Shape-Shifting Your Story

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I have an invitation for you.  But, first…

Whether we realize it or not, our lives revolve around stories and have done so since our cave painting days.

Picture it: Cave peeps hunkered down around a blazing fire situated in the middle of the dirt floor, gesticulating wildly about the day’s hunt while gnawing on cave lion drumsticks and wiping their greasy fingers on their loincloths.  The Shaman crouches alone in the corner capturing the story with images on the cave wall.

We are a people who exists by story.

I believe that story is everything. I believe that story shapes us – our past, our present and our future. I believe that story is integral to every aspect of our lives and there isn’t a moment in “time” when we’re not telling story. We relate to others through their stories as well.

Even our present thought in this moment is a story that we’re telling ourselves, albeit a short one. Perhaps back 30,000 years ago or so, one cave boy’s story was, “Me be trampled by mammoth if I leave my furs.” Was he a bit of an agoraphobe? Yes. Did the other cave kids sprinkle guano in his gruel when he wasn’t looking? Probably. Was he telling himself a story? Absolutely. Was it true? Likely not. 

The story you tell can make or break you and it determines the course of your life, as well as your level of happiness or unhappiness, as the case may be.

The Stories of Our Past:

We are constantly retelling our past stories – whether to ourselves, to those we’ve just met, or to those who’ve experienced them with us (or… to those who’ve already heard them a hundred times before.) Oftentimes, they morph into something that may not even be real. I once had a step-dad who was a tad warped. When I was in 7th grade or so I brought my report card home – all A’s and one B. I was so proud that the miniature frogs on my white turtleneck sleeve were all a blur from my frantically waving it through the air in front of him. His reaction wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated and he scoffed and berated me for that lone B. From that morning forward, he would grab up our vinyl soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz and play “If I Only Had a Brain”, on repeat,  until I left for school. Suffice it to say, I worked REALLY hard in school and still I felt dumb. I worried my grades like a starving cave bear must have worried a hive full of honey back in the day. And for many, many years I told that story to anyone who would listen. Fast forward thirty years to a pizzeria when I met my ex step-dad for dinner with the rest of the family. About ten minutes into our grub, he proceeded to tell the folks at the table how whip smart I was as a kid and what good grades I received. I sat there flabbergasted and choking on my slice of pepperoni pie. What different stories each of us told, though we had lived in the same time and space together. I’m sure you can imagine my shock in realizing that the story I’d been telling for the past thirty-odd years was a myth. While I had gotten over that experience many years before through deep forgiveness work and twisting it toward the positive ( hey, I was nominated for Valedictorian at the age of forty due to my tenacity, which I firmly believe was gained from this experience ), it shaped my reality for a long time in ways I wasn’t even aware of. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s brilliant words, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

If we become stuck in that painful story of our past we suffer and that is made manifest through troubles in our relationships, our health, our finances, our mental well-being and… Every. Other. Area. Of our lives. It colors the world around us and it most definitely shapes our current reality.

The Stories of Our Present:

There are a couple different present stories that we tell. Certainly we relay story when someone asks, “How was your day?” or when we describe our loathsome trip to the DMV where we had to sacrifice our first born to renew our driver’s license. But we also tell stories of our present through our thoughts. Our thoughts are simply a microcosm of story. Mini-stories, if you will. No so long ago I was running the story, “I’m never going to meet friends like me in Utah.” I played that story like Pa Ingalls played his fiddle = often, in the dark of the night, and to the rousing applause and rhythmic feet-stomping of my inner critic. And for three years I sat in my beautiful house every evening, eating buttered noodles and asparagus and watching, you guessed it, Little House on the Prairie. It took me rewriting my story, leaving the noodles and getting out of the  house before I did indeed meet some very like-minded, lovely people here – folks that have become dear to me.

The Stories of Our Future:

We tell stories of our future too and these are often told through our imagination, daydreaming, and… the ever-evil future-tripping. The stories we tell of our future can be told in only two ways: through the filter of love or through the filter of fear. I have such a vibrant story written in my head about when the first novel of my trilogy is published.

A synopsis: My publisher brings me to New York and I go down to the newsstand the morning of my book’s release and there is a raving review in the New York Times. Within weeks the book hits #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction and stays there for forty-two weeks. It quickly becomes an international bestseller and the foreign rights sell like hotcakes. My second and third book come out within two years and are even more successful than the first. Millions of dollars flow to me from book deals and Guillermo del Toro reaches out about making a movie. Philip Pullman invites me to tea to discuss the work and we get into an in depth philosophical conversation about writing, the role of religion and the history of story. YUM!

