t a series of stories that dovetail neatly into each other to create a perfect “hero’s journey”. It’s a vast and endless jumble of highs, lows and tedium, with no clear outcome or resolution. The stories you tell about yourself and your life are contrived—an attempt to make narrative sense of the chaos of reality.
“When you are in the middle of a story it 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 powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Storytelling is an artificial process. Selecting the parts of your experience that align with the point you want to make or the image of yourself you want to present. Rejecting the moments and personal insights that undermine or distract from your preferred narrative.
Yeah, I know. I’m making storytelling sound like some kind of exercise in self-propaganda. It kind of is. But we all do it. Everyone.
You are your own mini-propaganda machine, constructing and presenting a tidied-up version of yourself to the world. A version that gives you the best chance of forming those all-important human connections.
Notice that last bit? The connection part?
A well-intentioned story does not need to mimic the Newspeak, agitprop, deliberate disinformation misuse of the narrative technique so familiar in the political realm.
It is the intention that matters. The intention to connect.
Heros like us
You are a meaning and connection-seeking creature. You’re human. It comes with the territory. And like all humans, you respond to and use stories as a route to connection. The link between storytelling and connection is the result of biological human processes. When you hear the beginning, middle and end of a story, your brain releases hormones that trigger the ability to connect, empathise and make meaning.
But sometimes, your attempts to make sense of your own life history can end up oversimplifying yourself to the point of caricature. You may miss a chance to connect in an attempt to be tidy, or to present only the best of yourself.
Connection doesn’t come from adopting and sharing anecdotes that help you fit into a socially acceptable norm. Or that present you as some messianic embodiment of perfection who has everything figured out.
No one cares about heroes who are perfect. They may envy them. They may want to be them. But they don’t really like them. They don’t want to have a cup of tea and share a confidence with them.
We connect with heroes who are imperfect—who struggle and fail.
Heroes like us.
Of course, we all want the redemptive ending where our hero finds the courage to push through their own personal hell and reaches their reward. But we only care about that ending when we care about the hero. When we have shared their struggle and their journey.
We want heroes we can believe in—who are as fallible and flawed as we know ourselves to be. Maybe more so. Heroes who overcome adversity to achieve their reward despite being—or maybe because they are—just like us.
Reward that comes too easily is a turn-off. Flawless heroes are intimidating, not inspiring. The endings we crave give us hope that we too can find great reward if we find courage to face our imperfections, embrace our fears and work through the crappy parts of life.
And you don’t have to have survived alcoholism, cancer, abuse or war to have struggled. It’s not the scale of the struggle or the imperfection that matters, it’s the honesty and vulnerability with which you explore and tell us about your own, very personal, challenges and battles.
You can’t bypass the mess
So many “transformation” stories fail to connect because they skip from chaos to revelation with barely a pause to acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears involved in the in-between.
From a life that was sheer hell to:
“Look at how awesome I am now! All I had to do was:
change my mindset …
let go of the past …ask for help
forgive my mother …
Well, whoop-di-freakin’-do. ALL you had to do, huh?
A story that goes from problem to solution without revealing the how, is not a story. It’s an anecdote. At worst, it’s a boast. It fails as a story because it fails to connect. It glosses over the sheer fucking hard work that goes into wading through the messy middle to reach the transformation.
“The middle is messy but it’s also where the magic happens.”― Brené Brown “Rising Strong”
You can’t go around the mess. You can’t skip over it. You have to go through it. And when it comes to telling your story, you have to share the sheer bloody-awfulness of it for the redemption to mean anything.
In the standard three-act storytelling structure, the messy middle is Act 2.
- In the first act, characters and established rules are set. Then you’re presented with a problem, or “called to adventure”.
- In the second act, you look for easy, familiar ways to resolve the problem, but find yourself in increasingly sticky situations as a result. Eventually, you learn what it really takes to get through the mess.
- By the third and final act, you’ve learned the lesson, know what to do to move forward and are fundamentally changed by the process.
You can’t get to your resolution without going through Act 2.
The mess is the story
Story telling is a process. A process that begins with a tangle of scrappy memories, wanders through a land of imagination curiosity and meaning-making and ends in a clear narrative with a clear purpose.
Like any creative undertaking, it is necessarily messy.
You’ll get lost. You’ll forget why you’re doing it and get frustrated. You’ll get distracted, spend three days organising old photo albums, buying just the right kind of sticky tape to repair torn pages, and wondering what the hell happened to the last ten years of your life.
Don’t allow the mess to paralyse you. Keep wading through it. Some kind of sense will emerge.
There is a kind of joy in being lost. Explore it. Wallow in it.
And remember—the mess is the story.
Untangling the mess
Here’re a few suggestions to help you, if not untangle the mess of life, at least find a way to make narrative use of it.
- Be prepared to get totally lost before before you find a way through. Enjoy the mess. Revel in it. Roll around and get properly mucky and covered in crap. Then take a shower, go for a walk, write or journal your way through it and capture all the emotions, memories and ideas that have emerged.
- Remember, the story is in the messy middle. Get down and dirty. Be vulnerable. People want to know not just that you were changed, but how and why. What was your Act 2?
- Find your flaws. What do you instinctively want to hide about yourself? Bring that front and centre in your story and see how that changes the narrative. Refuse to polish your story. Throw grit over it. Write about the really shitty thing you did to a good friend. Scratch the lens of your camera. Don’t wear full make up in your interview. Forbid your editor to airbrush your wrinkles.
- Telling your story your way, however vulnerable you are. will not immediately connect with everyone. Decide who you want to hear this story and what you want to express to them. Not everyone wants or needs to hear every story. If you are practising vulnerability, be mindful of who you has “earned the right” to hear your story.
- Be aware of the limitations of your story. You can’t tell everything from an entire life in one narrative. Decide what is important and be prepared to let go of other ambitions. Or save them for another story.
How about you?
What aspect of detangling your story do you find most challenging? Where can I help?
Leave a comment below, or message me direct if you’re not ready to share publicly. And YES, I genuinely want to know, so I can serve you better and give you the tools you need to unlock and tell your story.