Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative. As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.
When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.
There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).
History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.
When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.
I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.
Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.