How we decide what stories to tell

Our Life Stories As Stories

Sixth in a series exploring the relationship between individuals, memories and memorials. For more information, please visit

I met a friend for coffee recently. I hadn’t seen her since before Christmas and we were catching up, talking about our holidays and our plans for the New Year. My friend happened to mention that this is the year she’s finally going to get some creative writing done. She’s been thinking about making this a priority for a while, and she even has a plan to make sure this doesn’t turn out to be one of those good-intentioned resolutions … that’s never actually achieved. She wants to make sure that come December she’s written more than just texts, emails, and the occasional letter or card.

How aware are we that we are writing for an audience?

But as anyone who’s ever sat down to write knows, it can be hard to know where to start, hard to know what to write about. So she’s asked her friends, including me, to give her prompts she can use as a springboard for storytelling. I suggested she write about a travelling fairground, another friend suggested she write a murder mystery — but one that’s also a comedy. We didn’t give her prompts about our own lives, and my friend plans to write fiction, but I realised something: in a way, she will still be telling our stories.

Will the stories she writes based on our prompts be the same stories that she would tell to herself? Will she worry about writing what she thinks we want to see, or will she follow her creative muse? I started wondering about what happens when we tell our life stories. Does the knowledge that someone else could one day be reading, even if we keep our thoughts private to begin with, change the way we record our lives? How aware are we that we are writing for an audience? What happens when we give control over who sees what to someone else — say when we are no longer able, for whatever reason, to tell our own story, in our own voice? Does this knowledge change the way we tell our stories? Or is the awareness that we are writing beyond ourselves there all along?

In social science research it is a commonplace that the act of looking at something has the effect of changing the thing being looked at. This phenomenon is known as observer’s paradox, and something similar inevitably occurs when we tell our stories. Even when we’re being as truthful as we can, we are forced by necessity to edit. It’s impractical to tell our stories in real time: we have to choose what to put in, what to leave out.

We wind up making allowances, too, for what we don’t remember at all. I don’t remember exactly what my friend’s other friend requested — it was something close to what I said, but even if it’s different, my story about what happened — my friend asking her friends to choose prompts — is essentially true, is essentially what happened, even if the details are wrong.

I’m hoping that Dency Anne would have wanted to be remembered, rather than forgotten.

What happens when we tell stories where the key events took place before we were born? We go on what information we have; we do the best we can so that we can remember what we know, and so that in the future, people know less than we do at least know something.

Last month I was wondering what my great-great aunt was like. I was wondering if Dency Anne wrote poetry, if she liked to sing, if she considered herself an artist. But what would Dency Anne think about my stories? Would she be pleased that we care enough, those of us who came after her, to guess at what we don’t know? Or would she be upset that I’m getting all the details wrong?

Echoleft is a place for us to tell our own stories, and the stories of those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. Echoleft is personal, and we all have to make our own choices about responsible storytelling.

I’ll be honest: I wondered what Dency Anne would have thought about my posts about looking at old family photographs. I decided that under the circumstances, I would speculate, wonder, imagine. I am telling true stories to the best of my ability. I’m hoping that Dency Anne would have wanted to be remembered, rather than forgotten. I’m hoping she would agree with me that stories are not for the dead, but for the living.