Inventing our own narrative

Everyday we reinvent our story. Living is choosing in the flow of moments. The stories come later. What’s your next one?

Life tells you things in small tumbling coincidences. I stumbled across Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield this week looking for a film. I love his work and the cast led by Dev Patel was exceptional so I dove in. The film brought me great joy in particular the portrayal, by Peter Capaldi, of Mr Micawber. Why? I once played Mr Micawber in a school production foundering every performance over my efforts to repeat Micawber’s sound advice:

‘Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 [pounds] 19 [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery.

While you’d think that advice would be seared into memory, to this day I look it up. I noted it was omitted from the film. I’d have been better to remember it. I’ve risen and fallen like the tide on my ability to follow that advice throughout my life.

Flowing on from the film, I discovered a wonderful New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman about the lives we did not lead. That article includes the quote:

Part of the work of being a modern person seems to be dreaming of alternate lives in which you don’t have to dream of alternate lives.

The article does not quote David Copperfield as one of its many literary sources, but the Copperfield story draws heavily on Dicken’s reinvention of his own life. I followed that idea to the Wikipedia page for David Copperfield where I found a discussion of autobiography and this gem:

It consists of splitting one’s life into parts, choosing decisive phases, identifying an evolution and endowing them with a direction and then a meaning, whereas, from day to day, existence has been lived as a cluster of shapeless perceptions requiring an immediate adaptation

Wikipedia discussion

The greatest master of this adaptation must be Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who constructed a great diversity of his heteronyms to expressed himself. These diverse identities had unique styles and even their own biographies enabling Pessoa to live multiple lives without leaving his desk. I keep Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet to dip into when in need of provocation.

From that insight, I flowed into Wang Wei‘s Blue Green Stream (trans. Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell)

Every time I have started for the Yellow Flower River,
I have gone down the Blue-Green Stream,
Following the hills, making ten thousand turnings,
We go along rapidly, but advance scarcely one hundred li.
We are in the midst of a noise of water,
Of the confused and mingled sounds of water broken by stones,
And in the deep darkness of pine trees.
Rocked, rocked,
Moving on and on,
We float past water-chestnuts
Into a still clearness reflecting reeds and rushes.
My heart is clean and white as silk; it has already achieved Peace;
It is smooth as the placid river.
I love to stay here, curled up on the rocks,
Dropping my fish-line forever.

I even imagined a lazy trip by ferry across the Bosphorus crossing between East and West with apple tea and pastries. I’ve never been to Istanbul other than in the pages of Orhan Pahmuk’s novels.

Our lives are stories constructed from fact and fiction after the fact to justify what we did last and what do next. We pick the story to suit our needs and we change it. In the rushing flow of each moment one after another we make the decisions we make and we live accordingly. The meaning arrives if we go on living perhaps inspired by Mr Micawber’s optimism that ‘something will turn up’ (even when it often doesn’t).

The experience of the weekend perhaps is best summed up by another quote from the New Yorker article:

Like facets in a jewel, such moments seem to put our lives into prismatic relief. They make us feel the precariousness and the specificity of the way things are.

Joshua Rothman

But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

-Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise


Or more elegantly

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