I am a story teller.
I weave words with images, tuck them into neat little squares on a grid. These are the stories I share with the world. You have these too. I see them when I scroll, following the different chapters of your life. Say what you will about the internet, if nothing else it provides us with a library of beautiful stories in which we can participate. Social media makes story tellers out of us all.
Then there are other stories, the ones we keep to ourselves.
I wrote a really great one like this recently.
The details of the beginning are a bit fuzzy, but I’m sure there were great shows of whining and much yelling involved. I played the main character, your classic woeful mother of three. Beaten down by the long days of summer, typical neediness of small children taking center stage, the mom was tired of playing the role of the bad guy. It was time for a shift in the plot line. “You know what this story needs?” I thought. An adventure. One where the mom comes out the hero and the supporting characters the delighted, grateful, and fun living children. That is exactly the plot twist needed to shake up the summer blues.
So I wrote a new chapter. In this scene the mom and the children were going to do something exceptionally cool. The mini van would be packed up with all the fun snacks the “other” mom would NEVER buy. They would karaoke to loud music, roll down the windows, and cruise around town on a mission. The mission? Finding all the best murals in town for Instagram-worthy fame. Costumes and props would be on hand. Everyone would be laughing. They would take lots of great photos with perfect lighting, ones that capture their joy to cherish for years to come. And when she tucked her children in to bed at the end of the day, their drowsy little voices would whisper, “Thanks mom. That was so much fun!”
This was the story I was going to tell you today. I was going to tell you how the mom found her inner child. I was going to show you how a little creativity can make a simple afternoon activity into an adventure. And when I shared this story with you, you would be inspired to try it too.
Or I would have shared this with you, if it had gone according to plan.
The dramatic irony is fully evident here. Anyone with children will tell you they are the WORST at staying on script. But for the sake of good story telling, let’s continue on with “the rest of the story.”
Where did we leave off? Oh yes. Mom gets big idea. Tells kids she has a “SUPER FUN SURPRISE” planned. They are thinking Disney-level surprise. She tells them they are going to take pictures by murals around the city. The look of disappointment on their faces is loud. Mom tries a different direction. “We’re going to skip swim lessons to do this!” Oldest child cries because the rule follower in her can’t fathom skipping anything.
This is off to a good start, thinks Mom. But she stays strong. Time to up the ante.
“We’re going to get really yummy snacks!” You can’t go wrong with snacks. Well played, Mom.
“Like cotton candy?!” Asks the four year old.
“Nooo…like maybe potato chips.” The mom is desperate. “And gummy worms?”
“Ok.” A robot could have expressed more emotion.
Stay hopeful, mom. Remember, you are the cool one in this story. The hero. Carry on.
They load up the car. Mom turns on the music. Queen is crooning through the speakers. Perfect! She couldn’t have written this any better if she tried (and remember she tried.) Who doesn’t love to belt out the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody?!”
The children, apparently, that is who.
“Ugh. No. Can we listen to kid music?” Even the description of their preferred tunes is boring.
Fine, whatever. As long as they are happy.
“No, not that one, I want the other one.”
“NOOOOO! I want this one!”
“You always pick this one. It’s my turn!”
“No it’s not!”
The high jinx continues from there. Whining about not getting enough gummy worms and then fighting over whose sunglasses are whose. Getting lost and dodging rain drops. You get the idea. It’s not going well. The adventure. The cool mom hero. The happy, fun-loving children. None of it is happening as written.
It’s time to end this story, she thinks. “Let’s go home.” No one argues, for once.
The End, I guess.
Does this happen to you?
Do you write your stories before they even happen, disguised as hopeful optimism but ultimately leading to dashed expectations?
Perhaps it is a symptom of being a writer. Nonetheless, I visualize my days through a lens of a story, how it will look when I share it with others, the joy I’ll feel when I reminisce years later.
But this method of writing a story ahead of its time is risky. What if the story changes? What if the characters don’t follow the script as written? What happens if the plot twist is not at all the one predicted?
This disappointment is far too familiar to me. Here is where another type of story telling begins, those of more cautionary tale than of fantasy.
On the drive home, with the chorus of characters silent in the back seat, the mom sits in her frustration examining their failed adventure. So much for a good story to tell, she thinks to herself. Another waste of an afternoon. I never get this right. That was miserable. No one had any fun. I don’t know why I even try.
The End, yet again.
These stories are the most damaging of all. So caught up in our disappointment, we tell ourselves a story about our days and it is a not a happy one. We bounce from one difficult scene to the next determining the doom of the characters. And we wrap up the last chapter as quickly as we can to move on to the next.
But story telling doesn’t have to be this way. What if we wrote a different narrative? Let us not forget, in all good stories, the words you read in the final cut are never the whole story. Every good editor understands how to find the details that matter, that carry the story, that settle into the reader’s heart. It is those details that stay, that give the story life and depth and meaning.
Let’s try again, one last time, to tell a different story of that day.
Later in the evening, after the children were tucked away in their beds (without whispers of gratitude as first predicted, naturally) the mom finds herself scrolling through the images on her phone, more out of mindless decompression than anything. A few catch her eye. The open mouthed smiles on their faces caught in mid-laugh that came from some ridiculous thing said to get their attention. That pose he stuck when he pointed the sword right at the camera, as if an invitation to join him in a great imaginative battle. The way the girl spreads her arms, butterfly wings open wide, toe pointed gracefully, just like the dramatic dancer she is. Each picture she stopped to examine started to reveal a different story. It wasn’t the fairy tale she first wrote, but that’s because this story was real. She could see it in their faces. They were having fun. You can’t fake that.
And then she stops, the final image, one she remembers snapping right at the last second when their baby brother was getting fussy and needed a distraction. They are huddled together, small, happy, loving. The way she knows she always wants to remember them. In just one image, she sees the story she was desperately seeking in these exhausting days.
They are happy. They are loved. This WAS a good day.
The end. For real this time.
This is how we should tell our stories. This is why we have the adventure. Not so it can tell some perfect story we make up in our head, and not even so we will remember every painful exhausting detail of our days. We tell these stories through snapshots, images, tiny squares on a screen because it is these moments that matter. It is these stories that carry us through the daily challenges and mundane expectations. It is these stories we choose to remember and tell again and again because they are real and they are beautiful. And they are all that matter.
This is the story I leave you with today. It took me a few drafts. But the final edit brings me a lot of joy.
And for what it’s worth, this mural photo adventure WAS a lot of fun. You should give it a try. Just maybe try to let the story write itself, ok?