Future stories can be so luscious, so expansive, and so full of joy that they make your toes curl.

Or they can feel absolutely dreadful…

When we choose to tell future stories from a place of fear we experience the opposite of joy and we often feel extreme anxiety as we tell them. In fact, I believe anxiety disorders are, in part, a future story set on repeat that includes doom and devastation and we’re playing the star role in the impending catastrophe. Let’s say I am telling a story about tornadoes. Mainly that I will die every time a strong gust comes. Each time the wind blows I am miles into the future picturing my home swooped up in a funnel, less elegantly than Dorothy’s, for sure. My mind quickly spirals into a horror story where I am maimed and pulled fifty thousand feet into the air and dropped. On a wooden picket fence. In Africa. Scary, no?

Can you feel the difference between these two future stories?

  • It’s super hard to get a book published traditionally these days. Writers definitely can’t quit their day jobs. Most writers suffer hundreds of rejections. The only chance I have is to self-publish and give copies to my five closest friends and my family members who are still walking this earth.
  • When I publish my memoir with Random House, I’m going to hit the New York Times bestseller list, win a Pulitzer and I will be offered multiple book deals.

Which story feels better to you? Do you notice what types of stories you’re typically telling? It takes but a moment on Facebook for me to tell what types of present and future stories my friends are telling. Those friends that are talking about how tired they are, how awful their day was, how miserable everything is, those are horror stories for sure. And, daily, there’s usually lots of evidence to support their stories.

And… we all have stories around money, around health, around relationships, around our work, etc… – past, present and future – and, unfortunately, we don’t often spend much time examining the stories we’re telling in each of these areas of our lives.

The Illusion of Time and Rewriting Your Story

But we can rewrite our story – past, present and future – at any time. I believe, like Albert Einstein, that time is an illusion. Einstein said that the “psychological origin of the concept of time… is undoubtedly associated with the fact of ‘calling to mind,’ as well as with the differentiation between sense experiences and the recollection of these.”‘ And, to boot, Einstein thought that, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”  Further, he said, “…for us physicists believe the separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” Bear with my here, lest you think I’m nuts. My theory is that time is an illusion because we can alter our past, present and future based on the stories we tell. Mix in deliberate creation too – if our thoughts are mini-stories informing our lives, if thoughts become things, as they say – then we can simply change our stories. THAT, for me, is what makes time an illusion or makes time malleable because we can change the past, present and future just based on the stories we tell about them. We can “call to mind” something different.

Stories can and do change. In fact, fables, myths, fairy tales, even ancient texts – all have changed in their retelling. Some were altered through translation error, while others were just flat out altered to fit the times. Still others have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, think of the fisherman’s famed story of how big his catch was and how it increases over time. Even the bible has changed as translations altered it and new authors contributed to the work hundreds of years later. As it is with our stories, we ourselves are translators and often we don’t quite know how to speak the language for our highest good or we just aren’t sure how to tell a better story of ourselves or we’re just flat out stuck in the old stories that no longer serve us.

The Call to Adventure

The words that you’ve just read are the culmination of the past eight months of my life, my heart and my soul. I’m officially launching my Story Shape Shifting & Memoir Writing Program today, so if you found yourself lit up and a bit tingly, please read my full invitation here. Perhaps you’ll join me in writing your memoir and rewriting your past, present and future stories in order to create a whole, happy and thriving next chapter.

6 replies
  1. Sheila Bergquist says:

    What an interesting article, Melanie. It makes me think a lot about my own stories, about how realistic some of them are. How I might have misinterpreted events and ended up with a story that was so different from the original. Your writing is always thought provoking and that’s what makes it so gifted.

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      Thank you, Sheila, I’m so happy to hear that it made you think about your own stories. It’s so key. I’ve missed hearing from you! Hope all is well. Now that I’ve finished noodling my program, I should be blogging a bit more regularly.

      xo
      Melanie

      Reply
  2. Monica Wilcox says:

    How interesting to hear your step-dad’s perspective since I was around to participate in that part of your story.

    This post is deeply, deeply true!!

    Loving you in the past, present and future,

    Mo

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      Thank you, love. You know, that’s what I feel most strongly about. These are deep beliefs for me, it’s my truth.

      And yes… that was his version of the story. Crazy, eh?

      I love you past, present and future too.

      xo
      Melanie

      Reply

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