Why do we tell the stories that we tell?
On the occasion of my wife’s birthday, we’re in Melbourne for the week. For the first time since COVID hit our shores, we find ourselves in the CBD with time on our hands.
Suze likes to spend hours poking around markets; I’d sooner stick wasps up my arse, frankly. Luckily, we’re accustomed to giving each other space to do our own thing, rather than approaching every outing as a joint activity.
Fear not: we also have a shared calendar of events with multiple highlights and points of interest and time spent with friends – those who haven’t contracted COVID in the last couple of days. I’m not leaving the poor woman entirely to her own devices on the august occasion of reaching three-score years and ten.
So anyway, this morning, Suze was buying music-themed socks at the Vicky Market (hey, it’s her birthday) and trying to work out the location and name of that pub she went to with the girls that one time that sells Belgian cherry beer: an absorbing task for a woman with scant sense of direction and a love of Kriek.
I took myself off to the Immigration Museum. For the first time in, oooh, probably 15 years.
The immediate aim was to get a better picture of 19th-century European immigration to Victoria for a story – which may or may not ever see the light of day.
Then I found myself drawn into the contemporary exhibits, especially a video project by a bunch of young foreign students, talking about why they came to Australia; how difficult but rewarding it was to leave home; how it can be tricky to make connection with Aussies; pressure of English-language tests; challenges of day-to-day living, etc.
The Immigration Museum offers rich inspiration for storytellers. It’s a whole museum of individual stories, unique perspectives. The entire second floor of the museum is currently devoted to an exploration of personal and group identity through a variety of interactive exhibits. One brilliant video installation is a multi-viewpoint account of a racist incident on a Melbourne tram.
In a roundabout way, the museum made me think more deeply about what I do as a writer. Because, if I had to define myself, my identity, ‘writer’ would be a salient word, and ‘storyteller’ would be another, along with ‘immigrant’.
The easy bit first:
As an educational writer, an author of English courses, I seek out interesting materials (writings and recordings) for students and their teachers to analyse and discuss. Some of them are personal stories; many of them are ‘bigger picture’ journalistic themes. I come up with (hopefully) challenging and diverse ways for students to assimilate the language from these materials in group and individual tasks, and express something of their own ideas, about things of significance to them, through the language that they have just learned.
‘My’ students may soon find themselves having to jump through the IELTS hoop to get a study place or a job in Australia, just like the young participants in the video.
That’s a well-defined, well-understood writing activity. It has been my livelihood for 20-odd years. I’m good at it and it earns me a good living.
What about my other writing, though – my storytelling here on Medium, Substack and elsewhere? Why in hell do I do that? What is it for? What do I hope to achieve? Am I any good at it – or should I try to pass it off as an extended joke, like that time Joaquin Phoenix ‘quit’ acting to follow his destiny as a hip-hop artist?
These are uncomfortable questions.
I’ve thought of my little collection of tales as proudly diverse, but getting an inkling this morning of the vast breadth of human experience in this one city in this one country, I realise with a jolt how limited my ambit as a storyteller has been these last 18 COVID months. There are an awful lot of lonely, arty, middle-class, middle-aged men and women in my stories, reevaluating their privileged, comfortable lives. Usually in a southern Australian bush or coastal setting.
They’re all stories about me, with a bit of gender and ethnicity swapping thrown in.
They’re intended to be entertaining: funny and/or moving; at the least, curiosity-piqueing. Beyond that they’re all a quest for self-definition and for contact: a reaching out and at the same time, a reaching in.
It’s that, perhaps, that makes me uncomfortable, and why I didn’t stay long on that second floor of the museum. I’m accustomed to reeling off my life story as a bunch of autobiographical factoids and career accomplishments which are smugly comforting – but nigh meaningless. They don’t sum up me at all.
In truth, I really don’t know who I am. Maybe if I delve too deeply, I won’t like who I find – or I’ll find nobody at all?
Why do you write, or paint, or photograph, or do whatever creative work you do, gentle reader?