Shaped By Stories

In Marshall Gregory’s book, Shaped By Stories: The ethical power of narratives, his premise is that we live lives saturated with stories, many of which we fail to recognize as stories at all. Yet, the effect of those stories is powerful and cumulative, having an influence on the kind of people we turn out to be. I spend most of my days with stories one way or another, mostly of the straightforward book-ish variety. So I thought I would look out for the more hidden stories, and see whether I could tease out what they meant – what purpose they had, what they challenged and what they supported.

– Late at night when I’m tired and want to go to bed, that’s when my son comes alive and sparky. Mostly this is because he has never quite grown out of the desire to postpone going to sleep, and in particular to put off cleaning his teeth, which he detests. The other night I was already cleaning mine when he came up to bed. When he saw me, he yelped, ran away and then returned moments later, having paid a visit to his shelf of treasures. In his hand he held a miniature, ten-inch long sabre. ‘I’ve come to defend you from the troublesome beastie that’s attacking you!’ he declared. I replied, ‘Your loyalty is appreciated even if misguided.’ And he had a lovely time discovering that a swift upper cut with his mini-sword could send a toothbrush hurtling out of the jug in a series of somersaults, to land with satisfactory clunk in the bath. In return I told him about the time when, still a baby, he hurled a seashell into his grandparent’s bath and managed to puncture it. So that the next time I was in it, water began trickling down the dining room walls. He was torn between amusement, disbelief and some disquiet that the bath had had to be replaced. Surely a puncture repair kit would have sufficed? Surely the hole could have been plugged? In this way we had a surreptitious conversation by subtext. He protested the need to clean his teeth, I advised him to take responsibility for his actions, and he toyed with the idea of having an impact on the world, finding it both attractive and alarming. And we did this without ever once articulating the issues.

– On the radio as we were getting up this morning, a commentator was discussing Barack Obama and the recent fall in his popularity rating. He was suggesting that it was only ever a matter of time before authority figures disappoint us because of our tendency to put so much faith in them. He said Obama had had heavier expectations placed on his shoulders than any politician in living memory, and that the current criticism was more about those expectations than about the reality of the political situation. Expectations are intriguing, I think. They are pre-recorded stories, fantasies that we stubbornly believe ought to be real, narratives whose outcomes we have already decided in advance. We then impose them on reality, demanding that reality conform to our pre-decided plotline. The higher the expectations we place on people, the more inevitable we make it that they will disappoint us. And no matter that we know in some part of us that expectations have no real correlation to the future, we still resent others if they don’t live up to them. The real story is the story of the expectations themselves – they contain much that is precious to our hopes and dreams, and provide a map to our emotional investments.

– At lunchtime I was reading the Times Higher Educational Supplement online, something I rarely do because the comments are so painful. It was a story about funding for PhDs, and the suggestion coming from a lobbying group that government money should be concentrated in the most research-intensive universities (the rich get richer, the poor get poorer vs. the benefits of centralising resources, in other words). It was mainly a story about the outrage that this proposal had incited, and the comments were saturated with cynicism, despair, hostility and a kind of weary superiority. All these commenters were attached to universities and ought to have been trained to think, to untangle arguments, and to take a step back, to consider what response the story was designed to provoke. But when self-interest is at stake, it’s evident that analysis goes out the window, to be replaced by prejudice and conspiracy theories. I heard different stories behind those comments – stories of people who had strived to gain their status and didn’t want it damaged, people who had passions they longed to follow, even though they were not fashionable, lots of chips on shoulders, from previous rejections, much fear about the implications of ‘a self-proclaimed elite’. Who is allowed knowledge, authority, money to pursue their ideas? Much is at stake, but most of it was expressed through profound emotional responses, dressed up as analytic responses. Beyond all of this, I felt I could see a different issue: the disturbing, underlying story that intellectual research is no longer valued in our culture, and is being steadily undermined and reduced by the government. I felt the commenters should have united to address this problem, rather than allowing the cunning article with its provocative message to set them against each other.

– Yesterday afternoon I was talking to a student who is recovering from post-viral fatigue. It sounded like a terrible illness; his heart (and he was a very fit young man who ran marathons) slowed to a third of its rate, giving him awful symptoms of collapse. The after effects had been tenacious. He spoke about the difficulty of getting to sleep at night, suddenly finding himself lurching awake, terrified of dying, every time he reached the point of losing consciousness. It could take him up to three hours to fall asleep. In the course of chatting about this, he recalled the first time he fell seriously and unexpectedly ill, ending up in the accident and emergency ward of a hospital in Harlow. It sounded horrific. He was in a ward overnight with three other men, staffed by nurses who were profoundly indifferent to their suffering. One man died in the middle of the night. The elderly man beside him soiled himself three times, ignored by the nurses and then scolded by them when they found him unclean. My student was attached to a heart monitor that set off an alarm every time his heart rate fell below 45 beats per minute. Of course it was doing this all the time, but no nurses came to check on him, and he wondered how low it would have to fall before anyone became concerned. Instead he struggled to keep himself awake and hyped up, to raise his heartbeat and stop triggering the machine.

