Summer Chronicles # 7: We Are the Stories We Tell Ourselves

by on August 5, 2019 · 0 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

I had to find an old picture the other day, and I found myself flipping through decades of photos in boxes and on my computer.  Other than showing me, sometimes brutally, how much older I am now, I found that this exercise did much more than chip away at my vanity.

When we see images of ourselves in our childhoods, adolescence, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and on, it gives us a chance to consider how that thing we like to call “ME” is far more transient, indeed downright flimsy, than we sometimes like to think.

There I am kneeling for my park league baseball team picture in elementary school, sure that I might someday pitch in the major leagues (I didn’t make it past 7th grade).  That shot of my high school basketball team where I was wiser about my athletic prowess but most likely pining after that girl who would never have me (she was actually seeing one of the teachers).  Then there is the shot from a road trip in my twenties, drinking whiskey from the bottle while sitting in a windowsill of an old hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota, long hair down, shirt off, not-giving a shit (I miss those days).

Then there are the family members who’ve died, the friends I’ve lost track of, old lovers, and people I can’t even remember.  Pictures of me giving speeches at protests, teaching classes or giving talks, reading at a bookstore from one of my novels.  My early fatherhood, my siblings and me as kids and as adults.  Posing with old professors and students I taught.

Snapshots with smiling politicians from governors to city council people to board members—some good, some not so much.  Photos of me with people I admire: Dolores Huerta, Bill McKibben, Mike Davis, Thomas Frank, Oakley Hall, Amiri Baraka, and many others still.

Looking over this life of mine, it appears I have been a lot of selves: young athlete, reveler chasing the ecstatic, lover, husband, father, student, professor, activist, leader, follower, author, fan, somebody trying to get in the picture, somebody trying to get the fuck out of it.  In my eyes I see joy, deadness, pride, worry, shame, anger, despair, innocence, wonder, ennui, and curiosity.

Sometimes I am earnest and other times I’m faking it.

What to make of this other than the fact that we change and evolve as human beings over the years?  Is there a lesson about identity to be learned from this kind of cursory survey of “your life in pictures”?

If anything stood out to me as I looked over my life to this point, it was that none of the roles I was occupying in those pictures seemed to be what I would think of as “my real self.”  This, of course, begs the question as to what, if anything, that “real self” is, and, to be honest, I can’t really tell you if I believe there is anything solid, any fixed “ME” there.

In some ways, all the roles we play are authentic only in that they are, if we are really engaged, true to the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves at that time.  But after that fleeting snapshot of the flux of our lives is over, we are on to the next version of ourselves.  By this measure, we are all beautiful liars, or, to put it more kindly, authors of our own constantly changing narratives.

Holding on to a set version of ourselves is, in truth, impossible, and trying to do so will surely make us suffer—not that knowing this will make us stop the futile endeavor.  Whatever wisdom I may have to offer on this point is limited, but I think I can tell you this: we are the stories we tell ourselves, actors in our own starring roles.

Perhaps the best approach to dealing with this uncomfortable fact is to forgive yourself your follies, be kind to your fellow narrators, and have as much fun as you can while the story lasts.

By the way, I never found the picture.


In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil.  As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes.  The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.” 

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.”  As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.”  It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt. 

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe.  Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector.  So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.” 

Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form. 






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