The Stories We Long to Tell

Last night, while sitting at the very pizza place that I wrote about here a few months ago, I read a story about a treasure ship that’s supposedly lost somewhere in the California desert. I chowed down on pizza after a long day spent in the Ozarks while Hank watched me through the windshield of my car and the front window of the restaurant, feeling quite sublime about the fact that I was back in Heber Springs some five months later after simply deciding I wanted to be here.

The author of the lost treasure piece quoted Joan Didion (who, you may or may not know, is my absolute favorite writer of all time ever), which made me happy. He then proceeded to misinterpret her meaning, but in a way that still resonated profoundly with me. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she writes in The White Album. Joan is talking more about the phenomenon of creating a mythology behind the unexplainable, but it works equally well in the context of the treasure hunt, where Alexander Nazaryan posits, “It may be a story about some masterpiece you’ve been nurturing for years, of selling a tech startup to Google, of raising a family in rural Vermont. It may be about a ship stranded in the desert.”
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Whether explaining the unexplainable or striving to create some future hope to cling to amidst a stagnantly contended present, stories are rather useful. As a writer, I am quite satisfied by this theory. It makes my work feel almost as worthwhile as carpentry or masonry, because we need stories to live just as surely as we need houses.

But I also was slapped in the face by his claim that we cling to stories of attainable dreams the same way we cling to stories of ships stranded in the desert. Not that the ship isn’t real, but it’s certainly harder to find than a life and a story that deeply satisfies our souls.

Of course, stories are a lovely place to live. Books help us escape to distant lands and dream big and learn what’s out there when we’re stuck in trying circumstances. And while not all of them can have—to borrow a term from my corporate copywriting career—an explicit call-to-action, they all plant seeds. And seeds help us to grow roots and grow towards the light. Growing towards the light requires action, which is oftentimes difficult and scary and less comfortable than routine. But gnawing unease accumulates into far more pain than the sharp and quick feeling of breaking the cycle and pulling out the splinters.

I said on Monday that next time I wrote, I’d be in a different city. Moments after posting that piece, I headed home and hurriedly, dutifully packed up my car with random things I thought I might need for a trip to the place that dances in my dreams like sirens over the stern of my own desert ghost ship. That night, Hank and I walked into a most glorious AirBnB in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Its silence was not daunting or maddening, it was peace and quiet embodied. We woke up early and hit a trail I’d wanted to hike the last two times I visited but never made it out to. Then we walked several miles through town before I finally let Hank nap while I mountain biked an area trail and met two of the friendliest cyclists I’ve ever chanced upon. Every car profusely yielded to me at street crossings, and my friends from Bentonville met me for another hours-long meal filled with great conversation and easy laughs. In short, it was perfect. And all it required was a bit of action and driving and reaching out.

In hindsight, I don’t even remember the effort, but I do remember the simple, blissful feeling of watching Hank blaze the trail ahead of me at Devil’s Den and how nice it was to just hop off my bike and stare out over the Ozarks in their subdued wintry glory. With fewer leaves to muffle sound and obstruct sightlines, woodpeckers working the pines echoed through the hills and distant peaks were visible through the bare branches. The story that I tell myself about the simple, profound bliss of the woods pales in comparison to its dusty, dappled-light reality. There’s no glowing aura or divine trumpets descending from the clouds, but there is the still, quiet knowledge that I’m right where I want and need to be. I don’t want to tell myself a story about the woods while sitting under fluorescent lights in a cubicle somewhere far away from them. We needn’t delude ourselves that our masterpieces are just a few months away, if only we keep biding time.

We simply need to live the same story that we’re telling. This requires patience and hard work, but sometimes it also requires hasty, confident action. My search for a dog dragged on for literally years, but my decision to adopt Hank took a matter of moments. And having him ride shotgun with me and snooze at my feet by the fire while I write this is a dream come true that I couldn’t have written with all the time and paper and coffee in the world. There was nothing preventing me from bringing him into my life than my own foot-dragging and toiling. There’s no telling what other stories aren’t being told because of inertia and brain fog and undue trust in the devils we know. So often, we say, “It’s not that easy.” But more often than we realize, it actually is.