Author: Shreya Volety
A story is a lie we tell ourselves. In life, we meet people, but in stories, we find characters. In reality, we see visuals, but in stories, we find metaphors. In reality, there is us, all of us in a cramped union. In stories, there are no people because there is humanity.
And this stands true for all kinds of stories – the ones told in verse, written in prose and told in comedy. It stands true even for the Instagram variety of the story. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about love – the fear of not receiving it and the anxiety of whether she would be able to keep the love she would get. Robert Browning wrote poetry for his wife, a heart-wrenching and moving poetry about love that would never end. The truth was Elizabeth Browning was paralyzed waist down, and nobody ever taught her to love her body, her image. Robert Browning loved his wife, but with all his lyrical prowess, he could not tell her how because he did not know how to. And to this day, nobody teaches us how to love – because all we have inherited are broken metaphors and forgotten ballads.
Virginia Woolf wrote about death in The Waves – lauded to be one of her best works. Her language is rich, and her themes are vivid.
Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into a river at the age of fifty-nine and drowned to her death. She wrote to her husband, ” I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” And yet she was unhappy and miserable in the loneliness of her unhappiness. And ever since we have been scratching and annotating the pages of her stories to find remnants of the suicide note she left many years later in her rich language and vivid prose. Because even today, after hours of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and Kurt Cobain’s journal entries, we don’t know how to talk about mental health.
Hannah Gadsby, an Australian stand-up comedian tells a gay joke in her special. Once, she was hitting on a woman until the woman’s boyfriend walked up to her and threatened to beat her up, confusing her for a man because Gadsby has very short hair. When he realizes his mistake, he laughs, tips his hat, says he would never hit a woman, and walks away with his girlfriend. The audience laughs because what Gadsby doesn’t tell in the joke… is what she reveals much later. The man walks forward a certain distance, pauses, turns around, and comes back to her and says, ‘Oh you’re one of them lady fags’. He then beats her and leaves her with a bleeding nose, two broken ribs, and twisted knees and elbows. We don’t know how to scream rage, so we tell jokes. We don’t know how to swallow rage, so we laugh at those jokes.
We live our lives as they happen, but we tell the world stories. We aestheticize love and romanticize pain and satirize oppression and spit out lyrics, anthems, prose, poetry, jokes, metaphors, and more metaphors until all there is left is a story.
But people are not characters, they don’t speak in dialogue, and their lives are not stories. A story is a lie we tell ourselves. And we trade in lies, lending few and borrowing others. But we can do better. We can listen to people even when they don’t speak poetry. We can listen more keenly, and we can maybe start trading our lies for truths, and our stories for people.