Your life is not a work of fiction. For good and for ill, it is far more real than that. But your life is also not simply a string of facts or a bare chain of cause-and-effect events. It has more depth and bears more meaning than that. YOU have more depth and bear more meaning than that.
In addition to being a living, breathing, seeing, touching, feeling human being, you are also a work of creative nonfiction. You are a true story–or, better, a set of stories made flesh. I don’t just mean that you have stories to tell (though that’s true, too). I mean that, in a significant sense, the stories you tell become part of who you are–especially the stories you tell yourself about yourself.
To see what I mean, imagine a little girl and a little boy. The little girl wants to be the next Alex Morgan, so she runs and kicks a soccer ball over and over again, pretending that she’s winning the World Cup. Along the way, she begins to develop quick feet, keen balance, and cardiovascular endurance. The little boy, meanwhile, wants to be the next Steph Curry. He bounces every ball he sees and shoots at every basket he passes–including the wastebasket–and so builds the muscles, tendons, behavioral traits, and synaptic connections that underlie layups, jump shots, bounce passes, etc.
Both children effectively forge themselves into athletes through make believe reinforced by practice. They may never wind up on Wheaties boxes, but pretending (and practicing) helps make them who they become. The stories they tell themselves begin to show up within them as muscles and movements and mental constructs.
The same is true for adults, if a bit less obviously. Consider the case of writers (like me). “Writers write,” as someone long ago said. And by repeating that simple act, day after day, they develop skill with words. In effect, and sometimes quite explicitly, they pretend to be Shakespeares or Stephen Kings or J.K. Rowlings, and in so doing they shape themselves into poets or playwrights or novelists. They build the muscles, both literal and figurative, required for word work.
And they’re hardly alone in so shaping themselves. To some extent, we all do this all the time–pretend to be people who are more than, or different from, the people we actually are. We “fake it till we make it,” as the saying goes. There’s usually nothing wrong with this: as long as we aren’t delusional, pretending to be more than we are at any given moment enables us to keep growing, especially if we’re willing to work to flesh out our fantasies.
More often, the trouble comes when we stop pretending–or, at any rate, when we stop pretending to be anything interesting. It’s easy to let this happen as an adult, or even as a teenager. We get caught up in social systems, at work or at school or elsewhere, that begin to limit both what we imagine ourselves to be and, crucially, what we practice toward becoming. Such systems subtly convince us to stop pretending to be anything other than the woman who always chases the next promotion or the man who only wants to make the most money–as opposed to, say, the mom who loves her kids and her choir as much as her work, or the dad who wants to blog and coach the soccer team.
We lose sight of the complex, compelling, flawed-but-fighting characters we actually want to be and allow society to prod us into prefabricated, simplistic roles.
There is a profound tragedy in this.
After all, while life winds up teaching most of us that our grander dreams won’t come true, it nevertheless keeps giving us chances to create better versions of ourselves. Most of us will never be the next Alex Morgan, no matter how many balls we kick. Nor are we likely to become the next J.K. Rowling, no matter how many words we write. But each of us can be a better athlete, and any of us can decide to write a novel.
Doing so requires that we continue to make believe and make ourselves accordingly. It requires that we keep working to turn ourselves into the compelling central characters in our own life stories.
Of course, as any writer can tell you, creating compelling central characters is tough. But in this case, it’s a matter of life and … well, truly living.
I love you (no fakin’),