And as he told me this, so the synapses fired in his brain and with a look of astonishment in his eyes he said to me, ‘That’s it. Do you think that could be it? The source of the trauma?’ Having described his difficulty falling asleep and then described the horrors of the A & E ward, he could see the analogies between them. We spoke more about the situation in the hospital, about how terrified and vulnerable he must have felt, in a place where he ought to have been assured care and security. How he had prevented himself from relaxing in any way, doing his best to control what was out of control. I felt almost privileged to be there with him while he dug this underlying story out and got in touch with its buried emotions. He sent me an email later – he felt so much better, understanding the cause of his persistent anxiety. And we could never have done it without the telling of stories, without their ability to give shape and form to the places where confusion and fear languish, unexplored and untamed.

This was the result from only a couple of days of paying attention. I’m interested to see where this book goes next. Now we have the stories – what will we be invited to think about them?

25 thoughts on “Shaped By Stories

  1. I so loved this post. What an interesting angle from which to view our lives and what’s happening around us. Hope I can be as aware of the stories around me as you’ve been. Great job.

  2. What a beautiful post.

    Recently, I watched a beautiful lecture online – on a somewhat related topic about the power of stories: how our image of a person is shaped (or misled) by the stories we are told about them, about the narrow-mindedness of allowing/telling/listening to a single story only.

  3. This sounds like a wonderful book, on just the subject that I am most fascinated with recently. I also find your response to the book wonderful – such awareness of what is going on around you, narratively speaking. I will look forward to you talking about this one again as you get further into it.

  4. I am fascinated by this concept – the stories we tell without noticing, and the powerful effects they have on our lives. I think it’s so, so cool when you can connect the dots of someone’s life (as with your student and his trauma in the A&E) to make a coherent story. Maybe this is why I like dystopian fiction so much: I love to see the new stories that provide the basis of the characters’ lives.

  5. This post was fascinating, Litlove–just to see several very different ways stories wove themselves into your observations and interactions in a short period. I’d like to think more about that. I notice in myself the way I constantly tell myself little stories about how things will turn out or that contextualize what I’m doing…for better or worse.

  6. Like others, LL, I find the exercise that resulted in this post intriguing. A wonderful range of stories, too, and I personally like the way these stories reveal as much about you as they do about the ostensible main subjects. You’re so right about expectations being pre-written stories, and the extent to which we are aggrieved when people fail to meet them says a lot, I think, about the deep primal importance of story in all our lives – there’s nothing worse than when a perfectly good narrative falls right off the deep end.

  7. This is one more thread along with the use of myth and history stories which define peoples, religions, and nations, but is also part of the private sphere of our lives. When I think of myself I find I often return to versions of the past, incidents in my life. It doesn’t perhaps matter whether these events are seen accurately, indeed they probably cannot be as they are overlaid with all that has happened since and where I think I am now. I think novels, etc., play a similar role as possible events involving people not fundamentally unlike ourselves. If I think a character wise it probably reinforces or adjusts my concept of being wise and what it is wise to do in a situation, although it may all happen subconsciously. I think your unpicking of how this is going on a lot of the time brings out that aspect of our stories and stories in general in a thought stirring way.

  8. This book sounds fascinating and the stories you shared are great. Your son is a hoot and the student, what a profound discovery you helped him make. We are all storytellers, aren’t we? We are always telling ourselves stories about ourselves and our experiences and continually revising our personal stories. We are so close to it all that we hardly ever notice unless something doesn’t fit the narrative. It’s fun to step back now and again to “read” all the stories. Great post, as ever!

  9. I loved the story about your interaction with your son. The tub incident is oh-so-something that would have happened at my house. The book itself sounds engrossing. We do, after all, have a story that needs telling.

  10. I think about this idea alot, especially how it relates to the narratives we create for ourselves – what we choose to tell, what we keep hidden – and how we use narratives to create our identity. I am also interested in how we use the idea to manage illness, to work our way through them or, perhaps, not. Great post!

  11. I also think the relation between religion and stories is really interesting – esp. with regards to Calvin’s theory of predestination, a wheel that we’re all bound to, versus self-determined progress through life.

    I’ve actually been thinking about this in relation to ‘Disgrace’, which I’ve just read and plan to blog about. It strikes me that it could be read to be about being ‘de-graced’ – having one’s story (destiny, whatever) re-written, one’s position as protagonist undermined, and feeling totally helpless against the will of the implacable Author. It’s not by any means an explicitly religious book but I think this comes through.

