In Near to the Wild Heart Joana, the protagonist, asks herself “What matters then: to live or to know you are living?”
This was Clarice Lispector’s first novel and she wrote it when she was 23 years old. But what’s even more surprising is that the book was written in the forties and won a prestigious award in Brazil, despite the fact that the author was a young woman writing about the inner life, thoughts and feelings of another young woman.
I’ve tried to read the book at least five times in the past but I have to confess that I could barely get beyond the first 15 pages. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to hold the tension and frustration and read Joana’s internal monologue; thought after thought in a story where nothing remarkable happens. I can tell you it wasn’t easy. But this time I decided not to quit. There was something about being a witness to Joana’s inner thoughts that kept me going, page after page.
When trying to find stories to tell we need to be present in the midst of similar monologues on the daily madness of the thoughts, ideas and feelings that invade us.
We need to hold and observe the space where, as Joana would say, we are actually living. Does this sound too metaphysical?
Think about it – stories happen when we’re truly alive, when we see a connection, when we notice something, when we stop living on automatic pilot.
Allen Ginsberg once said "Follow your inner moonlight, don't hide the madness."
One of the excuses we give for not using stories to talk about what we do is that we don’t have anything extraordinary to tell.
Over time, I’ve figured out what extraordinary means in this context:
- Only extraordinary people have stories worth listening to (CEOs of successful companies, athletes, actors, Nobel prizewinners, etc.)
- Only extraordinary events are worth hearing about (hurricanes, crash-down start-ups later sold for millions, etc.)
Extraordinary can certainly entertain. I love Indiana Jones movies, but they don’t necessarily create meaning, connection or trust. Stories that can be trusted and believed are more easily found in places where we are alive and present.
Practice self-awareness and observation and you will see how your stories grow, especially if you bring these skills to moments when you’re facing discomfort, chaos or madness.
There is courage and an art to bringing presence to these moments.
What happened when you refused that important job offer? Or when you accepted it and then felt terrible for the next two days? If you take me to that moment, what can I see and what did you learn that shows me who you are?
And what happened when you made a mistake at work? How did you sort it out? What did you do, what didn’t you do? What did you learn?
Tell me about your impostor syndrome – for real, not the sugar-coated version – and tell me what it means in your life right now, so that I know that I can trust you even when you aren’t feeling 100% great.
The problem is that because we refuse to stay present in the chaos and the madness we can’t figure out the lessons and what they really mean. It’s probably easier to tell the story of when you faced a natural disaster than the one about losing your job. However, it’s likely that people will find more meaning and connection in the second story than in the first.
All these situations are rich experiences for stories because we connected with who we are, not with the mask that we wear for others.