    It’s amazing how often I find myself thinking about things in connection to the blogs I read. Must be v. impressionable; probably a disposable bit-part character. I’ll get killed off in the next scene. 😉

    • I located your blog when looking for literary references to ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I am an artist – currently working on my MFA in painting and am trying to tell “the story” of invisible illness through painting rather than words. I wonder if you have encountered any characters suffering from neurasthenia or “shattered nerves” in any of your reading experiences? I recently read The Pastors Wife by Elizabeth Von Armin and there is a character in her story – a Bishop’s Wife who has “found the sofa as other people find religion”. Unfortunately many of the misconceptions about ME found their roots in those early times (in this case Edwardian) as the book points out that she was not ill, just avoiding responsibility.

      I have a blog called “Living with Chronic Parvo Virus” – which is where my ME came from. I enjoy reading your posts and will continue. Best,
      Serena Potter

  12. Oh. I was thoroughly moved and provoked by this. Marshal Gregory’s book looks very interesting, and he looks like someone I should know about. Expensive book, I see, so I’m currently devouring the content of his website, and if it’s as fascinating as I hope I shall order the book.

    I love what you do with it as well. The stories are there in our lives without our noticing, of course – and those are the ones we really need to watch. But a lot depends too on how aware we are, how keen our eyes and ears – and indeed our hearts: your last story shows what a good listener you obviously are and how the quality of your presence and listening must have helped this student to access a deep and difficult part of his story.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how much someone like me, who is rather disastrous at living my life and fails at most measures of success, depends on art – on books and paintings and music and my own writing and photography – for survival, for life to have any value and meaning. I’m thinking of turning my blog into something that revolves loosely around this idea, with a quote from Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech as my inspiration: ” The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative”.

    Alongside this, your piece reminded me of the importance of considering the other side, sometimes the shadow side, of stories: how ‘our imaginations shape us’, yes, but also our unconscious; how much of social interaction is about stories that influence us unconsciously, magically but sometimes insidiously. So this was very timely for my current thinking.

  13. I love the idea of finding the stories in the everyday. What struck me, especially with regard to the last one, was how talking helped your student to find his story. It shows the value of therapy and also the value of friendship, in that when we sit down with our friends and tell them what is happening in our lives, we discover our narratives.

  14. pbd – thank you so much! 🙂 And welcome to the Reading Room – it’s lovely to have you stop by and comment.

    Chris – thank you – and what a great link! The lecture raises such interesting topics and I hope to have a chance to talk about them here later on.

    Melanie – it’s a subject dear to my heart too! So far, it’s been an accessible book with lots of interest to say, even if it is clearly written by an academic. And thank you for your kind comment – sometimes being able to switch off the noticing parts of my brain would be quite restful but they do have some advantages! 🙂

    Heather – thank you so much! I do appreciate that. And I’d love to know what you think of the book (check it out of the library if you can – it’s expensive to buy).

    Jenny – that’s an insightful link to make with dystopian fiction, which is all about magnifying underlying stories in our culture into huge narratives of conflict and concern. I hadn’t thought of it that way until your comment opened that up for me – thank you!

    Lilian – I think you do a lot of storytelling out of experience in your own blog. And I do exactly the same thing as you, constantly and consciously weaving those stories out of experience and seeing what things mean. I note that the stories change from day to day, which is intriguing too – and something else to think about!

    Doctordi – I once read this fantastic French book (and am gutted it doesn’t exist in translation) about these four screenplay writers who made up a crazy television drama series that got aired at 4 in the morning, so they could do whatever they liked so long as it was cheap. Of course it became cult viewing and got taken over by the corporation and by orthodox narratives, so to voice their displeasure they made up this awful anti-narrative ending to the last programme in the series – and get drummed out of town by furious viewers. It is so true that you mess with narrative at your own risk. 🙂

    Bookboxed – you are psychic – that is exactly where the book is going next, the use of stories to create ethical response, or to determine an individual’s ethos. I was hoping you might like this little journey into ethical criticism – it’s intriguing me at the moment!

    Stefanie – you are so right, my friend, we are always and continually interacting with stories, reading them, writing them, thinking about them. I just love having a delve around in that process – it’s so fundamental and so tricksy and very fascinating.

    Grad – I am so pleased to know that this could happen to someone else too! I did remind my son that he had only been about a year old at the time, and too young to have any idea what he was doing. But he’s reached a stage where he quite likes mini-narratives about himself and his development. You may imagine I also like to provide them. 🙂

  15. Courtney – I am just as interested as you in that topic of narratives around illness. You can imagine – after all these years suffering from a debilitating but invisible illness, the storytelling becomes all the more important. And this is just a small part of that work of identity creation. We think very alike here!

    thedervish – once again I love your reading here – that is a fascinating way to think about Disgrace (a book I have read a lot about without ever reading myself). And it’s interesting that you talk about religion. Marshall Gregory brings it up a lot because of his own upbringing with Christian fundamentalists (and you may imagine the stories that underpin such an upbringing…). I wonder whether anyone has written critically on the links between religion and storytelling – it seems a rich topic to me.

    Serenamuse – hello and welcome to the reading room – I’m always very glad to make the acquaintance of another chronic fatigue sufferer, and I have such sympathy with your artistic project. I would very much like to read the Elizabeth von Arnim book you mention. Wilkie Collins’ No Name comes to mind, as the character in that suffers a long ME-type illness and there must surely be lots of other novels that escape me. I’ll think about it – and come and visit your blog too.

    Jacob – what a lovely comment! Thank you so much.

    Jean – thank you for another wonderful comment. I love that quote from Doris Lessing – true and uplifting and something I must copy out and keep with me. I have always found the realm of stories to be a place where I can think anything, anything, and that’s always been a source of great liberation and enlightenment to me. That’s how I ended up teaching literature, I’m sure. I honestly think that we all deal with life ‘badly’ to some degree or another; it just depends on how much permission we give ourselves to make mistakes, have another go, fail better next time. And art is often a rehearsal for this too – a way of showing how things always fall apart, or get broken, without the chain of life ever suffering any permanent damage. You are quite right about the shadow side – the way that stories operate silently inside. Always challenge the voice of the superego, I once read, which is the place of those Ur-stories par excellence.

    Charlotte – Audiences don’t know the grace they bring, letting us tell them our stories. And the fact that other people reading our stories differently to the way we read them ourselves can be so illuminating. You’re so right – that’s what friends, and storytelling, are for.

  16. Like the others who commented here, I love the idea of paying attention to the stories that surround me. Perhaps I should pay attention to the stories that I tell, too, because I think of myself as someone who doesn’t tell stories well and couldn’t make up a story if I had to. Maybe in some ways I’m not a great storyteller, but obviously we all do it — probably much more than we realize!

  17. I never think about the real stories that our lives are built around. I like a book that makes you think about how to apply what it says to real life. I like how you are able to get underneath to find the deeper meaning. I wonder if reading helps figure these stories out and what happens to people who don’t read–are they missing something along the way?

  18. I’m very interested in the stories we tell ourselves (especially the narratives around illness) and the effect that they can have. Who said that all books are copies of other books (or all stories versions of other stories)? Maybe Orhan Pamuk quoting someone else. Anyway, great post and interesting stories. I find it interesting that people often try to avoid their own negative stories as far as possible (or put positive spins on them). Good to have a balance I suppose.

  19. Dear Litlove,

    I want to thank you for the two comments so far dealing with my book, SHAPED BY STORIES.

    I find your commentary intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, respectful, and illuminating. You really do have my main idea accurately worked out, and in an intellectually nuanced way at that. It doesn’t always happen, and I appreciate it.

    In case you are interested in part of my own story that is not included in STORIES, you might be interested in my most recent publication, an autobiographical essay, available for inspection at If you go to this url and click on Title, “Junk-Yard Ride,” my essay will come up. My story here is also about stories in general.

    Thank you again for the intelligent and interesting attention you are giving my book.

    Marshall Gregory
    Ice Professor of Education, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy
    Butler University

  20. Dorothy – I’ll bet you put together an anecdote from time to time – catch yourself next time you’re telling the Hobgoblin about something that happened in the faculty and see how you do it! It’s one of my favourite things to do – be attentive to how things are told, as well as what gets told, and how we tell different things to different people. I find that just endlessly fascinating.

    Danielle – I really do think that people who read get a heightened narrative sense – they become more aware of the possibilities of any particular story line and very adept at spotting the potential outline of a story in a real situation, or the range of emotional responses that are likely. This book is suggesting that reading has real, powerful effects on our characters, particularly with respect to emotional intelligence. So… well, yes, I do think that people who don’t read are likely to miss out on ‘reading’ in real life the depths of a situation.

    Pete – oh I am very interested indeed about the way people avoid their own negative stories, and I would post on it but am fearful of upsetting or alienating my audience! You mess with people’s PR at your peril, I find. You must come across it all the time in your line of work, though, and have to deal with it too.

    Marshall – wow, thank you! I’m honored that you dropped by and I’m very glad indeed that you have liked the posts so far. I hope you won’t mind if I continue working my way through your book, as it is on a topic very dear to my heart and one that I think we really need to consider in depth, and far more often than we do. Thank you also for the useful link – I will definitely come and read the article. I hope you’ll keep working on this area and writing more about it. Very best wishes to you!

    Lee – I’m sure you are quite right. I think I posted on narrative expectations a while back – it’s another topic that I’m very interested in as expectations are such odd, powerful and yet overlooked concepts.

  21. Pingback: More Reading and Rereading « So Many Books

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